“You Should Stay Inside”: Environmental Racism and Marginalized Health in Our Gayborhoods

Seattle’s mountain-kissed blue skies can’t always keep the air fresh. When wildfires send smoke its way, Micha Cárdenas must stay inside. You see, this professor of arts, sciences and interactive media design at the University of Washington at Bothell has asthma. She also suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities, so breathing can be tough for her.

“I’m one of those groups that the news is saying, ‘You should stay inside, you should stay inside,’” Cárdenas says. “So I did. I stayed inside for, like, two weeks.”

As a trans Colombiana, Cárdenas’ activism revolves around safety for trans women and trans people of color. That includes the air a person breathes. New research is showing that the LGBTQ community isn’t given that protection—especially in King County, where Seattle rests.

It’s among the top locations where LGBTQ enclaves are at the greatest risk for cancer and respiratory illness risk due to hazardous air pollutants, according to a study published in the Social Science & Medicine journal’s October 2017 volume.

Studies have already shown that race and class are predictors for who suffers from such ailments, but none have shown a connection to sexuality. This groundbreaking research found that air pollutants are causing same-sex partners to suffer greater cancer and respiratory risks than heterosexual couples nationwide in the U.S. For cancer, there’s a 12.3 percent greater risk; that number nearly doubles to 23.8 percent for respiratory risk in comparison to heterosexual couples.

The LGBTQ community is known to suffer worse health outcomes than its straight peers: disability, mental health, obesity and asthma. Most research has attributed this to lifestyle choices, experiences of stigmatization and chronic stressors. But what about where people live?

“No one in that literature conceptualized the possibility that social marginalization may also influence the types of environments these people inhabit, and that those environments may also present risk factors that influence those health disparities,” says Timothy Collins, co-author of the study and geography professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

His work has the potential to completely transform how the world understands “environmental justice,” which the Environmental Protection Agency currently defines as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

No mention of sexuality or gender there.

Collins and his team aren’t exactly sure why this pattern exists among same-sex partners, but they have a theory. Gayborhoods sprung up in cities around the country around the 1960s, creating LGBTQ clusters. Queer people of all shapes and sizes flowed into these gayborhoods, or enclaves as Collins puts it, which happened to be near polluted central city locations.

If this is the case, it’s unclear what came first: the pollutants or the neighborhoods?

This question once existed for scholarship that examines communities of color in relation to pollution. Academics now know that hazardous waste sites followed people of color—and that this was intentional, a result of racial discrimination in zoning and the housing market.

“I still think environmental racism, for example, can take place when people, through processes of marginalization, end up moving into an area that’s burdened by a lot of toxic pollution,” Collins says. “If social processes lead marginalized groups of people to inhabit these places, even after the toxic sites are located, it still is reflective of environmental racism.”

He uses this logic to better understand his research. A community escaping social harm by moving into a location where pollutants and toxic waste are stationed is still reflective of environmental injustice. In Seattle, it seems that the pollution source came before the gayborhood—at least when you’re talking about Capitol Hill.

For those who haven’t traversed the magic that is Seattle’s Capitol Hill, welcome. Crosswalks are painted rainbow, reminiscent of Mario Kart’s iconic Rainbow Road. While crossing the street to buy a street-side Seattle hot dog (bathed in cream cheese and covered in grilled onions, of course), visitors are bound to witness at least one person puking on the side of the road—especially on a weekend.

That’s Capitol Hill. It’s where some go to party and where others go to cozy up with a coffee and a book. More importantly, however, it’s where the city’s queer people have historically gone to let loose and feel at home. Well, for the most part.

The neighborhood’s begun to lose its flair as the city’s rent costs skyrocketed—especially in trendy Capitol Hill. This can drive out the LGBTQ folks, especially low-income and those of color, who have made the neighborhood home. It can also drive in people who don’t like the idea of a gay neighbor.

On Sept. 21, a trans woman was beaten in the neighborhood—at a local favorite taco joint, Rancho Bravo. Any and everyone who spends time in Capitol Hill has stumbled into the late-night restaurant drunk, including queer people. Now, the atmosphere is starting to change, Cárdenas says.

“I don’t know if I really think that Capitol Hill is like the LGBTQ neighborhood,” she says.

But it definitely used to be. Capitol Hill came to flourish in the ’70s. Its history started out as an enclave where LGBTQ people could live and, eventually, evolved into what it is today: an area rich in bars and music.

What people, perhaps, didn’t realize was the neighborhood’s proximity to a major pollution source: the I-5. This interstate runs down the West Coast and was built in the early 1960s, before the neighborhood’s establishment as a gay space. The city of Seattle has come to rely on this major roadway, but its congestion is worsening, and that can snowball into public health risks, particularly for nearby communities. In fact, Collins’ study attributes the bulk of air pollution risks to on-road mobile sources like roadways and freeways.

A major review of past research in 2010 found that people who live within 300-500 meters of a busy highway were exposed to a lot more pollution than researchers had previously thought. “We hadn’t really recognized that problem,” says Janice Nolen, the assistant vice president of national policy for the American Lung Association.

Still, Erik Saganić, an air quality scientist for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, emphasizes that air quality in Seattle is improving. He appreciates what Collins’ work tells on a national basis, but Saganić says the data doesn’t translate well when analyzed hyper locally. Without accounting for local weather patterns and topography, Saganić says, the study has “a lot of limitations.”

For one, the study uses Census data from 2008-2012. It also excludes single, non-partnered members of the LGBTQ community. Collins and his team acknowledge some of this within their study.

“Future studies should seek to mitigate the [uncertain geographic context problem] by employing measurement techniques that account for spatiotemporal variation in people’s air pollution exposure levels, daily movements and residential life course trajectories,” the study reads.

And Saganić doesn’t think Capitol Hill is dramatically more polluted than other parts of the city’s central area. After all, the neighborhood is literally on a hill. That elevation, alone, should help its air quality.

“Capitol Hill is one of the more elevated hills in Seattle. It’ll generally have better air quality than if you were down in Duwamish Valley, down in the industrial zone,” he says. “It’s not as pristine as if you went out near the Cascade Foothills and woods, but, generally, compared to other parts of Seattle, you would probably have better air quality up in the hill.”

Cárdenas does notice a little difference in the air quality when she spends time there though. Not in a good way. She assumed this was due to the neighborhood’s density, but the truth remains lost in air monitor data the city doesn’t really break up by neighborhood.

What the numbers and figures do show, however, is a truth that might bridge together two movements that haven’t historically collaborated much. That’s what excites Collins.

“In order to effect change in a way that would reduce these disparate exposures for all groups, it’d be great to see more coalition building between the environmental justice movement and people in the LGBT community,” he says. “Having a broader-based coalition of people calling for protection is a good thing.”

If environmentalists who have been focused on pollution communities of color face paired up with some LGBTQ activists, imagine the possibilities. Imagine a contingent at every city’s annual pride march that centered around the environment and people’s health—a contingent that shed light on what studies show people of color are dealing with. And that connects that to the queer people of color. Because being queer and being non-white aren’t exclusive. A person can be both.

Collins’ work isn’t over yet—and neither is Cárdenas’. She’s excited to see academics shed more light on the topic. After all, she’s no expert on environmental health; she just lives it. So do others in her community. Like Billie Rain, a queer nonbinary disability activist and artist who also suffers from multiple chemical sensitivities.

Seattle might help bring them both closer to a “normal” life with its fresh air and all, but they must still spend a lot of time indoors, avoiding people who smoke or wear fragrances. “There’s nothing that’s really accessible for me,” Rain says. “Every single thing I do is like an entire project, and I have to involve everyone that’s going to be there to make sure that I can be there.”

Neither Rain nor Cárdenas can tell the future. Will Seattle’s air quality keep worsening? Will their queer peers continue to bear American society’s health burdens? Who knows? For now, they can find comfort in knowing someone’s finally keeping tabs on the quality of where they live.

As the current administration rolls back environmental protection after environmental protection, a future where their health is protected seems far off. After all, the Clean Power Plan would have helped reduce pollution significantly, and President Donald Trump isn’t having it. He’s not down with affordable healthcare, either.

But if activists on the environmental justice world can team up with those advocating for gay rights? Well, that would be something. That might be a force strong enough to even stop Trump.


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Yessenia Funes is the environmental justice reporter for Earther, the latest news site from Gizmodo Media Group all about the environment. She's based in New York City and covers the intersection between race and the environment.

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6 Comments

  1. Capitol Hill is decidedly no longer a queer neighborhood. High rent prices and gentrification are driving out a great many people who aren’t cishet white men in the tech industry… and often prejudiced.

  2. Thank you for writing this! Queer and anti-racist environmental justice is SO IMPORTANT for the longevity of liberatory social movements!! I’m living in Salt Lake City, Utah, where we have absolutely abysmal pollution due to the fact that we live in a basin sorrounded by mountains on all sides. (I walked outside this week and couldn’t see a building one block away because of particularly bad smog.) And after reading this, I realize that most of the more affluent neighborhoods are up high in the foothills where the air is markedly better… :/

  3. Thank you for covering this topic. I also have chemical sensitivities and wanted to move to Toronto because of the large queer community. Unfortunately that would put my health at risk due to the amount of pollution there. Plus currently there is no accessible public housing for people living with chemical sensitivities. Living indoors would be as much of a health risk (due to other tenant’s use of scents) as outdoor pollution.

    We shouldn’t have to choose between health or community. The isolation can kill us.

    I like the idea of having a contingent at pride. More needs to be done to address environmental racism, and more awareness on environmental health issues for people in the lgbtq+ community.

  4. Loved this article! I’ve learned a bunch about environmental racism through school but never consciously connected it to queer marginalization. I’ll definitely be using this as a resource in the future!

  5. The Capitol Hill stuff hits close to home. I grew up on the other side of Capitol Hill, where it’s all residential, I lived there almost all of my life, I’ve seen the air quality helicopters fly by for years. But in high school my friend lived a block off Broadway, and that’s where we spent most of our time, walking down Broadway. And when I was in the closet it helped a lot, it meant so much to me. It felt safe. And the year I came out was the year that they painted those sidewalks, the first year I went to Pride, and also the year that the Safe Place stickers went up, I got a button with that shield on it at Pride and I didn’t know what it was at first until I learned that anti-LGBTQ+ hate crime rates were going up in Capitol Hill. And that cut deep. This year my friend’s family had to move because the rent got too high. Idk exactly but it doesn’t feel like the same neighborhood I grew up in. Or thought I knew.

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