INTERVIEW WITH BRIGITTE BAPTISTE
“NOTHING IS QUEERER THAN NATURE”
For Brigitte Baptiste, renowned biologist, former director of the Alexander von Humboldt Research Institute for Biological Resources in Colombia and current rector of the EAN University, nature does not work like a clock, and one of its lessons is the protection “of the rare” in order to be able to confront challenges like climate change.
According to the scientific and academic community, biologist Brigitte Baptiste is one of the country’s most competent voices in biodiversity. In addition to being an expert on the subject, Baptiste is also a trans woman, who moves with ease between science, sustainability and culture. She studied the relationship between nature and the queer, a theory that suggests challenging apparently unshakeable social norms, like a binding heterosexuality, also known as “hereronormativity,” and monogamous life.
Queer, understood as that which is “rare,” “twisted” or “peculiar,” also questions categories of identity like “gay,” “trans,” “heterosexual,” “man” and “woman,” by considering them as impositions that regulate, control and, to a lesser extent, liberate. According to Baptiste, queer theory is a space of knowledge perceived from the corner of the eye, or in the shadows, amidst certainties.
What is “nature” for you?
“Nature” is everything. In complete agreement with Alexander von Humboldt, I believe that the cosmos is nature and that we are also part of this range of vital processes that allow us to exist. And that includes culture. Everything is interconnected.
In a TEDx talk, in Rio de la Plata in 2018, you said: “There is nothing queerer than nature.” What do you mean by that?
Nothing is queerer than nature because it produces difference in a permanent manner, including by favoring the emergence of the peculiar and the anomalous, and experimenting all the time. There are unique behaviors and extraordinary manifestations in the diversity of fowl, plants and living beings that go unnoticed to us because we are looking through the lens of normalcy, sameness and homogeneity.
Queer theory suggests that we not continue to think of the world as a “normal” space, but rather to understand that the world is exceptional, so that we are able to confront challenges like climate change. Nature’s best lesson is to protect the anomalous, since that is where evolution generated answers.
What does queer ecology suggest?
Queer is everything that doesn’t fit inside what is “normal.” It is where each of us chooses to exist and relate to the world. And all of ecology is queer, since it implicates defining a position in the world. The idea of “queer ecology,” more playful and inclusive and less rigid in its narratives, comes from literary theory and places particular emphasis on artistic innovation and creativity; it combines the organic identities of plants and animals with the construction of cultural or personal identities, where relationships are fundamental: change derives from the capacity to build relationships.
Some people speak of “males” and “females” as fixed categories, ignoring species like the clown fish, which, in situations where there is an overabundance of females or males, may take over the scarcer gender. How frequently do we encounter diversity in nature?
Diversity is everywhere. Plants, for example, are either hermaphrodites, or change sex, or self-pollinate. Sexual recombination is probably nature’s best invention to generate adaptive capacity. Without this ability to combine genes in order to produce new models, life would have already been eradicated or would be very simple.
This potential for being male or female is regulated by a series of genes capable of identifying – as in the case of the clown fish – that there is an overabundance of females or males and that someone has to assume the other role. There is something in the environment, or an emission of hormones, that indicates to them: “erase the male sex, become female and activate the organs you have in order to assume that role.” These environmental tensions carry over to humans. Accordingly, even if we have a genetic make-up that defines us in some way, our relationships with the world allow for us to change our behaviors.
Queer theory suggests that we not continue to think that the world works like a clock. This is demonstrated by climate change. What effects does assuming the world in a queer way have on nature and on our relationship with nature?
The world is always transforming into something new or unexpected. That is evolution. Amphibians evolved from fish, reptiles from amphibians, and mammals from reptiles. No doubt, for each of those species, the next level of innovation was anomalous. Let’s imagine a conversation among fish who are trying to understand the appearance of a frog. But this is not something anomalous, that should be abolished. To the contrary, these changes made the world what it is. What is peculiar is to think that the world doesn’t change.
Something that can be seen as “peculiar” in nature is necessary to impede the collapse of the systems. What function does diversity have in the survival of living beings?
Basically, it contributes with information and innovative strategies. The individuals who stay away from the average or the norm are carriers of essential codes when environmental conditions change. Average conditions don’t have the plasticity to adapt themselves to a drastic environmental change. In order to have evolution, what is least important is “normalcy,” because normalcy does not affect survival in the same way as living in increasing temperatures in summer or decreasing temperatures in winter. The anomalous generates evolution. An insertion of the “peculiar” into the “normal” is necessary for there to be stability and to ensure that the systems do not enter into collapse. The ecosystem adapts itself to the changes. Nature is queer. It doesn’t function like a mechanical model rather; rather, it is full of false exits.
Many people believe that the danger is diversity, and not the continuity of male chauvinism and binding heterosexuality. What is the relevance of diversity in relation to the changing character of the world?
Any kind of evolution or transformation from what exists will always produce more difference. And the differences are transformed in the memory of all this evolutionary history, which is going to provide us with the keys to survive climate change, which we ourselves caused. The diversity of thought and expressions is fundamental for us to adapt to historical changes. Diversity is a space for recognizing the mutable character of the world and an example of how life has to innovate in order to project into the future.
To oppose LGBTI rights, there are those who say that neither homosexuality nor transsexuality are natural. How must we understand the word “natural”?
Homosexuality and other behaviors that some people consider atypical are present in all species. Some species of the wax palm, Colombia’s national tree, are transsexual. In spite of this, many employ the “unnatural” argument to question LGBTI people’s existence. We have to ask those who have this idea: how natural do they consider using clothes, walking across an avenue, consuming canned goods or practicing celibacy?