isaac sevierwants utility justice

On Queer People in Climate and Energy

by isaac sevier · Jun 1, 2024 15:50 · 5 minute read

Any queer person who works on climate and energy issues—utility issues, especially—in a technical capacity of any kind is a marvel. A statistical miracle. On my first day working on utility policy, I quickly noticed that I didn't have any openly LGBTQ colleagues.
Two queer people smiling on the back of a motorcycle flying a trans-inclusive pride flag.

Photo by Chris Alo from Pexels

Any queer person who works on climate and energy issues—utility issues, especially—in a technical capacity of any kind is a marvel. A statistical miracle.

On my first day working on utility policy, I quickly noticed that I didn’t have any openly LGBTQ colleagues working as full-time staff. Here I was, working on statewide energy issues in California at one of its most visible non-profit policy organizations, and I was alone. As an energy engineer who has worked in much more butch settings than a fancy office high atop San Francisco contemplating policy memos, this kind of singularity wasn’t appreciably new. What was new was who I was and what I was trying to do: I was an out, queer engineer navigating the workplace as such for the first time. I hoped to receive much of the same basic respect I had received as an energy engineer who was closeted. In a new sector as purportedly progressive as the environmental movement, I thought this could work.

I had learned a lot about what to expect as a queer in STEM while I was in grad school. In 2016, Jeremy Yoder and Allison Mattheis found that while LGBTQ people go into STEM careers of every kind, more than 40% were not out to their colleagues (even if they were out at home or to friends). They connected this with other research from Erin Cech and Tom Waidzunas showing that the field of engineering is dominated by men and that this majority enforces a strictly heteronormative culture. In other words, this club is for men only and no homos. The reach of this culture is so deep that it grows from the root in college engineering programs.1

The utility policymaking part of the environmental movement is not primarily made up of engineers, but there seems to be a preference for folks who do this work to be legible and accepted by the cultures inside the engineering-dominated utility companies themselves. From what I’ve seen firsthand, utility policy advocates working on questions of finance, governance, and operations are primarily cisgender, straight (and mostly, white) men. Women, people of color, and queer people work separately on questions of social benefits, inclusion, and affordability. One of these categories is deemed to be serious work. The other is sometimes tolerated and often scoffed at. Being who I am (a queer person of color) and making the choice to shift my professional focus to energy justice? I was perceived as belonging squarely in the latter category.

This wasn’t exclusive to my office, but rather my organization reflected the field. (This isn’t about just that one workplace.) Similar to all of engineering itself, a simple analysis of the longest-tenured utility experts at the state level found that 87% of them are white and 75% of them are men. That state of exclusion carries over into the types of jobs that make everything run every day in the energy policy world. Erin Cech and Michelle Pham found that LGBT workers report the Department of Energy as the least supportive of all the federal STEM-related agencies to work in. This was true no matter how long the tenure of the queer person in the organization: age and management status wasn’t reported to significantly improve the vibes.

These factors together have serious long-term effects. Across all STEM fields, LGBTQ people report their careers stalling more often, having negative health issues, and leaving their jobs or the STEM fields entirely. So, taking all of this in sum, if you know a queer person working on utility issues—of any age—they are rare. I think I can safely say that our dedication to remaining in this work long-term is measurably greater than that of non-LGBTQ people who don’t face these hurdles collectively. That isn’t necessarily a virtue, it just is.

But statistics about the present are not our destiny as queer people. And as all of my queer friends from across the climate justice universe remind me, the movement itself has a lot of queer people in it. We are often on the frontlines of the anti-fossil fuel movement, in roles organizing our local communities, and doing cultural work around narrative. We are more likely to have intersectional identities across race and class and gender that elevate our analysis beyond the simplistic carbon reduction frame. We find and build our community everywhere we go.

In A Queer Theory of the State, Samuel Clowes Huneke says, “it is through the mythologies of daily life and bureaucratic practice that [the state’s monopoly on the use of violent force] is most often exercised.” This structural exclusion of queer people from the technical spaces of climate and energy, and our self-exile due to that less-than-friendly environment, keeps us away from the important roles in the bureaucracy of planning and operating the energy system. This keeps us on the sidelines, unable to stop the reproduction of well-documented violence designed into the utility system.

As we queer folks keep going, working to protect as many people as we can and end the climate crisis, I want to see more of us—equipped with a political analysis of queer liberation—involved in the deeply technical work of planning and operating the utilities we rely on, too. If the call for climate today is to electrify everything, then the climate justice goal is to ensure everything is for everyone, too. Until and unless everyone else adopts a queer liberation agenda, we will need to fight for it ourselves.

  1. Motivation to write this blog up was caused in part by this article about queer students who organize a club for queer engineering students, at the University of British Columbia. I participated in a similar group over nine years ago while I was in engineering graduate school. ↩︎