Black Birders tour in July
Michael Stewart, courtesy BBG

The Feminist Bird Club Wants to Make Birding Accessible to LGBTQ People of Color

This op-ed talks about the push to make birding accessible to people from all backgrounds.

We remember how stifling and oppressive the first wave of COVID-19 felt: cut off from family and friends, stuck at home or required to work essential jobs with little or no protective equipment, where every interaction outside our homes was fraught or frightening. Even for many people who don’t consider themselves outdoorsy, the urge to escape into nature was irresistible, to be in the comfort of trees, sun, grass, and water, drawing joy and serenity from the outdoors when everything else was overwhelming and downright scary.

But simply being ourselves in nature hasn’t always been, well, natural for everyone. For a lot of us, belonging, inclusion, and safety in the outdoors are brand-new, or maybe feel impossible to attain. To exist in the outdoors while being Black or brown, while visibly queer or trans, while living with one or more disabilities — and especially when we experience two or more marginalized existences — is to exist in precarity and discomfort when we do not actively work to carve out a space for ourselves or spend time with those who will do that work alongside us.

A new wave of inclusive outdoor clubs had already been building before the pandemic, but the pressures of the last few years have highlighted the importance of the work of these groups in building equity in the outdoors. Feminist Bird Club is only one of dozens of organizations in this growing movement, with more forming every day as communities traditionally cut off from experiencing nature have decided to step outside and be seen.

Feminist Bird Club started six years ago when one person, Molly Adams, wanted to observe the wonderful diversity of birdlife in New York City without being subjected to sexist or queer-hostile attitudes. It turns out that Adams wasn’t alone in their desire. First, dozens of people in New York showed up to bird with Feminist Bird Club in city parks. Then people in other cities reached out to ask about forming a Feminist Bird Club chapter of their own. Today, Feminist Bird Club has 27 chapters in four countries and as part of its core mission to support community-led social justice work has collectively raised more than $100,000 for organizations as diverse as Make the Road New York, Honor the Earth, Transgender and Intersex Justice Project, and National Network of Abortion Funds.

Feminist Bird Club's Martha Harbison leading a summer tour with Queer Birders NYC

Mikey Burns for Outside Clothes NYC

Feminist Bird Club did not invent this work. It has taken and continues to take its cues from a rich tradition of outdoor organizing by groups like Latino Outdoors, Hike Clerb, and Outdoor Afro, and we partner with these groups and others to keep our portion of this work strong and vital. We’re not the only queer-, BIPOC-, and disability-inclusive bird club. We are proud to elevate and support groups like Flock Together, NYC Queer Birders, In Color Birding Club, Black AF in STEM, Birdability, Philly Queer Birders, BIPOC Birding Club of Wisconsin, Amplify the Future, and many others.

But making an inclusive movement takes more than just clubs: It takes the partnership and investment of institutions with the outdoor space that people are aching for, especially in urban areas. Brooklyn Botanic Garden has always worked toward this. The garden is beautiful, full of plants and birds and life. But it also has benches and restrooms — two underrated facilities that are absolutely critical to making people with disability or chronic illness feel welcome. And for more than 100 years, the garden has worked to understand and heed the needs of people who have never felt welcome in the outdoors. Since 1914, it has invited its youngest neighbors to get up close and personal with plants, birds, bugs, bees, and more — cultivating a sense of ownership and belonging for kids that they can carry with them throughout their lives. The garden’s goal is to set the children of central Brooklyn up for a lifetime of exploring nature, whether it be on a walk through the park, gazing out the window, or looking closely at flowers growing through a crack in the sidewalk. 

Martha during the summer tour

Mikey Burns for Outside Clothes NYC

This work isn’t flashy. It’s investing in infrastructure, changing an economic model to accommodate more free passes and programming, compensating community experts for their labor, and training staff on how to create inclusion and belonging. It’s the ongoing, never-ending effort to build and maintain relationships and trust, especially with people who have been burned by half-hearted diversity pushes before.

But the work is so worth it. To be outside, unguarded, with senses open to the glories of the natural world — this is an experience that should belong to everyone. And if we keep up this work, perhaps one day it will be.

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