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Photo: Lesbians Who Tech conference, SF, 2019

Queer Futures

Futurist Nicklas Larsen explores how the future can be a source for hope, social innovation, and sustainable development together with pioneers in the field.

This time, Q&A with Jason Tester, research affiliate at the 1968 RAND spinoff Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, a board member of the US National LGBTQ Task Force and the initiator of queerthefuture.org:

Photo: ILGA’s World map on sexual orientation laws (2020)

Rather than being insulting or derogatory, ‘queer’ has been reclaimed as a term by those outside heteronormative and cisgender realms to encompass and empower a sense of community for a juncture of identities on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. As such, queerness increasingly describes a dynamic and a fluid movement of people in the world — a world in which 69 countries currently criminalize consensual, same-sex sexual activity, with a possible death penalty in 11, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), while in 2020, we marked 30 years since the declassification by the WHO of homosexuality as a disease.

I met with Jason to better understand how to apply futurism to our community, to explore the harsh realities of oppressive dominant norms and social justice futures, and ultimately, how seeing the future through a queer lens can be crucial to thriving in the world to come.

Photo: Jason Tester, Queerthefuture.org

If we just look at the demographics, the future is looking very queer! Statistics suggest we are growing as coming out is becoming normalized. A new Gallup survey in the US reveals that 17 percent of 18–23-year-olds define themselves as LGBTQ, or another term other than straight or cisgender. For comparison, most US polls of all ages put the LGBTQ percentage at about 5 percent. Generation Z and Millennials find it far more acceptable to share that they aren’t 100 percent straight, or don’t feel 100 percent masculine or feminine. In fact, 72 percent of that 17 percent of Gen Z define as bisexual. They are coming into a world where a lot of the groundwork has been laid for decades, so they innately appreciate the concepts of fluid sexuality and gender identity.

There’s more to queering the future than numbers! We can see fluidity in many of the fundamental mindsets and practices of queerness — like rejecting either/or constraints, centring people on the margins, and respecting the richness of everyone’s full identities — that are becoming mainstream values. Because queer people have historically been forced to create alternative cultures, practices, and values, we’ve innovated new ways of living, loving, and building communities and families that leave behind the most toxic legacy downsides of the status quo. Like columnist Dan Savage’s monogamish, which is a term for occasional sex not with one’s partner, or the concept of chosen family that grows through friendship, not limited by genes. These adaptations, these fluidities, work for many queer folk and have the potential to expand the possibilities for non-queer people.

I’m currently interviewing a diverse group of experts to understand how future forces will disproportionately disrupt the lives of marginalized groups in the coming decades. We know that LGBTQ people, especially people of colour here in the US and elsewhere, tend to face the future first. They’re often the first to suffer from increasing inequalities, and among the earliest to be deeply impacted by what we will eventually recognize as new hardships, new threats, or new manifestations of poverty, like poverty of time or in the availability of vaccines. But queer people are also innovators! We often help to accelerate the future by defiantly living our true selves in worlds not built for us, which can ultimately lead to breakthroughs and mass movements. I’m exploring this power of queer innovation as well.

The climate crisis will dominate the 21st century, leading to resource shortages and millions of displaced people. My biggest fear is that the most shunned populations in any region will then be among the last to be fed, given water or medicine, or shelter from the heat or cold. We know from global attitude surveys that tens of millions of LGBTQ people live in countries and cultures that do not afford them equal dignity and value, even when times are good. I believe we have one generation — roughly 20 to 30 years — to achieve an equal level of LGBTQ respect and dignity before the world is routinely dire for billions of people on this planet, or else queer people could be among the lowest priorities when life’s essential resources are triaged. Destigmatizing queerness must be a widespread lived reality in hearts and minds — straight-cis neighbours caring about the well-being of queer neighbours — and not just toothless legislation that is never enforced. Unfortunately, this scenario of mass LGBTQ acceptance across the planet doesn’t seem likely in this relatively short time frame, which conjures scary prospects for hundreds of millions of LGBTQ people if we don’t succeed. I hope I’m wrong.

I appreciate this follow-up after I went dire in my last answer. In the positive direction are milestones like the European Commission declaring all of Europe to be a safe zone for LGBTQ identities, in direct conflict with Poland’s “LGBT-free” zones. President Biden announcing to trans young people that he “has their backs” gave me goosebumps. Japan and Thailand could get gay marriage in 2021. We see increasingly inclusive campaigns, and the corporate world is finally picking up on the need for a diverse workforce. I’m so inspired by mutual aid networks that quickly raise money for queer people to pay bills, buy food, or cover costs for gender affirmation. More openly LGBTQ candidates ran for office in the US this past election than ever before. But the right direction for me is still about young people; if their comfort with and acceptance of queerness continues to grow, we just might get to liberation in our lifetime.

As one example, here in the US, LGBTQ workers make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers and are likely to be impacted by automation before others. Related, I’m forecasting that the algorithms that will determine major bureaucratic decisions in our lives will discriminate against queer and trans people, because they will be trained on massive sets of heterosexual, cisgender training data. So if we do not queer AI, then all the recent talk about diversity and inclusion will seem indifferent and hollow, as we knowingly perpetuate biased notions of what sexuality and gender is, without updating them for the future.

Intersex columnist and media personality Valentino Vecchietti designed the new rendition of the rainbow Pride flag. This time to be more inclusive of intersex people. (Them, 2021)

To be considered liberating in the 21st century, innovation must directly address new approaches to dismantle centuries of deep oppressions by actively countering inherent biases and discriminations, or level massive inequalities in wealth, health, opportunity, or power. It is no longer enough to say innovation is liberatory if it merely “democratizes access” to a previously-limited capacity. In so many examples access only flows from labs to the still relatively wealthy and educated, and then stops. But very rarely are capital-intensive innovation processes begun for any of these goals I mention. Who is working on AI (or AI training) to uplift the most marginalized among us, including trans women of colour? And if so, what is that funding compared to self-driving cars? We are past time to hold innovation much more accountable.

The future is not just shaped by those with the most privilege or power, and we know that while many LGBTQ people around the world are doing well, we rarely have the most. The paradox here is that queer people are often considered leading influencers through the alternative ways we use new systems, technologies, and platforms — to communicate our own concepts, to maximize efficiency, to express our true selves when systems need to be hacked to reflect us. It is often the case that the most influential queer innovators develop new features and new forms of value precisely because they have been historically oppressed, leaving them with more ingenuity than traditional wealth. Queer folks tend to use services and systems beyond what their (often straight, cis) designers were expecting, which ultimately ends up influencing the world.

Futures and foresight has a responsibility to answer these questions much more often: For whom is this potential future more just? Who benefits or falls further behind? Who has more or less power, access and opportunity? These questions reveal consequences that are often left out of traditional foresight/scenario work, or when only looking at individual trends and drivers. But if we want, for example, two out of four scenarios to maximize a major progressive outcome, we need enough lead time to adjust the inputs, imagine new adoption pathways, hold ourselves to different standards of success and then go out there and fight for them. But above all, it cannot just be straight+cis+white+men in the room fumbling around to explore these critical issues of injustice!

Trans icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973. Photo: Leonard Fink.

Activism has long been in the DNA of queerness itself. In fact, this politicisation of sexual orientation is precisely one of the reasons some people separated “queer” from LGBT to become a separate identity. Futures and foresight can further this trend in two ways: inspiring new forms of protest, and offering alternative visions of other possible worlds. Foresight, and particularly the technique of identifying and amplifying weak signals, can empower activists to outsmart their target even if they cannot overpower them. The holographic protest in Madrid a few years ago comes to mind. By bringing a nascent technology back from the future, those activists out-manoeuvred the very law they were protesting: the newly criminalized right to assemble and protest! One of my favourite quotes from futurist Walidah Imarisha — inventor of the genre of Visionary Fiction, which I encourage everyone to research — relates directly to this: ‘’All organizing is science fiction. Any time we try to envision a different world without poverty, prisons, capitalism, war — we are engaging in science fiction’’.

I was asked to give a talk about queer futures at a conference about innovation, so, with input from the crowd, I compared two lists: the mindsets and practices likely to confer success in the future, and the mindsets and practices that comprise a ‘universal queerness’. The overlapping items became the first Queer the Future ‘toolkit’. The first step is to question prevailing systems such as capitalism and the patriarchy. The second is to reject binary thinking and start finding comfort outside categorisation. The third step is to practice intersectionality and acknowledge the full and rich identity that people bring to the table. Step four is prioritizing pleasure and joy. Queerness has long prioritized these feelings as indicators of happiness and well-being, long before modern medicine accepted their value. Step five is hustling between worlds. Queer folks have been reframing and repurposing and seeking hidden layers, latent gigs and the underground social networks since hustling existed on the margins of respectable society — and the hustle now defines the future.

Queer the Future’s interpretation of the futures cone

Check out queerthefuture.org which currently is a call-to-action from the margins to the main, for our community and our leaders, with help from our allies to imagine near-term and long-range futures that centre thriving queer lives, build our resilience for disruptive future forces, and, ultimately, achieve unimaginable freedom for our descendants. I want it to become an up-to-date guide to the most relevant foresight shaping LGBTQ lives. I absolutely do not want to be the final word here. I am gay, cisgender, white and male, and we need a diverse community of queer foresighters, and we are building that currently.

This is a story from SCENARIO Magazine Issue 61 — out in July 2021

I want to see an immediate impact, but I also want to be a good queer ancestor and do my small part to help thriving queer descendants for decades to come. As I mentioned earlier, I see an existential queer emergency coming during the likely Long Triage of this century. If I can highlight those emerging vulnerabilities now, like any futures work, maybe we can defend against and preempt them. As for those immediate impacts, I want LGBTQ or questioning young people to see the phrase “Queer the Future!” as a rallying cry to know there are others who want to rebuild the world in our image, so we never have to remake ourselves to fit the heteronormative world.

I think a lot about regret, as a futurist concept that implies that you did not do something in the past that would have benefited your future. I think it’s a toxic framework, so I tend to believe in never starting too late. So, I would like to pretend the advice that I am giving to myself is coming from my future self, telling me to focus on the things I can start moving today.

SCENARIO Magazine’s Nicklas Larsen in conversation with Jason Tester, queerthefuture.org



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