During the month of June, I spend a lot of time thinking about one of the most influential heroes of the environmental movement: Rachel Carson.
In the Pacific Northwest, June is Orca Month, a time to celebrate southern resident orcas, reflect on the challenges they face, and work to prevent their extinction. One of the biggest problems facing orcas today is toxic pollution building up in their bodies through a process called bioaccumulation. Rachel Carson was the woman who brought this problem to the county’s attention in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, which warned society about the dangers of DDT and other chemicals. As a marine biologist and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee, Carson saw the impact that pollution was having on wildlife. When pollution enters the food chain, it concentrates at every step. Eventually, apex predators are accumulating more and more pollution over time in their bodies, which can cause a host of health problems. y step. Eventually, apex predators are accumulating more and more pollution over time in their bodies, which can cause a host of health problems.
In her book, Carson showed that DDT and other pesticides were responsible for the decline of countless fish, amphibian, and bird species, including our nation’s symbol: the bald eagle. The chemical industry attempted to discredit Carson, labeling her as an hysterical woman with no scientific background. Silent Spring directly challenged one of the most powerful industries in the world, but Carson refused to be silent. In the end, DDT and other chemicals were banned, new legislation was passed to better regulate chemicals, and eventually, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, partially inspired by Caron’s work. Her legacy remains important today as we continue to protect wildlife, like orcas, from the threat of pollution.
June is also Pride Month for the LGBTQ community to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, homosexuality was considered “un-American” and the FBI and local law enforcement kept a list of known LGBTQ people and establishment that served the community. City officials would often conduct “sweeps” to remove LGBTQ people from neighborhoods, parks, and beaches. Gay bars were closed and it was illegal to wear the opposite gender’s clothes. LGBTQ people were publicly exposed, harassed, fined, jailed, physically beaten, and sent to mental hospitals. It was a time when coming out of the closet was one of the most dangerous things a person could do.
In the early morning of June 28th, 1969, New York City police entered the Stonewall Inn, a prominent gay bar in Manhattan, to harass and arrest the bar’s patrons. Instead, for the first time ever, people resisted the harassment. It was the first time that the LGBTQ community stood up to the homophobic laws that were systematically oppressing their community. Stonewall was a rallying cry, and protests continued for several days, led by drag queens, transgender people, and people of color.
While Carson is recognized as a conservation hero, most people don’t know that Carson was also gay. While recently watching a PBS Documentary about her life, I learned that Carson had an intimate relationship with a woman. I was shocked. This was a woman who is a personal hero of mine; someone I learned about in every biology class I took from high school to grad school. I thought I knew who Rachel Carson was. Suddenly, she was more like me than I knew. Rachel Carson was gay.
In 1953, before publishing Silent Spring, Carson met a woman by the name of Dorothy Freeman on Southport Island. Dorothy and her husband, Stanley, lived next to Carson’s summer home on the island. They were fans of Caron’s marine natural history book, The Sea Around Us, and would spend the summer together exploring the tide pools along the coast searching for sea life. During this first summer, Freeman and Carson grew very close, spend more time alone together.
After that first summer, Carson and Freeman started writing each other, sometimes up to five times a week. Carson’s letters would start with “Darling Dorothy” and “My dear one.” Before they saw each other again, they had declared their love for each other in these letters. Over the years, Carson and Freeman continued to write, speak on the phone, and meet occasionally between summers. Throughout the 12 years they knew each other, they were only together for sixty days, but when they were together, they were constantly at each other’s side. Carson and Freeman’s relationship was well known amongst family and friends, but it remained a secret to the outside world.
Carson lived during a time when homosexuality was considered an illegal and un-American perversion, and a mental illness. Extremely devoted to the environmental cause, Carson wanted to avoid scandal. Before she died, Carson burned all of Freeman’s letters. Some historians believe she did this to protect both Freeman and Silent Spring from additional defamation. She was already being dismissed and disparaged by the chemical industry simply because she was a woman. If her relationship with Freeman became public, the American people probably would have turned their backs on her, and Silent Spring would have gathered dust.
Because of Silent Spring and Carson’s advocacy for the regulation of chemicals, DDT and other harmful pesticides were banned. The environment become one of the topic political issues of the time, sparking the birth of the modern day environmental movement. She challenged the idea that human society can grow and operate irrespective of nature. She believed that our human communities can coexist alongside wildlife and wild lands. To do so requires us to change the ways in which we live our lives and carefully examine the impacts of our actions to wildlife and their habitat. Without Rachel Carson, there wouldn’t be a pair of bald eagles nesting in the park by my apartment; there wouldn’t be salmon spawning through the Ballard Locks; there wouldn’t be a chorus of frogs singing at sundown.
Just two years after publishing Silent Spring, in 1964, Rachel Carson died of cancer, five years before the Stonewall Riots in New York. Dorothy Freeman scattered her ashes along the coast of Southport Island, where the two had met and spent summer days together.
Rachel Carson’s story is an important one to tell. As an openly gay wildlife conservationist, I felt extremely proud to learn that someone from the LGBTQ community was so pivotal in the protection of wildlife in this country. For a long time, there weren’t any gay conservation or environmental heroes for people like me to look up to. A lesbian caused one of the most profound and important shifts in the way that the American government and people view the environment and wildlife. Today, communities across the world have embraced Carson’s message of coexistence and technological restraint. Single-use plastic items have been banned because of the impact bags, straws, and other debris have on marine wildlife. Projects like Orcas Love Raingardens are bringing nature back into our urban communities, reducing pollution entering the Salish Sea, and deepening our community’s relationship with orcas and other wildlife.
Sadly, Carson lived and died in the closet. I’m fortunate enough to live during a time when I can be a professional wildlife conservationist while being an openly proud gay man. When Carson was alive, it wasn’t safe for her to be out, but today, we can tell her story. By celebrating Carson and acknowledging that she was gay, the conservation community can send a message to LGBTQ people, like me, that the conservation movement is stronger because of diversity. Even though Carson was forced to stay in the closet while she was alive, we choose to honor her and celebrate the contributions that she and others in the LGBTQ community have made to conservation. Similarly, we need to tell the stories of other conservationist from different racial, religious, cultural, and economic backgrounds. Telling these stories can make us a more diverse, welcoming, and inclusive movement.
That’s why, this June, I’m choosing the honor Carson for not only as a wildlife conservationist, but as a gay woman who achieved so much during a time when America wanted nothing to do with the LGBTQ community. It’s time to bring Rachel Carson out of the closet and into the sunshine.