What the AIDS crisis can teach us about confronting the climate crisis

Recently, my mother called me before I had my coffee, early enough to find me in a raw and honest state. When she asked how I was, I surprised myself by bursting into tears.

“I’m not sure why I’m trying so hard to survive when climate change is about to destroy everything,” I sobbed.

I know I’m not alone in feeling frightened and despondent. For many millennials, the motions of adulthood seem disconnected from the approaching crisis. How are we supposed to work, tend to our health and save for a retirement that won’t come when the Amazon is burning?

The climate crisis is an existential burden as well as an immediate threat, and Nirvana isn’t even here to provide an appropriate soundtrack. We should tell our mothers how heartbroken we feel.

Queer and trans people, however, have faced the end of the world before. We know what it takes to confront cataclysmic change and find ways to thrive, to love and to fight.

I’m talking about the AIDS crisis. As we face the climate crisis, we would be wise to ask what we can learn from our own history.

The AIDS crisis was a very different threat than climate change, moving more quickly and havocking immune systems and subcultures instead of biomes. But both crises were propelled by denial and by the indifference of wealthy, powerful people.

Peterson Toscano, a queer performance artist and climate activist, writes, “I feel a queer kinship to climate change. The extreme effort certain people in power go towards stirring up doubt, distrust, and denial, seems terribly familiar.”

Queer and trans people know something about confronting denial. When our community was dying, we refused to go quietly. The strategy and tactics we used then are exactly what we should be doing to address the climate crisis now.

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AIDS activists worked on three levels. First, they directly supported people with the virus. Lesbians, drag queens and trans women set up volunteer networks through which they cared for the dying. We held drag shows, silent auctions and benefits to raise money to care for each other. These efforts weren’t charity; they were a means to maintain connections and survive.

Today such efforts are called mutual aid, and they will likely be as crucial to our survival. Through mutual aid projects, we can help care for each other after natural disasters. We can band together to preserve and expand green spaces. We can teach each other to grow food. As during the AIDS crisis, mutual aid projects could help us build communities that are strong enough to shoulder the rest of our struggle.

The second way that AIDS activists addressed the crisis was political. AIDS activists refused to accept the virus as a punishment or a mystery. Instead, they treated it as a political crisis. Through organizations like ACT UP, they demanded that the people who were getting rich and powerful off the crisis — like drug companies, the Catholic Church and the Republican Party — change their ways.

We must find ways to address the climate crisis in an equally political way. Rather than accept it as inevitable, we have to demand structural changes. We must take on carbon-hungry industries, big agriculture and military polluters. We must support indigenous struggles. And of course, we’re going to have to vote out Donald Trump — and demand that the Democrats nominate a candidate ready to act.

While AIDS activists focused on structural demands, they also made personal changes in their behavior. We’re going to need to do the same thing. Eating lots of meat, driving and flying everywhere, blasting air conditioning and otherwise guzzling fossil fuels is unsustainable and unethical. Using more than our fair share of the planet’s resources will cause people to die.

Nonetheless, changing our personal habits will not stop the crisis. AIDS activists also taught us that moralism and prescriptivism is a dead-end. Today, we’d be wise to heed their example.

There’s one more lesson that we should learn from the AIDS crisis: At the height of the epidemic, we would protest, get arrested and then afterwards we’d hold dances. Everyone, sick or not sick, partied together.

Joy amid crisis is a queer and trans gift. We have a valuable legacy that we need to share.