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Queerness, nature, and accessibility for all

Since it first appeared in English 500 years ago, the word “queer” has always meant something not normal, peculiar, or odd. In the late 1800s, the word was used to mean homosexual. In the decades since, the pejorative use of the “queer” flew around playgrounds and schools until the 1980s and 90s when spurred by the AIDS crisis and the Gay Rights Movement, the LGBT community began to embrace the word as a self-affirming umbrella term—synonymous with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and any and all variations. Since then, the use of “queer” has broadened to the point beyond a single meaning. For example, some people who identify as neither male nor female call themselves “genderqueer.” Even the “Q” in LGBTQ could stand for either “queer” or “questioning.”

Maurisa, an Operation Fresh Start alum, feels that “queer” fits her better than anything else. Her pronouns are she/they and are used interchangeably.

Three photos of Maurisa left to right picnicking, in a bee suit, and out hiking

“I like queer because it's a very nuanced term,” they said, “And I think that's why it confuses people. But I kind of like that aspect, because it varies person to person. There's a question mark on what queer is, which is kind of the point.”

In the summer of 2022, Maurisa participated in OFS’s Conservation Academy to gain hands-on experience and skills in natural resources management. It was the start of her senior year at UW-Madison and she was having a hard time finding jobs and internships relevant to her Environmental Studies major. Their experience with Conservation Academy was beneficial for them both professionally and personally.

“Our crew was three women and two men,” recounted Maurisa, “Caroline [past Conservation Academy supervisor] would tell me, as a woman in conservation, that there are these men who we work with, who do kind of talk down [to women], maybe not intentionally, but it’s very patronizing, and hearing that from her [had] such a magnitude because she was such a smart woman and one of the most intelligent people that I knew. There's still a standard that you have to perform way better than everyone else all the time.”

Caroline center with her crew in 2022 smiling and reviewing a small spruce tree

Caroline, center, Maurisa's Conservation Academy supervisor, with her crew in 2022

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the entire industry of agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting in 2022, only 28.3% of employed persons were women and 29% were Black, Asian, or Hispanic. In a 2022 Gallup poll, 22.1% of Generation Z respondents and 11.5% of Millennials self-identified as LGBTQ+, and that number rises yearly while older generations remain constant. Conservation is important to the LGBTQ+ community—the green stripe in the rainbow Pride flag symbolizes nature. And intersectionality, the interconnected nature of identities and how they combine to result in discrimination or privilege (Hispanic and gay versus white and gay), is at the heart of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I'm a big believer that accessibility plays a huge role in whether or not people who have multiple intersecting identities can be able to experience nature,” explained Maurisa, “I took a class [in college], Outdoors for All, and it very much highlighted the accessibility problems [of parks]. If you have a sign in one language, in English, that tells you who’s supposed to be there and who’s not. And it’s just a simple trail sign, you know, so I think there’s a lot of things that are taken for granted.”

After finishing Conservation Academy, Maurisa applied for OFS’s Conservation Gear Scholarship, made possible thanks to a generous donor, which awards $500 for gear such as boots and outerwear. In her essay, Maurisa stated, “My education in college, as well as the experience and education I received from Operation Fresh Start, has opened my eyes to how different communities interact with their environment, and how they cannot…Why visit a state park when most of the people who are also visiting do not look like you or have the same experiences as you? …I have privileged parts of my identity. But I am also a queer, plus-sized, Latina woman born into a low socio-economic household…I want to be able to represent a part of a community that has for so long been left on the sidelines.”

Cory Rich left speaks at Maurisa's Conservation Gear Scholarship award ceremony while Maurisa, right, laughs

Cory Rich, left, and Maurisa, right, at her award ceremony for the Conservation Gear Scholarship

This past spring, Maurisa graduated from UW-Madison and currently works for Madison Audubon as a Prairie Partners intern. When asked about her career goals following college, she answered, “I want to definitely be a part of environmental education, being the person to foster positive relationships with people in the outdoors.”

When asked what green flags they look for in a workplace, Maurisa answered, “Definitely younger individuals. Not to say that I mind working with older individuals, but I feel like there's naturally a generational culture difference that older people can learn, but I just don't think it's as natural. And definitely people in positions of power at the organization who have diverse identities [versus] when I'm interviewing with a panel that's, like, three white-passing individuals and one woman.”

Like the evolution of the word queer, conservation and green spaces are slowly diversifying and accommodating more people thanks to the work of advocates and organizations. Young adults like Maurisa will ensure that purposeful, equitable change continues.

“Things just take time,” Maurisa said, “I'm a younger adult, like, I'm still figuring my stuff out, but it was ten times worse when I was younger. So I think really acknowledging that, in due time, things will fall into place. You'll find people who like to have you around, and you can't force that. Again, it'll fall into place.”

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