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Toxic Animal Encounters: Queer Environmental Threats and Racialized Reproduction Anxieties

O'Laughlin, Logan (2018). Toxic Animal Encounters: Queer Environmental Threats and Racialized Reproduction Anxieties (Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database. (UMI No. 10828428)

Abstract: This dissertation interrogates contemporary anxieties about environmental toxins and their effects on sex, sexual development, and reproduction in North America. For instance, recent toxicology reports suggest that commonly-used pesticides can cause frogs to develop intersex traits and enact same-sex mating behaviors. Many concerned consumers and residents have described the environmental issues as threats to hetero-nuclear families in their public fears of what might be to come: being infertile, queer, intersex, and/or transgender.

Feminist science studies, queer studies, and environmental studies have responded to these anxieties by examining how Western sociocultural myths of queerness as “unnatural” surface most saliently in moments of environmental threat. What remains penumbral in the critiques at the intersection of these fields, however, is how race and species operate in the articulation of these environmental threats. My work intervenes by arguing these toxicity panics are pernicious not only because they make normative judgments about sex, gender, and sexuality but also because they rely on logics of racism and dehumanization. The seemingly innocuous toxin-exposed animal figures are the Trojan Horses that allow these multiply-marginalizing ideologies to circulate.

In this dissertation, I argue that animal figures play a crucial role in these environmental anxieties. Human interactions with environmental toxins—what I call “toxic encounters”—leave traces in the form of toxin-exposed animal figures that shape how humans conceptualize environmental disaster and protection. I assert that exposed nonhuman animals act as discursive ambassadors for the longevity of white, heterosexual human families in three scandals: (1) scientific reports of pesticides causing frogs to develop intersex traits; (2) media responses to the 2010 BP oil spill that disproportionately focus on the reproduction of oiled pelicans; and (3) farmers’ anxieties about feral pigs overpopulating North Carolina and bringing illness to their family farms. When culturally-significant animals such as pelicans and frogs in the U.S. are exposed to toxins, researchers and activists use them to warn of “future” environmental harm against white human families. In so doing, they often obscure how these toxins enact ongoing and historical reproductive violence against queer people, communities of color, and queer people of color.

I argue that each of the toxic scandals in question must be understood as more than just interfaces in the present moment. By forwarding a multitemporal critical discourse analysis method, this dissertation examines what sitting with ghosts of the figures of frogs, pelicans, and pigs might accomplish. In so doing, I trace how historical and ongoing violence of chattel slavery and colonialism haunts the present in these toxic animal figures. I thus supplement my feminist critical discourse analysis with environmental historical analysis of colonialism’s effects on the North American landscape as well as analysis of how certain animals have come to be valuable in U.S. culture. I also critically analyze scientific literature about environmental toxins in order to understand how each has animal figure been understood as abject in the first place.

This research strengthens the complicated links among queer theory, environmental studies, feminist science studies, and critical race theories by tracing how environmental normativity is articulated through biopolitical taxonomies of Human in these animal figures. And it intervenes in the tensions within critical animal studies between the real and the figurative to recognize that the entanglements are where the toxins often reside. As a feminist project, this work explicates how animal figures animate harmful environmental discourses in order to ultimately disrupt them.

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