Stephen, a 23-year-old Canadian, is telling me about an otherwise uneventful opening shift at his job as a barista that turned ugly when serving a burly male customer. “We were chatting, and he asked why I had a bowl full of coffee grounds,” he explains. “I told him it was because we compost them.” At this point, Stephen says the man “freaked,” and his previously friendly demeanor shifted. “He said I was a ‘fairy’ for caring about the environment, and he was kind of angry about it.”
Jeff, a 34-year-old political consultant in Nebraska, says he’s had his masculinity similarly questioned because of the small hatchback he drives for environmental reasons. “I live in a college town with a lot of truck-driving country kids, and when I was using my Honda Fit as an Uber driver, I’d get comments like, ‘Pretty manly car’ and ‘Do you like them small?’” Cam, a 39-year-old Torontonian working in the energy sector, says his decision to carry reusable bags and cups provokes much of the same: “It’s mostly at work, from dominant white men with conservative mindsets, comfortable in their bubble. They’ll say stupid shit like, ‘Nice purse’ or ‘That’s a pretty cup, does it come in men’s?’”
As we careen toward more than two degrees of global warming, near-term social collapse and possible human extinction, the association of environmentalism with femininity, homosexuality and a certain kind of weak heterosexual masculinity seems more and more absurd, and yet, it persists. Recent studies confirm that not eating meat is still seen as unmanly, that men eschew reusable shopping bags to avoid looking gay and that men who feel emasculated compensate by harming the environment. Meanwhile, one of the far right’s favorite insults is “soy boy,” a term that mocks urban liberals with green lifestyle markers like plant-based diets.
To better understand the perverse idea that it’s gay to save the planet, I spoke to more than 30 people who say they’ve been at the receiving end of these views. One of them is Josh, a 31-year-old IT worker in South Louisiana, who is often made fun of for his tote, reusable bottle, occasionally vegetarian diet and lack of desire to drive a truck. “It’s just constant microaggressions,” he explains. “I live in a big oil area so this stuff happens constantly — the truck thing is probably the most consistent.”
Several others confirm that cars are viewed as an important marker of masculinity and that environmental choices are seen as feminine or gay. “I get a lot of smirking and mocking tones when people realize I drive a Prius,” Felix, a 23-year-old phlebotomist in Oregon, tells me, and Andrew, a 33-year-old in Maryland with an intimate knowledge of car culture, verifies that this sentiment is widespread. “Tons of car dudes just irrationally hate Priuses,” he explains. “They’re still using them as punchlines, with lots of ‘dirty hippie car’ jokes in there.” He also tells me that hypermilers, a subculture of car enthusiasts who focus on minimizing fuel consumption, receive similar treatment. “The vast majority of car dudes look down on this kind of thing,” he adds, “calling it ‘gay’ and using F-slurs.”
People who forego cars altogether fare even worse. Zack Furness, associate professor of communications at Penn State Greater Allegheny, has experienced much of this scorn as a cyclist. “During the years I was a bike commuter in Pittsburgh, I’d say the most common slur I’d hear yelled at me — always by men who saw themselves as inconvenienced for a second by my existence on ‘their’ roads — was ‘faggot,’” he says. “During the course of writing a book about bike advocacy, I interviewed tons of people, and the majority of men I spoke with had similar experiences.”
Many of my respondents stress that they live in conservative areas and negative comments about green behavior almost always come from conservative men. “I’ve been accused of being a vegan lefty socialist type entirely as a ‘pulling technique’ to impress women,” says Paul, a 41-year-old statistician from the U.K. “Like I’m playing some sort of bizarre long con whilst simultaneously being married.” This is a familiar trope on the right: Men supposedly have nothing to gain from feminist and green politics, and therefore, guys who champion these causes must be trying to get laid.
Diet is another key area where masculinity is policed. “When I was vegan or vegetarian, the number of inane conversations and dumb comments I had to endure about eating ‘bird food’ or ‘sissy food’ were off the charts,” Furness explains. “Any sensitivity toward animals and overt gestures toward environmentalism are seen as unmanly.” Paul agrees: “My masculinity is definitely questioned all the time. Sometimes it’s presented as some sort of faux concern, like, ‘You look so pale, weak, ill — you’re barely a man anymore!’”
The link between masculinity and meat is fascinating, and Carol Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat, has long been committed to examining it. “Masculinity is always being constructed by cues from other men,” she told The Week, in reference to a study about how men communicate about veganism. “There is homosocial bonding in sharing expectations about what men eat.”
But there is a longer, older association between gender and nature more generally. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir charts the way in which men men marveled at (and feared) women’s apparent bond with nature in pre-agricultural times, but toppled women from this venerated position once they developed advanced agricultural techniques, mastered the use of tools and conceived of private property. “In woman are incarnated the disturbing mysteries of nature, and man escapes her hold when he frees himself from nature,” she writes. Current critiques of environmentalism echo this link when they deride care for nature as feminine and contrary to growth and progress.
But avoiding social collapse and human extinction is in everyone’s best interest, regardless of gender, so the association of masculinity with environmental apathy or degradation is concerning and makes little sense. Some think the solution is to rebrand environmentalism as masculine, such as the authors of an aforementioned study who suggest that “eco-friendly marketing messages and materials can be designed to affirm men’s masculinity and give them the confidence to overcome their fear of being judged as feminine.” This is already occurring with the advent of products like the Dad Bag, a reusable shopping bag designed to aesthetically appeal to men.
Others, though, believe that this doesn’t go deep enough, and that traditional masculinity needs to be fundamentally reconfigured or abandoned before it can be compatible with green politics. Furness says that “masculinity is largely defined in contrast to, or as a negation of, every kind of attitude and disposition — such as empathy, thoughtfulness, sensitivity and intelligence — that would actually make for a better world.” If he’s right, then environmentalism needs more than a masculine rebrand; it needs to be understood as an urgent ethical imperative for everyone, and one that trumps reductive gender performances.
After all, what good are Ford F-150s and 80-ounce steaks on an uninhabitable earth?