What’s So Gay About Gardening?

Annie Deely

Among horticulturalists, the term volunteer is frequently used to describe plants that grow on their own as opposed to deliberately being placed by a gardener. In spring 2023, as a part of a semester-long Environmental Justice project, I sought to understand the experience of growing food in densely packed urban space. First, I knocked on all 82 doors in my apartment building to survey interest in a community garden and interviewed neighbors about their edible gardening experiences. Next, I incorporated anticapitalism in the garden by eradicating capitalist weeds that choke out collectivism and exploit natural resources and labor, fertilizing seedlings of organizing through fostering social connection. Lastly, I planted using direct action techniques cross-pollinated with ideology from guerilla gardeners and Black activist farmers. Even though seeds were being sowed in a bed of gardening research that intentionally included economics, race, history, and community — a volunteer theme, queerness, started to grow. Three out of six interviewees identified as queer, even though data about sexuality was not collected. When self-reporting their gender, 13% of respondents identified as transgender or gender non-binary, a sample with almost ten times the share of trans people (1.6%) than in the general population. Unveiling the connection between queerness and urban gardening was accidental, but the question remains: what’s so gay about gardening?

Gardening and queerness both have radical roots. Gardening rejects the commodification of basic needs and is a radical tool for resistance. The act of people growing food themselves relinquishes reliance on a food system that harms people. Queerness similarity is a radical existence outside of social norms. In “Queers in the American City,” Down discusses the development and implications of physical space and safety for LGBTQIA people. She claims that trans people have found community and support in temporary spaces, like activist protests and support groups, opening a dialogue about how and why space is created for queer people. By connecting queerness and urban gardening, this essay explores how gardening is historically radical, how queer spaces developed from urban margins, and if the loss of queer radical spaces makes gardening appealing.

The connection between social justice and gardening is well reflected in academic scholarship, but there is less information on queerness’s impact on creating productive and abundant community green space from the ground up. Although the intersections between gardening, capitalism, and race are well-documented, there is a gap in the research on how gardening relates to queerness in urban spaces. This paper argues that the intersection between gardening and queerness is inherently radical and that the appeal of urban gardening to queer people stems from a longing for urban space tied to radical values.

Gardening as a Radical Act: A Literature Review and NYC Timeline

Before connecting queerness to gardening, this paper will explore the literature on Black activist gardeners and farmers that present growing food as a radical act of autonomy and resistance. Linda Good Bryant, a Brooklyn gardener and founder of Project EATS, regards the practice as a rejection of the racist food system by reclaiming and redistributing power. Ron Finley, a self-proclaimed “gangster gardener” in LA, uses gardening as a silent protest, a means of sowing the seeds of revolution. Guerrilla gardening is a form of direct action where gardeners plant in spaces whether or not they have permission from the landowner. When paired with food production, guerrilla gardening simultaneously rejects capitalist controls of supply and demand and land privatization by providing food sources outside of capitalist systems. Garden-based activism holds the legacy of creating productive and abundant community green space from the ground up, especially in New York. 

Smiling Hogshead Ranch, a guerilla garden created in 2011 on a set of abandoned railroad tracks in Long Island City. Photographed by Annie Park, 2023.

The legacy of collective gardening in NYC involves radical revitalization and stewardship of neglected space. In the 1960s, East Harlem, a Black and Latinx neighborhood, was experiencing extreme disinvestment and neglect from city agencies, resulting in plummeting property values. East Harlem landowners were even setting fire to their buildings for insurance money. The neighborhood became a sea of demolished buildings and vacant lots. In the ashes of their city blocks, residents of Harlem began reviving vacant lots by removing trash and planting gardens. The impact of this grassroots movement is best described by members of the More Gardens! Coalition:

“With these new gardens, East Harlem gained much-needed public green space, venues of cultural expression, places for neighborhood kids to play, and sources of oxygen, healthy food, and healing medicine.”

Decades later, East Harlem’s bottom-up revitalization started to attract blood-thirsty developers, gentrifying the neighborhood. The city government assisted developers in taking over long-cultivated garden space to build luxury apartment buildings. 

Despite efforts by garden activists, New York City’s community food production is pitted against potential revenues from development that are being lost to open space. A famous example of this struggle occurred in 1999 when the Guiliani administration moved to sell or develop 131 community garden sites, sparking backlash from New Yorkers.1 For a 1997 New York Times piece, Fran Reiter, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Planning, stated, “The bottom line is, we’re going build wherever we can, whenever we can. Do we sacrifice gardens to build housing? You’re damn right we do.” 2 This attitude towards the disposability of community gardening was reflected in the administration’s actions towards these community assets. Despite community resilience and radical greening of space, gardens are under near-constant threat of takeover by more apparently lucrative land uses in a capitalist system.

Radical queerness

Next, this paper will explore the radical components of queerness and attempted, as with NYC community gardens, co-optations of radical existences. Urban queer spaces often exist on the margins of the cityscape. In “Queer ecology: nature, sexuality, and heterotopic alliances,” Gandy uses Abney Park, a cemetery in London and a famous homosexual cruising ground, to explore the intersection between urban ecology and queer theory, using the term’ queer ecology’ to describe the overlap between these two concepts. Gandy describes Abney Park as an overgrown space with minimal maintenance and asks how marginal urban spaces become attractive to society’s outcasts, where overgrowth and the absence of surveillance provide havens for natural ecosystems, squats, political radicalism, and public sex. In New York, the Greenwich Village Waterfront served a similar need as first a cruising ground for gay men and later a safe haven for mainly queer homeless youth of color. When previously industrial piers stopped shipping goods in the 60s, the dilapidated docks and neglected warehouses attracted artists and performers, serving as a staple of queer life for New Yorkers. Famously, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson conducted outreach on the piers with their organization Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). The piers on the Hudson River now have almost no physical trace of existing in the gentrified West Village and Chelsea. The piers and Abney Park share similarities with the conditions of 1960s Harlem, where the abundance of vacant land inspired a radical re-use of urban space — i.e., to grow food, make art, express marginalized identities, and organize neighbors.

STAR, a radical political action group that provided safe housing to the homeless youth of color, organized at the Greenwich Village Waterfront. Photo from Lesbian Herstory Archives. 1970.3

People with queer identities do not all have the same legal protections, positional power, or access to safety in public urban spaces. Trans people especially experience high levels of violence, shown through the murder of 320 trans people in 2023, 94% of them women and 80% of them Black. While queerness is largely marginalized, its intersections with other social hierarchies like gender, class, and race create stratified power dynamics. For example, gay men have been able to establish “gayborhoods” like Greenwich Village in New York or the Castro in San Fransico through their privileged position to gain wealth and own property. Lesbians, on the other hand, face the economic challenges of women-led households and, instead of whole neighborhoods of space, are more closely associated with bars and smaller communities. Because of their small percentage of the queer population, transgender people do not have physical urban spaces and instead have found community in temporary spaces.4 These gendered differences among queer people are further differentiated by racial hierarchy, where discrimination towards Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) affects a person’s ability to gain wealth and establish permanent and physical urban space. 

The commodification of queerness

Even though queer urbanism has been traced to radicalism, there has been a trend of transformation, and even decline, in LGBTQ+ spaces. In There Goes the Gayborhood?, Gaziani argues that US cities have entered the post-gay era, where gay settlement has decentralized due to a general tolerance of homosexuality across urban areas, resulting in the dispersal of the gayborhood. Similarly, lesbian bars saw a peak in the 1980s when there were 200 nationwide, and then a sharp decline, with only thirty-one remaining today. A general increase in tolerance decreases the need for isolated safe spaces but causes queer-exclusive spaces to dwindle.

Spaces that were originally radical have been co-opted, commodified, or gentrified with little recognition of their queer roots. Most famously, Pride began at Stonewall Inn in 1969 as a rebellion against violent police raids in queer spaces but has been co-opted and transformed into a parade and marketplace with multi-national corporations unveiling rainbow logos, including the historically violent, union-busting Pinkerton agency. After years of activism to demand LGBTQ+ rights, the original fight against the oppression of marginalized people is exploited through pink-washing, with queer activist talking points being used to boost a company’s PR and sell products.

As queerness is more commodified, does it become less radical? Is the queer interest in my gardening project a recognition of the loss of radical space for queer people? If individuals want to express their queerness without commodification, can they do this through anticapitalist projects like collective food gardening and homesteading?  As queer people become less marginalized, the group is increasingly treated as a market. A possible explanation of queer interest in gardening is a craving for radical spaces that were abundant for LGBTQ folks in yesteryear but are less available today. With queerness being appropriated by profit-driven markets, gardening is a way for people to hold on to their history as marginalized people, and a possible explanation for queer interest in urban gardening is the craving to create radical and abundant spaces from the ground up. 


1.  Wekerle, Gerda R., and Michael Classens. “Food Production in the City: (Re)Negotiating Land, Food, and Property.” Local Environment 20, no. 10 (2015): 1175–1193.
2.  Hassell, Malve von. The Struggle for Eden : Community Gardens in New York City. Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey, 2002.
3. “S.T.A.R.” Come Out, Volume: 1, Issue: 7. Village Station, NY, United States (Dec-Jan 1970).
4.  Down, Petra L. “Queers in the American City: Transgendered perceptions of urban space.” Gender, Place and Culture Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 57–74, February 2007

Annie Deely is currently working on her Master’s in Urban Planning at Hunter College. Before Hunter, she worked as a community organizer against fracked gas development and for edible gardens in Pittsburgh, PA. Annie has a bachelor’s from the University of Pittsburgh, where they first got involved in environmental activism with the student group Free the Planet. Annie lives and tends a garden in Brooklyn with their pet rabbit, Raisin, who enjoys most of the harvest.

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