Birder Christian Cooper flies to new heights with memoir and show

You may know Christian Cooper as an author. Not just of his new memoir “Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World,” but from his pioneering work at Marvel Comics.

He became one of the company’s first openly gay writers and editors in the 1990s. Cooper helped make LGBTQ+ history by working on “Alpha Flight” in 1992 — when Marvel introduced their first gay superhero — and later wrote a title featuring their first openly lesbian character.

The comic creator subsequently penned “Star Trek: Starfleet Academy” for the publisher in a groundbreaking 19-issue run. There he introduced the first openly gay character in “Star Trek” history.

If not writing, you may recognize Cooper as the host of “Extraordinary Birder” on National Geographic. The series “reveals the wild, wonderful and unpredictable world of birds.”

It’s his passion, which is why others may recognize the birder — someone who observes and identifies birds in nature — thanks to a racist exchange Cooper caught on a viral video over three years ago. That’s when the New Yorker was harassed by a white woman in Central Park after asking her to leash her dog.

“While in the park one morning in May 2020, Cooper was engaged in the birdwatching ritual that had been a part of his life since he was 10 years old — when what might have been a routine encounter with a dog walker exploded age-old racial tensions,” his memoir is described. “Cooper’s viral video of the incident would send shock waves through the nation.

“In ‘Better Living Through Birding,’” the synopsis continues, “Cooper tells the story of his extraordinary life leading up to the now-infamous incident in Central Park and shows how a life spent looking up at the birds prepared him, in the most uncanny of ways, to be a gay, Black man in America today.”

Watermark spoke with Cooper about his memoir after its publication, reflecting on his story, television show and more.

WATERMARK: What drew you to birding?

Christian Cooper: Most people get hooked on birding by a particular bird, your spark bird. For me it was when I was about 10 years old and I saw my first Red-winged Blackbird. I was fascinated by it, I thought I found a new species of Crow. It remains one of my favorite birds.

What’s kept you birding?

What’s alluring is that birds communicate the same way we do. Unlike pets, like cats and dogs who are primarily all about their nose, birds communicate by sight and sound. They come in incredible colors and patterns and make incredible noises and beautiful songs, in the case of the songbirds. These are all things we can appreciate because we communicate primarily by sight and sound ourselves.

That makes birds super accessible to us. They’re everywhere. You can be in Antarctica, you can even be under the sea or in a city, you can be in the desert, and there will be birds.

Why do you think the LGBTQ+ community may be drawn to birding?

In my case, I was a closeted kid who knew I was gay from about the age of five, so that was a hard place to be. But when you’re birding, all your woes and cares kind of fall away for a little while.

I think for us queer folks, especially now, with all the pressure we’re under — the renewed assaults against our community, coming from so many red states, including Florida — this is a great way to sort of escape from those pressures, at least for a little while.

Some of your other escapes are featured in your memoir.

Yes, for me it was science fiction, fantasy and horror, which lets you imagine new possibilities. The whole basis of science fiction is “okay, what’s not here that could be here?”

Whether it’s a future or parallel universe, or some new imagined technology. It lets you open up your mind to new ideas and new things and imagine a different world, which for us queer folk, can be really important — not just for the escapism, but for the self-acceptance and the hope of creating a world with parameters that are so much more welcoming to us.

What can you share about creating LGBTQ+ characters for Marvel and “Star Trek?”

It’s funny, I didn’t approach it like, “I must include queer characters wherever I go!” It was more a matter of, “I have to tell stories that are true to my experience, and that experience includes queer people.” So it would have been false, it would have been a lie, to tell stories where queer people weren’t integrated — because queer people were integrated into my life.

I wrote a horror comic called “Darkhold” and the main character happened to be a lesbian, and that’s because I knew lesbians. When I wrote “Star Trek: Starfleet Academy,” I saw a desert in the future of humanity in terms of alternate sexualities and it was shocking! I mean, this was supposed to be the utopian future for humankind, and we were completely absent.

So I was like, “well, that’s dumb” and I made one of the characters queer. That was important to me and was the approach I took with it. They always say “write what you know,” and this is what I knew.

Both franchises have come a long way in LGBTQ+ representation. What’s that like to see?

“Star Trek” kind of went wild with the queer characters, it’s amazing. Representation is important because until you see yourself in a particular scenario, it’s hard to imagine yourself there. I think for a lot of kids coming up seeing that they have a role in the future or a role as a superhero is fantastic.

Of course, some of the characters have been done well, and some of the characters have been done poorly. But that’s always going to be the case. I’m happy that we’re having the chance to be done well and/or poorly now, just like everybody else.

Was writing a memoir always something you wanted to do?

Not at all, I’m not a very confessional person. But what I came to realize is that for my whole life, there are certain things I’ve been fighting for — well before the incident [in Central Park], as I like to call it.

Those things are justice for Black people, equality for queer people and the joy of wild birds for all people. I’ve been doing that in various ways and then suddenly the incident happened, and I had a chance to do it on a much bigger stage for a bigger audience.

I realized that one of the ways to do that, to really bring people in, would be to tell the story from a personal perspective. To explain those issues not as abstractions, but as how they affected me personally during my whole life.

Do you get tired of talking about the incident?

It’s not that I get tired of talking about it, but I want to pull people’s focus to what matters. Because a lot of people ask, “Oh, what about her? Why didn’t you pursue charges against her?” And I’m like, “it’s not about her.”

The important thing was how it revealed how deeply racial bias runs through our culture — and the far more important thing to focus on is how that racial bias came out later that same day [with the murder of George Floyd], when it made a white police officer in Minneapolis think it was okay to kneel on a Black man’s neck until he was dead. How that racial bias bubbled up in the other cops around him who thought it was okay to stand around and do nothing.

We may be high fiving that yeah, “we got that woman in Central Park,” but meanwhile the Supreme Court is rolling back affirmative action. That’s why we need to keep our eyes on the ball and understand the need to focus on racial bias where it is doing the most harm. Where we can take action to address it.

Is that your hope, that sharing your story creates change?

Yes! That’s why I talk about it. It’s funny, because a day or two right after the incident, I was sort of like, “God, I just want to crawl under a rock and hide until this blows over.” And I realized very quickly that that was the wrong response and this was an opportunity to add to the conversation to bring racial bias to life in a way that — at least for a lot of white people, because us Black people have known for a long time — might be revelatory. That’s when I was like, “Alright, now I need to step up and talk about this, because George Floyd can’t.”

How did you approach writing your memoir?

Well, I’m old, I’m 60. So I had a lot of years to sort through, where I could pick out the juiciest bits and just kind of skim over the boring parts. (Laughs.) That was one of the things I tried to do, really zero in on the places that would be the most interesting.

It was also really hard to write because I’m used to writing fiction, where I am the master of the universe and control the whole world and everything about it. That’s not the way life is, you don’t get to control a whole heck of a lot. So I tried to tease out certain themes and shape them in a way that was coherent.

That’s what I tried to do with it and hopefully I succeeded. I guess the reader will have to decide.

How did “Extraordinary Birder” come to be?

I got a phone call from a National Geographic executive saying, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing a birding show, would you be interested in going to all these different places and seeing all these different birds and telling people about them?” And I’m like, “It sounds awful. Let me think about it.” (Laughs.) I was definitely in. I’m especially pleased that maybe the first major birding show has an African American leading the way.

What are your hopes for it?

I’m hoping, especially because there’s such a deficit of Black and Brown birders, that a lot of young, Black and Brown kids will look at this show and see somebody who looks like them leading the way. That they’ll think, “Oh, maybe I can do that too.”

Also, just that people develop a passion for birds, and that it encourages them to get out there to look and listen. Even if you’re homebound, you can just go to your window.

I’m all about the joy of wild birds, for all people. Birding really and truly is for everybody.

Will there be a season 2?

We hope so. Watch the show, get your friends to watch the show and maybe that’ll make the difference!

What message do you have for LGBTQ+ readers and viewers?

Embrace your wrinkles. We all have our quirks and the things that make us weird. For me as a kid, it was the fact that I was secretly queer, that I was a birder and a science fiction and comic book geek. All of those things made me out of step with mainstream society. Also being a Black birder in a largely white birding context, all of it gave me an outsider status.

Some people in that situation might try to iron out as many of those kinks as possible so that they fit in better. Hopefully the book communicates the message that you can embrace those kinks, because at some point in your life, they’re going to make you so happy and so fulfilled.

“Extraordinary Birder” with Christian Cooper is streaming now on Disney+. His memoir “Better Living Through Birding” is available wherever books are sold.

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