Maybe you’ve sat where I sat: I was at a restorative justice circle training when quiet conflict broke out. We were picking community “agreements,” the values we would all agree to keep in mind when we approach one another for problem-solving. One person suggested that our list of values include “queerness.” It slowly came out that a few people had trouble with making this a commonly held agreement. Of those who vocally disagreed with the term and intention, most were black. That troubled me, though I couldn’t explain why. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it could mean until later when I heard a woman tell her story.
Laverne Cox, an actor and advocate for trans people’s rights, was talking about her experience being harassed and followed on the street by two men. She says, “I’ve gotten in trouble by saying this publicly, that most of the street harassment I’ve experienced has been from other black folks.” But, she says, it’s not homophobia and transphobia that are to blame, but post-traumatic stress. She says, “I have so much love for my black brothers and sisters who might call me out on the street because I get it. I understand. They’re in pain.”
Like Laverne Cox, I don’t believe that black people, and people of color in general, are more sexist or more homophobic than the oppressive system that humiliates them every day because of their race. Being a black person in a culture that values white masculine function means receiving a history of sexual abuse. It is no surprise that white Americans’ lynching of black Americans was often connected to accusations of sexual misconduct (Emmet Till) and included castration. White supremacy has policed black people’s sexuality along gender lines with rape and mutilation for over 300 years. This is the pain Laverne Cox was talking about. We cannot have a coherent understanding of how race is used to oppress us without seeing how sexuality is used against us as well. To do that, our liberation work in communities must focus on radical inclusion of queer people.
When I was honored with the chance to speak at the RVC Reception in September, I wanted to use the opportunity only to express my gratefulness for being picked—and to point out that there were countless others like me who wanted to make a difference in their community and world but lacked only the opportunity. I was not sure two years ago how I could possibly make a difference in the world, in the suffering I see my human family go through daily—I only knew I must try. Now I feel very similarly, but as a community organizer and queer black person. Will I be able to do my best organizing work in my own communities which may not see my queerness as a value?
Bayard Rustin, the queer advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., is not remembered by most of us—though he was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the site of King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. It was he who advised King to launch a nonviolent movement to undo white supremacy. He was also opposed by some civil rights leaders who did not want the movement associated with a queer person. Rustin once said, “The moral man looks for injustice first of all in himself.” We must look within, because the same white supremacy that wants to undo us from the outside also works from within our communities to keep us oppressed.
I want to be clear here: my community organizing work is not all about me; it’s about my being there for my community. And my writing this, and the work I do in and with my community every day, only comes from wanting to stop systems of oppression more efficiently. I want to point out when we might be working with white supremacy rather than against it, so that we can be decisive and intentional in the struggle instead of submitting to popular assumptions. I also want to challenge those oppressive assumptions. One of these is the assumption that communities of color, especially black communities, are more homophobic.
If that narrative were true, it wouldn’t explain why black people (who were denied the right to marry or form families when they were enslaved) are more likely to defend gay marriage equality. It doesn’t explain why they seem to report being queer more. Black people and queer people’s liberation have historically been and continue to be intertwined. Huey P. Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther party, pointed this out in a speech in 1970 (just one year after queer people of color rioted in the Stonewall Rebellion to demand an end to state violence against queer bodies). He said “We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. We must not use the racist attitude that the white racists use against our people because they are Black and poor…. [M]aybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”
In the end, what the restorative justice circle came around to was one of the first community agreements we had accepted: leave no one behind. If we work for and achieve liberation, it will have to come for all people, with all kinds of bodies, all kinds of experiences, all kinds of perspectives. If the liberation we are working for doesn’t liberate those with disabilities, those with neurological and functioning differences, those who grew up speaking a language or worshiping in a way other than our most familiar, who do not express their own gender or sexuality in ways we are comfortable with—then we need to look within and question whether it is really liberation we are after. Do we want a new system of power that puts us at the top even if it denies the same opportunity to others? Or do we really want liberation for all, including our least understood neighbors: a world where we, not our superficial differences and appearances, are used to determine our character?
Fellow at Rainier Beach Action Coalition
This was a useful organizational structure when writing this piece: