An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence

The name of the movement is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume you take issue with the statement.

The name of the movement is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume you take issue with this statement.

To the white people I share home with,

I’ve gotten degrees. I’ve been published. I’ve spoken at academic gatherings. I’ve taught classes and workshops. I’ve built up a resume. I’ve gained employment in the acceptable fields of social justice. For years, you told me these were the things I needed to do in order to be listened to.

I’ve participated in direct action. I’ve been arrested. I’ve survived nearly three decades in a country that hates me. I’ve predicted the formation of movements, the swell of riots, months and even years before their occurrences. I don’t know what else I need to do to be legitimized, be validated, to be worthy of being heard and taken seriously.

I am exhausted from trying to get you on board with a movement–one that mirrors those from previous eras you claim to revere, and that has reignited calls for social transformation once heralded by the writers, speakers, musicians and artists you claim to hold dearest. I wonder if you understand what any of the struggles which have occurred during your lifetime were ever actually about.

I am not naive nor arrogant enough to believe my imploring can achieve in this moment what centuries of Black imploring has not been able to. I am not foolish enough to believe this letter will be the letter that changes your minds. I write because I need to speak, because I am in pain. I write because I cannot bear any more condescension, more indifference. I write to tell you I am not going to.

The cry of this moment is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume this is a statement you take issue with.

When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean Black people are the experts in their own lives, their own history, their own struggles. We mean your opinions are not necessary, and that debating you is a waste of our valuable energy, mental health and time. We mean you do not get to speak on issues with which you have no experience, which you have not studied nor researched, but on which you feel entitled enough to award yourself authority. We mean you must be quiet and listen to Black people.

You can no longer hide behind your idealism. The very existence of this moment proves your ideals to be misled and hollow.

If legislation alone could save us, the 13th Amendment, Special Field Order No. 15, and Brown vs. Board would have saved us. If electoral politics alone could save us, then the innumerable Black justices and representatives elected in the last half century would have saved us. If white saviors could save us, we would have been saved a million times over. But we are here and we are dying, and you are watching from the sidelines.

You call me an anarchist. You say you fear chaos. If you knew what it means to be Black, what is happening in your towns and cities daily, you’d know that chaos and bloodshed are already here. They are visited on women, on people of color, on poor people, workers, on immigrants, on trans people, on queer people, and they are done so constantly. Chaos is our bed, our sheets, our water, our front steps, our sidewalks. The systems you insist we trust to address it, the leaders you elected, are its source. Your fear of movement, and your denial of this reality, is what allows it to continue.

This is the last time I will say this to you:

Black people are dying. Every day, Black trans women are dying. Black children are dying. Black mothers and sisters are dying. Maybe I have to die for you to understand what this means.

If the demands of our movement are unclear to you, that is your fault. We have stated them concretely and concisely, over and over again–not just at this moment, but at every time in history Black people have fought for their lives. Don’t pretend that because the sources you read don’t report it, the information is unavailable. Don’t act as though your selective hearing is the result of our lack of organizing. Don’t tell the leaders who have penned the most passionate pleas for justice in US history they need to be more articulate.

And when the police come for me, don’t cry. When I am murdered by a supremacist in the street, don’t mourn me. If I am put in a cage for speaking out, don’t call it a travesty. Because it is happening, has been happening unceasingly for the last five centuries, and you have done nothing to stop it.

Do not feign shock at the inevitable. It disrespects me, and the memory of every Black person your system has purposefully killed.

When I tell you my needs, talk of my pain, my anger, all my stories, it is a privilege and blessing you haven’t earned. It is a profound form of vulnerability I engage not because you deserve it, but because I as a Black person choose to share it with you. I do so for the sole reason that I do not wish to lose you from my life, do not want the most core parts of my existence to be hidden from you. But when you refuse to look, they remain invisible. When you resist seeing, you deprive yourself of authentic entrance into who I truly am, and what I truly need from you.

And your denial cannot protect you, just as my silence cannot protect me.

This movement is happening without you, despite you. But real transformation is not possible unless you listen deeply, sincerely, even when it is painful, and take brave action at your own risk to fight for the things the Black community is demanding of you.

When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.

A son, brother, nephew and grandson of Black, queer liberation

Guest Post – The Real Barriers to Care: What We Truly Need to Combat HIV

Cassie Warren is a health educator, activist and youth worker dedicated to radical access to affirming health services, especially for trans and queer young people. She works at the Broadway Youth Center in Chicago–a community space for trans and queer youth experiencing homelessness.

Last month, Cassie was invited by UNICEF to speak on a panel about PrEP, a new pill that prevents the acquiring of HIV. They took the opportunity to address publicly not merely the barriers that keep trans and queer young people–particularly those of color–from getting on PrEP, but the structures of US healthcare that purposefully deny effective and affirming care for oppressed people at large. Here is what they had to say:

Young, trans and queer activists reminding us what really stands in the way of healthcare.

Young, trans and queer activists reminding us what really stands in the way of healthcare.

Today, I will be speaking from my current experience and relationships with young people. I help young folks navigate the American healthcare system, and provide supportive services and resources to primarily Black, trans and queer young people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, at a community space called the Broadway Youth Center.

I hope that I can contribute to this convening by illuminating the policy changes that could remove some of the barriers in writing PrEP prescriptions for young people, and the demands we should be making of our healthcare system when it comes to creating a landscape where PrEP is accessible to all young folks.

The successes I share with you today are largely due to the frameworks we use and our model of care.

We provide integrated social and medical services in a center that only serves young people. We believe there should be multiple points of access to these services. A young person may come to our space to get a hot meal, a state ID voucher, or to get some sleep, and they may stay or come back for community meeting, an HIV test, or our GED program. We believe young people are the experts in their own lives and position ourselves as resources or as advocates for the resources they tell us they need.

We think there should be as few barriers as possible to accessing health care, that your documentation status doesn’t matter, that young people know what’s best for themselves, and that all gender expressions are valid, important, deserving of celebration. We utilize harm reduction, strengths-based, and transformative justice approaches to all our work.

Because of the context and setting in which we provide our services, we are able to make them accessible to the folks most likely to be turned away or banned from other social and health services. Yet, we still experience structural barriers that keep us from getting PrEP to the folks interested in starting. Three concrete policies whose support could remove some of these barriers and benefit young people are:

  1. People under 18 need to be actively included in trails that are fortifying PrEP access nationally and internationally.
  2. The creation of medication assistance programs for young people who are on their parent’s health insurance, but don’t want to use it because of the physical, emotional, or economic risks tied to depending on their biological families.
  3. Same day initiation of PrEP, or getting folks who express interest on the pill as soon as possible.

However, while these policy changes would put us in a place to provide a prescription for young people, successful PrEP access and use is not just about writing a prescription. It is about creating real paths to affirming healthcare for the young people most at risk of acquiring new HIV infections: Young, Black, trans and queer people, a significant number of whom are homeless.

I’d like to talk about the things that are integral to address when we are working together to support youth in accessing and taking PrEP successfully.

The young people I’m speaking of face significant barriers to basic resources on a daily basis, even outside of the barriers inherent within the US healthcare system. A lack of stable housing means a lack of storage, lack of security for your belongings, and a constant preoccupation with and hyper awareness of your surroundings. It means stress and anxiety stemming from not knowing where your next meal might come from, to constant surveillance and harassment by police. It often means you don’t have regular access to personal documentation, like an ID, social security card or birth certificate.

When I hear folks in healthcare concerned about young people adhering to the regiment of a medication like PrEP, I don’t often hear them talking about the structural oppressions that make adherence difficult to impossible: Lack of safe storage; the bureaucracy around Medicaid that makes it so easy to lose care; being denied services based on gender markers, or a new name that doesn’t match medical records; not having state ID, a social security number, or other documentation; lack of bus fare to pick up or refill prescriptions; the criminalization of survival crimes and/or quality of life crimes; limited access to a consistent phone number or email; the lack of youth-only spaces.

Within the US healthcare system there are mountainous barriers for Black, Brown, trans and queer young people–costs, required ID, not to mention care often is not gender-affirming, and rarely gives youth the ability to consent to their own healthcare. There is inherent harm and trauma in the medical system, especially for the young people at highest risk for acquiring HIV.

In the US, people without access to health insurance have learned to receive their care at hospitals and ERs. A study conducted by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago found that young, Black, trans and queer people report hospitals as the second most harmful institutions in which they experience violence, second only to the criminal justice system.

And really, there is no difference.

When many of these young people attempt to access services at hospitals, they are regularly arrested or institutionalized. I’m going to say that again, because I want to make sure this point is clear:

The populations at highest risk for HIV are poor, young, Black, trans and queer folks, and often, when they attempt to seek services from public outlets, they are arrested or institutionalized.

The US healthcare system is one that often takes away our ability to have options and control over our own health, a place where many people feel shamed for their lifestyle choices, and where power dynamics are rarely in the favor of young people, people of color, trans and queer people. But PrEP should challenge all of these things.

PrEP and shame do not go together. PrEP is a new option we can offer young people. PrEP gives power and control to the receptive partner.

Often, because of the heirarchical structures valued by our healthcare system, the inherent abilities of young people are erased. But if we take the time to see their strengths, to recognize and defy those structural barriers, we are able to figure out how to meet folks where they are, and return some of their power to them. We cannot talk about successful uptake of PrEP and young people without being strengths-based, without being sex-positive, without being youth-centered, and without giving youth the ability to identify and address all their health needs.

The challenges surrounding offering PrEP to young people should not be seen as threats, but instead as opportunities. For they shine light on the inadequacies of our healthcare system, and bring into sharp focus the barriers we need to address and remove.

We have a highly effective, safe pill we can take to prevent HIV. But PrEP only works when we are given real access to it.

If trans folks are the most vulnerable population, and we don’t have trans competent doctors, we create barriers to access. If we arrest or institutionalize poor, Black young people for attempting to seek the care they need, we create barriers to access. And without access to take it, PrEP cannot work.

If we want young people to take PrEP, to get engaged in primary care, then we have to provide gender affirming services. We have to get rid of security guards and police in our healthcare clinics. We need to affirm young people’s consensual pleasures. We need more youth-only healthcare spaces, and insurance companies need to survive on something other than capitalism.

Last week at the exact same time that marriage equality passed in the United States, a vibrant, courageous, young trans person I work with was killed. This is crucial to note, because the successful advancement of policy does not equal the distribution of resources that are affirming, safe and accessible to all, especially those at the intersections of multiple oppressed and policed identities.

Ending HIV is bigger than policy, bigger than the healthcare system alone. It is about ending prisons and detention centers as the primary places people receive housing and healthcare. It is about centering trans leadership across movements and communities. It is about a commitment to strong social services, including public education, child care, and reproductive freedom. It is about the decriminalization of street economies, of sex work, of homelessness. It is about ending all forms of violence that treat Black, trans and queer communities as undeserving of love, of respect, of care.

There is a clear, continued pattern, a pattern in which healthcare policy and practices uplift folks who are already privileged to have access to more resources that lower their risk, and provide them more support. At the last several PrEP summits I’ve attended, researchers talk about the outstanding number of people lining up for PrEP, but say that they are rarely the folks most at risk for acquiring HIV.

The time to recognize the barriers and challenges facing young, Black, trans and queer youth and respond in ways that are supportive, humanizing, and focused on their voices, is now.

PrEP can help all of us get to zero, or it can merely help certain communities with access get to zero. It can ramp up care for the communities that have always been most impacted by the HIV virus, or it can further widen the gap in racial, economic, and gender disparities that continue to fuel the HIV epidemic.

Now is the time to decide to be on the right side or wrong side of justice. PrEP works, but only when we actively dismantle the barriers to young folks’ access to it.

Who Represents Us?: On Popular Culture and Social Justice

This was never the face of our movement.

This was never the face of our movement.

One of my least favorite situations to find myself in is at a party, a bar, or a club, cornered into a conversation about a pop song, a music video, a TV series, and its radical implications for social movements.

I dread these conversations.

I hate their jargony language and circular theory. I detest their pretense of inclusivity, when they regularly shun those without the vocabulary and training to participate in them. But what I really can’t stand is the immense power they place on corporate representations of our communities, over the actual people building movements, the people in the room, the people having the conversation.

How did so many straight, cis, light skinned, skinny, corporate-backed figures and the innocuous art generated (by teams of outside writers, producers and directors) under their names become the avatars for the revolutionary actions being taken by trans, queer, immigrant, Black and Brown feminist movements on the ground? Who has the power to build, and who benefits from, these peculiar connections?

My unwavering position in these conversations is this: Not only is pop culture at best a mere reflection of the hard work we, our neighbors, our family and friends are doing in real time, it is a reflection that is used intentionally to distract our activism and placate its demands.

We exist in an era where much of our activism’s values and perspectives are rooted in academia. We know this is not an accident. We know that for the last four decades, the state and private sector have worked tirelessly to gut labor, infiltrate radical political parties, and sate the transformational demands made by students, feminists, civil rights activists and oppressed communities everywhere through the specters of corporatized higher learning, and the nonprofit industrial complex. We know that, up until very recently, our community movements and their hard earned victories had been largely replaced by academic institutions and privately-funded non-government organizations.

The history of austerity and appropriation that got us here is beyond our control. What we are responsible for, however, is recognizing the values that come to us not only from outside of our community movements, but which were introduced purposefully to confuse our goals, and weaken the strength of our collective organizing.

In a moment like the present, when new and inspirational movements are springing up around the globe, we are in a unique position to return to the values of our communities, hijacked for so long by the academy and private sector, and rethink some of the skewed teachings we’ve been laboring under. Cultural critique is one of these values I believe is worth revisiting.

A core belief undergirding cultural critique as it is laid out by the academy is that the interrogation of media—often mainstream media—will reveal larger and more poignant truths about the social positions of the communities represented therein. While I don’t believe this basic premise is untrue, I think the degree to which it dominates conversation, theory and practice in many activist circles is detrimental. It not only limits our scope to the unending analysis of corporate media, but diverts our attention away from the violence, turmoil and resistance happening all around us in our own communities.

We can see how prioritizing this kind of interrogation can derail movement building in immediate and obvious ways—case in point, generating debate over the VMAs while austerity measures reach new extremes, and more Black women die in police custody. But there are still deeper ways this type of critique throws us off the path of genuine and ongoing movements for justice.

The most toxic effect of this approach is the false sense it creates that corporate-generated icons are actual representations of who we are. Instead of looking to our elders, our youth, our sisters, and each other to better understand the political realities we are navigating, we turn to mainstream media as the best barometer for the true state of our communities and movements.

This is incredibly beneficial for wealthy corporations and media conglomerates. It means they can quell dissent, influence opinion, evade accountability for reparations, all while not merely maintaining their wealth, but growing it on the backs of the struggles meant to challenge them. It means that we confuse projections of ourselves in mainstream media with our own personal empowerment, and are left hopeful for concrete political and economic shifts that aren’t coming. Our political energies become focused on the ways we are represented by giant companies, not the powers, rights and resources we lack in our daily lives. And when the very corporations denying us those rights produce a TV show about trans people, or give a Black actress a prestigious award, we are tricked into believing we are being honored, respected, listened to. We are tricked into thinking this is the mark of our movement’s success.

When we demand representation, inclusion, what are we asking for? Do we want to see more people that look like us on TV, or do we want our voices to be heard by a state that is working harder than ever to censor and discredit them? Were Grammys, Oscars or primetime television slots ever what our movements set out in search of? And how are we actually benefiting from their supposed achievement?

Of course mainstream representations of our communities have real impacts on the ways we are treated and understood. Of course having trans actors, Black women heroes, and queer love depicted on primetime television changes the visibility of those identities in ways that may make many of our lives easier. But those shifts come from our own communities first. Media are always working to catch up with the resistance oppressed people engage out of necessity. We need to stop crediting corporations for selling our own images back to us, stop looking to the mirror for answers to the questions of our safety, sovereignty and strength—especially when the forces behind that mirror are working so hard to deny us racial, political and economic justice, all while fetishizing fictitious versions of our lives.

We have got to stop kidding ourselves that Viacom and Time Warner are in the business of empowering Black women, celebrating diverse bodies, or fomenting social transformation of any kind. They are in the business of mass marketing, which means they will produce whatever is popular, whatever captivates the widest audience—and in a time like the present, that means addressing the issues that have been roiling beneath the surface of our communities for so long, the ones that organizers have forced into a national light through direct action.

No corporation is so foolish as to produce any media dangerous enough to provide the tools to its own undoing. When the social tide turns, so will the ways we are represented, and the allegiances of the conglomerates who take on that representation.

Using our struggles as a provocative backdrop is not the same as participating in them. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are not the leaders whose courageous actions have provided the ongoing battles of our people with new energy, new vision, and new direction. Alicia Garza, Jennicet Gutierrez, and the women, Black, Brown, poor, working, trans and queer members of our own immediate communities are.

Art, media and culture are important. They have the capability to sustain, unite, resist, educate, renew, and provide the outlets for imagining brilliant new futures for ourselves and our people. But we have got to start drawing the distinction between the art, media and culture that we create for ourselves, and those which are produced for our consumption by the parties who actively oppress us. We have got to recognize the difference between the voices and visions of our own communities, and the gimmicks that fool us into reinvesting into old systems, the very ones who ingeniously absorb and profit off the powerful cultural forms originally created to fight against them.

We might love a figment of popular culture, might connect to it deeply. It might very well be empowering, nurturing, even healing for us to see ourselves represented in media in ways that challenge the hateful depictions we are regularly forced to confront and absorb. But this doesn’t mean that media is for us. It doesn’t mean its goal is anything more than profit. The same networks that show us as heroes on a sitcom will paint us as villains on the news a few hours later. We are not doing each other or our movements any favors by entrenching ourselves in complex critiques that strengthen our allegiances to the corporate bodies that have to be dismantled for us to be free.

Ultimately, the question is what are we willing to leave behind as we move in the direction of liberation? Though we may find comfort in popular culture, what comforts do we need to let go of if our movements are to achieve their deepest goals?

Pop culture may provide real healing from the harsh world we are currently navigating. How do we learn to find that healing within ourselves and each other, from our own communities and their radical traditions of resistance, and not in the vestiges and byproducts of the systems that are trying to kill us?

Happening Now–#BlackOutPride Action Disrupts Chicago Pride Parade

Happening Now: Members of the Black queer community of Chicago are disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade. Here is their public statement:

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march's true history of resistance.

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march’s true history of resistance.

On this day in 1969, Sylvia Rivera, a Boricua trans woman, threw the bottle that sparked the infamous Stonewall Riot. A year later, she and Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, co-organized the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City to commemorate the queer upheaval against police violence, which toured the lower east side, ending strategically in front of the New York Women’s House of Detention.

By 1973, only three years after the first march in honor of Stonewall, organization of Pride events around the country were taken over largely by wealthy cisgender gays and lesbians, looking to transform the march that began in New York from political protest to an opportunity for mainstream visibility. That same year—coinciding with homosexuality being removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of Mental Disorders and Conditions—trans and gender non-conforming people saw themselves banned from parades and gatherings around the nation.

The birth of the Gay and Lesbian movement began with the banishing of those members of the queer community still unable to assimilate—the very same people whose direct actions in Compton’s Cafeteria, Cooper’s Donuts and Stonewall had sparked the movement.

We recount this history to remind ourselves not only that the root of our movement as queer people is the militant resistance of state violence in all its forms, but also that the Pride Parade as a tradition is built on the intentional silencing of the members of our community most impacted by that same violence—trans people, women, people with disabilities and mental illness, Black and Brown folk, indigenous people, immigrants, sex workers and street youth.

Today in Chicago, specifically in the Lakeview Neighborhood, young trans and queer people from around the city in search of a safe and affirming space find themselves constantly surveilled by police and local neighborhood watch organizations, profiled by business owners and wealthy residents. Blogs like Crime in Boystown vilify youth for engaging in survival trades, while organizations like the Center on Halsted invite police into their space to arrest, harass and surveil them.

Queer youth experiencing homelessness, and the plight of trans and queer communities of color, is not merely an issue of transphobia and homophobia in Black and Brown communities; It is equally about classism, racism, and gentrification. It is about the draconian measures of austerity that push our people onto the street, refuse us reentrance into real estate and the job market, and the police and prison systems which work together to ensure we stay locked out. Young, Black, Brown, Native, trans, poor, working, immigrant and disabled people are suffering because every system of governance in this country is geared to destroy us.

Today, Black trans and queer people and our allies are purposefully disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade.

We do so to honor our trans, queer, Black, Brown and Native ancestors. We do so because our people are dying at the hands of police, military and state-funded militias around the globe. We do so because we refuse to be tokenized by the same corporations that sponsor state violence, refuse a living wage and profit off our poverty. We do so because young queer people need a better outlet to celebrate themselves than a mire of consumption and sexual violence.

We are blocking the intersection of Addison and Halsted in the heart of Boystown, blocks away from the Center on Halsted, Whole Foods, Wrigley Field and the Addison CPD station. It is an intersection not just of major Chicago streets, but of corporate greed, private exploitation of queer communities, hyper policing, and ground zero for violence perpetrated against trans and queer young people by the city of Chicago.

We are inspired by Boston activists who recently protested the Pride Parade in their city. Acknowledging that we are only a small faction of the Black queer community in Chicago, and an even smaller faction of our Black queer family worldwide, we would like to present our goals in staging this action, and our suggestions for the future demands of our movement in Chicago and beyond:

  • End Stop and Frisk—We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and demand the permanent abolition of the racist police state. The queer community must call for an immediate end to racist policies that make trans and queer people of color into the targets of deadly state violence!
  • End the Policing of Trans and Queer Youth—It’s time young trans and queer people—especially those that are Black, Brown, undocumented and experiencing homelessness—be recognized as the leaders they are. We demand an end to the criminalizing of youth in our community for doing what they need to do to survive!
  • Reopen Schools and Mental Health Clinics—We demand the Emanuel administration be held accountable for the violence it continues to perpetrate against Black, Brown and working communities in the city of Chicago. Reopen all closed schools and mental health clinics—provide real resources to Black, Brown, disabled, mentally ill, homeless, queer and youth communities!
  • Trauma Center on the South Side—Until there is a real redistribution of resources in our city, we need support in dealing with the inevitable violence that is the result of poverty. We reject the Obama Presidential Library and call for a trauma center on the South Side now!
  • No New Police, No New Jails—As Black queers we stand in solidarity with all communities targeted by state violence, especially queer immigrant and undocumented communities. We support the abolition of detention centers, prisons and psych words. End deportations, raids and racist profiling! Stop funding police and jails, and provide our communities with real social services!
  • Demilitarize Around the Globe–We recognize that we are caught in a global economy driven at its core by militarism. The growing violence we face in our neighborhoods is the same violence faced by our people in Palestine, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere US colonialism profits off our blood. Demilitarize the police, divest from weapons manufacturers and prisons, and hands off our 1st Amendment rights!
  • End Corporate Exploitation of Our Community—We are tired of corporations using opportunities like Pride to market to us while they continue to thrive off our poverty. We stand in solidarity with the Fight for 15, and demand a living wage and the right to unionize for all poor and working people! We also demand that the largest Lakeview nonprofits—the Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halsted—provide the same to their entry level employees and other youth workers at the Broadway Youth Center, the Brown Elephant, and the Crib!
  • No More Wage Theft—In the Lakeview neighborhood, Taco Bell, Target and other chains regularly hire young trans and queer people to meet corporate quotas, then fire them within weeks, often without properly paying them. We demand justice in the form of jobs, fair wages, full benefits and the right to unionize!
  • Trans and Queer Shelters Now—Spaces like the Crib and the Broadway Youth Center provide important shelter for homeless youth, but they are not enough! Until there is an end to poverty and homelessness in our communities, we demand funding for existing services and investment in new ones, like Project Fierce!

We are vocally rejecting Pride as a desecration of our history of resistance. We call not for its transformation, but reinvestment in our own communities and legacies of struggle.

We cannot celebrate the passage of gay marriage, and predict that the next round of new laws will be about limiting the rights granted by marriage, especially for undocumented, trans, poor and working people. In order for us to be free, reproductive self-determination, citizenship, and relevant health care cannot be tethered to the approval of our relationships by a settler state. As our Black and Native ancestors have long understood, the state will not respect the myriad ways we find to love, grow, support and protect each other from its violence–no matter what papers we possess. It is our own consent, not the false consent of our oppressors, we seek as we move forward.

We do not wish to assimilate, because we cannot trust a social order so comfortable with inequity, so dependent on violence to maintain its own imbalance. Instead, we demand the shifts in power and resources that, though they may be small steps, represent movement in the direction of our own systems, our own spaces, our own visions for liberation.

Black Power. Trans Power. Queer Power. Undocumented Power. Street Youth Power. Sex Worker Power.

All Power to Our People!


Vogue Is Not For You: Deciding Whom We Give Our Art To

When visibility reveals itself to be exploitation, we don't have to condone it.

When visibility reveals itself to be apolitical exploitation, we don’t have to condone it.

I began voguing as a sixteen year old high school student.

Still struggling with what it meant to be gay and Black, learning of the ballroom scene both relieved me and ignited within me whole new passions. It had never occurred to me that I could be openly queer without sacrificing my Blackness. It had never occurred to me that whole communities, whole traditions, whole histories existed that were Black, queer, Brown, femme, trans, poor, working all at once. My original interest in vogue, therefore, grew from the deep desire to be all parts of myself authentically and simultaneously.

Learning to vogue was learning that the embodied knowledge of my multiple oppressed identities had always informed one another. Once I understood this within my own body, I learned to see it in my family, my community and the larger social structures that governed my life.

At least once a week, someone sends me an article or video of voguing appearing on a European runway, in an upscale art gallery, or a new music video by a pop artist, and asks me what I think. The inquiry always revolves around the ethical use of vogue: Were the dancers named and given credit? Did the artist properly compensate the voguers she worked with? Who is in the audience consuming the dance form? Ultimately, the question is, can voguing be appropriately appropriated?

My answer is always the same: No, it can’t. Appropriation is always a form of coercion, and that coercion is born out of white supremacy. Here is what I mean:

There is a deep history of white supremacy in the ballroom scene. Much of it was controversially documented in the cult classic Paris Is Burning. The film’s thesis is ultimately that trans/queer people of color are doomed to their own depraved outsiderness, and while their yearning for acceptance by the mainstream is futile, it is, at least, flashy. While the movie itself is a white supremacist document (and its conclusions about the ballroom scene tainted by its white cis director), its very existence uncovers something real: There is a real issue of our community finding its value in its consumption by other, more privileged communities.

Vogue is blowing up in new ways in European dance studios, in suburban recreational centers, in movies and music videos. As has long been the case, voguers often don’t see themselves as successful, don’t feel they can be taken seriously as dancers until they are able to teach, perform or be featured on one of these platforms. The internalized message is clear: Voguing at a ball is the starting point, but voguing for the elite is the mark of success.

This mentality results in the disinvestment in poor and working queer communities for the sake of teaching vogue in spaces that never created or shaped it, but that are fascinated by it, and have the resources to consume it. Instead of expert voguers taking pride in passing on their knowledge to the young oppressed people most in need of it, new generations of our community are abandoned for the notoriety of white, wealthy, straight, cis patronage. Opportunities for mentorship, empowerment and intergenerational solidarity are lost, and the alternative only serves to further make the plight of our communities invisible—obscuring homelessness, poverty, state violence and police brutality behind the glossy sheen of commercial spectacle.

And yes, even when artists of color appropriate our art form, white supremacy is still at play. Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Lil Mama, and FKA Twigs have as much to do with our exploitation as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennie Livingston. For philosophy aside, our cultural cameos in these (corporate) artists’ work have done nothing—do nothing—to illuminate our histories of struggle, nor to combat the structures that generate our need for resistance in the first place. Cis people, straight people, wealthy people, even those who share some of our other oppressed identities, still desecrate our art and our community when they objectify our aesthetic, without taking on accountability for the ways they benefit from the violence we face at the hands of the systems that are cutting their checks.

Because there is such a long and well-documented history of the appropriation of vogue, it is one I do my best to take a hard line in discontinuing. I will not teach voguing to professional dancers, to companies who want to use it to make choreography. I will not teach it in white spaces, in wealthy spaces, in spaces that are not queer-controlled and affirming. My conviction for taking this stance is this:

Voguing belongs to queer people of color—specifically trans, poor, working, sex-working, homeless and young queer people of color. We created it, we need to be the ones dancing it, and we need to be the ones protecting it. In a society that is constantly limiting our access to housing, education, land and resources of all types, it is laughable that the privileged find such discomfort in our limiting their access to our bodies, traditions and genius. Anyone who objects to being told they can’t vogue needs to first ask themselves how they are impacted by the systems that result in the daily deaths of queer people of color, and what they are doing to combat our institutional disenfranchisement.

I currently work at a drop-in center for homeless trans and queer youth. Voguing is part of our everyday routine. Every day I watch young queer people use it to resolve disputes, lift their spirits when they’re feeling defeated, affirm their bodies, build their confidence and shape themselves as artists, teachers and leaders in their community. There is nothing more powerful to witness, and no better use of the form I can think of.

I am blessed to be able to co-teach voguing workshops at this same drop-in center. The guidelines that ground the philosophy and values of our workshops, and which we try our hardest to incorporate into every new session, are these:

We have knowledge – Our lived experiences as Black, Brown, poor, working, homeless, immigrant, sex-working, trans and queer people have taught us skills, given us knowledge that no one else can claim, no matter how much they study or read about us.

We have the right to share our knowledge with each other – Our wisdom is real and valid, and we are the deserving recipients of each other’s learned knowledge. The truths we posses don’t become valuable when those from outside our community take an interest in them. They are valuable because they come from us!

Our needs change – The conditions we need to share our knowledge—like the conditions we need to live full lives—change as we change. Our learning space, our communities and our movements need the flexibility to change as we do. We are the ones who will determine when, where and how those changes occur.

We are experts – We are the voices that need to be heard, and we are the ones most in need of hearing them. No one understands queerness, transness, homelessness more deeply than we do. No one is better prepared to teach us how to survive than we are. No one can come up with a more vivid vision for the future of our community than we can.

Our history is now – We are agents of change! We are the shapers of our community’s future! This realization teaches us to build our communities on trust, generosity and affirmation, and to act with the knowledge that future generations of our people depend on us!

The point of all this is that voguing is a tool we created, not merely for expression, but for organizing, empowering, surviving the daily violence of a white supremacist society. This tool will never mean the same thing, can never serve the same purpose for those who do not share our same need for survival.

The benign belief that crossing boundaries always promotes diversity, that sharing space and culture results in sharing privileges and resources, needs to be finally debunked. For this same soft rhetoric is destroying Black and Brown communities, forcing people out onto the street and filling up prisons. The truth is that when the powerful cross boarders, the flow tends to be unilateral. When the wealthy lay hands on our culture, the outcome is our displacement, not our inclusion. The endpoint is the depoliticizing of our most sacred sources of resistance, which only benefits those who seek to quell our demands for change.

The best way to support our community, to show us love, is to give us room to affirm ourselves and each other, and to share our wisdom with those who really need it. It is to fight alongside us the systems that deny us our basic rights and resources—heterosexism, transphobia, prisons, policing, gentrification—not robbing us further in the name of visibility and tolerance.

Special thanks to NIC Kay.

Feeling Is Not Weakness: Sadness, Mourning and Movement

As we build our collective strength, how can we also allow ourselves to be vulnerable?

As we build our collective strength, how do we also allow ourselves to be vulnerable?

Many of the movements now happening on a global scale—but particularly the ones here in the US—represent political shifts I’ve been hoping for for as long as I can remember. Given this, it’s hard to understand why I’ve been so sad the past few months.

Part of the sadness is mourning. Each day there are new names of trans women, teenagers, queer folks, fathers, mothers, babies who have been murdered by police, or absorbed by prisons. I am hearing their stories, witnessing the revolting details in videos, filled with their relentlessly violent themes. I am mourning the loss of their voices, their wisdom, their light. I am grieving for their families, our family. I am mourning for the lives of young oppressed people, the violence they face or will be facing too soon.

But another part of the sadness runs out of a different place. It comes from the confrontation of a political reality that, in truth, is easier to ignore.

Many of us are able to get up in the morning, survive our daily lives, because we don’t examine our oppression head-on—at least not consistently. We know we cannot allow ourselves to feel the constant rage and pain we deserve to feel. It’s not sustainable. Yet, the emerging of a movement means, precisely, confrontation. It creates numerous outlets for the expression of that rage and pain. This, in turn, means we live in the midst of our own violent reality in ways we might otherwise intentionally avoid.

As a person of color who has long existed in white, middle-class spaces, I’m used to having to explain my perspectives as an oppressed person ad nauseam, and used to having them dismissed. I’m used to being condescended to by people who have never experienced my hardships, told that I am too young to speak to the historical realities of my own people. Yet even as current organizing blows the lid off white complacency, proving the tired claims of Black and Brown communities, and even as members of my own community awaken to the true state and purpose of policing in this country, a small and strange part of myself has been revealed. It is a small, strange and sad part of myself that wishes they were right, wishes I was exaggerating, wishes I had fabricated everything. The vindication of years of my own imploring and arguing has not left me feeling justified or empowered, but sad. I am sad to be right, sad that our reality is as horrific as I have always sensed it to be. Ironically, the vision I have a long urged others to see is suddenly one from which I wish I could turn away.

Indeed, yet another layer of my sadness is a true reckoning of just what the social, political and economic reality of Black and Brown people in this country is. While the uprisings from Ferguson to Baltimore have initiated some into conversations around state violence and modern apartheid, for those of us who live it on a daily basis, current movements for justice have revealed to us that our violent experiences are not localized, not isolated. Instead of simply having stories about our families, our friends, our own run-ins with the law, there is suddenly (inter)national documentation of just how often we are harassed, imprisoned, killed, and how often the state is getting away with it. Our anecdotal evidence—while compelling for our own lives—is suddenly–and jarringly being placed in a global context, and the sheer numbers of lost lives paints a picture that in some ways is grimmer than one which only encompasses our block, our neighborhood, or our city.

It is sad to realize it’s not one officer, one department. It’s sad to realize there is an entire network designed to harm us, and protect those who do harm. It is depressing to realize how formidable the giant of empire is.

And then my sadness is compounded with guilt. I am guilty for being sad. Sadness feels weak. I know in my head that the point of talking-head propaganda, the point of state murder, of police acquittals, of harassment and imprisonment is demoralization. I feel guilty for being demoralized. I should be angry. I should be fiery with unquenchable passion. I should be as relentless as the state. If I am sad, the state has won. If I am sad, the fight is over.

This is what, most recently, I am trying to remind myself: Humanness is not weakness. It is not a new realization, but one I have been giving myself new permission to inhabit. Feeling, though it may make me vulnerable, does not make me weak. Mourning is what I should do when people I love are taken from me. Experiencing hurt around the painful realities my people and I face is more than understandable; It shows that I have not given in, not accepted the current, violent reality, not forfeited the belief in my own value.

The same qualities that make the state overwhelming are the ones that, in fact, make it weak. An unfeeling devotion to profit, to the grotesque amassing of resources, at the expense of community, people and planet, is not strength. There is, in fact, nothing sadder than believing in the sacrifice of life for material, control, and power. The most intense violence—which we are seeing ramp up—the intentional erasure of history, the use of militaristic force, solitary confinement, the reneging of basic rights, assault, abuse, will never stop our communities from feeling. It will never end our love for our own lives, for the lives of our ancestors, for the lives of our children. It will never dissuade us from fighting back.

My sadness proves my love, and my love proves that I am driven by profound spiritual bonds to my people—past, present and yet to come. And just as it is unsustainable for us to ignore violence, ignore the political reality of our oppression, it is as equally unsustainable to pretend it has not affected us, is not affecting us. Being affected does not imply weakness. Rather, it implies the presence of all the qualities the state does not possess, all the qualities that make struggle worthwhile, and make the realizing of justice the more sweepingly beautiful.

Pretending I am not sad, hiding my sadness, will not make me stronger. Suppressing my true self, denying the fear and rage that surround loss, is what in the long run will weaken me. When we talk of self-care, self-preservation, we need to talk not just about overcoming our feelings of grief, but allowing them, making room for them. We need to talk about movement building that allows us to feel, in all the different ways that may come, and does not expect us to erase or bottle up our sadness in the name of organizing, leadership or activism.

Let us not push forward so decidedly that we do not stop to mourn. It’s okay to grieve for our lost, for ourselves, for our families, for our ancestors. Let that grief be a part of the movement building process for which we allow hallowed space, and let it build within us the compassion that propels us into new battles.

On Going Viral: What the Movement Still Teaches, What the Movement Still Needs

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Ethiopian Israelis protesting occupation and police brutality this past weekend.

Last week an article on my blog addressing militancy and the uprisings in Baltimore was shared more times in 24 hours than most things on my blog have been shared in years. It struck a chord I had not predicted, and challenged the poisonous narratives that were dominating the airwaves last weekend.

Afterward, I got death threats. I got called a nigger, and a few conservative sites found my Facebook profile and reposted pictures of my image. Fox News called for an interview, as did the Huffington Post and several radio shows. I declined most of these offers, not only because I didn’t trust the goals of the outlets, but because centering my voice was not the point.

“…A riot is the language of the unheard,” many were surprised to learn Martin Luther King, Jr. said famously over Black riots in 1968, after being encouraged by media to calm protesters. Perhaps even more poignantly, James Baldwin stated in an interview with Esquire that same year, “…If the American Negro…is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something. If they don’t give it up, it will be taken from them.”

Some objectors to my argument made cliche appeals: “Both sides need to be held accountable,” or, “violence only begets more violence.” Many revealed they had not actually read the piece, or at least not carefully.

Virulent responses to the word “racist” to describe those criticizing the riots made it once again evident that racist is still seen as the worst insult one can call another in this country, when it shouldn’t be. We are all products of a racist society, all say and do racist things regularly. The only way to actually end racism is learning to recognize it in all its forms, to name it in ourselves and others, not for the sake of shaming individuals but for accepting responsibility for our own roles in its perpetuation.

Let us once again be clear: If we oppose violence, then we must oppose all forms of policing. If we oppose violence then we must call for an end to war, an end to occupation. We must oppose sexual assault, and prisons as institutions which wield it as a strategic tool. If we abhor violence to bodies, families, communities, then we should abhor all these systems and call for their immediate abolition. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said so perfectly, “When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con.”

Other writers challenged some of my views in important ways—not by defaming rioters, but by acknowledging that rioting is rarely something than can be planned, controlled. Understanding riots, militant uprisings, as emotional reactions to extreme trauma as much as political demonstrations was an important point of reevaluation for myself, one I feel I am still learning about from other writers, community members and activists.

My heart is heavy at the end of this week over the indictments of six officers in Freddie Gray’s case, not because I do not believe in individual accountability, but because I, too, believe that violence begets more violence. As a movement, we cannot celebrate indictments for any crime. If we seek to end racist policing, we must seek the end of all policing, all incarceration. We have got to comprehend this once and for all. When we call out the violence in some of the state’s representatives while heralding others as our heroes, we are falling for its tricks. We are reinvesting in its authority, which means we are fortifying our own ultimate subjugation. Instead of invoking the names of our dead to call for more imprisonment, we need to tell their stories in service of demilitarizing, decriminalizing and freeing our communities from the prison system forever.

Some—in most cases conservatives and policing advocates who had not actually read my article or fully grasped it—tried to make the issue about me this week. It didn’t work, because the issue is not about me, just as it is not about individual police officers, the State’s Attorney, or individual slain Black people.

A movement cannot be about one voice. It is never led by one leader. The moment we are in inspires me so deeply because there are innumerable leaders. At the forefront are women, queers and young people of color. We are genius, we are loud, and we are tirelessly action-oriented.

There are too many of us to imprison, too many of us to arrest. There are too many of us to censor, to smother with senseless soundbites, to demoralize with propaganda. There are too many of us to intimidate with the very violence our movement seeks to eradicate.

Don’t let them make you forget that.