The Leaders of Black Lives Matter Showed Me That I Could Be Black, Queer, and Fearless
The idea that black social movements tend to be led only by male leaders of African-American churches is being left in the past.
Back in 2014, during the height of protests over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the US, I was at a gathering of 300 campaigners and activists in London. We had been following closely the nights of civil disobedience that had birthed a new era of black struggle. Reverend Osagyefo Sekou addressed this conference from Ferguson via video-link. As a clergymen involved in civil rights campaigning, Rev. Sekou can't help but remind you of the mid-20th century preachers and men of God who lead the fight against segregation and racial hatred in America.
Until recently, leadership within black social movements has been associated with these male leaders of African-American churches. But Black Lives Matter may have moved us away from that narrow view.
"This moment is black, young, women-led, and queer. As Tef Poe says, this isn't your mama or daddy's civil rights movement. It just looks different." Rev. Sekou used these words to address the question of women's role in the Ferguson protests. He is a 45-year-old pastor from St. Louis, Missouri—not the sort of person who immediately springs to mind when most imagine an advocate for queer and trans people. That might be because he is a Christian, but it's also simply because he is black.
Despite evidence like the 2012 special Gallop report which found people of color in the US were more likely than their white counterparts to identify as LGBT, blackness remains associated with prejudice towards those with marginalized gender and sexual identities. Often we are taught to assume that white communities are just more progressive than any other when it comes to such matters.
So, Rev. Sekou was dispelling myths of exceptional hostility towards queer people from communities of color and at the same time trying to convey that voices like his were no longer the only ones prioritized in anti-racist movements.
As Black people who identify as queer will be the first to say, homophobia and transphobia do exist in our communities. It is doubly painful when racism within the wider LGBT population has left you alienated and questions still remain as to whether you will be accepted amongst other people of color. Having grown up in a religious household (within a much wider religious community) where there seemed to be no room to breathe when it came to my gender or sexuality, these concerns played on my own mind regularly. Mostly this was because relatable queer and trans people of color, who looked liked me and experienced struggles similar to those I did, weren't available.
So last October when I traveled with a group of anti-racist activists from Britain, including the family members of people who had died in police custody here, the opportunity to meet those young, black women and queer leaders in the movement would prove transformative. What I already knew intellectually about the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality would finally be affirmed in meeting some of the most powerful people I have had the pleasure to know.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is one of three women who started the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and began a movement around it at a moment of crisis in the US. She has spoken publicly about her early experiences of leaving home at 16 as a young queer woman. Meeting her in Oakland as she explained the significance of Oscar Grant Plaza—why it had been named after the young man who's life was taken by a police officer in the early hours of New Year's Day 2009—it was clear to see that as someone with such dedication to uplifting the struggles of marginalized people, her own identity had to be central to that effort. It is no accident that Khan-Cullors and her co-founders are queer and working class, as well as black. These experiences led directly to finding value in their own lives, as well as call for the lives of their community as a whole to have value, too.
With the rest of the Caravan for Justice I traveled between communities all over California, holding rallies and speaking about the loss of life caused by police and state violence that was commonly experienced in our two countries. All the while I saw Khan-Cullors work as a visibly queer woman, unafraid of highlighting that part of her identity, within all of these communities of color. Some were religious, others included elders. But at no point did I see anything but care and respect between all those involved. There was an understanding that fundamentally we were all committed to protecting one another's lives.
As we made our way to Orange County, Patrisse's partner joined the trip. Janaya Khan co-founded Black Lives Matter Toronto and had been working in both Canada and the US as part of the movement. Just like Patrisse, Janaya was unashamedly queer, trans, and using gender-neutral pronouns. We shared similar backgrounds, family situations, and despite our size differences, we looked similar enough to be confused for siblings. Khan has also worked hard at being an incredibly gifted orator, with a unique ability to light a fire under audiences, spurring them into action. It was getting to know Khan in particular that highlighted, and allowed me to accept in a very personal way, that it was possible to be black, trans, and fearless. Unknowingly they even spurred me into beginning to come out as a non-binary trans person myself.
Resistance to the existence of people with marginalized gender and sexual identities can be found in communities of color, just as it can be found in white communities. Yet the biggest movement for racial justice in a generation sees queer people at its very forefront. "Pink-washing" whiteness by pretending other racial groups aren't capable of addressing issues like homophobia and transphobia is no longer a tenable narrative. As much as Black Lives Matter is doing great work to end racism, it is also leading force in making queerness visible and defendable.
I saw first hand that from these campaigners that my life mattered: as black and queer.
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