Browse Category: The Political, Personalized

On Anti-Bullying Campaigns, LGBT Youth of Color Suicide, and Why I Never Supported Spirit Day

I didn’t sign into Facebook that morning. I knew what I’d see; a timeline of status updates and cropped purple photos for Spirit Day; a timely performance of empathy. I knew, too, that my Facebook feed, practically segmented into Lists, including one for “Nigerian”, “College” and “Queer” would vary in hue, with barely any purple love coming from the Nigerian feed, and my white, queer, progressive community in Boston leading the way. I wanted to have nothing to do with it. And I needed to clear my head. So, I got dressed, grabbed my gym bag and headed out.

The train ride on the way to the gym was the worst. I remember being sandwiched between two white women, both wearing varying shades of purple; one, a neck scarf, the other a hat. As I sat squished between them, one fiddled away with her smartphone while the other scanned the Metro paper, her nose slightly tilted upwards as she peered at the headlines through her glasses. I wondered how I could sit so uncomfortably between symbols of awareness and still feel so invisible. I wondered if they could tell from my baggy jeans, hoodie, and messy frohawk that I used to be one of the kids they were supposed to be supporting that day; that I still remembered the night I tried to take my own life like it was yesterday; that, even as an adult, it was still hard to talk about bullying, both aggressive and the silent kind from my family, without crying.

My eyes glided along the line of people sitting in front of me: purple, no purple, no purple, purple, purple. Which of the purples would look up and notice me? I lowered my head, and turned up the volume of my ipod. I remember the song: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’Naan. “When I get older, I will be stronger, they’ll call me freedom, just like a wavin’ flag.” I shut my eyes and counted the number of times the train doors opened as I anticipated my stop.

When I stepped in the gym, I sighed a breath of relief. No signs of purple. Just the same older white lady walking steeply up a treadmill, swinging ponytails on the elliptical machines, and a muscular black guy getting in his warm-up run before hitting the weights. I headed downstairs to the basement–the unspoken “men’s area” of the gym– where grunting and clanking bar weights replaced the soundtrack of the morning TV upstairs. I preferred this part of the gym; the men didn’t stare at me for quite as long as the white women did upstairs; muscular black girl, or something. Maybe she’s an athlete. Why aren’t her legs shaved?

During my workout, I’d tried to drown out thoughts about my time at school with angst-filled music (Linkin Park, Eminem, Kelis), but my mind had kept going back to the sensationalism of Spirit Day, how futile it was that everyone would be wearing purple. How would any of this support young people? What would any of this have meant for me when I felt judged and ostracized in school.

I’d been the only girl in my computer science class; no one had reached out to me when they picked group members to tackle problem sets with; the black women’s student group hosted more discussions about “Black Men Dating White Women” and “How to Date Like a Good Christian” than they did anything else; and when I sought support, my racist academic adviser told me she felt I was using my “status as a minority student” and “gay issues” to avoid admitting that I wasn’t smart enough to be at MIT; meanwhile the GSA was filled with queer white students from the theater department, who didn’t understand I had to work on weekends. What good would a campus of purple outfits have done for me then? It was I who had felt invisible, then, and today.

I felt the strain of the weights and my memories weighing me down as I finished my last set, and decided to call it quits for the morning. I grabbed a towel and headed for the locker room, not the men’s one this time. I could never get away with that, not yet. By the lockers, I braced myself for the eyes that would question my presence until they noticed my breasts. Then decided to change in the furthest corner of the room, away from the possibility of interacting with anyone.

As I untied my shoelaces, two white women chatted about an upcoming second date after work. “We probably won’t spend too long at dinner, I told him we had to meet up with the party at 9 for the surprise.” Life for others always seemed so easy, so straight-forward. Even though I’d been living with my girlfriend of two years, she still hadn’t met all of my friends, especially the black girls who claimed to be “cool with it” but never asked about our relationship, or pried too deeply into any part of my personal life for fear of having to feign acceptance via nodding vigorously to everything I said, never uttering a word until I changed the subject. My parents were really good at this. I dreaded pleasant phone calls, intimate conversations filled with sharp silences that pierced my resolve.

The locker room had gone quiet, save for another black girl with shoulder-length pressed hair getting dressed across the room. As I jammed sweaty clothes into my gym bag, my chest tightened with anxiety at heading back out into the world, purple reminders of the silences that had left me feeling ashamed, invisible, and one night, without any hope that I thought it would be easier if I swallowed some pills and left my journals behind for solace, that it wasn’t anyone’s fault, but mine; that it had become too hard to persist through the world surrounded by so much silence.

I’d been drowning in my thoughts, fighting with the tension I felt between wanting to have a normal day and not focusing so much on the emotions triggered by what the day meant. But then, something special happened. As I began to make my way towards the entrance, I noticed the black girl was now fully dressed, in black pants, a gray jacket, and underneath, a bright purple sweater. She’d caught my gaze, but before I could awkwardly take my eyes away – an instinctive reaction I’d developed after hearing one too many black women profess being uncomfortable around “women like me” (especially in locker rooms), she did something completely unexpected, she smiled at me.

She smiled at me. Me with my awkward, scruffy masculinity in the locker room. Me who’d never imagined that the weight I carried in silences from the diaspora communities I’d once called “home” could be lifted in a simple gesture; a smile that meant I’d been seen.

I smiled back, shyly. Perhaps a tad too widely, as her warmth had caught me off guard, before leaving the locker room. When I stepped outside, I saw purple everywhere, and realized that I was still smiling. All of a sudden, it made sense. What I’d needed during all those times I’d felt bullied and ostracized, wasn’t just a campaign against bullying, but a group of people saying out loud that it was okay to be me; what I needed to believe the night I tried to take my own life, was that it was possible for the communities I loved to see me, and still extend love.

Now, standing under the sun, searching for purple in strangers, the tension I’d been carrying all day melted away. And, in its place, came hope. I thought about the thousands of young people walking through hallways, their heads down out of habit, only to look up and see someone smiling at them. I thought about the assumptions I’d made about the men at the gym, grunting and puffing as they curled 50 pound dumbbells; perhaps they felt invisible as well. I hoped they’d be comforted by the smiles around them. I thought about how much just one smile had meant to me that morning, and how much more it would mean to youth of color all across the country, if they saw so many other older people of color proudly wearing purple as a stand against anti-LGBT bullying, as a stand for Love. I thought of myself, as a masculine of center woman of color, and what my wearing purple could mean to the younger, awkward, lonely version of me.

When GLAAD announced their campaign for Spirit Day that first year, I admit it; I was a cynic. I was part of the group of people that dismissed it as a bandwagon campaign run by white people that didn’t get the complexities faced by LGBT people of color shouldering multiple burdens—as a person of color facing racism from the gay community, and homophobia from our own families and communities. But after my experience at the gym that day; I see both the importance of being seen and being visible.

If you’re anything like me, a campaign to stand against anti-LGBT bullying may not resonate as deeply with you, but I’m hoping that a day dedicated to making sure LGBT youth from all cultural backgrounds know that they have allies in their own community will.

As an attempted suicide survivor, I don’t need a campaign to remind me to fight every day for queer youth. LGBTI Africa, Queer Diaspora, I shine so that you can. Even when you are most doubtful, when you cannot see the light ahead, remember this: You are never alone. Never. I made it. You will too. Stay believing. I love you. Happy Spirit Day. ~Spectra

 

Response to “An End to Self Care”: How About “An End to the Activist Martyr Complex?”

An articled called, An End to Self Carewas recently published on Organizing Upgrade, in which an activist proposed bringing an end to the individualism behind “self-care” and, instead, called for community care.

The author, B. Loewe, made his point about not privileging the self over the group (part of which I agree with to some degree), he even cited women of color such as Audre Lorde (who said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”).

Yet, despite several points that resonated, a few of which a friend of his outlined here, B. Loewe’s response, along with the many thumbs up he got for writing that piece, also reminded me why I’ve made it a point to stay away from activist spaces; why the spaces in which I once found affinity ended up becoming one of the biggest threats to my mental health.

After a day of being repeatedly triggered and pissed off by the callous debate surrounding B. Loewe’s article, I needed to get this off my chest. So, here’s my emotionally drained, sleepy, and over it response. Forgive the free-form. I originally posted this as a semi-rant on Tumblr.

The Martyr Complex Driving Self Care Critics (and Response to The Article, “An End to Self Care“) 

I have a hunch that tells me: the degree of individualism put into one’s self care practice may correspond to the degree with which they are responsible for others (and how many).

I’m an activist and community organizer, a small scale public figure if we must. My work, life, nearly everything is about giving to others, uplifting others, nourishing others. Because of this, I’ve been forced to build self care into my daily routine, my natural rhythm (which is actually a good thing — everyone should), otherwise I’ll run out of battery.

Self care, for me, isn’t a trip to the beach, or an expensive yoga retreat; it’s getting 7 vs. 5 hours of sleep on a good day; it’s eating at least 2 meals a day, when I can afford the time (and expense); it’s time spent with an inner circle of close friends and confidants who don’t know me as “Spectra who writes”, but the introverted lightweight. Self care, for me, isn’t a luxury by any means; it is a basic need, a necessary part of my being.

Yet, despite these realities, the question people have been asking for the past few days is this: Is Self Care Individualist Or Revolutionary?

On the rare occasion that I need a day off, and can actually afford to take one (note: I work for myself, I don’t get a steady paycheck that makes me forget that I have the privilege of prioritizing my job –er, I mean–community care– over my mental health), I should be able to take a day off. But I often cannot.

An hour nap turns into an hour obsessing over what things I “really” need to do for others, because activist spaces have made it okay to model their “transformational spaces” after a non-sustainable, unhealthy system of “accountability” that not only guilt trips people into feeling bad about having to tend to their recovery, or their lower capacity due to disability, but literally whips them back to work under the falsehood of promised rejuvenation “if done right.” No. This is not okay.

I feel no different when I read posts like these than I did when I was working as a consultant in corporate america and the boss would send me emails on my “sick days” asking if I’d gotten a chance to review those documents, because, you know, above all, we gotta make sure we think of the company…. Last I checked, activists in the non-profit industry were accusing corporations of being greed, exploitative, blood-sucking a**holes who didn’t care about “people”, just “money.” I’m ashamed to say that after years of working with people in the non-profit industry, there’s not that much difference; just replace money with “self-righteous political agendas.”

To be completely honest, when I think about the times when I’ve been at my lowest and most strained, it’s been due to other activist guilt-tripping me into over-extending myself for some agenda I don’t even remember signing up for.

I’m lucky that I’ve been able to find others like myself, who believe just as much in caring for their communities as they do taking care of themselves, not necessarily as interdependent ideologies, but because — dare I say it — it’s possible to want to improve the world and have other interests that are not necessarily connected, including your own dreams, ambitions, peace of mind. God forbid the word “self” ever finds its way into the mouth of an activist. God forbid we actually practice the “self-love” slogans we slap on so many protest signs.

I could go on and on about this, but, for me, the bottom line is this: People should be able to take a day off without having to justify to themselves or anyone else for that matter, why they’re doing it.

Yes, there are self-absorbed, privileged people in the world that have commercialized real survival tactics (eg. self-care practices like mine just so I can be at level ZERO) and throw the term around just to get out of responsibilities, or because it’s so indie and “cool” to “take a day.” But selfcare for me, and so many others, comes from a real legitimate need. And I won’t submit to the idea that I should only ever advocate for self-care using the “acceptable martyr” complex prevalent in so many self-righteous activist spaces  i.e. “it’s not just for me, but for the community.” Bullshit.

I’ve lived with depression my entire life; I know for a fact that my default “level” is not as high as someone who doesn’t have to worry about their hormonal imbalances; I need to be militant about taking care of myself or I simply will not be able to function as a human being, period; not just as an activist. So anyone calling for an end to self-care, especially if it’s accompanied with an “unless it’s for the community” clause, clearly doesn’t give a rip about me, or anyone else that doesn’t fit into their superhero archetype.

But martyrdom, and disabilities aside; I’m an activist that has paid her dues. I’ve sweat and toiled over the communities I love for years, for nothing in return, simply because, I have love for my people. But I have love for me, too. So the idea that I don’t get to give myself a day when I need to, for none other than, I want to, quite honestly pisses me off.

If I need a day to regroup so that I don’t burn out, collapse, or get to a point where I’m no longer functional as a partner to my spouse, to my siblings, my parents, to my dog, or as the arbiter of my own dreams and aspirations,  then I need a day, period. I make no bloody apologies for wanting to survive through my militant compassion for the world.

Celebrate LGBTI Africa’s Pride Everyday (and Everywhere, Not Just Uganda)

Uganda’s first gay pride has been hailed as a milestone of achievement for LGBT Africa. 

We often hear about African LGBTI people being persecuted by their governments, and in addition, being raped, murdered, and socially-ostracized from their communities. Their infantalization in the media is evident via the plethora of news reports that have essentially chronicled the queer African movement as mainly a series of violent acts, political debates, and perceivably (at least to the west) rare moments of triumph.

But is there ever triumph without steadfast resistance? More importantly, what exactly is triumph to queer African people whose lives and humanity exist in the every day, and not just within the 5 minute scan of the latest sensationalized news story?

How often do we hear stories about two African lesbians falling in love, not as part of a political debate, but as idle banter over fish and chips? When was the last time we heard about a group of LGBT Africans partying just because — and not necessarily tied to a social cause?

When people think about queer African people, how often do they imagine them as happy, empowered, and even ordinary? Can we really only picture their liberation as a photo of a scantily clad African man wearing a fusion of traditional garb and rainbow colors, an imported western symbol of gay pride?

Given the viral sharing of the photo of gay Africans participating in their first gay pride in Uganda (a country described by BBC as “the worst place to be gay”), my guess is that the west has succeeded in painting the faces of LGBT Africans as sad, helpless victims by default, rendering testaments to the opposite surprising, an exception that warrants mass (international) celebration.

Make no mistake. I am thrilled beyond words for my brothers and sisters in Uganda. Given all what they have faced these past few years — from that dreadful “Kill Bill” to the loss of an endeared community leader and activist, David Kato, and even amidst their pride celebration, harassment and arrests by the police – the images of Uganda hosting their first pride backed by a group of happy kuchus is undeniably a powerful symbol of hope.

As Sokari Eine writes on her blog, “If Ugandan Kuchus could march through the streets then so could we all – Nigerians, Liberians, Cameroonians and well the whole continent.” No matter the politics of pride (or even the looming threat of US imperialism through the western foundations that support them), big acts such as the Uganda pride festival are an important part of Queer African history, and thus, worth documenting.

However, during my short time in Cape Town, South Africa, which I’ve spent almost exclusively with individuals from the LGBT community, I’ve seen other remarkable acts worth celebrating.

Nearly every day, I have been reminded of the power of the mundane acts we each take towards our own fulfillment: discussions about family and coming out with my Zimbabwean host, invoking both tears and laughter over Buchu tea; an eruption of giggles by an aspiring human rights lawyer after her girlfriend whispers something in her ear; the silence of a crowd of black South African lesbians as a passionate feminist poet spits truth about the impact of corrective rape on young girls.

I have witnessed the daily grind of empowerment of black South African lesbians, watched them sink and wade through the cultural stigma that surrounds them like a mist, clouding the world’s perception of their lives as ordinarily human. Thus, I have come to re-affirm my belief that we must also celebrate our proud perseverance, our steady survival, just as fervently as we do big, bold acts of bravery. 

For those of us who have chosen media as our battlefield, it can be easy to forget that LGBTI Africans don’t just live online, or on the streets, for that matter, holding up cardboard signs in perpetual protest; they occupy small apartments with leaky faucets, the residence halls of liberal arts colleges where they hope to launch their careers, and small bungalows in the impoverished rural townships.

Their “pride” may not come in bright rainbow colors, but in the dull pastels of pink and blue collared shirts that call them “lady” when they wish to be “sir”, the dusty brown of their sneakers after practice with teammates that call each other “fag” in jest. Their “pride” will not be heard in the deafening blow of a bullhorn, nor from a platform or podium, but in the awkward silence that follows when they reveal themselves to the people they love, and amidst the painful sighs they let out when they are alone.

I have come to deeply appreciate activists who often have no time to engage in sensationalized international discourse, because they are too busy doing the heavy lifting that comes with supporting LGBTI Africans living in rural townships. I  have come to honor the “others” who don’t call themselves activists–the every day queer African with financial commitments, awkward first dates, the pursuit of lucrative careers to sustain their families, and who despite all odds, wake up every day and renew their determination to keep living.

Unfortunately, many of these small, every day “triumphs” hardly ever get the attention they deserve. Perhaps part of this has to do with the tendency of western countries like the U.S. (who are operating from a different cultural and legislative framework) to re-tell and shape our stories and, in so doing, suggest which parts are worthy of global applause. Or, perhaps many of us are too deep in the trenches to reflect upon our work (and our lives) long enough to view them as achievements in the larger context. In any case, I believe it is time LGBTI Africans begin chronicling our failures and successes as we define them, and more importantly, fill in the spaces in between the bigger milestones, with our voices, our stories, our personal anecdotes.

So, as we celebrate Uganda’s first pride, consider these ten milestones – both big and small, personal and political – that are also part of the Queer African movement and history. These brave and remarkable acts provide me with daily inspiration to celebrate LGBTI African pride everyday, and everywhere, not just in Uganda:

5 Political Milestones

1) Health: The opening of an LGBT clinic Kampala, a milestone that would mean year-round care for LGBT Ugandans (vs. a single day-long festival) is worth celebrating, which is why QWOC Media Wire covered it: This is What Africa’s Resistance Looks Like

2) Entertainment: Miss Sahara, a Nigerian Igbo woman, competed in the Miss International Queen pageant for transgender women, and came in second!

She became Nigeria’s first openly transgender celebrity. Her visibility (and success) at the pageant, incited many conversations about what it means to be a trans person from Africa.

My name is Miss Sahara, and I’m from Nigeria …I just want to make a statement that because I’m a Nigerian doesn’t mean I can’t be a transgender woman… I would like to believe that I am beautiful. I’m here to make a statement.

3) Politics: Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, released a statement asserting she will support LGBT rights and protections, making her the second African woman president (after Liberia’s president Sirleaf) to come out in support of LGBTI African people, sort of.

4) MediaPambuzuka Press recently announced the release of the Queer African Reader, a collection of writings, analysis and artistic work (intended primarily for an African audience).

The anthology, edited by activists, Sokari Eine and Hakima Abbas, focuses on intersectionality while including experiences from a variety of contexts including rural communities, from exile, from conflict and post-conflict situations as well as diverse religious and cultural contexts.

5) Community: Amidst the racism and xenophobia in Cape Town’s male- and white-dominated gay scene, HOLAA (Hub of Lesbian Action for Africans), a new Black South African queer community-building organization and group blog hosted their first event, Poetic Just-Us. Simply put, it was beautiful.

5 Personal (And, Yes, Also Political) Milestones

6) The Power of Community: My Africans for Africa fundraising campaign to offer free social media and online fundraising training to African women and LGBT organizations surpassed its goal of $7.5K and raised well over $10K! Over 160 individuals contributed to the idea that LGBT African people can and should speak for themselves; the support I’ve received via this project has re-affirmed my belief in the statement, “It takes a village…”

7) The Power of Friendships: My best friend, who I nearly lost due to a clash between her religious views and my sexuality, came full circle after nearly five years apart and wrote a guest post for my blog, “Homophobia is UnChristian.”

8) The Power of Words: A queer Nigerian reader and supporter sent me a message recently letting me know that my writing had inspired her to come out to her own parents!

“Just wanted to say, thank you for all that you do… Your bravery and humongous heart have inspired me to come out to my Nigerian parents as well as ignited a passion to aid LGBTQ Africans, especially Nigerians in our fight to be visible.”

What I love about this milestone it’s that it’s actually not one, but two; it is mine, certainly, for knowing that my words are meaningful, but it is also my dear friend’s, for taking the big leap and sharing her whole self with the people she loves.

9) The Power of New Media: As a wonderful addition to my Curve Magazine feature, “This is What an African Lesbian Looks Like”I was featured in Ms. Magazine as an African feminist blogger to watch.

Not only was I the only queer-identified one (which is important to note as LGBT Africans often experience silence in feminist spaces), but renowned black feminist scholar and NBC show host, Melissa Harris Perry, shared on Twitter that my interview was one of her favorite reads.

 

10) The Power of Love: I recently made the “the ultimate commitment” to my partner :) In a world in which queer Africans are persecuted simply for loving, the bold, boastful, boundless love I have for my partner (and that she has for me) is absolutely an act of rebellion, or healing, of liberation, worth celebrating.

 

What other remarkable acts should the LGBT African community be sharing? What acts or milestones often go unnoticed? Why do you think that is? How can we be mindful of sensationalism and the hierarchy of achievement it perpetuates in our movements?

Love and Afrofeminism: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing

This post is part of my guest blog series called Love and Afrofeminism for BITCH magazine.

One night my friends and I went salsa dancing at a straight club. It doesn’t get any more gendered than that. My girl had been asking me to go dancing with her for months. I had finally acquiesced, and was really looking forward to it. But the minute we got to the club, my confidence made for the door, leaving me stranded, feeling weird and freakish. I became very aware of myself as a woman in men’s clothing, not short, not tall, black girl, poor girl, what are you doing here?

In my mind, I knew it was silly. I’m a great dancer. But something about that hall filled with really straight-looking people triggered my discomfort in a major way. I felt my girl pull my hand as she began leading the way, her straight friends following closely behind us, taking off their coats as they glided through the busy dance floor in that way some women do when they know they have eyes on them. I felt awkward shuffling along behind them, straining to keep my shoulders back and my face blank to feign disinterest, a cover for how insecure I felt in my ill-fitting clothing (at least compared to what everyone else was wearing). We hung our coats, and began looking for our friends. A song came on that everyone seemed to like, and I dug it. I was beginning to relax and settle into myself as we approached our friend’s table. I figured I’d dance with my girl and soon forget about where we were. She always had that effect on me, so our dance was something to look forward to.

silhouettes of people salsa dancing

But before I knew it, I felt her drop my hand. I turned to my left, and saw that a slick haired older Latino guy had taken her other hand and pulled her unto the dance floor for the current number. She’d innocently obliged, 1-2-stepping away and swaying her hips to let her know that she was down, and twirling away from me as I stood there feeling more awkward than ever, abandoned, and embarrassed. My eyes darted around in search of familiarity, a safe harbor to crawl into. But I realized that our party had dispersed into the night and I was the only one not dancing. All three ladies had found male partners, so what did that mean for me? I wasn’t nearly comfortable going up to any of the straight women to ask for a dance and face high school humiliation. I wasn’t pretty enough to fare as competition, nor was I macho enough to warrant any other kind of attention. So they completely ignored me (but for the few that blatantly stared in pity or disdain).

Eventually, I found the friends we’d intended to meet. Relieved, I grabbed a beer, and found my station in the corner, where I planned to remain for the rest of the night. Eventually, my girl came back to me, sweat beads all along her forehead from at least three rounds of salsa, and the familiar glow of being around her people that I recognized. She was smiling when she approached me, but my face held stern. She gestured to me to dance with her and I abruptly refused, taking another sip from my beer so that she couldn’t read me. Yet, even I couldn’t understand the way I felt at that point.

It wasn’t jealousy. My girl and I were in love and I didn’t have any insecurities about her dancing with straight men. It wasn’t even that Slick had gotten the first dance—I wasn’t that kind of macho. No, it was something more. And it took me several hours, long after we’d left the club and were safely in bed, to articulate, even to myself.

I had felt unsafe in that space. The night had represented every micro aggression I’d ever experienced from straight people: cab drivers that kicked me out in the middle of the night because they wouldn’t tolerate “that” at the back of their cabs, store managers who kept insisting I’d find better clothing in the women’s section, every gay boy that looked me up and down with disdain because I wasn’t conforming to their inherited fucked up view on what a woman should look like or wear to be “fabulous,” straight women who blatantly ignored me because I didn’t fit in the coop, and femme girls that ranted on and on about masculine privilege, but hardly ever acknowledged that their pretty privilege made their worlds so much bigger than mine. That my girl could mindlessly shimmy onto a dance floor even as a gay woman and enjoy the simple pleasure of a dance, go out with her straight friends to bars and not be stared at or called names, etc., while everything about the landscape, from the “Ladies free before 11PM” sign to the man-woman dance partner pairings made me so angry all of a sudden. And, I didn’t know how to handle it.

All the memories I’d retained of my life as a straight girl, or even as a heteronormative queer femme (as I explored my gender shortly after coming out) came rushing back to me. I remember when people smiled brightly at me when I walked into restaurants—”How can I help you, miss?”—and I would smile back, knowing that I could get whatever I wanted simply because I was pretty. I remember being able to play up the damsel in distress card whenever I arrived late at the airport, scuttling along in heels and designer hand luggage, and the two or three guards would help me cut the line to make my flight, with an upgrade just because. I’d given all that up for the sake of being authentically me. I didn’t regret it, or take it back. But becoming so aware of my lack of privilege, now, in those spaces, made me upset that it didn’t occur to anyone else to be more considerate of how I felt.

What I’d like to share with you isn’t about who has more privilege or who can pass, etc. I’m not interested in setting up an hierarchy of oppression. Life is fucked for a lot of us in more ways than we can calibrate, so instead, I’d like to share something else with you all, a few tips about how to be more supportive of people like me.

As a gender non-conforming (most of the time) boi who is dating a femme-identified woman, I have my responsibilities to her that I take seriously. I don’t tolerate stupid misogynist jokes at her expense, I don’t belittle her in front of anyone to validate my masculinity, when people assume that we stick to gendered roles in our household, I let her respond / answer honestly. I treat her with respect, always—as we should each other, regardless of how we identify—and I celebrate how powerful, and how protected I feel in spite of how scary the world can be sometimes, and I ask that she does the same. What we discovered that night is that there is more that she could do to make sure I feel seen, respected, and advocated for in gendered spaces.

So, here are a few tips we’ve discussed as a couple that I’d like to share with you, in case it resonates, and most especially, if you ever go salsa dancing:

1) Recognize you have “pretty privilege”: As a cisgender, female-bodied person, you are able to move in and out of spaces because of your perceived heteronormativity—i.e., you are “a girl who still looks like a girl” to regular folk, you have passing privilege, and not everyone’s gender presentation grants them that much ease of access to straight spaces. So please don’t talk badly about those “queers who only hang out with queers” especially as a femme woman. It hurts. I have so many kinds of friends, that know and trust me. But I can’t be dumped in the middle of blond highlight, Aldo stilettos Boston without warning. It’s ME they’ll stare and jeer at, not you.

2) Check the temperature of a space to ensure safety of your gender non-conforming friends: Similarly, as you can move in and out of spaces, check the pulse of a room before you invite your partner to enter it. If you are both invited to a straight friend’s gathering, give them warning. If you are frolicking downtown and just want to choose a bar to go to, it may be good for you to walk in and assess the environment, rather than go through the humiliation of entering a place and then having to leave because people are assholes / staring / your partner is not comfortable.

3) Please do NOT use emasculation as a way to put me down, make fun of me, or belittle me. I can’t tell you how much it infuriates me to hear femmes go, “Oh I can be a butch / stud / insertwhatevermasculinelabelhere, all I need to do is put on some baggy jeans and wear a hat.” My identity isn’t reduced to what I wear. I would never trivialize who you are by reducing your femininity down to some lipstick and earrings. This is not to say that I donít appreciate people who play with fashion / gender expression—I do. So I’m specifically referring to situations in which it’s used to belittle / emasculate someone / put them down by suggesting that their gender / how they feel about themselves is a cheap performance, and doesn’t go any deeper. As I’m sure you can imagine, for gender non-conforming / transgender people who choose not to / don’t have the funds to be able to transition (via surgery / hormone therapy), this is extremely hurtful.

4) Don’t use boilerplate rhetoric about sexism against me. If I don’t mistreat you or put you down, please don’t automatically pathologize me as such. I’ve always advocated for women; I’m a staunch feminist. Let’s not inherit stereotypes about masculinity from straight people and naturally assume that I’m a misogynist asshole simply because I present more masculine. Innocent until proven guilty, okay? Then I definitely want you to call me out on it. In fact, please do. The last thing I want is to turn into the kind of person whose masculinity can only be affirmed by putting down other women.

These suggestions have obviously been very personalized to fit my own relationship. My partner identifies as femme, and I’m more masculine presenting; the dynamic between us in public spaces may be slightly different (or even perceived as such) based on gender roles and societal expectations. However, even if this doesn’t apply to you—you’re a straight, cis couple, two butches dating each other, two femmes, multiple partners, etc.—I do think keeping this in mind as a way to be more considerate and caring of gender non-conforming people can’t hurt.

Have you had similar experiences? How did you handle it? What other suggestions/tips would you add for supporting people who don’t conform to society’s dogmatic gender norms when out in public (and other typically gendered) spaces?

Oh, and for the record, my partner and I have been practicing our Latin dancing (I’ve gotten so much better), and we are determined to learn how to dance like this. Who’s with us?

Previously: Gender Roles and First Date, Who Pays?, Introducing a New Series on Love and Afrofeminism!

Image: onlinsalsa via Flickr

Lessons Learned from a Straight African Woman: Homophobia is UnChristian

Dear Readers,

A few weeks ago, I shared a short photo essay about my best friend, ChiChi. We’d been estranged for four years due to my sexuality and her Christian faith, but then recently reunited to find our friendship changed for the better.

Not only has it been as if we’d never been apart, but she’s now also one of my biggest cheerleaders; she donated over a thousand dollars to support my Africans for Africa project (via which I’m traveling through Southern Africa for 6 months, training African women’s and LGBT organizations in social media, communications, and storytelling).

When I published the piece, ChiChi was very moved, and told me that the only way she felt she could adequately respond was to write something for my blog. Hence, I’m so delighted to share her post with all of you.

All too often, ally voices are regarded with a deep (yet justified) suspicion; either allies are great, or not so great, advocates or saviorists. Due to our fear of being overshadowed, silenced, or having our narratives sidelined by society’s dominant voices, we rarely affirm their own stories. But there are certainly occasions in which we should.

In my experience, stories like “Confessions of a Straight Girl: What It Means to Be an Ally” (written by my Sister) or “My Straight African Brother’s Reflections on a Very Queer Christmas: Two Couples and a Sibling” resonate just as deeply with LGBT people of color who hope to someday experience love and acceptance from their families. I still receive emails from people who have been touched by how much I’ve shared about the ups and downs I’ve experienced with the allies in my life. Yet, we distance ourselves from their narratives, call them “allies” all the time — just to make sure they know their place. But these “allies”, sometimes, are simply the people we love, and hope to be loved by.

Given the ongoing battle between religion and sexuality, what ChiChi has shared below re: her faith, journey to deeper connection with God, her Love of me, and even her own exploration of her sexuality — not in spite of, but because of her faith — is nothing short of brave. This offering of Love from the place of a traditional practice of Christianity is most appreciated given how much oppression of LGBT exists in the name of religion.

I am very proud to share ChiChi’s words here, and encourage all of you — as we often preach — to affirm her own experiences with the Love and respect we expect in our lives. In any case, I hope her words encourage you, heal you, and give you hope that the loved ones you may have shunned you on the basis of religion will eventually come around.

Warmly,
Spectra

 

—————–

“Anyone Who Loves God Must Also Love Others”

When Spectra published “Keeping the Faith: Religion, Sexuality, and My Best Friend’s Pool Party” her piece about me, our friendship, the pain of 4 years apart, and the beauty and joy in our reconciliation, I was humbled and moved by how many people were touched by our story. The response to it reminded me of the power of stories to inspire, to unite, and to encourage. So I decided to write a response piece to affirm her words, and to tackle the loaded combination of religion and sexuality as I’ve experienced them.

For nearly four years, Spectra and I sought our identities in divergent paths—she as a queer activist, and I in exploring depth in my spiritual Christian faith. Because our paths seemed irreconcilable, I never anticipated that valuable lessons learned during my quest for a deeper relationship with God would bring me full circle back into relationship with my friend. But they did, and I’d like to share a few of the lessons I learned with all of you:

1) In my attempt to practice sexual abstinence, I have come to the conclusion that SEXUALITY is OVER-POLICED in Christian communities.

OK let me back up on this one—

In the 20 years that I have been Christian, the constant rhetoric in the Christian community has been that the sex life of a single, Christian woman should be, well, NON-EXISTENT. Therefore, as I grew in my knowledge and faith in God, I decided that I was not going to cut corners on the sexuality issue. I would practice sexual abstinence. Yes, I would remain abstinent until my wedding bed where with multiple orgasms, my husband will make the wait well worth it, and from thence we will live together in a one-partner, heterosexual marriage till death do us part.

But while this paradigm worked for me, was this the “correct” sexuality for everyone? Is there such a thing as “correct” Christian sexuality? What about those people for whom there is no biblical precedent, e.g. intersex individuals? What does a “heterosexual” marriage look like for them?

If abstinence is always the way to go, why is there an epidemic within the Catholic church of repressed priests unleashing on little boys and girls? Why is masturbation discouraged? Why does the Pope get to have an opinion on how a man and his wife should stem the number of children they would have? And, hmmm… why am I, suddenly, physically unable to insert this tampon???

Yup. In my abstinence practice, I unwittingly programmed the muscles around my vagina to SLAM SHUT when anything approached. And because the contraction was involuntary, gynecological examinations and tampon insertions had suddenly become terribly difficult. Even when I wanted to “open sesame”, it’s was like my vagina never received the override memo. (This is a sexual condition. It’s called vaginismus. If you’ve never heard of it, read about it here.)

Luckily, I don’t have this issue anymore. A couple investments in books and toys, and I was able to RETRAIN my vagina to function correctly. But more importantly, I learned that any sexual practice that undermines YOUR PERSONAL spiritual, mental, emotional, AND/OR physical health cannot be “correct” for you.

2) At the Core of My Faith is LOVE

The more I learned about God, the more I learned to open my heart, to be vulnerable, to be humble, to admit when I have been wrong, to ask for forgiveness, and to LOVE. Why? GOD IS LOVE. From the bible:

(1st book of John, Chapter 4, verses 7-9)–
7- Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8- Whoever does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE. 9- This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.

3) Homophobia is UNChristian. (phobia = fear, hate)

Again, the Bible says this is so:

(1st book of John, Chapter 4, verses 18-21)–
18- There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19- We love because he first loved us. 20- Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a Liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21- And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

4) People are PEOPLE, not ISSUES.

When Spectra first came out to me, in an attempt to avoid coming to terms with her new identity, I instantly compartmentalized her being out as “her politics” and “her sexuality” which I placed as separate entities from the Spectra that was my college bestie, my sister. When she realized this, we had the falling out. As painful as the period apart was, it was important that it happened so that I could learn to wrestle with the issues that made me uncomfortable instead of simply sweeping it under its compartment. It was important that I learned to love her COMPLETELY in the way that she deserves to be.

So there you have it: four lessons learned from four years deepening my relationship with God and re-commitment to practicing the core principles of my faith. I hope it offers some guidance to Christians who are still struggling to reconcile their spirituality with the LGBT community. Choose Love. It always wins.

Spectra, I love you.  I am proud that your search for yourself culminated in the unearthing of the earth-changing, ass-kicking, turn-the-universe-up-on-its-head, Nigerian, Igbo, queer, activist tour-de-force that you are. And I pray that as you travel to spread your love, knowledge, and solidarity at home in Africa, God will guide your path, and reveal to you all his plans for you. AMEN.


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