Browse Category: Movement-Building

Interview with Omar Thomas, Jazz Composer of Monumental LGBT Civil Rights Hymn, “We Will Know”

I recently got the chance to interview award-winning composer, Omar Thomas, about his new album, ‘We Will Know’, a monumental work of art that breathes new life into the word “movement”.

We Will Know Omar Thomas LGBT Civil Rights

Following the success of his debut release, I Am, Omar secured a grant in 2013 to compose, arrange, and produce an album to reconcile the perceived incongruities between LGBT and Black communities in the United States.

Per the virtual release event, existing at the intersection of black civil rights and LGBT civil rights, “We Will Know” is a historic, first-of-its-kind original work which invokes genres of music unique to the black American experience as a way of underscoring the experiences of LGBT persons in America over the past 90 years.

In Omar’s artist statement, he states: “The beauty and madness of this work is that it is a composition based on juxtaposition, promoting a social movement written in a genre (jazz) pioneered by a group that historically has an aversion to the group for which the piece is created. Though it is written in solidarity with the LGBT movement, it is anchored by styles and songs created by and for the African-American experience.”

Each of the four movements plays a specific role in framing the realities of LGBT persons across the country.

  • The first movement, “Hymn,” is a rallying protest song – that glue which holds together all significant social movements – which the LGBT movement has been without for all these years.
  • The second movement, “In Memoriam,” is a brief elegy that commemorates the lives of those lost and those facing real danger in the face of ignorance and fear.
  • The longest of the movements, “Meditation,” provides the listener a safe place for reflection and catharsis.
  • And, the final movement, “May 9th, 2012,” combines the original hymnsong with Charles Albert Tindley’s iconic black civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome,” to celebrate the day an American president (and also our first black president) first publicly supported marriage equality.

LGBT civil rights are at the forefront of contemporary social and political discourse. The power of music to serve, inspire, and archive movements is a necessary part of that conversation, one that Omar Thomas, a hauntingly talented musician and self-described ‘artivist’ is committed to facilitating through his music.

On Music, Movements, and Identity: Interview with Black and Gay Composer, Omar Thomas

SPECTRA: I’m gonna get right into it… “We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements.” That’s a bold title! And, if I must say, such a beautiful gift to black LGBT people, or any of us who live our lives at the intersection. What inspired the project?

OMAR: I got the idea to compose an LGBT civil rights piece after numerous failed attempts at sounding intelligible on an “It Gets Better” video.

SPECTRA: No… Haha! Really?

OMAR: True story. I really wanted to contribute to the message and success of the “It Gets Better” campaign, but couldn’t find the words. I’m not a writer. I’m a musician. So it dawned on me in that moment — that music is a language at which I’m adept, my chosen language of love and protest. I mean, clearly I was failing so miserably in English while trying to make that video. So I decided right then and there that I’d made my contribution to groundswell of awareness and support – “the movement’ – using my natural talent: music.

SPECTRA: Mmm, I love that. It’s a really beautiful thing to witness someone stepping so boldly into their purpose. Did you ever imagine you would release an album like this?

OMAR: To be able to communicate so effectively using music is a gift. It only made sense that my contributions to human rights take the form of a musical statement. And honestly, the creation of this piece felt inevitable, really, as if my growth as a composer, educator, and socially-conscious citizen were all leading to the creation of this work.

We Will Know Banner

SPECTRA: This is your second album. Your first won a Boston Music Award in 2013 for Best Jazz Artist. You’ve called ‘We Will Know’ one of your most important pieces of work to date. What hopes do you have for the EP?

OMAR: From the side of the music, I hope the movements in ‘We Will Know’ highlight the gamut of emotions that have underscored the LGBT civil rights struggle – and triumphs – of the past century. I want the experience of listening to the album to feel like catharsis, of the personally political kind.

SPECTRA: The album is definitely a conversation starter.

OMAR: Music is a commonality we all share. It’s just one of many, many commonalities we all share. And its universality makes it the ideal ambassador for the connections we share across experiences. And its convening power bring us all closer to the ideas of oneness, a singular human story that I truly believe is at the nucleus of the human experience.

SPECTRA: Omar, you teach “Harmony” at Berklee College of Music. (smile). Can you explain – to those of us with a limited jazz vocabulary — what that means? Listening to you talk about music, movements, and unity, it seems fitting as the name of a class you would teach!

OMAR: *laughs* Harmony at Berklee College of Music is the study of contemporary music theory. The study of melody, harmony, and rhythm in popular song. As music mirrors life and vice versa, I always find creative ways to discuss various aspects of life in my classes.

SPECTRA: Speaking of teaching, has your identity as a black gay man influenced or impacted your role as an educator in any way?

OMAR: I’d like to think it has been positive. I have a simple personal mandate: to live authentically and to do the best I can, as an educator, as a musician, and as a citizen, so that those who feel empowered by the labels of “gay,” “black,” and the combination of the two will feel seen, uplifted. I’m not the only gay black musician out there. There are many who came before me, whose shoulders I stand on, and more will come afterwards. I honour them by being visible.

SPECTRA: Somewhat related. On visible black and LGBT icons. Each year during black history month, I see the same names of Black and LGBT leaders mentioned e.g. James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin etc. Many writers, political activists etc. As a young, gay, black, and aspiring musician, who did you look up to?

OMAR: Billy Strayhorn. Hands down. The right hand man to the great Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington. So great was his talent, his poise, and his presence that literally no one cared about his orientation. Okay, maybe they did but they got over it. Who knows. I’m sure he had his own share of struggle. But he never minced words about his sexuality, nor did her ever hide. In the early half of the 20th century. In America. As a black man. As a gay, black man. What courage! His story has always resonated with me.

SPECTRA: I have to ask… especially given that you’re a black and gay musician who’s just released an EP calling for equal rights. And Macklemore just won a Grammy for Same Love. Where do you stand on musical accolades being about the music vs. the political messages they convey? Can we, actually, separate them?

OMAR: For me, being a musician, or a chef, or a writer, or a painter, or a dancer, is all about authenticity and vulnerability. If one’s art is to ring true, one’s identity must ring true THROUGH one’s art.

Anyone who is using their voice to further ideas of universality and oneness deserves to be commended, but only if they do so with respect to context, meaning where their contribution fits in the narrative of those who’ve come before them in this fight.

That being said, a positive message is a positive message, and good music is good music. These two concepts are mutually exclusive. If a work is to be critiqued based on the strength of its message, then so be it. If it is to be critiqued on its musical strengths and merits, so be it. If both are present and are formidable, all the better.

SPECTRA:Anything else you’d like folks to know?

OMAR: I’m encouraging everyone to start using the hashtag #iamtheintersection to continue the dialog about multiple identities, shared history, and oneness. You can follow me at @omarthomasmusic on Twitter and Facebook/omarthomasmusic to join the conversation.

Do yourself a favour and listen to the first movement, “Hymn” below. (I’m in tears every single time!)

‘We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rights Piece in Four Movements’ is now available for purchase on iTunes. A limited number of commemorative physical copies, which include comprehensive 4-page timeline of milestones of the LGBT movement over the past century, are also available for order on the official Omar Thomas website,

Celebrating Audre Lorde with Jamaican Feminists: Activism, Self Care, and Virtual Sisterhood

Caribbean Jamaican Feminists“What specific things do you do for self-care? What does your routine look like?”

I was asked this question today while participating as a virtual guest at an Audre Lorde appreciation event just outside of Kingston, Jamaica. The event was hosted by SO(UL) HQ, a collective which creates alternative community spaces for discussion and exploration of the arts, culture, spirituality, and social justice.

Each month, SO(UL) HQ invites community members to an informal social activity in physical and/or virtual spaces called HQs–e.g. for film viewings, discussions, creative workshops, etc–then the organizers facilitate a cross-movement conversation with contributions from international guests, who can participate virtually via Skype.

In celebration of Audre Lorde, black lesbian activist, writer, poet and historical icon, who wrote about writing and self-care (including one of my favorite poems, “A Litany for Survival”), I’d been invited–along with Kim Katrin Crosby (activist and co-founder of the People Project)–to speak about my work as a writer and media activist, as well as elaborate on my ideas about using Love and Afrofeminism as a framework for social justice.

From Attempted Suicide Survivor to Media Activist

For my opening remarks, I shared the story about my struggle to come to terms with my sexuality as a Nigerian woman on a very white, American campus. I spoke of the severe depression I experienced as I continually failed at locating any support systems, individuals or information to accept my wholly, as an African women who loved other women. I spoke of the hopelessness I felt when I couldn’t find a single book, or movie, with queer characters or stories that could convince me (and my family) that I wasn’t the “abomination” all the Nigerian/African online forums made me out to be. I spoke of the simple, yet deeply-rooted desire to see myself reflected as a part of society–to feel that I was, in fact, normal, and how that seeming impossibility prompted me to attempt to take my own life, for relief. 

Despite the pain of having to recount that memory often, I celebrate my survival and bold critique of the systems that still put the lives of young queer African girls in jeopardy. My attempted suicide may have been the event that sparked my journey towards becoming a media activist, but it’s done so much more; it’s the reason why mental health and self-care are prominent themes in my work, and my writing, and the reason I choose Love (for self, for others, for community) as my framework for social justice

Sustainable Activism: Self Care and Virtual Sisterhood

Your Silence Will Not Protect You During the event, this disclosure prompted more questions (and conversation) about what it means to build sustainable movements. After all, so many of us have  been spurred to action by painful and, at times, traumatic experiences: how do we continue to drawn from such turbulent beginnings without letting them weigh us down emotionally?

How do we find spaces to affirm that kind of pain–and its overcoming–as victory? How do we hold in our hearts, the stories of others, some similar, some way worse, and maintain principled temperance in our advocacy? And, since the work of an activist is social (especially for the many of us who work outside formal structures, and thus, don’t get to ‘shut down’ at the end of the day), how do we create a support network for ourselves, and for each other that we can access when we need to? 

After participating at SO(UL) HQ’s event today, I’m inspired to create more virtual social spaces for sharing and healing, for myself. I’d been fighting a winter slump for weeks–low energy, writers block, feeling moody and isolated from seasonal depression–thus I hadn’t expected that the experience of participating in a virtual event would end up feeling as rejuventing, as uplifting, and as warm as it did. But it did, and I’m much better for it.

The setup was simple enough: the event took place at a casual community space, where the group watched a short documentary about Audre Lorde, before Skype-ing in the guests. The room radiated the kind of intimacy associated with a sleepover, not a formal event; a few women sat cross-legged on the floor, while others sat in chairs (one with a really cute baby). 

African Caribbean Feminists

It’s no wonder I felt completely at ease chatting about my life and work; I could have been right there with my Caribbean sisters, sitting cross-legged on the floor, or lying stomach-down, propped up by my elbows. Thirty minutes later, I ended my session with the women at SO(UL) HQ feeling so nourished, so joyful, and so inspired that I’ve since been reflecting on the plethora of ways activists can use video conferencing and other tools to more intentionally create on-going support networks for themselves.

As a media activist, I often write about how social media can be used to amplify the voices of marginalized people, combat lack of diversity in media, and offer a means through which people with shared experiences and values can connect. For sure, regularly connecting with others with who we share affinity and can lean on for support (as part of our self-care practice) is included in this, but chances are that if even I–Ms. Self Care Evangelist–forgot, perhaps we all need more regular reminders.

Sharing is Caring: Nurturing Intentional Community–Online or Offline–is Self Care 

I’m grateful for having such a positive experience connecting virtually with Caribbean feminists today–so grateful that I’m newly inspired to rehash my goals for facilitating regular discussions about self-care in my online spaces. I don’t have all the answers, not by a stretch. Still, after today, I’m relishing the comfort of knowing that I’m connected to a number of inspiring activists–online and offline–who are just as committed to practicing self care and sustainable activism as I am. 

This blog, my Facebook Page, and Twitter @spectraspeaks, are part of my virtual self-care support network. A place where I do feel relatively safe sharing my story, my struggle, and my successes. Your readership is a part of that, so thank you for continually encouraging my efforts to foster more dialogue around mental health in our communities. 

Stay tuned for my next post, “7 Everyday Self-Care Principles All Activists Should Follow”, in which I’ll be sharing lessons I’ve learned from my own personal journey. We may not all be in physical space together, but–as my Jamaican feminist sisters at SO(UL) HQ reminded me today–we don’t need to be in order to reach out and support each other.

Do you have a strong support network? Is it offline, virtual, or both? What tips would you give others seeking supportive community online? Have you experienced virtual sisterhood? In what ways does it compare to sister-friend circles offline? 


Finding Common Ground (Part 1): Why Aren’t More Activists Collaborating?

Based on how often marginalized people talk about the power of “community”, especially within the realm of grassroots activism, one would imagine the non-profit industry would have evolved into a flourishing ecosystem of recyclable free-flowing skills, bartered services, and shared progressive ideas by now.

Yet, when you think about how many grassroots groups and non-profit organizations are working on the same exact issues and, unfortunately, due to this overcrowding, are often fighting each for resources in an unhealthily competitive manner (e.g. hoarding funding opportunities, barring access to resources, guarding intellectual capital, etc.) it’s easy to conclude that, often enough, this is not the case.

Let me put this in context: there is a funding crisis, everywhere; not just in the US or in the UK, or even in Africa, but globally.

In the U.S., the financial crisis didn’t just negatively impact the wall street suits, or even the industrial blue-collars, but the many grantmaking foundations that have provided the steady source of funding to non-profits for years. As a result of Wall Street’s snafu, a number of foundations have needed to significantly reduce the size of their grants; a few of the larger ones have even merged. As I’m quickly learning via my ongoing Southern Africa social media project, the effect of this can be felt all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, too. Downes Murray International, an African fundraising consulting firm writes:

“While some major Western donors to Africa, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plan to maintain or increase their giving, many are scaling back their efforts in Africa in order to concentrate shrinking resources on projects closer to home.”

Here in South Africa, in an attempt to slow down the funding drain, governments have significantly cut back subsidies for critical social services, beefed up funding requirements and tightened up monitoring and evaluation practices, creating a domino effect of non-profits cutting back on most of their programming, or shutting down completely.

Even outside the non-profit industrial complex, grassroots groups are feeling the pinch of the financial crisis. In a recent online fundraising workshop I hosted, an attendee complained about being inundated with messages from “too many smaller, community groups all asking for support for the same issue.”

The harsh reality is that under the current economic conditions, many not-for-profit organizations have just two choices: adapt or die.

After years of dependency on government aid and foundation grants, non-profits are being forced to operate more like businesses (e.g. diversify their revenue streams, reduce overhead while increasing output etc) just to keep their heads above water.

Ironically, non-profit professionals may have to adopt a few strategies from the same “capitalists” in the corporate sector they once characterized as greedy and selfish for their unwavering focus on profitability and expansion. Yet, if this means, sustainability and wider reach for organizations striving for long-term social impact, could this shift towards running more like a business be such a bad thing?

Due to the funding crisis, complete dependency on charity, government, and in the case of Africa, foreign aid, is no longer an option. And, quite frankly, the non-profit industry could do with a good dose of the kind of survivalist creativity that’s prevalent in the corporate sector, such as collaborating with other players to pool resources, using strategic partnerships with similar organizations to strengthen service offerings, or even merging to widen their reach (or prevent closing up shop completely).

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that activists and non-profits should only ever consider collaboration as simply a tactic to navigate financial crises; organizations, especially the ones working with communities that are particularly marginalized, constantly under-resourced, and over-looked for more traditional forms of support, should already be working together, not just to save money, but for the sake of furthering their collective missions.

We have a moral obligation as people who are working towards social justice, to always choose the path that maximizes our social impact and/or increases our sustainability, regardless of what the economy is doing.

So, again, why aren’t more non-profits collaborating? What have we got to lose by working together? Why isn’t collaboration not happening as frequently as we suggest it should, especially when we have so much to gain? I hope to explore some of these questions in part two of this series.

Got an opinion on that? Why do you think we have so many activists, non-profits, and social impact initiatives doing similar work, yet not working together? Ego? Time and resources? Lack of awareness? Are you an individual activist doing social justice work? What has kept you (or turned you off) from collaborating in the past? What do you see as the “cons” for collaborating (as there are certainly a few). Note: This is a no judgment zone. Please share freely, as the conversation around collaboration is important for us to have if we are to move forward.

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?

Reflections from a Woman of Color on the War on Women: “My Sisters-in-Arms, We Are Not United”

Yesterday, I took part in the MA Women United Against the War on Women rally at Boston City Hall. 

Across the US, thousands of men, women and children gathered in front of municipal buildings to voice their outrage at recent state and federal initiatives to propose and/or implement anti-women measures, including the GOP’s attempt to redefine rape, making abortions illegal or virtually inaccessible to low-income women, and removing government mandates for companies to include birth control coverage in the health insurance they offer to employees.

Despite the fact that it took challenging the white women organizers to include more women of color in their speaker lineup — as a little birdie told me — I was honored to be invited to participate, and share the stage with fellow women’s rights activists and feminists, Jaclyn Friedman, Sarah Jackson, @graceishuman, Idalia, and even Norma Swenson, reknowned author of the book, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

I found myself thinking about the concept of “unity,” and the fact that so many women of color, immigrants, transgender women etc are often left out of mainstream women’s movements. But this isn’t news to me, nor to my mentors separated from my experience by four whole decades — mentors who fought so that I would have something different to say to white women “united” for (white) women. It breaks my heart to tell them that we’re still having the same conversations after all their sacrifices.

Hence, for the rally, I decided to have an honest conversation about marginalization with the crowd via a call-and-response speech I partly improvised. Here’s the message I gave, in poem-ish form.

Post-Rally Reflection: To speak from a place of anger doesn’t always mean to speak from a place that is without love. How emotional I became when speaking to the rally yesterday has everything to do with how much I love my comrades of all shades and stripes, fellow women, my sisters-in-arms. And their response to my calling out to them, “My Sisters in Arms” with “We Are Listening” helped me through my anger to the other side… hope.


When I was younger, I dreamed of being part of a revolution.

I imagined it would feel very much like it did in the movies, like Braveheart for instance:

Mel Gibson riding back and forth on horseback, pumping his fist in the air
as he inspired the army before him to FIGHT for their freedom,
we would win this war together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Like every big budget Hollywood movie,
I’d be the handsome, mysterious, emotionally constipated protagonist
who never really wanted to fight,
but live happily ever after in the same village of my beautiful virgin wife-to-be…

until one day,
the fight came to me

and wiped away the smiles of my love, my family, my home.

Only THEN, would I charge forth, my spirit consumed by purposeful rage
and the moment — the moment I’d dreamed of having my entire life — would arrive…

the epic war speech.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

Yes, like Braveheart, my heart would be re-forged in stone; I would feel a bond with my comrades united in arms (and social media channels) like I’d never felt before.

And in that moment, against the violins and horns of a moving Hans Zimmer film score,
in the faces of all my sisters standing before me,
I would remember:

the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about me,
the battle, the war, the revolution
isn’t about them
but about US.

We would stand UNITED against whatever forces dared to oppose us,
and charge forth together.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

But the revolution hasn’t quite turned out like the Hollywood movie I’d imagined it would be.
For one, it actually never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be riding a horse.

Mel Gibson turned out to be one of the biggest bigots of all time.
And sexual assault has caused too much pain to the women I love to perpetuate the idea that virginity is a prize to be won,
not when rape is still being used as a mass weapon of war.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

It’s true, the revolution hasn’t quite turned out the way I dreamed it would be,
it never occurred to me
that battle after battle,
rally after rally,
I would find myself standing in front of a sea of white women who don’t look like me,
having to keep reminding them that:

United we stand, Divided we fall.
United we stand, Divided we fall

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I know why we’re here.
There is a war on women happening,
We’re angry — and we’ve had enough.
On that we agree.

But today, I want to make sure we do more than just agree.
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to our subconscious definition of “we”
I want to make sure we’re paying attention to who is missing.

Look around you, my Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

I ask you to consider,
is the women’s movement making a stand, or falling into pieces?
Are we uniting through our differences so that we can be stronger?
Or reaching for something way less grand,
with way less hands,
hoping that our “good intentions” will pay off if we just wait a little longer?

Which members of this army — of our family — are missing?

Where are the voices of low income women of color?
Where are the voices of transgender women?
Where is the rest of our family?

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

This women’s movement shouldn’t just voice the concerns of women who are pissed
that they may have to pay for birth control out-of-pocket,
but the concerns of low-income women who would have no access to birth control, period
because they rely completely on government-mandated coverage,
I know you agree, but…

My Sisters-in-Arms, are you listening?
(We Are Listening!)

we cannot profess to be building a movement for ALL women,
we cannot claim that we are UNITED against anything — especially not a war on women
when too many women of color, transgender women, women with disabilities — members of our family, are missing.

My Sisters-in-Arms…
(We Are Listening!)

When we picture the women’s movement what faces do we see?
What voices do we hear?
And are they reflected in our choices? In our larger strategy?
Are transgender women a part of this movement?
Have we done our jobs to make that clear?

If so, where is the outrage when transgender women are murdered at an alarming rate in this country?
Where is the feminist takedown when — even in death — the media refers to our trans sisters with male pronouns and the media suggests that their very existence warranted their assault and murder?

Too many transgender women are being left behind.
Too many members of our family are dying.
Too many members of our family are being  tortured and incarcerated, simply for surviving,
Just because we’re too busy “uniting” to look behind.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

You must do better.
We must do better.

If I’ve learned anything about real-life revolutions
it’s that they sometimes can take on the form of the war you’re fighting.
it’s that it matters less what you’re fighting for, but who is fighting with you

The War on Women needs to mean more than reproductive justice for middle class white women.
The War on Women needs to mean more than the debate over abortion and birth control.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism on women of color and our sons.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of racism, sexism, and homophobia on transgender women of color.
The War on Women must mean to us the impact of un-checked privilege and ignorance within  our movement.
The War between Women is real.

And until we can be brave enough to face the truth —
that we have to END the war over who counts as “women” amongst ourselves
we are NOT united.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are NOT united, yet.
But I know we can get there.

I believe in you, my Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I know we can get there.
And so I dare to dream of the day
when I can finally show up to rallies and protests
and not have to say,
“Where are my sisters?”
but “Here are my sisters, united.”

I dare to dream of the day when we can all feel the impact of true sisterhood
and unleash the power of sisters-in-arms, united,
against those who dare to challenge our quest for liberation.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

I believe in us.

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!) 

We are not united, now.
Let’s do the work, now
To make sure that one day, we will be.

And when that day comes,

My Sisters-in Arms
(We Are Listening!)

God help them.

Spectra is an award-winning Nigerian writer, women’s rights activist, and the voice behind the African feminist media blog, Spectra Speaks, which publishes global news and opinions about all things gender, media, diversity, and the Diaspora.

She is also the founder of Queer Women of Color Media Wire (, a media advocacy and publishing organization that amplifies the voices of lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender women of color, diaspora, and other racial/ethnic minorities around the world.

Follow her tweets on diversity, movement-building, and love as a revolution on Twitter @spectraspeaks.

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