Browse Category: Diversity

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)

“You only know my name. You don’t know my story…” 

Afrofeminism: The What vs. The How

I’m often asked to elaborate (and in some cases, “define”) afrofeminism. I’ve spoken about how afrofeminism informs my work, explored themes about Love and Afrofeminism series on this blog, and I regularly share afrofeminist perspectives on current affairs and pop culture with my fans on Facebook.

From the work that I do and from the things that I say, I’ve seen quite a number of people over the past year or so been calling themselves Afrofeminists. In fact, just very recently, someone sent me a letter thanking me for offering her a new way to think about her own identity. She asked permission to call herself an afrofeminist because she dug my approach and could relate to most of my commentary, even though she actually had no idea what it meant! It turns out that connecting with people — or even inspiring them — doesn’t start and end with what you are but who you are.

So have I put forth a single definition? No. A single definition (of a single label, among many others I might add) wouldn’t actually help anyone get to know me. I rarely introduce myself using labels; I tell stories, instead… about growing up in Nigeria, about the first time I fell in love, and about the friendships my coming out broke then repaired. I’m so much richer experienced as a complex, whole being than as a cluster of politically correct, ideologically pure sentiments.

“Hi, my name is Spectra, and I’m an afrofeminist”? It would almost feel like cheating: here’s this cute little label that sounds like an amalgamation of afro and feminist, meaning she must have an afro and she must be feminist, and somehow that’s supposed to serve as a shortcut for people to actually get to know who I am. And then, I‘m supposed to gather in large numbers with people who dig the afro and/or the “feminist” and because we totally understand each other, we’ll be better equipped to change the world. Ha! That almost always backfires.

(Don’t believe me? Ask the white “women’s” movement. They still can’t seem to agree on what being a woman means, and are constantly up in arms about which women are being represented, silenced, side-lined etc. Meanwhile, non-women/everybody else is getting away with murder while women are figuring this out).

Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists, Blablabla

Now don’t get me wrong; labels can be very useful in facilitating initial connections. But people get so hung up on them, activists especially. And as a society, we’ve become so narrowly focused on the theoretical “what” at the expense of the practical “how” of creating change, we’ve forgotten that change happens primarily through our personal relationships, not just passionate rhetoric.

The use of identity labels (the “what”) to build unity and shared understanding often sidelines the need to actually explore complexities and difference i.e. just “how” said identities intersect and manifest in different contexts; since a single word can carry so many subjective meanings for different people, movements are often stumped or stunted the minute they realise that not everyone’s “how” is the same or — even worse — not even functioning.

The Curious Case of “Allies” In General

If my detest for words and definition stems from anything at all it’s the “allies” I’ve experienced in both my personal life and my work as an activist. I’ve met hundreds of “white allies,” for instance, many of who profess their “consciousness” via some digital channel (e.g. an overly serious twitter bio or utopia-inspired vision statement) or, in person, via some self-congratulatory speech masquerading as a relevant anecdote… especially when surrounded by women of color.

“We white allies have so much work to do,” they’d go. “Women of color shouldn’t always have to be our teachers.” When I first heard this tune, it was music to my ears, and oh boy did I fall for it. It worked every. single. time.

“Oh my god, yes!” I’d exclaim, “Wow – truth! You’re seriously my favorite person right now!” (‘Cause it was my turn to offer music to their ears.) In retrospect, I realize that many of my initial responses to white allies were pre-programmed — a socialised reaction to ensuring that white women never lingered too long in their vulnerability without affirming their “goodness.” I resisted any responses that would risk making white people feel wrong–or exposed–in their self-righteousness. In fact, making them feel like they needed to *do* anything at all to earn my trust and respect as a woman of color always felt more like a risk than an opportunity. So I’d find myself dishing out exaggerated, empty, endorsements, couching my emotions in the elation I felt at even just the idea that a segment of white people had taken it upon themselves to give a damn about me.

But, here’s the thing: half the time, I never ever remembered their names, or remembered any of our conversations moving beyond the scope of the burden of racial consciousness they had taken up for themselves as “the good white people.” In fact, it took me quite a while to figure out that most of the “white allies” I’d meet in social change spaces (never – NEVER – at work, or at the grocery store, or in my regular every day life) were only ever “white allies” around women of color, and mainly to seek my/our approval.

I’ll never forget this one time a “white ally” had offered to volunteer at a professional networking event I was hosting for women of color a few years back; she’d insisted that she wanted to “do her part in supporting queer women of color community” by showing up and offering her help. She justified this act of good will with all the right rhetoric too: women of color rarely get this space, as a white ally I’m happy to do labor etc. Honestly, I felt so relieved and grateful for her support. I had no idea that her “help” would become my burden for the entire duration of the event.

It’s as though the minute she walked in, all eager and ready to be put to work, she realised that there’d actually be no more than a handful of white people at the event, and became really uncomfortable. “Oh wow, I’m one of the few white people, here…,” she said awkwardly, as she set down her bag and coat, “So cool.” [Replace with “Fuck! I’m not ready for this.”] So what did she do? This seemingly racially-conscious, well-meaning white ally followed me around like a nervous baby duckling for the entire event.  Yup, the entire event. She was so nervous about being left on her own to mingle and – god forbid – socialize with any of the women of color at the event, that she didn’t give me a single moment to have conversations with anyone else but her. Over 100 women of color attended my event that evening, and I don’t think I was able to really connect with any one of them because I had an over-eager, jittery, nervous white girl all up in my business every single minute.

I learned very quickly that being a “white ally” had nothing to do with how I, as a woman of color, needed them to show support when it mattered. Shoot, it was in a conference room of “white allies” that I found myself on the verge of tears (of anger and frustration), my voice shaking as I tried to explain to a privileged white gay dude that doing community outreach to people of color for a program that claimed to be advocating for diversity wasn’t a “distraction.” The “white allies” in the room sat back and watched the carnage as I pushed, and I fought, and I fell back, defeated. Then the “white allies” came to me after the meeting was over and denounced their brethren — “privileged white guy, he needs to do a lot of work on himself.” Apparently, being a white ally meant reminding women of color that they weren’t “those kinds” of white people, that they had our backs, just only ever in private, conveniently away from any of the actual emotional work involved in standing up to racism.

But here’s an afrofeminist principle for ya… “Relationships Over Rhetoric”

Don’t get me wrong — not all people who identify as “allies” do such a terrible job. I know dozens of self-identifying “allies” who hold themselves to a much higher standard, and actually practice their values. (Stay tuned, I’m running a series of interviews with them in June!). That said, terming oneself an ally doesn’t necessarily imply this standard. Some of my closest friends and family are the fiercest “allies” I have, but they’d never call themselves that. They’d insist, instead, that they’re being considerate, trying to get to know me better, or, as one of my best white guy friends says, “resisting against the default of being an asshole.” And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’d rather experience people–and their politics–through unlikely, awkward, strained, challenging, beautiful relationships built over time. That way, when we do clash or differ, we love each other enough to express the full range of our raw emotions – cry, yell, storm out – and always return to build the deeper, more intimate connections we need to take on the world together, truly united.

When someone fights for me, I want them to do so because they care about me as an individual – or as someone who reminds them of someone else that they care about – not just as some abstract theoretical concept. I’d rather that the “white allies”, the “straight allies”, the “male feminists” of the world do the work to build authentic relationships based on real love and respect, not just politically correct lexicon and rhetoric.

So, despite starting off as an activist who was really excited about the concept of “allies”, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found less use for words and definitions in social justice; labels like feminists, anti-sexists, radicals, allies etc simply don’t mean much to me anymore. Though I certainly see these ideas/concepts as a way of connecting with others initially, ultimately, relationships that last aren’t sustained by what you are to each other, but  how you treat each other.

Falling back on words and phrases that are intended to convey some sort of ideological purity won’t ever trump the transformation you’ll  experience within yourself (and others) if you truly put yourself out there — if you dare to be vulnerable, admit wrongs, take responsibility for your blind spots, hold your damn self accountable, an not for show, but for real.

So, screw the definitions; experience the ideas and world views through the relationships we build with people. Let’s commit to living in principle, and remain mindful of the core values that help us navigate our lives in the gray. Let’s embrace ambiguity, and its potential for unearthing surprise and disappointment in equal measure, because only through the natural bombardment that arises when we converse with strangers, can we learn more about the world, and about each other.

Preventing LGBT Youth of Color Suicides: A Case for Diversity

Written for Color Magazine (November 2010 Issue)

In September, just short of one month into the new school year, 5 out of the 9 reported suicides were confirmed to have been motivated by “anti-LGBT” bullying. Since then, I’ve witnessed a strong sense of urgency to end what is currently being referred to as an “epidemic of LGBT youth suicides” lead to a push for more LGBT-based protections and formal systems of support (e.g the creation of more Gay Straight Alliances in schools and colleges). However, these singular-identity based solutions fail to adequately address the problem of providing comprehensive support systems to youth of color due to their multicultural identities.

As an activist, I understand the LGBT community’s natural inclination to respond to the recent tragedies via overtly LGBT-specific suicide prevention campaigns, particularly as we face budget cuts to AIDS/HIV research programs, delays in ending employment-based discrimination in the workplace (ENDA) and in the military (DADT), and setbacks to our fight for federal equality via equal marriage. But as a queer woman of color who is also a survivor of attempted suicide, bearing witness to passionate, yet single-issue LGBT political rhetoric that continually lacks inclusion of the voices of people of color, on top of the seemingly lackadaisical response to this issue from straight communities of color, has been extremely frustrating.

Single-Issue Politics Alienates People of Color

I recently participated as a feature speaker at a “Candlelight Vigil for the Victims of Anti-LGBT Bullying” in front of the MA statehouse. That evening, I was delighted to see over 400 people in attendance and a crowd rich in cultural diversity, sexual orientation, age etc. Yet, in spite of a very diverse turnout, all but one of the speakers before me had placed nearly all of their emphasis on political/policy improvement action as it affected LGBT youth specifically, from “increasing funding for Gay Student Associations (GSAs)”, “introducing tougher legislation to protect youth from harassment based on their sexual orientation (via the Safe Schools Improvement Act)” to “calling state senators and demanding LGBT equality.” It seemed that yet again, the LGBT movement was on the brink of being consumed by the same single-issue politics that spear-headed Prop 8 into a brick wall and then blamed the African-American community for not standing by LGBT rights, as though they didn’t acknowledge African-Americans as an intersecting subpopulation of the LGBT community and that the language and/or how the Prop 8 movement talked about equality (framing it specifically around “marriage”) failed to align with or resonate with their (and other groups’) cultural values.

In the case of the vigil, our country, almost overnight, had received a shocking message (or reminder) that LGBT youth weren’t just at “greater risk of attempted suicide” as compared to their peers (a stark 4 to 1 ratio), but that this already alarming data fact had moved from clinical euphemism to harsh reality: LGBT youth were no longer just at risk, they were dying, and we needed to do something about it. Given the impact of these events on the gay community specifically, vigils and rallies such as the one that helped bring Boston’s progressive community together in response to these tragedies, have played a critical role in building momentum for change. However, like the gay white marriage movement, the collective call to legal arms and protections misses the mark by alienating people who are put off by political jargon but are empowered by the idea of more personal, direct, empathic, and inclusive strategies to create safe spaces for all of our youth; one that, for instance, recognizes that transgender youth are still marginalized within alleged LGBT-friendly spaces, and that the voices of people of color are often muffled by the cultural incompetencies of whitestream organizing strategies; one that is aware that equal protection as described by mainstream LGBT activists doesn’t automatically guarantee equal protection for the people that fall into any of the afore-mentioned identity groups, myself included.

Lack of Cultural Competency within Formal Support Systems

When I left Nigeria for the world’s largest melting pot, I was met with a shocking reality. Ironically, a group of African-American students — the students who actually “looked” like me — became my biggest bullies and oppressors for the two cold years I spent in boarding school in New Hampshire. Go figure, my African accent and cultural mannerisms were target for ridicule in a racially diverse school with almost no Africans represented.

I received daily hate mail in my PO Box with words that would be inappropriate to disclose, a group of girls began spreading really nasty rumors about me, and they sang profane songs with my name inserted whenever I was in sight. This soon escalated to more physically aggressive attacks — name calling in the cafeteria, stalking me back to my dorm, shoving and worse. I remember staying in my room for two whole days, starving, because I was afraid of running into them in the dining hall.

I felt completely alone. My family was halfway across the world, worried enough that their 17-yr old was alone in a foreign country. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that staff from the “multicultural students office” (a school-sanctioned support system for students of color) to whom they’d entrusted me accused me of “constantly evoking aggression by asserting my African identity all the time”. They frequently dismissed my pleas for intervention for fear of “making other students of color look bad.” When my dormitory head noticed my mood and school performance were on the decline, she encouraged me to see student counseling because I knew the school policy on harassment but didn’t want to get anyone suspended or expelled. Unfortunately, the counselor’s casually expressed class prejudices about the “poor” and “unexposed” black students who were bullying me (even though they were, in my defense) made me uncomfortable. Needless to say, I never went back.

To the outside world, it would seem that my prestigious boarding school did provide me with sound systems of support: a multicultural students office, a resident authority figure in my dorm, unlimited access to confidential counseling services and much more. But none of these formal support systems were equipped to deal with me wholly. In fact, they contributed to the feelings of isolation I felt by warranting that I fragment (or silence) parts of myself to receive the aid and support I needed. They couldn’t appreciate the complexities of my experience as an international student, or a student of color who wasn’t American, nor as an African student struggling to define herself in a world where even black people saw me as an “other”.

The result of a lack of diversity within the formal support systems in my school was that resources became inaccessible to me. I didn’t trust anyone to understand what I was going through. In addition to cultural barriers, their incessant recommendation of resources — brochures, peer hotlines, counselors etc — felt too much like the feeling you get when a doctor prescribes Ibuprofen before you disclose the nature of your symptoms. Too often, I was told what to do — report the bullies, stand up for yourself, ignore them — to counter one part of my problem, when all I needed was someone to listen to me, acknowledge the entirety of my experience rather than offer me impersonal “resources” for select parts of my identity.

Lack of LGBT-Awareness within Multicultural Support Groups

Two years later, a really diverse orientation week at my new college campus confirmed that I no longer had to suffer the loneliness of being an “other”. Relief. There was an African students association, a Black Student’s Union, and even an International Co-Ed living group that I decided to join. Moreover, my dormitory housed multiple language houses, which further satisfied my need for a cross-cultural community. I made friends easily and figured it’d be smooth sailing to graduation. But just when I thought I’d finally arrived at a point in my life where I could fit in, I began to question my sexuality, which alienated me almost instantly from all of the perceivably homophobic affinity groups to which I belonged.

The most cited approach to LGBT suicides that I’ve heard is the creation of more GSAs. I won’t speak for every student, but will say that for me, as a person of color, I never sought out the GSA because every flier, brochure or representation (in the form of students or faculty) that I came upon didn’t resonate with me at all. I often thought to myself that those weird white people that hung out in some lounge on Thursday evenings didn’t have anything in common with me. How could they? They talked about shunning their families for independence and recreating families from a network full of strangers, a philosophy that clashed too much with my cultural beliefs.

But even with my initial resistance to my school’s GSA, I’m sure that I’d have visited at least once if the director had been person of color. Conversely, the black student union was no better. I never felt comfortable among devout Christians who went to church as a group every Sunday, then casually expressed their homophobia over brunch, along with a tirade of derogatory comments made about my African heritage. In a campus that was overzealous with providing resources, support groups, and counseling, I faced the same issue I’d experienced in my high school: lack of diversity within each formal support group, which left me feeling isolated, fragmented, and one night, without any hope. I attempted suicide.

Diversity Saves Lives

Diversity is about perspective. None of the formal support systems at either of my schools had been equipped with adequate enough perspective to empathize with my needs and so they failed in supporting me. It isn’t going to be enough to just harp on administrators and legislators to act quickly to improve anti-bullying policies and create more formal support systems if students with multiple identities continue to fall out of the scope. We must put just as much (if not more) effort in expanding the reach and improving the relatability of formal support systems as we do in creating them. Hiring more POC staff — not just “white allies” — toincrease cultural competency in LGBT spaces is a good start. But straight communities of color must also commit to developing LGBT leadership within POC spaces if we are to achieve full equality for all.

And yet, while we support the efforts of school administrations and advocacy groups, it is important for all of us to be open, transparent, and visible, so that kids/teens don’t feel so alone, or like their struggles can’t be overcome. It is hard to know which parts of our identities a kid/teen may need to see to feel real hope. But diversity begins with the courage to present all aspects of ourselves to the world, all the time, and without fear. So for the sake of our youth, we must be brave enough to be ourselves.

New Narratives, New Voices: Why I Hate the Word Diversity

I am so excited about this new workshop I’ve designed to highlight new narratives and redefine “diversity”! I’ll be presenting it at the Join the Impact conference this weekend, so if you’re in Boston, register to attend and check out my session!

Thoughts That Came to Me As I Designed This Workshop:

As a bicultural Nigerian, I identify very strongly with the African immigrant experience and obsess about not doing enough for my parents at home.

On American soil, I wear my afrofeminist label proudly, and fight with words alongside other feminists to raise women’s voices on the web (and the page, very soon).

As a queer community organizer, I advocate for the increased visibility of people of color within the LGBT movement (so that it doesn’t get reduced to the current conversation about “black community and black churches”).

To say that I wear “many hats” is an understatement. But in my fight for “diversity”, I’ve often found myself pigeon-holed into choosing one fight — the “people of color” fight — over others (sexism, immigration etc), and losing critical ground on those other fronts as a result.

I am often asked (however inadvertently) by white organizers to compartmentalize my anger, and then intellectualize it (read: “present at conference”, since diversity has become synonymous with choosing one or two issues to orate about). So, when I was casually invited to present on the “(Lack of) Inclusion of People of Color in the LGBT Movement”, I found myself thinking of the many swords I carry, and wishing that I could hold them all in front of me with  both arms, heavy and close to my heart, so that people could see how wearisome fighting for and against  the intersecting communities I belong to can be. It’s not so easy; I often imagine myself crouched defensively in the center of a circle lined by all the isms, privileges, and human rights violations I face — homophobia, racism, americanism, sexism, feminism, transphobia;  blunt and shining swords lay scattered in the dusty ground around me from switching blades and direction too quickly in concurrent battles for social justice, and sometimes, for survival.

But in my ideal world, I would fight for one kind of justice — and for many — with the same sword. I am tired of having to choose which parts of my identity to include or exclude from my rants. So, in response to the invitation, I decided to design a session that explored this new idea: What is Diversity? And how can we redefine it in the context of a younger, multinational, pro-feminist, and trans-positive movement?

Currently, the “LGBT movement” sounds like the white gay man marriage fight (supported by a smart troop of butch white women). The Q is left out. The I is left out, and inquiring about other letters begets played out, trivializing “alphabet” jokes instead of a sincere commitment to make sure everyone get the invitation next time.

“People of color” narratives often focus on the African-American experience and ignore the complexities of the immigrant subset (Latin@s, Africans, Asians etc ) — and let’s not even talk about non-immigrant Native Americans). As a person of color myself I’m often called upon to present comprehensive solutions to this problem (or “facilitate dialogue” about “people of color issues”), as if all people of color were berated equal; I’m Nigerian/African, and quite honestly, I can’t always relate to the black people in this country.

Feminist perspectives often carelessly leave out women of color, though they’re often able (and encouraged) to intellectualize this popular snafu and re-present well-articulated, buzz-word-filled theses about “gender” and “sexuality” to eager auditoriums across the country. Have you attended a Women’s Studies seminar, panel, or conference session lately? I have — and it’s very scary to hear decisions being made, leaders being influenced, and demonstrations being organized in the absence of (all but 2 or 3) women of color.

Radical lesbian feminists (yeah, they deserve a separate title) tend to be a little bit more diversity-conscious and inclusive of women of color (who also claim that title) but side-stepping the ageism that exists within their version of the movement is no easy feat. I was just at Stonewall Communities “Sex and Gender in the City” inter-generational conference, and I remember feeling like I’d been tricked into attending a roast for young people. Every other joke demeaned, devalued, and discredited the work of millennial social activists because apparently we haven’t been beaten or bled enough — and all we do is invent new labels or throw parties. If I’m not yet qualified to speak to (not for) the various experience(s) of queers in my generation then who the hell is?

And don’t get me started with the sexism that is rampant among gay men. Across every social justice issue I care about, there are people who advocate for the inclusion of people of color, but I’m never as chronically overwhelmed by sexism and male privilege as I am within my fight for diversity within the queer community. In my hetero/femme days, white gay men thought I was “fabulous”, bought me martinis, and invited me to their condos for dinner. That changed the instant I went futch. Now, unless I’m introduced by someone from the inner circle, I remain completely invisible.

Meanwhile, the alternative is mother-managing egotistical turf wars between POC-run organizations over whose “good” is “best” “for the community” so that we can at least pretend to these white people that we all play nice (or know each other) and “collaborate”, while behind-the-scenes (and sometimes in public), we’re fighting each other with armor, creating a meaningless number of snazzy acronym-ed programs, reinventing the wheel because we won’t work together, and squabbling for the same seats at the conference table.

And to top it all off, everyone mentioned in the last five paragraphs is failing miserably at even noticing that trans and intersex people — arguably the most ignored/marginalized of us all — are being completely left out of the picture! Aaaaagh!

[… a zen moment of silence.]

The session I’ve designed for the conference is an attempt to bring different voices together, and will explore what it means to define diversity by the narrow lines of “inclusion” or “exclusion”.

As part of a fishbowl conversation, local organizers and allies to communities of color will share their perspectives on the LGBT movement, the role of diversity (or lack of it) and the perceived effects of augmenting / silencing different voices. The fishbowl will be followed by a brief Q&A and open brainstorm around how we can move forward from the popular, yet very narrow discussions of inclusion/exclusion that exist within the LGBT movement.

Diversity is a dynamic collection of perspectives; it is an ideology, a concept, not a quantifiable attribute… or at least it shouldn’t be. To apply diversity (vs. coasting along using it as a buzzword), we MUST recognize that truly including people — as whole beings — implies that we don’t just acknowledge, but address ALL parts of their unique identities, and empower them to fight for all movements to which they belong, because in doing so, we empower the only movement that matters: the human one.

I hope to see you at the session.

Session 4 (3:30PM – 4:45PM)

A Fishbowl Discussion and Workshop Featuring the Big Fish below:

is a Nigerian immigrant afrofeminist queer woman of color, media activist and social commentator at Spectra Speaks, a self-proclaimed “iQWOC”, and the founder of Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston)

ANA CHAVEZ is native to Miami by way of Providence, an Ecuadorian queer woman of color and youth arts educator, and the founder and recipient of the RISD Diversity Awards

CARNELL FREEMAN is a local Bostonian, a gay black professional in finance and HR recruiting, an experienced Connecter and the founder of Men of Color Creating Change (MOCCC)

is a fierce queer femme Puertominican nacionalista, a poet by the name of Idalia, who has a 9-5 fighting for cultural competency around latin@ issues in the corporatized health industry

BONAE L’AMOUR (AKA BAO) is an Asian American queer-identified transguy from New Orleans, a photographer with a consistent blog, and the founder of MAGLOA – a safe haven for academically gifted public school students in Boston

ROBBIE SAMUELS a white, queer, feminist, trans man with extensive community organizing, event logistics and fundraising experience, and the founder of Socializing for Justice, a cross-issue progressive community, network and movement in Boston

Organized by: Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston) –

Glad about GLAD’s Inclusive Outreach for Annual Winter Dance Party

I wasn’t even supposed to blog today — it’s so nice outside, and I don’t know how long this sun will last so I gotta make this quick. I cannot contain my excitement, intense feelings of hope, and pride in my community as GLAD’s Annual Winter Dance party gets a makeover this year.

Friends across multiple social and professional networks are seriously buzzing about this party — hey, I’m here blogging about it! I’ve been promoting the Winter Dance all week, and have found that many of my friends were already making group plans to attend. Moreover, my new connections (including QWOC+ Boston newbies), have been reaching out to me about it, too — via Facebook, Twitter, email etc — so clearly both offline and online word of-mouth marketing is working full throttle to ensure a fun, energetic, and diverse attendee list at the event on Sunday.

For those of you who don’t know, Gay Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) is a non-profit public interest law firm that fights for LGBTQ equality under law throughout New England. Basically, they file BIG legal suits against bodies (including the Supreme Court? Daaang) that discriminate against LGBTQ people, but more importantly, they win :).

Their legal efforts have truly (and practically, down to the dollar) improved the lives of the LGBTQ community; groups and individuals who faced discrimination now have justice for it, and the rest of us can rest assured of increased legal protection due to their remarkable wins. GLAD has performed unimaginable, modern-day miracles. Take for example, their recent win against the US Tax Court, who blocked a transwoman from deducting the significant medical expenses she incurred from her sex reassignment surgery. OR, their ground-breaking Aids Law Project win against the Supreme Court in 1998, which holds that people with HIV are protected from discrimination — right to healthcare, for one — under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

GLAD has been fighting for me for years. So, how is it that an LGBTQ community organizer like myself had no idea who they were up until just over a year ago? And how is it that I only knew ‘of’ them because a friend of mine happens to be their Special Events Manager (ah Robbie, dare I say you’re behind this new makeover? ;)); I knew nothing about their work or accomplishments in the legal realm until relatively recently.

As part of QWOC+ Boston’s diversity-via-partnership-building strategy, I had gotten to know almost every single social justice organization that was doing work in the LGBTQ community — and not just by name. I was well familiar with their service-based programs and their event programming; I’d discussed future/potential collaborations with their development staff and other organizers; I’d met many of their board members at fundraisers, informal social gatherings, and networking events. Yet, GLAD stayed under my radar.

Here are a few reasons I think they didn’t appeal to me:

  • Nothing about the way GLAD presented themselves — their special events, their press releases, their dry online presence — seemed intended for younger people. The subtext was too heavily focused on a gay movement many of us were still learning about and hadn’t fully plugged into. How could I care about national legal issues when my mental health was in jeopardy from having no sense of social community in my own city?
  • GLAD’s special events were waaay too expensive for recently-out-of-college me, and seemed like they had been planned mainly for an affluent, philanthropic white gay male donor list e.g. they hosted live auctions with items going for thousands of dollars, like long oversea vacations for people with more flexible work schedules (and 9 friends in the same tax bracket)
  • Because of this, even when I could attend via complimentary tickets to QWOC+ Boston, I often felt like one of the youngest attendees. And, needless to say, I was usually one of a handful of people of color in the room
  • Again, the legal, political, lobbying, bill fighting stuff just didn’t resonate with me and the people I knew. I represented a group of young professional people of color and allies, who were still trying to create a multi-identity accepting and inclusive community in Boston. A national white male gay rights movement seemed even further away from my reality back then (just a few years ago), when I was still growing QWOC+ Boston. I didn’t think my support (or lack of it) in any form would have an impact at all on the work that GLAD was doing.

That was me, then. Flash forward four years later, where I’m now a loyal follower of GLAD in part because I’m a little older, financial stable in my career, and more plugged in politically. Since equality for all is extremely important to me — I fight for it daily, in my own way — I want to get involved with organizations like GLAD, and I’m sure others do too! So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m very encouraged by their recent efforts to appeal to a more diverse group of potential donors.

I’ve made a few observations about the GLAD Winter T-Dance’s event marketing that I’d like to point out:

  • A Tea Dance is a gender-neutral event format — it appeals to both male and female identified attendees, unlike a dragqueen show (gay boys), or wet t-shirt contest (Cali Dykes). Okay, just kidding, but you get the point. That’s a diversity tip we should all store somewhere. Love it.
  • A lower price point (cheaper than a $75 mini-fundraiser faster, but boasts more sentimental ‘value’ than a $10 admission fee to a nightclub) will undoubtedly induce a huge wave of excitement; people love to support causes that are within their financial means (see post on Valentine’s Day). And now, there’ll be no need to remind them to tip the bartenders! Love it.
  • Music, music, music! DJ Mocha spinning “Dance” hits! Yes! Who doesn’t wanna party on a Sunday? You’re even allowed to Suggest Songs for the Playlist via a Facebook Widget. That’s great for the DJ AND the eager dancing crowd that may wanna “shake it up” per the Bay Windows advertisement. What’s more, is that they’re providing a Jazz Lounge for the people who just wanna schmooze (and preferably not over a loudspeaker). Love it!
  • In addition to the big-money raffle prizes, GLAD has (as always) the “Choose Your Own Raffle” section, featuring gifts like Red Sox vs. Yankee tickets, Spa Massages, Dinner and a Movie for Two Packages etc. Over 20 of these, apparently. So I’m delighted that the prizes they choose to highlight on their website could be for anybody. Love it!
  • In addition to using all the popular social media channels (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), GLAD offered an even bigger discount to community member by providing special codes to small groups. I was delighted to receive an email that said I was being offered two complimentary tickets to attend, but that I could also share a discount code with QWOC+ Boston members as well. Social networking, viral marketing, and community engagement all in one?? I LOVE this!

These “special features” may have everything to do with GLAD’s long overdue success with at least exciting a younger, gender-neutral, multicutural crowd about their upcoming winter event, or nothing at all. I’ll know for sure on Sunday. But regardless of what the turnout is like, I am encouraged by their efforts, and am looking forward to having a good time with my friends and fellow POC community organizers on Sunday. I love fresh starts.

Go GLAD! :)

Harvard LGBT Students of Color and Allies Talk Race and Queerness, Gender Takes a Back Seat

Harvard's Team logo

Last night, I had the pleasure of facilitating a student discussion about the experience of being an LGBT person of color and/or ally on the Harvard campus. I was invited to speak about my work as the QWOC+ Boston founding organizer, and about the complexities of having multiple identities as a queer person of color. Read the article in the Crimson (Harvard’s student newspaper).

The event was hosted by the staff and interns of the Harvard Women’s Center, [correction: including Queer Students and Allies, and BlackOut. I originally thought there were no queer or of color student groups listed as co-sponsors or organizers of this discussion — a common tactic to draw out queer or questioning of color youth ].  A good number of students of color and allies showed up — this speaks to the power of collaboration and partnership-building as a method of creating diversity — and even if some of them were on what I heard referenced as “Harvard Time”, the event commenced promptly at 7:30PM and didn’t end till around 9:15PM, when we were all still chirping away about what we could do as individuals to improve the (social) support systems available across college campuses.

Facilitating discussions like these is never easy; for one, it takes a while for students (or anyone really) to warm up to the occasion, but then on top of that, with sensitive topics like race, culture, sexuality, and gender, you’re also asking that near complete strangers open up to sharing some very personal experiences — and strong opinions. Needless to say, it can get racey really quickly. So as the facilitator, I made sure to set some ground rules (e.g. no talking over each other, use the “I” form when sharing an opinion so as not to universalize it for everyone else etc.), and smile BIG as often as possible, to keep the atmosphere light, warm, and open. [Side Note: This picture caught me during an off, intensely cerebral moment!]

I must say that the 15-20 or so Harvard students that attended the event were so respectful of each other that I didn’t really need to enforce any rules. They were also really insightful students. Once or twice, I forgot that I was the facilitator — with the role of guiding the conversation and keeping it going — and would get lost in a student’s well-articulated description of their discontentment with the LGBTQ social landscape. I’d be nodding my head vigorously, then be jolted back into action by my sudden awareness of the  eager, questioning eyes that bore into my befuddled expression, expecting some kind of “answer”… from me. But the truth is, as many of us disillusioned adults know, there is no answer to the problem of diversity. No ‘one’ answer, at least. So that was my message: Diversity is constant, and shape-shifting, but more importantly, it is a collective of perspectives, which we much strive to hear as often as possible.

Take for instance, the great turnout of LGBT students of color and allies at the discussion last night. There were so many different cultural/identity groups represented in the room that it would be easy for the organizers (and facilitators) to boast success in achieving diversity as far as the turnout and quality of conversation. However, as someone who’s been self-trained to notice missing voices, I noted that most of the conversation was driven by the male-identified attendees, which, quite frankly, came as no real surprise; QWOC+ Boston exists as a space primarily for women-identified queer people of color in part because of the sexism and male privilege that women experience within the larger gay community.

As much as queer people of color can discuss feeling “left out” by a predominantly white, male driven gay rights movement, the same can be said of gay men of color leading a male-driven multicultural-within-LGBTQ sub-movement, and it was quite interesting to see this already budding at the collegiate level. To think that we were in the Women’s Center, yet a large number of women sat through the majority of the conversation without uttering but a few words. To be fair, there were a few white allies in the room (predominantly women-identified), who did disclose that they felt more comfortable listening than talking, but even their silence is food for thought.

I dream of a world in which white allies engage in conversation with people of color — not just with other white allies. (Another day, another post.) Moreover, I dream of a world in which queer people of color don’t simply acknowledge that race isn’t the only attribute by which people can be (and are) marginalized, but proactively incorporate this awareness into their LGBTQ organizing efforts. Forming new coalitions around race, compartmentalized, cannot be the answer to marginalization; the perspectives of women, trans and gender non-conforming must be integrated into any action plan if we are all to move towards unity and raise our voices, together.

Many, many thanks to the organizing interns — special thanks to Eva Rosenberg for her fierce, down-to-earth allyness — and the supportive staff of the Harvard’s Women’s Center for creating such an important space for their students (and providing the most delicious fruit dip! Finally, a very humble Thank You to the students for opening up to me and letting me be a part of their conversation. Much love to you all, see you on twitter! :)

[MIT Rules! ;)]

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