Browse Category: My Work

Queer People of Color History in Boston: Thank You Letta Neely

Last night, Letta told me, “I’m proud of you,” and I was speechless. She had no idea how big a part she played in all of this.

I first saw her perform more than two years ago at the Dyke March. She performed some of her poems, and then just spoke frankly about everything from trans-people, to immigration, sexism within the queer community, and being allies to other causes outside of being gay or lesbian. At the time, I was part of the planning committee for the annual Dyke March – my first time volunteering in the queer community, and had been feeling somewhat disappointed at the world of LGBT community organizing; everyone seemed to be much older and so ‘boxed-in’ to doing things ‘the way they’d always done them’; bi-phobia pervaded many conversations but went un-checked, regularly; women of color were completely ignored (‘unintentionally’ – after all, we always invite them), and I was wondering what on earth I was doing sitting amongst ultra-American, predominantly (politically correct way to say “all”) white, New Englanders who I didn’t have anything in common with. Oh, wait… that’s right. We were all “dykes”. Yikes!

Anyway (and I didn’t know this then), the Dyke March some time ago decided that it made for a sensible formula to invite people of color to be the main performers during the annual Friday rally in order to draw out a ‘diverse’ crowd. Don’t ask. (Poor Zilli Musik, I don’t know how many times they’ve been asked to perform but…) Anyway, on this particular year, Letta Neely took the stage. And, it changed my life.

As I sat on the grass listening to her, I felt like I knew her. “Finally! Someone gets what it’s like to be me,” I kept thinking. She was loud, alright. Opinionated. Strong-willed. Idealistic. Passionate. A “wordsmith” for real. Listening to her empowered me. Somehow, she’d made it up there to get people to listen. To learn something. I couldn’t help but think that I’d been wasting my time in endless, drawn-out, unproductive meetings, organizing for the social rights of white lesbians. What the hell? Needless to say, I found my calling, and left the Dyke March Committee to do… something. I wished them well, but stated that there was just no way I could go on volunteering for them when my own people had no where to go, no place to speak and be heard… no one representing them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but being on the Dyke March, and seeing someone like Letta up on stage had confirmed for me that I could do something. I had the power to do something. And, I think, for many young idealists wanting to impact change somehow, this idea is the most important, most powerful weapon to carry.

QWOC+ Boston’s myspace page popped up that August. And the first event was planned with MadFemmePride on October 17, 2006; a bit of history someone from the crowd felt they needed to respond with last night, when Letta posed the open question, “What do you know of queer people of color history in Boston?”

It felt weird to hear my name thrown into that pool, especially since I’m so young and most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. But I will own it today. I did do something. I did. And I should be proud of it.

Almost a year later I saw Letta perform again at a Truth Serum event at the Milky Way. I told my girlfriend at the time, “That woman… she’s the one that inspired me to start QWOC+ Boston.” Sensing my deep admiration, my girlfriend urged me to go up to Letta after the performance and talk to her. “You should tell her! I’m sure she’d be happy to know! Go on…” And so I walked over, slowly, nervously, which is quite rare for me; I’ve practiced being confident and sure of myself in public since my summer sales job in college. However, as I approached Letta, I felt really… young, and awkward, like a nerdy school boy asking a really pretty girl to dance. I don’t remember what I managed to say to her, but it couldn’t have made any sense. I probably reverted to the standard “Hi, I just wanted to say I’m a huge fan I love your work-,” to which she replied almost immediately, “Thank you. Thank you.” Of course she’d heard words like that before. I signed up for her mailing list, then promptly returned to my girlfriend. “Did you tell her?” she asked. “Yeah, kinda,” I lied.

I’m not sure when next I’ll get the chance to say this to her in person. I choked again yesterday. But at least I can say something now, on my blog:

Thank you, Letta Neely, for arming me with purpose that day. Thank you for continuing to inspire me. Thank you for everything that you have done.

Day Three of QWOC Week

I wonder how many times I can use the word “magical” in my blogs this week. I really can’t think of any other way to describe the past few days. In fact, I’m checking an online thesaurus right now…

Main Entry: magical
Part of Speech: adjective
Synonyms: charming, enchanted, fascinating, marvelous, mysterious, occult, spellbinding, spooky

Spooky? Oh hell no. Enchanted. Yes. Marvelous. Yes. Spellbinding… in some ways. But I still prefer “Magical”; I picture sparkling lights and fireflies; children following the unexpected with their eyes, joyfully suspended in moments surrounded by warmth, laughter, and camaraderie, without a care in the world. That’s what last night’s, OUTSPOKEN event felt like to me; an evening filled with beautiful fireflies, and one to remember.

All our performers brought. it. Aliza and I worked seamlessly – and in unison – during the course of the evening, managing changes, updates, and even one cancellation. The volunteers were excited to be there, and remained pro-actively helpful throughout the night. It was good to see some newcomers really settling into their QWOC+ Boston volunteers niche’s, talking to people about the organization, the events, our recent successes, me (haha!), and the energy around them; it was clear that some of them were beginning to take on more ownership of our little grassroots organization. Everything was near perfect. But, for me, the secret ingredient to last night’s success was the age diversity in the room, and in the show.

It started with our lineup. Letta Neely and Judah Dorrington, two pioneers that paved the way to raising awareness of LGBT multiculturalism in Boston via Black Pride, Sistah-to-Sistah, and various other community engagements, were in the house. It was such an honor, for those that knew who they were, and even – I dare say – those people who had no clue; time and time again last night the theme of old school partnering with new school was celebrated by hearty cheers, “Obama” call-outs, and moments of utter silence in reverence of the words of wisdom being spit on stage. I couldn’t have felt any prouder (or more humbled) to be part of an event that helped raise these women’s voices in our community today. Both Judah and Letta said to me at different points: “I’m proud of you”, and I got all choked up.

As someone from a culture that values its elders – e.g. we don’t throw our parents into homes when they get old, they come and live with us instead – and grew up sitting in a circle with siblings, cousins, friends, listening to the funny uncle, or old grandmama telling stories of life, love, children, spirits that whistle in the night.. OUTSPOKEN was an event that felt as close as I could get to that part of home. My face ached from smiling so hard during Judah’s performance, as I watched her relish the opportunity she had to sing her heart out to a diverse crowd, and have FUN. It was such a delight. Judah and Letta brought some wisdom and perspective to the stage, alright, but Ignacio, Kay, and the Good Asian Drivers, reminded us all that our generation isn’t entertaining any ideas about letting the work of our pioneers be all for nothing.

Ignacio Rivera not only sent so many women into heat (seriously, I saw so many fanning themselves as he was talking), he stomped on so many gender stereotypes within a minute of getting on stage. Sexual liberation is my new favorite thing now. I can’t wait to see his film during the Cinemental event later on this month! Kay Barrett did what I knew he would do. Political isn’t the word. White/class privilege annihilation would be a little too strong, but that dude held no punches when he got up there. “Where are my queer people of color?” I loved it! ‘Cause at events like that, white people show up sometimes and forget that it’s not about them. But in the spirit of unity, queer pride, recognizing those of us who can’t be as loud and that we must carry on our shoulders out love, I take my hat off to the Good Asian Drivers.

Every single time I see Kit and Melissa perform, I am blown away. “Queer Nation” and “Red Guitar” are my two favorites, and I’d only just heard the latter! It was a beautiful way to end the evening, Kit speaking on our flaws even as queers, the sexism, racism, classism, and hypocrisy that we’re probably more vulnerable to as the ‘liberated other’; we have real problems, still. Melissa’s musical rage at the media and MTV, challenged us to think about who we are as consumers of pop culture, and urged us to speak up and against all of it! Wow. Thank you, Good Asian Drivers, for supporting QWOC WEEK and speaking to this particular crowd that needed to hear the truths of our community; we are all not queer-rated equally.

A number of white people came up to talk to me afterwards, moved by QWOC+ Boston’s work and wanting to volunteer. This was wonderful. I am always very excited about white people who are ready to challenge themselves and their prejudices, especially since at events like OUTSPOKEN (and many other QWOC+ events in general), it’s very common to experience groups of white people showing up just to hang out with each other. They literally will not engage with anyone but other white people. So, they never learn anything, they never challenge themselves, and I have to continue dealing with ignorant comments/viewpoints on Obama whenever I bump into them.

Unfortunately, as wonderful as last night was, it was hard not to notice that during key moments, which illuminated race/class/white privilege, a couple of popular white clubbers remained un-engaged with the performance, and instead, chatted away in the corner, and spent time ordering their drinks. I wonder if they were aware of how it looked. I wonder if they’re aware of their own subconscious discomfort with the idea that all is not fair in the world and that maybe, they should care. I wonder if this subconscious discomfort manifests itself in conscious decisions
to avoid talking/engaging with others about these things. I wondered. But not for too long. ‘Cause yesterday wasn’t about privileged white people who have no wish to grow.

OUTSPOKEN was about creating a safe space for “outspoken” queer people of color – our black pride pioneers, our activist poets, spoken-word performers, immigrant self-defense teachers, and proud, sexually liberated trans-entities – being given a chance to speak, without any shade or color of resistance, even if it was just for one night.

Day Two of QWOC WEEK

I don’t even know where to start. I had every intention of blogging about my experience yesterday at the Monday Health panel, and talking about what it was like to sit there and listen to those beautiful, inspiring, proud, nurturing women speak to me. To ‘me’, as a queer woman of color in Boston. There were four people that had been given the space and time to address me and my concerns. That fact alone, and in itself would’ve felt warm and fuzzy enough to write about but the LOVE, and desire to guide/mentor that I felt radiating from the table was simply unmatched by any other sentiment in the room, at least for me.

I wanted to write about all of this. But after last night, quite frankly, I feel emotionally congested and choked up. In a good way. I am so moved.

It’s funny, as I started this week, I felt weary, and longed for an extended period of me time after this week was over. But after last night’s panel, I began to feel rejuvenated. This community organizing… it’s an addiction. I’m beginning to feel like Gladys, the plant that was unfortunate enough to belong to me while I was a consultant in a software company. I would travel for weeks on end, and return to see her dying, and wilted, brown from no sun or care. And then I would water her, and literally bring her back to life, only to leave again for an extended period of time. The cycle continued for about two years. It must have been so exhausting to be on the brink of death every two weeks! But I digress…

I am fully charged.

Tonight, the Center for New Words brought me back to life in a BIG way. Not only was I moved to tears to see all the interracial couples and friendships in the room, truly excited to be there and happy to meet everyone else, but I was moved by all the words… about QWOC+ Boston, about me, about finally having a space to talk. The constant words of gratitude I kept hearing reminded me that sticking to my ideals had won… QWOC+ had won the ‘hearts’ of people, not just their wallets.

So many people took it upon themselves to mention why they love what QWOC+ Boston does, why they support it, why it’s important to have, why they applaud me for doing it (which really made me embarrassed). Nevertheless, it was so wonderful to hear, especially after I had just been told by someone that these “key” people in the community don’t work with me… Interesting that the key people they mentioned weren’t key health advocates/providers, legal activists, other community organizers, or any other people working in pivotal positions required to sustain an entire community. They were business people. I see this now, and am relieved at the common thread (QWOC+ Boston isn’t a for-profit business and thus the conflict) but at the time, I did give into the insecurities that come with leadership sometimes. I did question myself… why couldn’t I work with any of these people? What was it that I was doing wrong? I was actually beginning to spend too much time thinking about why I couldn’t compromise our ideals for the sake of other people profiting!

But during the interracial relationships discussion I remembered why I’ve always been picky about collaborations and alliances, and why I’ve chosen to work on building relationships with some people/organizations over others. There were a number of reasons that came up. But the biggest and most important one was that there are some people that will align themselves with your vision and so work with you towards it. And, then, there are some people that won’t. They don’t see the ‘bigger’ importance of sticking to a vision that’s inclusive and authentically welcoming to all, above feeding off some sort of manufactured rivalry. So, all they did/do is repeatedly get in the way of it. What I saw last night could not be described by my words, nor recounted in any blog I could create. All I can say is that there was magic. People felt it. And, in fact, I’m resolved to posting people’s words on the qwocboston site/blog during the week. The world needs to see that there are women (and men!) that believe in the work that we’re doing.

I have been fortunate to work with true allies: Center for New Words (twice now in one year), Socializing for Justice, the Fenway, Black Pride, Queer Asian Pacific Alliance, Good Asian Drivers, and so many wonderful people who believe in me and what I’m doing. I am choosing to focus on these alliances, and these collaborations, because their love will always re-energize me and pull me forward.

I got this letter last night, from a straight feminist man (author of “G Spot”) that sat in the crowd. I have to share:

Hi: I just wanted to express my thoughts tonight about one of the best CNW’s “Feminism and Dessert” Workshops I have ever been to. I will never even think of touching a women’s hair, unless I am personally involved with her. I will not consider myself as not being a (racist) in the sense of not being prejudiced; Nor will I ever imagine what it must feels like being a woman of color and how she feels about growing up her whole life and how others may perceive her as beautiful (because of her pigment of her skin.) or just being born a woman of color.

I plan to write about the events tonight in my Feminist Web Blog “My G Spot” and mention your organization on face book, Code Pink Boston Meet-up and even NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts because I feel more women need to know about the tremendous work you are doing this week and all year long. I was really moved and touched tonight by the compassion and caring spirit everyone shared with each other and just because I felt like a minority (as being one of the only two males in the room; the big guy by the window wearing the glasses and my sandals with the painted toenails-another story all together) I didn’t feel uncomfortable and didn’t feel I didn’t belong there tonight, thank you for that.

I would love to volunteer for your organization in some capacity but I hesitate because I am just a straight white male who loves feminism and supporting/working for women’s right and women’s cause. Nevertheless, if you feel that I could be of service to your organization in the near future please let me know. I am so happy I had the chance to meet so many warm and charming women tonight and just sat back and enjoyed myself and all it’s pleasantries. Thank you again.
Peace and Love

Anyone who knows what QWOC+ Boston stands for knows exactly what I’m going to write to this beautiful person. If you get it, you are welcome. And you do, so you are :o) That plus in QWOC+ Boston’s name is where all this love comes from, indiscriminately. And people like you make it possible.

Day One of QWOC WEEK

It’s finally happening. I woke up this morning and thought, “It’s QWOC WEEK.” There wasn’t that much excitement in my mind as I thought about it because I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, I’m still eating irregularly, my hair needs to be done, and there was a part of me that still wondered who I was doing this for… me? Had I become this deluded person that felt like I was filling a void that didn’t need to be filled? Did Boston care that there was an entire week dedicated to celebrating the queer women of color that have contributed so much to our community for years? Did queer women of color care? I wondered…

And perhaps the self-doubt was my way of dealing with all the anxiety I’d been feeling about this week, all the stress it had created for me in additional to regular life’s pain points, all the drama/negativity from people who still don’t get what I’m trying to do, all the nervousness that comes with putting your heart out on the table, and on the line, for something you truly love… Whatever the real internal was, I resolved to be happy before I left my apartment this morning. I told myself that if I accomplished nothing from this week other than getting the volunteers/organizers together, who seemed happy to be a part of something and to be meeting other queer women of color in this city, it would still be worth it.

I have learned so much over the past year. I feel like I’ve been on this accelerated leadership development program. Images of boy tweens that I have seen, who are growing so fast – too fast – that their arms seem too long for their bodies, their ears too big, their chests broadened in defiance of puberty, but still flat with years to go… Life is moving faster than their bodies can keep up with. I feel that way these days; that qwoc+ boston’s success exploded in front of me and I was not yet fully capable; that I took on a burden that was too big for me and have struggled to keep up and ‘step up’ each and every step of the way; that my fear of letting something beautiful fall for lack of wisdom has held me back at times. This journey has been stretching. It still is. But, as I think this, I know that it has also been such a blessing to have learned all what I have learned, to have met all the wonderful people that I have met, and come to love… Even the ones that have not been so wonderful, or so nice…

Once upon a time I was naive. I thought that everyone was good. That everyone was an idealist inside. That everyone was fair. That everyone could always see the bigger picture, no matter how big their egos were. I was wrong. And there has been no stronger reminder than my various experiences this year. It’s even been a reminder that I am not so perfect myself. That I am fallible. That I am human, and that I make mistakes. However, I am proud of the fact that I haven’t lost my way, still. That in spite of how difficult it may have been time and time again – I am not thick-skinned enough to suffer continued hurt/disappointment – I have stayed true to myself.

So, it’s day one of QWOC WEEK, and here I am, the “Head Organizer”, looking like crap from no sleep, feeling like crap from no time to take care of myself, but feeling as proud as a gardener in spring. There are so many smiley faces online, so many exclamations (“QWOC WEEK!”) in my inbox, facebook updates, and voicemails. There is something budding today… and it’s beautiful.

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