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! ;)]