I’ve been an activist with Black Lives Matter for two years now. My inspiration to found the second Black Lives Matter chapter in Canada stemmed from a desire to bring the lives (and deaths) of Black folks into the Canadian imaginary; to encourage white Canadian settlers to acknowledge their ancestors’ involvement in slavery, colonialism and segregation and to celebrate Blackness in its brilliance. What I did not anticipate is the discomfort, disbelief and dissatisfaction expressed by people – Black and non-Black alike – that the organization was run almost entirely by queer and trans folks.
People often ask me what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would think of Black Lives Matter. I have many answers to this question. First, he would be utterly heartbroken that we still have to do this work; that we are still living under white supremacy and that Black bodies are still subject to over-policing, violence and murder. In other ways, he would be proud, I imagine. We are still fighting the fight, putting our lives on the line for what we believe in and furthering the emancipation of Black people. Finally though, I think he would be disapproving. Would he, a Republican and a Baptist minister, have regarded me, a queer, non-binary femme as an equal? Would he deem me worthy and capable of leading a movement inspired by his? Would he even believe me worthy of the very rights he was fighting for?
While not surprising for his era, there are still people with similar mindsets to Dr. King. Many cling onto the belief that Black power and Black nationalism are rooted in machismo and masculinity (presumed to be the antithesis of queerness). After a few months of organizing with Black Lives Matter, we started to see messages and comments like “is this group just run by a bunch of lesbians?” or “is it safe to let a group of women make all the decisions?” and “stop using MLK to further your liberal LGBT agenda.”
As an organizer, attempting to support all Black people, these messages were saddening. A lot of my work revolves around encouraging LGBTQ communities to recognize the plight of Black queer and trans folks. I didn’t know I would have to work so hard to get Black folks to stand behind us in this.
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There is a misconception that Black communities are the most homophobic. This is false, according to a study by the Public Institute for Religion Research. However, there are undoubtedly histories of homophobia that took prominence within Black spaces, particularly the Black church. These ideologies stemmed from the often forceful introduction of Christianity unto non-Western countries. As time progressed, many Black communities in Africa, the Caribbean and the West, preferred literal interpretations of the Bible which led to a criminalization of homosexuality and a rejection of white-dominated biblical revisionism.
“Theologically-driven homophobia is reinforced by the anti-homosexual rhetoric of black nationalism,” says Elijah G. Ward.
Some also argue that Black communities may fear or reject sexual experimentation as it is reminiscent of sexual exploitation and degradation of Black bodies during slavery and thereafter. A final possibility presented by scholar, Wesley Crichlow emphasizes the idea of ‘race survival consciousness’ – within the urgency to preserve Black nationalism, a black masculinity was upheld against white domination.
These perceptions of the Black community combined with the presentation of queerness in popular media led me to believe that queerness was for white people. I remember a white high school friend coming out as queer in grade ten and me telling her that if I was gay, I would suppress those feelings in order to live a ‘normal’ heterosexual life. I grew up surrounded by white people which often caused me to yearn for Black communities and a closer connection to my Black family members. I would learn about queer and trans people, through social circles or the media but every single one was white. The lack of representation of queer and trans people of color in the media that I consumed was arguably the biggest perpetrator of this misconception.
We are taught that a heterosexual marriage is normal and desirable. To me, this normalcy was represented most accurately by Black people who never seemed to stray from that script. From my naïve perspective, Black people seemed to follow a trajectory rooted in simplicity and family. They seemed to live devoid of the complexity of queerness and gender. Whether I wanted that for myself or not, I accepted very early on, that that was my destiny and purpose.
In my young imagination, Black people could not be queer or trans therefore, I would not even afford myself the curiosity.
These dynamics impacted me significantly as a young queer person accessing Black spaces. I internalized a lot of anti-blackness after negative experiences of homophobia in Black spaces. Yet despite these negative memories, I commit my life to supporting all Black communities. I have no positive relationships with Black men in my life. I have been hurt and abandoned by Black men, some of whom fit all the negative stereotypes that the media attempt to portray about Black masculinity. Yet still, I and so many other Black women and femmes work at the forefront of decriminalizing Black men, protecting Black men from police violence, mourning and celebrating the lives of Black men and working in the shadows and following the legacies of Black men.
We do this work because we are committed to the freedom and liberation of all Black people. But for our work to be successful and sustainable, we need the support of the rest of our community. Dr. King was a revolutionary of his time, but in 2018 we must move beyond organizing that only benefits straight men.
The Black community must step up to support its queer and trans members.
“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” – Emma Lazarus
[Feature Image: A crowd of individuals stand outdoors at a protest with their hands up. Pexels.com/Karla Cote]