In this current moment of dual crises (COVID-19 and rampant anti-Blackness), I believe Black queer people, particularly Black transgender women, are the leaders of our impending revolution. Historically, Black queer people have been erased from both Black and LGBTQ movements, while simultaneously being at both movements’ forefronts. From Bayard Rustin strategizing the March on Washington to Marsha P. Johnson and Stormé DeLarverie resisting police brutality at the Stonewall Inn, our presence as leaders of liberation movements is not new. We have always been here, fighting for our communities while our communities oftentimes fail to reciprocate. This is especially true for Black transgender women, who are met with ire and rejection from our larger society and violent trans-misogynoir from the Black community.
As America begins to wrestle with its white supremacist past and questions what a better future looks like, I believe Black LGBTQIA+ people are the blueprint. More than ever, Americans are amenable to the idea of reimagining and restructuring society so that those who are most vulnerable are cared for from a trauma-informed framework. For example, after years of being dismissed as too radical, calls to defund the police are now in the mainstream conversation. This is because Americans now understand that defunding the police is not about removing the police force, but is about the reallocation of resources away from militarization and towards social services. Resource reallocation and social restructuring are two phenomena that Black LGBTQIA+ deeply understand.
In a world that is sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and so much more, Black LGBTQIA+, out of necessity, carved out (and continue to carve out) our own safe spaces wherein we can freely live our truths. Out of a steadfast refusal to be crushed by the weight of our oppression, we have built our own communities and fashioned our own worlds. By this, I mean that Black LGBTQIA+ people, as a result of social rejection, form our own communities lest we be cast out and perpetually stuck in loneliness. Further, due to the fact that until last week, firing someone based solely on their gender or sexual orientation was perfectly legal in many parts of the United States, Black LGBTQIA+ have not only had to form our own safe spaces, but also our own financial, housing, and emotional care systems as well.
This is part of a larger phenomenon that many call “chosen or created families.” Chosen families function to disrupt the trauma of rejection from biological families and dominant society. In addition to mitigating trauma, these chosen or created families also provide queered frameworks of belonging and essential social services.
There is no better example of the power of Black and Brown LGBTQIA+ structural innovation than ballroom culture. Ballroom culture consists of two primary functions: artistic performances and competitions and family or “house” networks. In ballroom culture, the houses provide space for artistic performance and queered social belonging. Many houses reflect society by creating a care structure led by house mothers and house fathers. Yet, ball culture also works to queer these family structures. House mothers are often femme queens or transgender women, and house fathers are often men or butch queens. Thus, ball culture’s care structures expand and challenge normative ideas of who can provide parental love. Further, these queer-kinship networks work to push back against the ways in which capitalism privileges cisgender, heterosexual, white bodies as valuable. Withholding job security due to someone’s gender or sexuality is an insidious tactic of dehumanization that works to manipulate people into conforming in order to receive material care. Ballroom culture (re)imagines and produces an alternative world, a world where care is given, not withheld, when people live their truth. And further, a world where people are encouraged to live their truths without fear. As Americans work to collectively imagine what a society based on inclusion looks like, Black LGBTQIA+ should be invited to lead this charge. We continue to dream of and create better worlds, time and again.
Though I am not a member of the ball community, I have experienced the incredible social ingenuity of the Black LGBTQIA+ communities firsthand. I came out at 19 while in college. A young woman from a conservative suburb of Sacramento, California, my queerness burst open the seams of my life. Suddenly, I no longer belonged to the Christian communities that I grew up in. My queerness, or rather the world’s rejection of it, thrust me into spiritual and emotional houselessness. I needed a new home, a new community, a place that saw and held all of me. I knew that returning to my old communities meant placing my authenticity on the shelf, and I wanted to live out loud. I wanted to exist within the kaleidoscope of color that queerness so beautifully paraded into my life.
My feelings of misbelonging led me to seek out LGBTQIA+ safe spaces. Fortunately, at the time, I was attending the University of California Berkeley, where so many queer and transgender students before me fought for spaces of inclusion and belonging. After coming out to myself, I chose to seek support by visiting one of the campus’ many diversity centers. When I entered the school’s Multicultural Center, which was run predominantly by queer and transgender students of color, the LGBTQIA+ community immediately embraced me. Not only did they embrace me, they mentored me. The first lesson I learned was that I needed to know my Zodiac chart if I wanted any chance at landing a boo (Capricorn sun, Leo rising, and Gemini moon). But more importantly, from the LGBTQIA+ community, and more specifically from the Black LGBTQIA+ community, I truly learned, and continue to learn, what it means to be loved, embraced, and cared for in the most radical and boundless ways.
From coming out until now, in my deepest moments of rejection and fear, financial need, and emotional pain, the Black queer community cares for me. From emotional care to material need, Black LGBTQIA+ communities mitigate the trauma of marginalization by supporting one another. Just recently, after telling a Black queer friend that I needed to buy a new couch for my apartment but was “pressed for cash,” my Venmo suddenly dinged. “Some money for a couch,” the payment read. Unprompted and unasked for, my friend saw my need and met it. Further, just this weekend a Black queer friend of mine whose groundbreaking work in education garnered them a large following on social media chose to share my Venmo and PayPal with their followers in order to financially support me. I can recount countless stories of Black queer people stepping into my life with incredible care and support, each one more moving than the next. From offering me a couch to sleep on during a bad breakup, to sending me money for groceries when I was a broke graduate student, everyday Black queer people powerfully and masterfully redistribute and reallocate resources in order to selflessly care for the collective. From financial support to hot meals, to housing, to long phone calls providing emotional support, Black queer people drape my life in effervescent joy and love, every day.
We must look to Black LGBTQ+ to lead the revolution, because we already are the revolution. Right now, the ears and hearts of American society and the world are uniquely open. I am no cynic, but I am a healthy skeptic. I am wary of expressing hope in America, a country that never stops failing my community. And yet, the theologian within me cannot help but be moved by the wind of change that I feel. As calls to defund the police move into the mainstream, I am watching with hesitant hope as Americans begin to imagine a more just society, a more inclusive world. No one is more prepared to lead this call for (re)imagination than the Black LGBTQ+ community. Our existence is revolutionary, and our ubiquitous rejection means that we have already built the better worlds being imagined. We needed to build these worlds for our survival.
Pressed on all sides, Black queer people have always fashioned homes out of nothingness and families out of the ash of trauma and rejection. Our bodies are the protests, our souls are refusal. We refuse to be confined by a world that says it does not have space for us. Instead, we step into our truth, and we live in a world that has yet to arrive, a world where the recognition of another’s humanity is boundless. We are the protest and the revolution. Our bodies adorned in a kaleidoscope of color and our souls armed with self love, we know the meaning of revolution. We are the leaders of the revolution, trailblazer of self-love, and architects of a better world.