How Queer Writers and Activists Are Dismantling What’s ‘Normal’

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Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

How Queer Writers and Activists Are Dismantling What’s ‘Normal’

Sarah Neilson

This Pride, Rewire.News interviewed queer authors Alok Vaid-Menon, Kimberly Drew, and Adam Eli on what it means to "dream more boldly" about the future of queer liberation.

This Pride Month, Rewire.News recognizes that celebrating during the pandemic will look very different for many of us, which is why we’re putting together tools of resistance and hope to help us all survive (and even thrive) Pride 2020.

With the pandemic keeping people physically distant this Pride, some in LGBTQ communities may be lamenting the fact that we can’t come together to celebrate and reflect in the ways we normally do. But the national uprisings against police violence and systemic racism underway have been potent reminders of what Pride is really about: collective liberation.

After all, Pride commemorates the Stonewall Riots, an anti-police uprising led by Black and brown queer and trans folks. Instead of a parade filled with corporate-branded floats and disposable rainbow gear, this Pride Month is a reminder that queer liberation means freedom for all.

This month, Penguin Random House added some books to their Pocket Change Collective series, a collection of short books by artists and activists working for social justice. Three of the new releases were written by LGBTQ-identified artists. Beyond the Gender Binary, by Indian-American poet and performer Alok Vaid-Menon, explores the possibility, beauty, and necessity of thinking about gender in a more expansive way than the binary. In This Is What I Know About Art, Kimberly Drew, a curator, activist, and former social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tackles access and gatekeeping in the art world and the freedom and joy of creation. Adam Eli, a community organizer and founder of Voices4, a non-violent direct action organization fighting for global queer liberation, offers a primer on “queer responsibility” in his new book, A New Queer Conscience: In other words, to fight for queer liberation is to fight for the rights of all of us, not just some of us.

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Rewire.News spoke with all three authors about activism, community, creativity, and what’s getting them through Pride 2020. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

We know that Pride started as a riot. With the protests against police violence and white supremacy happening across the country and around the world, how do you think a fight for collective liberation can be informed by the history of the LGBTQ rights movement?

Alok Vaid-Menon: What we’re seeing now in terms of tactics and narratives is a realignment with the core values of the Stonewall Riots. What we can learn from the past is that conditional acceptance is not true acceptance. White [cisgender] queers differentiated themselves from Black and POC [people of color] trans and gender nonconforming people in order to integrate into “normal” society, without challenging the contours of normalcy to begin with. It’s so important that we tear apart the concept of “normal,” and insist that people should not have to disappear themselves, make themselves palatable, in order to access basic dignity.

Kimberly Drew: Every single thing we do is informed by the past. My primary hope in this moment is that we continue to expand our learning about the world’s ongoing fight for liberation. Yesterday, I learned about Carlett Brown, a Black trans woman who [may have] traveled to Denmark seeking gender affirmation surgery in [the 1950s]. I want all of us to have an ever-growing rolodex of names of those who came before us. We need to know these names and histories so that we can build a better future.

Adam Eli: Absolutely. A cursory glance at queer history shows that we are most successful when we band together. The Stonewall Riots were, without question, started and led by Black trans women and trans women of color. The Stonewall Inn was famously where anyone on the margins of gay society would be free, meaning that other marginalized people within the queer community were already at the bar and were the first to follow these brave women’s lead, joining in and fighting back. This included effeminate gay youth, homeless queer people, butch lesbians, sex workers, queer people of color, and gender nonconforming people. We win when we band together.

All of the Pocket Change Collective books center creativity as a central pillar of social justice in their own ways. What does it mean to you to create, whether in your own lives or within a community? How does creativity fuel your activism?

KD: Creativity is an essential pillar in any activist action. Oppression is a very ugly practice. We use our creativity to find solutions to unify ourselves, to build new structures, and to keep ourselves sane in the process.

AE: In my experience, activism is an extremely creative practice. I define direct action activism (marches, protests, sit ins, blockades, etc.) as identifying a social issue and providing a solution or drawing attention to the issue in a creative way. My friends and I will spend hours thinking of ways to cut through the noise and draw attention to certain issues in clear and original ways. All of that takes enormous creativity.

Art and activism … are inherently intertwined. Simply put, activists often have a message they need to convey to a large audience. Generally these messages are displayed visually, thereby creating some form of art or creative manifestation in the process.

AV-M: I struggle a lot with hopelessness, with feeling impossible. Harnessing an intimate relationship with my creative process has been the only reason I’m still alive, and has provided me with an outlet—a method to convert prejudice and despair into something more beautiful and generative. This “emotional alchemy” is what I see as the spirit of queerness: the ability to occupy what the world regards as abject, or failed, and find life, teeming in all those places.

How do you reimagine the world when you are engaging in activism? What do you imagine for the future you want to see?

AV-M: I think the way that we often speak about imagination is that it’s just cerebral, internal—but for me it’s corporeal. I try to embody my imagination, to carve spaces in the world based on its image. That’s one of the many delights of being a practicing artist: I materialize imagination. And in that way, I create now-futures or future-nows. There’s so much I want to see, but this Pride in particular I am yearning for the abolition of the gender binary and all of its insidious gender policing.

KD: I want a future where people feel free to dream more boldly. I want a future where I don’t have to worry that I might become a hashtag.

AE: The future I’m fighting for is one where the queer community has adopted and internalized the principle “queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.” Meaning that a fundamental aspect of queer identity is communal responsibility.  That looking out for other queer people is simply a part of what it means to be queer.

I have come across many gay men who feel that because they are gay and faced homophobia, it is impossible for them to be racist or transphobic. I do not mean to downplay the deep harm our inherently homophobic society causes. However, it is established fact that racism and transphobia are alive and well in the gay male community. Seeing people within your community suffer at the hands of fellow community members is a terrible thing. I want to make sure our community is a safe space and then go out and change the broader world.

How does unlearning, dismantling, and deprogramming from the dominant narratives in society also tie into the creativity and optimism needed to imagine (and fight for) a better world?

AV-M: Well this is one of the many sites where the English language fails us. So often, we conceive these as negative words, but they aren’t just about removal, they are also about revival. Sometimes acts of profound destruction can yield poetic creation, sometimes poetic creation is a form of destruction. It’s cliché, but it’s true. Sometimes we have to clear space to make space. When it comes to the gender binary: So much of our psychic energy goes into the maintenance of gender norms that could, like police funding, be reallocated to the things that really matter: universal healthcare, public housing and education, the end of climate apocalypse.

KD: Speaking personally, I only have control over my own view. I can write all I want to, post to my heart’s content, and call my senators daily, but the only thing I truly have control over is my ability to dismantle and recenter my own relationship to power. Any change starts at home. We each have an individual responsibility to be the change we want to see.

Adam points out that within the LGBTQ community, there is internal fracturing and policing of identities. What are some ways you’ve seen people within the community show up for each other? Where do you think we’re really bad at showing up for each other?

AE: In late May, protests erupted around the brutal murder of George Floyd. Since then my friends and I have been in the streets every other day or every third day. I’ll speak only to what I have seen personally. At the protests I have been to, most of them in Manhattan and most of them starting downtown, there has been a consistent and heavy queer presence. I have seen many different types of queer people at the protests. I have seen queer Arabs, queer asylum seekers, Latinx trans women, Black queers, intersex people, cis white gays, and more marching to say Black Lives Matter. I have not seen this type of queer cohesion since the days after the Orlando Pulse massacre.

I believe that queer history will write about the March for Black Trans Lives on June 14, 2020. I believe the march will go down as a movement-making moment. In the opening of my book, I write about the dismal and ineffective response the global queer community often has to the deaths of Black trans women. I have been to many vigils for murdered Black trans women in New York City, and I have never seen anything like this before. Over 15,000 people, all wearing white, came to the March for Black Trans Lives.

KD: Yesterday, I went to a vigil for Oluwatoyin Salau, and before the group dispersed, the Black Trans Travel Fund offered free rides for Black trans people at the gathering. Last week, I went to a rally dreamed up by my dear friend West Dakota, which became a gathering of 15,000 people showing up for Black Trans Lives. People are showing up every day. I think our shared responsibility is not getting in the way.

AV-M: I’ve been so inspired by the beautiful acts of solidarity going on all over, and I’d love to see this continue to spread to support for queer and trans people outside of the U.S.

Alok, you wrote in your book, “as an artist, it is my job to work with the unknown.” As activists, how do you all embrace the unknown? 

AE: Embracing the unknown is something that I am still actively working on. I tend to do best when I prepare as much as I can, make a plan, do my research, acknowledge the need for fluidity and spontaneity, and know that ultimately the end result is pretty much out of my control. My grandmother, whom my book is dedicated to, always said, “confidence is knowing that you’ll be able to handle whatever it is that comes your way.”

KD: As creatives, we have a very romantic relationship with the unknown—we must, or we would never start anything! Every poem, essay, or painting starts with variables and confronting what we don’t know. We have to lean into that, or we’ll just keep doing the same things over and over again.

AV-M: I wish there was one quick way! It’s a daily process of self-cultivation. It’s less about cognition and more about somatics. It’s about learning, intimately, what shapes our bodies take when we experience fear, and learning how to unwind, and reshape ourselves. That takes practice, community, art.

Finally, who are some writers, artists, activists, or organizations that folks reading this should follow or get involved with?

AV-M: Two people who have helped me so much along my journey are Eddie Ndopu, a brilliant Black disabled queer thinker based out of Johannesburg, and LaSaia Wade, a Black Indigenous trans woman organizer and executive director of Brave Space Alliance in Chicago.

KD: Raquel Willis, Maty Biayenda, Tourmaline, Klancy Miller, DeVonn Francis, Soul Fire Farm, The Okra Project, Ceyenne Doroshow, Transgender Law Center.

AE:  The Intersex Justice Project, Dani Coyle, Hope Giselle, Ozine (a magazine about queer Russian culture), IraQueer, RUSA LGBT, the Anti Violence Project, Raquel Willis, Born Perfect, Brandon Wolf.