“The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so that wheels don’t turn.” –Bayard Rustin
One of my very early protests as a “baby gay” was in 2008, when Prop. 8 passed in the California, banning same-sex marriage in the state. And in the summer that followed, I got a job as a canvasser, asking people to donate the cause of repealing the proposition.
The mostly “liberal” Bay Area, where I grew up, largely opposed Prop. 8, so it wasn’t difficult to collect signatures (though, to be honest, I didn’t last too long in that job … )
Like many of my friends, I’d proudly voted for Barack Obama, tears streaming down my face. I’d never dreamed I would see someone who looked like me and my family take the Oval Office. But I also cried out of sadness when I learned that my community no longer had the right to be married — that I no longer had that right. It felt harshly unjust to me at the time.
I look back at those days as an important part of my growing political consciousness, even though I’ve changed a great deal since then. The struggle for marriage and racial equality were, after all, what catapulted me into studying queer and feminist theory, which deeply impacted me.
Up until then, I hadn’t really questioned whether or not marriage represented assimilation. I hadn’t reflected upon the sexist and heteronormative gender expectations that showed up in my own relationships and attractions. I hadn’t thought about how each of my identities were connected, intersecting.
I hadn’t considered that the marriage equality movement was neither where “the work” started nor where it ended. Because from the moment that I came out, it was all I saw mainstream on media reports, all I heard about in my classrooms. It was the issue.
But I had noticed how shamed I felt when white, gay Californians hatefully blamed Black and Brown voters for Prop. 8 — insisting that our inherently homophobic and religious communities were to blame. I had noticed that the white lovers I had could not see all of me, dismissing racist encounters as “honest mistakes.” I had begun to push back against the notion that I had to choose whether to be Black or gay.
And, most important, I was being introduced to the works of queer and trans troublemakers — many of them of color.
Basically, I was becoming queer.
I’d always been taught to never utter the word because I’d only known it as a slur. But the more I read and experienced, the more I transgressed, the more I felt identified with queerness.
My schooling until those moments had failed to teach me about the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in the Tenderloin; about Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, and James Baldwin; about the radical roots of today’s highly commercialized Pride parades; about the direct actions by AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACTUP); about brave moments from activists literally fighting to survive.
For those of us privileged enough, college is where many of us are exposed to radical queer and feminist thought, but what do we do with that knowledge?
When I became president of the Queer Straight Alliance my second year of college, we were reviewing terminology. When the word “queer” came up, the definition was something like, “an umbrella term for LGBT identities that recognizes the diversity and fluidity of sex, sexuality and gender.”
It was a partial definition that had missed something: the politics of what it means to live exactly as who you are, and a refusal to assimilate to what is comfortable and convenient. To challenge, to transgress, to call attention to, to demand.
For me, embodying queerness means that, yes, I have attractions and relationships outside of heteronormative expectations, as well as a gender identity that defies expectations. That is an important part of my queerness, but queerness to me is more than just “being different.”
For me, queerness looks like challenging how things have been done because they have never been designed for oppressed people. For me, it is intersectional at all points, connected to struggles of all people because queer people are in every community. For me, it is coming up with new ways to live and survive that do not depend on the state. It is complicated, lifelong and powerful.
As I reflect on what has changed (or become queer) in me the past eight years, I am witnessing in the world the same hyper focus on mainstream, comfortable “equality” that I did as a college kid.
I browse some transgender news sources and see nothing about the murders of Erykah Tijerina, Rae’Lynn Thomas, Skye Mockabee or too many of the trans women of color who have been killed this year. As their numbers increase, so does the fatalistic rhetoric about how Hillary Clinton is our “only hope” against evil. I see politicians rush to decry the Pulse shootings in Orlando only as an opportunity to attack Islam.
I see bodies swept under the rug of assimilation and approval.
It feels more than overwhelming — the crushing weight of capitalism and oppression — I often wonder what I can do to stop the murder, the poverty, the violence.
I often am at a loss for answers, knowing only that marriage and celebration and pride are not possible when our people are dying. I know only that I must continue using my voice to scream over the mainstream noise.
I know only that queerness — my queerness — is an active verb.