This summer saw an explosion of activism around the movement for black lives, with queer, black organizers leading the way.
Thousands marched in the streets, shutting down roads in Atlanta on multiple nights, culminating in protesters staking out the Governor’s Mansion and prompting a meeting with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Police Chief George Turner.
Queer activists were in the thick of it, playing instrumental roles planning actions, developing demands, managing social media, and meeting with Reed and Turner.
The visibility of black, queer organizers in leadership roles is no happenstance. It reflects an intentional decision, by at least some organizations involved in the movement for black lives, to have black folks marginalized within black communities over factors including gender and sexual orientation at the center of the effort.
“We’re just no longer going to accept being invisible and not being seen for the full people that we are,” said organizer Tiffany R. Smith (top photo), who works with Black Lives Matter Atlanta as well as with Southerners On New Ground (SONG).
Smith, who identifies as a black queer woman, feels keenly aware of the role gay organizer Bayard Rustin played in the black Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, and the invisibility he faced in that role. That's history Smith is not interested in repeating.
“The hope is that we won’t have an experience like we had with Bayard Rustin,” Smith said. “Those that are up at the front fighting” cannot be left “on the fringes,” she added.
Smith said she's very aware of what it means to be a queer women working alongside Bernice King, as she works to forge a relationship with the King Center.
“Her father had Bayard Rustin by his side, but you know he wasn’t really able to speak up,” Smith said.
Centering black, queer folks hasn’t been without its challenges. It's caused a rift within black organizing spaces. The rise of Sir Maejor Page – a controversial figure behind the group Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta, a group that is unaffiliated with the official Black Lives Matter organization – is tied to a rejection of intersectional politics. Black Lives Matters organizers have alleged that Page is homophobic.
On the other hand, many people and groups organizing around LGBT issues have largely stayed on the sidelines around the movement for black lives, even as this leaves out critical experiences that LGBT people of color, particularly black LGBT people of color, must contend with in navigating their queerness.
Intersectionality, first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw over two decades ago, describes the overlapping of identities, and provides a framework for addressing the plurality of experiences people have based on those overlaps. For the organizers interviewed, that means being black and being queer, and for some of them that also means being black, queer and being a Muslim or being a woman.
'It’s one fight after another to just make people aware'
Taiza Troutman (second photo, second from left), an organizer with ATL is Ready, as well as Atlanta Black Students United and Rise Up, said it's critical to have an intersectional lens when living with multiple, marginalized identities.
“Being black, being a woman, being southern, being queer, you know it’s like one fight after another to just make people aware of difference and accept it,” Troutman said.
The growth of organizations that have, by necessity, intersectional politics, is something Troutman is witnessing on Atlanta’s college campuses including the region's historically black colleges and universities.
“You see more orgs being born that do center black queerness on college campuses, and you have a lot more people that are fighting for those rights,” Troutman said.
“People are fighting now and they are making folks see that our politics and our identities matter,” Troutman said.
For Devyn Springer, a self described organizer, author and student-scholar working with Rise Up Georgia, caring about these intersections of race and gender means highlighting the trans women of color who have been murdered.
“In 2016 so far there have around 20 trans women of color that have been murdered, and we’ll be saying we need to draw attention to this but then it’s black cis[gender] straight men who keep on getting the attention [from media],” Springer said.
Springer spoke about how “these politics play out in the organizing sphere, but in ourselves, too.” That means organizations must navigate the tensions around whose stories are highlighted and who is credited with the work of organizing, as well as how activists show up and take up space.
This model also contradicts with organizations “who really don’t have a good grasp on representation, don’t have a good grasp on intersectionality and how to bring it through in their politics. What ends up happening is these people recreate systems of discrimination and oppression in the ways they do activism,” Springer said.
'We need to make sure our space is safe'
Springer (third photo), Smith and Troutman all spoke about the importance of talking about how black women and black queer folks face challenges, discrimination and violence beyond the police shootings that tend to get the most media coverage. Those incidents are often about cisgender, heterosexual black men and yet those stories are also important to continue highlighting, they said.
“I think police violence goes beyond the killing of unarmed black men,” Smith said.
More stories that focus on black women and the police violence and sexual assault they face must be told, she said. That includes black trans women and sexual assault, Smith added.
Addressing homophobia in their communities is also a struggle, the three organizers said. Springer notes that homophobia is no more prevalent in black communities than in other communities – a myth that is commonly levied against the black community.
“I would never say the black community is more homophobic than other communities, I would say it’s equally homophobic,” Springer said.
Troutman said organizers from older and more traditional or religious movements may not have had significant exposure to and education around queer issues. Addressing that in organizing spaces, Troutman shared, can be as simple as getting everyone in the room to introduce themselves by their name and pronouns to make space for queer people and help educate other activists about them.
“We need to make sure our space is safe, we need to make sure folks from the queer community and from other communities feel not just safe but accepted and heard,” Troutman said.
All three organizers highlighted how transformative and powerful it's been working on and fighting for black lives.
Smith said taking on leadership roles within the movement has built her confidence about being an out, queer person.
“My voice is valuable. I do have something to say. I do have power,” Smith said.
Springer echoed that.
“When it comes to being black and queer and Muslim, I think that resting at the center of all three of those identities, and between different portions of those identities, is beautiful creation and joy and expression,” he said.