Colonization, Liberation and our Queer Bodies

Let me start by saying this, my synopsis of last night’s keynote at the Minnesota OUT! Campus Conference will not even be able to come close to capturing the power with which Coya Artichoker, Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz and Susan Raffo successfully wove together stories of colonization, movement building and a daring vision to liberate our queer bodies.

I sat in the center of the room wide-eyed as I listened to these three incredible women describe their journeys, their histories and how they came to understand how inextricably bound their liberations were, both with one another and with everyone in the room.

To call what these three shared with us last night a keynote would be doing it a disservice. It was story telling, it was movement building. Their story began by reminding us that this land we stand on has a bloodied and painful past. The ground Augsburg College was built on is Lakota and Anishinabe land. Before Minnesota was colonized, before the founding of the United States a whole history and culture was being shaped; since colonization it has been slowly and systematically chipped away at.

These three dared to dream with us about a bold vision for liberation. A bold vision that is rooted in the reality that we live our days on colonized land, a vision that refuses to exclude any body, regardless of how complex it may be.

They dreamed with us about a social justice movement based on universal design where those most marginalized with complex histories set our agendas. They shared that when we center those complex experiences, “all boats rise.” We all stand to benefit when we build a movement based on liberated bodies.

The story challenged us to think about what liberation looks like and how we can transform our LGBT movement into a broader based more inclusive struggle toward justice.

Coya, Lisa and Susan called us to return as a movement to community organizing and base building. We’ve lost sight of what it means to build a vibrant and mobile network of people that stand in solidarity with one another. Instead, we choose to be shortsighted focusing on narrow single-issue politics.

Like I started with, my words and reflections cannot even come near the powerful story telling these three did last night, but if you want to explore their work more, check out these links and join me in pondering these questions:

How can queer folks explore more deeply the implications that colonization has had on our LGBT movement?
In what ways can we create spaces to dream a bold vision for social justice based on collective liberation and interdependence?
How can we move our work back toward organizing and base building?

Lisa’s writing on Bilerico
Susan’s writing Bilerico
Coya’s writing on Bilerico

We are excited that FOP will be the official blog of the 2010 Minnesota OUT! Campus Conference.

MOCC is the annual conference of the Minnesota GLBTA Campus Alliance.

MOCC is a conference for all students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members from around the state of Minnesota and surrounding region to discuss issues facing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and ally (GLTBA) communities on college and university campuses and in the greater community. Attendees will have an opportunity to network and meet one another; talk about issues and topics that are being faced on campuses and the larger community; and be challenged and learn valuable skills around building coalitions, fostering activism, and developing leadership through a lens of social justice.

Kevin and I were both active with the organization during college and at this year’s conference he and I will be presenting a handful of workshops. We are both excited to debut collaborative projects with our friend Becky Saltzman. Becky and I will present a workshop we’ve developed on effective facilitation tools for cross-cultural leadership. Kevin and Becky will lead a conversation called “Beyond Welcoming Churches: Faith Organizing with non-Christian Identities. Additionally, I will be presenting a workshop called “I Wanna Get Paid for This! Building Toward a Nonprofit Career.”

We have also been asked to tweet the keynote and caucus sessions. You can follow the conversation on Twitter @campusalliance and #MOCC.

The conference has a fierce line-up of keynote speakers, all of whom I consider to be LGBT movement leaders, movers and shakers. The theme of MOCC this year is “Uniting for Justice: A Deeper Look into Race, Economics and Immigration in GLBTQ Communities”. I couldn’t think of a better team of folks to take these issues on in a real and powerful way.

Here’s the line up!

Coya Artichoker is a founding collective member of the 2-Spirit First Nations Collective. They are a Collective that are working towards building a stronger political presence for 2-Spirit folks within the national dialogue of queer rights. The Collective works with four other sister organizations to develop curriculum and training for the Racial and Economic Justice Institute day at the Creating Change Conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Coya has recently been featured as one of the “40 under 40” leaders making change in the Advocate magazine. She was also named one of the “20 Most Powerful Lesbians in American Politics” by David Mixner.

Kenyon Farrow has recently taken over as Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice—an organization dedicated to organizing, research, and advocacy for and with low-income and working-class lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. He has been honored as one of the “Movers and Shakers” in HIV/AIDS Activism in the African-American Community by The Body.com, was named as one of Out Magazine’s Out 100 for 2008, and is in this year’s Advocate Magazine’s “40 Under 40” LGBT Leaders in the United States.

Susan Raffo is particularly drawn to the interconnections of trauma and oppression in both our individual bodies and our collective bodies. As part of this, Susan cofacilitates with Heather Hackman a workshop called, “More than Skin Deep: Uprooting White Supremacy One Cell at a Time” that looks at the deeper implications of white supremacy for white people. Susan is the editor of Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write about Class(South End Press, 1995) and Restricted Access: Lesbians on Disability (with Victoria Brownworth, Seal Press, 1995).

Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz is a co-founder of Intersections/Intersecciones Consulting with Lisbeth Melendez Rivera. From 2005-2010, she served as the director of capacity building for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. As the first staff person to be hired into this role, she actively embedded racial, economc and disability justice work into building stronger movement organizations. Weiner-Mahfuz’s writings can be found in Colonize This! Young Women of Color and Feminism (Seal Press, 2002), Fireweed Magazine’s “Mixed Race Issue” (Issue 75), and through on a Web-based project titled BustingBinaries, which she co-authors with Ana Maurine Lara.

I can’t wait to get tweeting and blogging for this incredible conference! I hope you’ll join me in the online conversation.

Our Analysis Needs More Complexity

A couple of weeks back a good friend of mine sent me this article.

The article essentially argues that LGBT folks shouldn’t be lumped together because there is nothing linking us. My friend knew the article would spark my interest, not because I agree, but because I definitely have a strong opinion about the lack in analysis our communities have around gender.

My whole point of view is this: LGBT people are lumped together for a lot of reasons. The major reason for me centers on the fact that what we do with our bodies challenges societal norms. That is to say, when folks are born we’re labeled as male or female and with those labels come a whole set of expectations and demands. Lots of these expectations are around things like what we wear, who we are affectionate with and how we present our bodies. As LGBT people we push the boundaries around how we use our bodies. Even a simple act like two men holding hands challenges societal norms about how a “man” is expected to use his body.

The article is frustrating for me to read, but not surprising. I think there are a lot of folks that fall into the LGBT spectrum that don’t understand why we’re lumped together. For a lot of my gay and lesbian friends their sexual orientation is really simply about whom they love. For me, it’s more complex; it’s about being a person whose body has been policed his entire life, it’s about for most of my adolescence trying to force myself to try to act like a regular boy, it’s about consistently being punished by teenage boys for how I carried my body, pronounced my words and showed affection.

And my LGBT identity, my desire to find queer family and my slightly left of left politics stem from a life experience that has shown me a need for LGBT folks to build collective voice, shown me a need to recognize how experiences of marginality are linked and begin to demand for collective liberation and a time when we can all begin to understand the gravity with which MLK said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere”. My ability to be my whole and complete self rests on my recognizing that so long as women are raped, so long as genocides continue, so long as young queer boys keep killing themselves I am not fully free.

This brings me to my analysis of the recent media coverage of LGBT teen suicides.

The thread that’s tying these acts of violence (bullying) and acts of desperation (suicide) are deeply rooted in a culture that rewards and punishes folks around how they use their bodies. From day one our bodies are policed, coded as male or female, and forever forced to conform to what folks expect of a male-bodied or female-bodied person. Transgressions to these expectations are punished. As young boys we are taught to police other boys so as not to have our masculinity threatened. We are taught over time that violence, both physical and mental, is the appropriate reaction when someone is using their body in a way that threatens what it means to be male or female.

The narrative is older than any one of us can imagine. A power dynamic has been created where we have given agency to violent policing of the body. It’s engrained in us.

Until we learn new shared meanings around how folks are allowed to use our bodies, until we disrupt a deep rooted historical narrative, until we stop expecting effeminate 12 year olds to “be strong and power through”, people will continue to die.

I cannot accept the fact that bullying just happens. It’s taught. And has real and devastating implications. We need to work toward new meaning about our bodies and demand that we all have the power of self-determination around how we carry our bodies.

Around the age of fourteen I began to realize the way I viewed the world was quite different from most of my peers. It was around this age that I started to think of myself as gay. I didn’t come out until I was eighteen but I had a clear sense of my sexuality by this age. I also knew my sexuality could cause problems for myself, so I chose to keep that part of my identity largely hidden through my secondary school years. It was also at this age that my sexual identity and my involvement within a conservative Christian faith became irreconcilable. Once, in confirmation class, I joined two friends in questioning what we were being taught that it provoked the pastor into storming out the room. It was around this point that I saw my perspective simply was no longer compatible with the faith system of my family. I was confirmed about a year later, and the next day I left the church for good.

After that point I have spent quite a few years trying to figure out what I believed, not what I should believe. I landed on atheism fairly quickly. I continued to read about other faith systems, but I didn’t find anything that really appealed to me. Some areas of study that fascinated me included earth-based spirituality, the old mythologies, the new/redeux Wiccan movement, and others. Such studies intrigued me intellectually but didn’t work as a belief system.

Along with my religious studies I found organizations to participate in within the LGBT community. Community organizing and working within non-profits that were helping to strengthen the LGBT community were a way for me to pair my values and my identity with finding a rewarding career path.

After college I also began to revisit my religious viewpoints, and I found them wanting. I had formulated a strong identity around my sexuality, yet there still lacked a compatibility between my sexual and religious identities. I would never identify my sexuality by what I was not (I do not identify as “not-straight” for instance) so why must the religious component of my life be based on a negative identity — that I didn’t believe in god?

I did some research and reading to find something that worked while being honest to my worldview. What I found was humanism. Humanism, as defined by the American Humanist Association, is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity. As a humanist I was also looking for community and a place to continue to learn and grow. I was looking for a religious community; just one without god.

You might be wondering “if there isn’t a belief in god, why have a religious community?” or “isn’t god really the point of religion and religious communities?” I would answer that while god or gods are oftentimes a crucial part of the religious service that a belief in god isn’t the only reason why religious communities happen. The real driving factor in religious life comes down to an ability to connect with other people; not god. Many faiths have ways for the individual believer to connect to their deity, so why travel to a building to be with others who share your beliefs? It comes down to that very human craving for community – to have people to come to when you experience both crisis and joy. I may not believe that people praying for me will help solve my problems, but I still want other people to be with when I am in need. It truly makes me feel better to know they care, and people help others in very real ways when something goes wrong.

Not only is there opportunity to help when an individual is having a problem, but through community there can big an impact on larger issues: homelessness, natural disasters, or environmental issues. Religious community also creates a way to raise children in a particular ethical environment. All of these things have very little to do with a deity and everything to do with human beings interacting with each other, trying to work together through a world where things sometimes go awry.

The religious home I found was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that specifically identifies itself as both Humanist and Unitarian Universalist (UU). This particular flavor of UU community (First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis) meets all of my needs. It is a place where theological questions can be studied and discussed, yet it isn’t there to tell you what to believe. It is also an open and affirming place to LGBT individuals and families and works for change in the Minneapolis area on a variety of social justice issues.

Beyond finding a place to connect with people around what I believe, I found a place to make friendships and support causes that I believe in. During this process I also found the Humanist Institute, a national graduate program working to create leaders within the humanist movement. Through this program I am deepening my knowledge of humanism, theology, philosophy, and developing leadership skills.

What amazes me today is how more and more people are finding the spiritual path that works for them; not the one that worked or didn’t work for their parents and grandparents. A tremendous number of people in the United States now change their religious affiliation at least once in their lifetime. For more information about this and a good introduction to current Humanism, I invite you to read Good Without God by Greg Epstein. I hope this means that people are working to find what works for them, and I hope more LGBT people are doing this as well. For too long we have been a community that works for change in secular society, often shutting down conversation around the theological areas of our lives. I believe this comes from the poor treatment many of us have received from religious communities and the very loud religious right. I must continue to remind myself that there also exists a religious left. They are our allies and they are members of our community and our movement.

I hope that our LGBT communities can embrace the secular and religious sides of people’s identity. I hope we come to recognize the great contributions both secular and religious organizations have been making to promote our causes. Because while I believe we are more powerful when we embrace who we truly are when we come out as LGBT, I believe we are even more powerful when we can be honest about what we believe in and where we find our community of faith.

On Saturday, April 17 the National Organization for Marriage, lead by Maggie Gallagher, held a conference at the University of St. Thomas, my alma mater. In response, OutFront Minnesota and several other groups organized a protest of the event. On that brisk Saturday morning, more than 150 Minnesotans gathered to show that we stood for justice and fairness for all. I was asked to speak at the rally. What follows is an excerpt from my speech infused with a few new thoughts. My mom, dad, sister and a few friends and cousins joined me at the rally. My dad also spoke.
 
Good morning beautiful people!
 
My name is Alfonso Wenker. I am Catholic, I am gay and I am a Tommie, class of 2009.
 
As a student I was incredibly involved with LGBT organizing on campus. I was told time and again that the University of St. Thomas had a commitment to diversity and inclusion and that they wanted to be welcoming to LGBT folks.
 
Fr. Dease, president of the University, stated to me on several occasions, both publicly and privately, that he wanted UST to be a place where LGBT people felt welcome.
 
To allow the National Organization for Marriage on campus sends a clear message to LGBT Tommies; it says that out presence is not welcome, it shows institutional support of an anti-LGBT sentiment, it does not live up to the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and it shows the St. Thomas is willing to ignore data from its most recent climate study that says LGBT communities on campus are suffering.
 
Just like the National Organization for Marriage, I care about family and I brought mine with me, and I bring them with me in my heart everywhere I go.
 
A core value of our family is being Catholic. My being Catholic is as central to my personal identity as my being gay is. I cannot separate the two and nor should I have to.
 
As Christians, we are called to the communion table. We are called to bring our whole selves and welcome anyone that seeks to be in communion with us. As members of that table, our charge is to build strong families and strong communities.
 
When members of our table are denied access and rights families suffer and Christian communities suffer.
 
As an LGBT Christian, I should be able to define family in a way that allows me to build the strongest, healthiest family possible. I urge the leaders of the National Organization for marriage to tell the truth – families are stronger when LGBT people can participate full, honestly and openly in all aspects of life, including the option to legally marry and be out in faith communities.
 
I was raised in the Catholic church, a church that calls me to work for social justice and end all forms of oppression. Our communion table is incomplete when we deny LGBT people full rights and inclusion.
 
Anything less than fairness and justice runs contrary to the Christian value of human dignity.

Same-sex marriage has been a subject of political, social, and legal debate for a number of years and recently has been gaining ground in the United States and around the world. A total of ten countries now recognize full marriage equality for same-sex couples (list below). The first country to legalize marriage was the Netherlands in 2001, and since that time one or two countries have followed suit every couple of years. The interesting thing to me is that the countries per year seem to be picking up steam. In 2009 two countries made the move to legalize (Sweden and Norway). While these places are relatively similar geographically and culturally,the most interesting series of events took place within the first seven months of 2010.

So far this year Portugal, Iceland, and Argentina have all moved to legalize same-sex marriage nationally. Additionally, Mexico has ordered that same-sex marriages performed in Mexico City be recognized nationwide. At a time when the United States has a pat work of differing laws from state to state, an increasing number of our neighbors (geographically as well as culturally) are making national level changes.

In addition to the three countries mentioned above, California’s controversial Proposition 8, which took away the momentary right same-sex marriage, has been overruled. This ruling by a federal judge is popularly considered to be the case that will move up to the United States Supreme Court and give a national ruling.

So during this summer we have seen an unprecedented number a nations legalize same-sex marriage and movement in that direction for the United States. The reason I am writing about this topic now is that I feel this year is an important moment in the fast-paced history of the debate around marriage equality. I also think that by the end of 2010 even more countries will be added to the list of those with full legal equality for same-sex couples.

As a millennial moving into my mid-twenties, the subjects of marriage and starting a family are culturally being moved from the back of my mind to the front. I see those of similar ages having children and getting married. It is exciting to speculate that my generation may be one of the first where this is happening for both my LGBT friends and straight allies. I am the product of a generation that came out at eighteen or even earlier (and the average age is only getting lower and lower), is dating and figuring out relationships at similar ages to my straight peers, and has the ability to start a family with at least some legal protections. Less than ten years ago this wasn’t the case for most people; individuals tended to come out later in life or remain in relationships in order to hide their true selves.

While I may or may not be married by the time i am thirty, I believe that by the time I am thirty I will have the full legal right to do so anywhere in the United States and in many more countries throughout the world. Additionally, i believe that I will be able to adopt a child (either with a legally married same-sex partner or on my own) with out having to lie about my sexuality to the adoption agency. Lastly, I believe that more and more religious communities will welcome these individuals and their new families. Already many religious traditions have or are in the process of opening their doors to the opening LGBT individual and their family.

It is a new world for this twenty-something gay man. I have a partner of three years whose little sister was recently married and they have a small child. My partner’s mother keeps wondering about our plans for the future, especially in the baby department. Our friends are asking us about wedding plans and other friends keep on showing me engagement rings (for him to buy for me). While it is exciting to be part of this aspect of the larger culture, which I never really considered I would be when growing up, it also adds new pressures and things to think about.

What are other LGBT people thinking about in regards to families, adoption, the marriage debate, etc?

Current Countries Where Same-Sex Marriage is Legal:

Mexico (Mexico City) – August 10, 2010 *
Argentina (July 22, 2010)
Iceland (June 27, 2010)
Portugal (June 5, 2010)
Sweden (2009)
Norway (2009)
South Africa (2006)
Canada (2005)
Spain (2005)
Belgium (2003)
the Netherlands (2001)

Late in April the state of Arizona essentially made racial profiling legal. You haven’t forgotten SB 1070 have you? I know this might seem like old news to some folks, but it remains relevant to how we think about our LGBT work.

After we learned of SB1070, the question immediately became, how do queer communities react? Is this an LGBT issue? It seems natural to me that, yes, this injustice is something that folks doing queer organizing need to respond to as an issue that directly intersects with our work.

Everything that has happened in Arizona is a painful illustration of the right forcing us into silos. At a time when I believe there is energy for a progressive justice movement that works across issues, strategies like the right is using in Arizona are forcing us into siloed work. Arizona is coming at it from many directions…Women’s rights to control their own bodies are being attacked, homophobia is supported by the law and brown folks are being asked for our papers!

But for me it’s a reminder; we need a multi-issue strategy, we need to hold all progressive agendas equally. Arizona is an opportunity for our movements; it illustrates where we intersect, immigrant justice, racial justice, queer justice, and reproductive justice. What’s happening is an attack on our bodies (and how we use them) and an attack on our right to land and space. The link is clear.

The challenge for me is this; how can we have a political and social awareness and analysis that understands how our work intersects? Let me break it down like this – even if my organizing is primarily with and in queer communities, how can my analysis be one that understands complexities of progressive issues, one that says to be in solidarity with my friend doing immigrant rights organizing, doesn’t mean I have to stop being queer or organizing around LGBT issues, it means that I need to think about how we create shared meaning around justice, how we look at where our needs and wants and visions for change create new definitions for justice.

I heard Beth Zemsky speak at the Bisexual Empowerment Conference in April and she had this to say, “When we think about what it is we want and or want to change, we need to think about who else wants similar changes. Who might be seeking the same justice that I am?”

Beth reminded me of a quote from Urvashi Vaid, “do we want to be a progressive LGBT movement or do we want to be the queers IN a progressive justice movement?”

For me it’s the second, it means we get to be all of who we are all the time, it means we do organizing around queer issues/LGBT rights in a way that honors, holds and understands a shared vision for justice. But it’s also a chicken or the egg type situation; we’ve got some work to do within LGBT communities to position the intersections and become progressive as a queer movement so we are ready to be part of a larger justice movement.

I don’t have all the answers but I believe strongly that to create a more just and equitable world, our progressive movements need to transform how we understand our issues.