There’s a video I want you to watch: five minutes of black-and-white footage, documenting a gay rights rally in 1973 where activist Sylvia Rivera spoke. Rivera, a Latina transgender woman, was an integral part of the Stonewall riots that kick-started LGBTQ liberation in America in 1969, but she didn’t always get the respect she deserved as a foremother of our movement.
In this video, event organizers try to calm a raucous crowd: “It’s up to the gays. ... Do you want these people to speak?” They’re answered with a chorus of boos and jeers.
“These people.” That is how the movement for gay liberation has all too often regarded transgender women, people of color, those with trauma and disabilities — pushing the most marginalized of us further aside.
In the video, Rivera takes the mic and shouts: “I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation. And you all treat me this way?”
For a long, long time, yeah. We did.
But a new generation of LGBTQ youths doesn’t know a “gay liberation” movement that doesn’t include people of color and transgender individuals.
At Inside Out Youth Services, our local LGBTQ youth center, staff, volunteers and the youths themselves are making a concentrated effort to address racism within and outside the LGBTQ community, by focusing on intersectional activism.
Youth program manager Candace Woods says, “As an organization, we recognize that queer identities intersect with so many other identities, right? Our identities exist in our bodies, and so looking at race and class, and disability ... and even things like religion and access to education and levels of education — these are intersectional things that we have privilege in or experience oppression around. So that is something that we’re committed to understanding more fully, and working toward anti-oppression on lots of different levels, not just around queer liberation.”
But for the young folks at Inside Out, “intersectionality” isn’t just conceptual. Many of them experience housing insecurity, substance abuse, racism, ableism and other issues that make their lives harder than for many other teenagers.
[pullquote-1-center] Miles Jordan, who is working as an intern at Inside Out as part of a master’s degree in social work, says, ”I think intersectionality in practice is sometimes different than our understanding of the definition of the word. But it’s really a huge part of just existing within an organization like Inside Out, because our young people all have such different backgrounds and experiences, and so they’re getting to learn about it on a textbook level at the same time that they’re experiencing it in their lives.”
The organization’s focus on intersectionality has grown organically in response to what youths at IOYS need and want to talk about. On the IOYS Discord server (a chat app where the organization has hosted its programming since COVID-19 forced the center to cancel in-person services), organizers noticed trends in the youths’ discussions. “At the beginning of Pride Month, and as the current wave of protests in the movement for Black lives were sparking, we started a Stonewall channel in our Discord server, where we’re having these conversations, talking about the historical figures in our queer history and their intersectional identities,” Woods says.
Jordan adds, “I think it’s really [us] providing the structure and the facilitation, but the young folks, they’re the ones bringing it up. We created that channel after noticing that this was something that they wanted to talk about.”
Youths have even driven some of the rules that make IOYS a safe space for folks of all identities. At a conference Woods attended in January, a panel of youths of color suggested a rule called “Ouch, Oops, Educate.” The way it works is, basically, if someone says something harmful or offensive, the person affected by it can say “ouch,” then the other person has the opportunity to recognize they made a mistake and learn from it. These educational opportunities are vital when working with youths of different experiences and backgrounds. It’s how we build empathy and understanding. Solidarity. And in many cases, it’s coming directly from the kids.
“As we talk about education, it’s not just about us as adult staff doing education work,” Woods says. “It’s about us doing the work together and educating each other. Youth to staff, youth to one another, staff to youth, staff to staff, right? There’s this constant flow.”
Last month, Inside Out participated in a Pride Solidarity March for Black Lives Matter. The march, which drew activists from all corners of the city, proved how far the movement for civil rights has come — more than 50 years after Sylvia Rivera was booed and mocked by members of the gay community. For this progress, we can thank people of intersecting identities who never stopped fighting for their rights, and the kids who are intentionally building a movement that welcomes everyone.
“The people that were leading [the march] were queer and trans people of color,” Jordan says. “… And I think even outside of the community, people seeing us walking all together with rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter flags all intermingled? That was really important.”