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Monday, March 2, 2009

Queering Our Lil High School in the Hood

I'm going to make less personal posts and reserve those for my own webspace.  I have a hard time maintaining this one, let alone two, but I'll try.  In any case, I wanted to share this ...

If you've ever been a teacher, or worked with young people in any capacity (and enjoyed it), you probably understand the experience of holding on to tiny moments in order to find revelations.  Similarly, you probably know what it's like to be overwhelmingly proud of your students over and over and over again.

Last week, I invited students to The Audre Lorde Project's S.O.S Collective Provocative Discussion, "We Got Next: Change Got Obama Elected, Now It's Our Turn."  I put up flyers, let the Gay/Straight Alliance know about it, and went into a social studies class and gave an announcement.  In the end, four students, two perceived-males, both queer, and two perceived-female students, both straight, came along.  They were not students who consider themselves the "faces" of our school or self-proclaimed student leaders, as we have some of those walking through our halls.  Even if a couple of them weren't sure about how they felt about the "queer thing," these were students who just felt like it was an important conversation to be part of.  There are constantly important conversations they're being part of.

On our way to the event, we sat on the B52 bus and talked about some of their experiences at their previous high schools and how they ended up at our school.  There were talks of recognizing how they were being tracked to fail; talks about being kicked out, despite the laws of doing so to a minor under 17; some conversation about one of the young women's son, who is 5 months-old; and an interesting confession among a pair of friends--one "Black," to put it simply, and the other Dominican--about how said Black friend is working through the inherited racism she "used to" have, and her mother currently has, for Latinos (though she admitted that she's still "kind of" racist towards Puerto-Ricans).  The Latino student sat and listened to her friend, wincing at moments, and then finally making a confession of her own: Her parents are racist too.

As we walked into ALP, we had been knee deep into our discussion about race, one our students are so used to.  I was excited and a bit nervous to have them in a space of the queer community I'm a part of outside of work.  I was excited for them to begin a conversation they aren't so familiar with.  My students know I'm queer (some have asked, some I've told, and others have assumed) and so my nervousness had nothing to do with a fear of being outed.  It had more to do with knowing that in many ways I am proud of them and in a lot of ways, they make it easy.  They question, they talk, they complicate, and they challenge.  I feared them entering the space and resisting.  Needless to say, I got off the hook easy.  They spoke, they questioned, they were open to complexities and challenged themselves.

Before the event started, we went down the list of terms they were unfamiliar with: LGBTSTGNC (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Sprited, Transgendered, Gender Non-Conforming), PGP) Preferred Gender Pronoun), and Ally.  I watched their faces as they took in the new information and we exchanged, using examples.  For instance, I told them, "I consider myself gender non-conforming," and continued to explain.  They nodded and we went on to discuss PGPs and Ally.  The two hetero students nudged one another.  "See, we're allies," one of them said.  I swear, it was all the cutest queering experience ever.

Throughout the event, I was impressed by their willingness to be down and participate, even in the midst of uncertainty or fear.  They loved every moment of it.  "I want to come back," one of them told me at the end of the night. "Thank you for the experience," said another.   A couple other students gravitated towards an SOS Collective member who performed a poem and invited her to be a part of our Anti-Homophobia Day.  The next morning in school, another student literally ran into my office, shouting, "Last night was bommmbb."  Later that day, at our school's Friday evening Open Mic, a couple of the students who came decided to share their experience at the SOS event with their peers  and spoke on the importance of PGPs and multiple lived experiences.  

"Most of you know me, but I'd like to reintroduce myself properly," said a perceived female student, "My name is .... and I have no PGP." Before she began her poem, she let us know what brought her to this point of sharing.  "Last night, I went to this discussion at the Audre Lorde Project's S.O.S. Collective with Cleo and I was inspired..." 

I couldn't help but be so so very proud.

I say: the young people I work with are amazing.  You know, I've always been so impressed with the power young souls find within themselves after just being given a kernel of truth, of information, of many histories speaking to their own.  I say: the young people I've been blessed to work with in my burgeoning education career have me wishing I was one of the crystal children of today.  I say all of this to say, last week I was moved, so so moved.

I work at a small alternative transfer school.  For those of you who don't know what a transfer school is, it's a high school where students who haven't met "success" at other schools (e.g., dropped out, kicked out, pushed out, yada yada) can come earn credits and graduate with their high school diploma before they age out and are forced to get their GED.  Our students are 17-21, fierce and always learning.  They frustrate me, have me working hard, and most days give me glimpses into their capacity to be powerful forces in this society.  I do the college thing, or postsecondary thing, as some students aren't about college and that's just for real.  While this affords many frustrations in ways I don't prefer delving into right now, another "thing" that I've been voluntarily hurled into at our school is the "queer thing." 

Now, I also said we're an alternative school, not in the hand-holding and singing kumbayah kind of way, but in the Che Guevera posters, Adrienne Rich quotes on the walls, liberation-talking, and "no pigs" policy in our school kind of way.  We're, for lack of better words, a social justice school in the hood fighting our way to have students understand the complexities of well, everything.  As I've said in past posts, we pride ourselves on having conversations about race and class down but when it comes to conversations about queerness, it's something we're just beginning to hone.  It's not so new but then again it is.  In February, our first trans student enrolled, myself and a few staff members revived our Safe Schools Committee, we're aggressively planning for our Anti-Homophobia (And transphobia?) Day, and queer conversations amongst staff and students are taking place on a more regular basis, and not just by queer staff members, but non-queer allied staff too.  

It's all so surreal to witness this happening at this moment in history, at this devastating point, nationally, for urban public schools.  I'm so proud of all of us, but more than anything, I'm proud of the brave students, who are beginning to manifest ways to rightfully queering educational spaces and (gen)ducating the masses.


Friday, February 20, 2009

I was a bit hesitant about sharing this with the masses, probably due to an underlying insecurity with coming off as arrogant and/or self-centered, but I'm going to share it anyway.  Head first.  Here I go.  It's brief, so stick with it.

Last Saturday (Valentine's Day, to be exact), I ended my night by going to That's My Jam, a queer dance party in "Bed Stuy," (more or less Clinton Hill area) that hopes but alas fails to be a diverse representation of the queer population that exists Brooklyn.  Yet, it's super white, super specific and reflective of all the other "queer dance parties" I venture to go to in and around Manhattan, Williamsburg, etc.  Same sea of white faces, same overwhelming feeling of feeling like a little chocolate chip and not quite knowing where to go to have a nice night of queer dancing in the neighborhood if you don't want to go to The Lab and also want a nice mix of gender representations and spectrums of gayness, queerness, etc.   But at That's My Jam you get some brown hopefuls who drop in or like me, keep dropping in in hopes that someday it'll be a little browner.  In any case, I digress.  Back to the point.  Stick with it.

As I was dancing with friends at TMJ last Saturday I got a tap on the shoulder.  Intoxicated and socially awkward to boot, I turned to the young woman with big hair as she leaned in close to me.  I made eye contact and over the thumping vibrations of the unsatisfactory soundtrack in the background she said to me, "I just wanted to let you know that your cipHER helped me come out."  I don't remember what I said.  I think I awkwardly smiled and nodded.  I was a bit speechless.

I just wanted to make note though, that whoever you are, thank you so much for sharing that.  Zami was a dream of mine and though often selfish when thinking of the impact it has on a larger scale, I forget that as a collective, we all made something memorable and inspiring happen those days in April.  Let's work on making progress this second time around.  Let's work to create our own histories and support one another in ways we don't even know.

I'm down.  Are y'all?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We Got NEXT!

On February 26, 2009, the Audre Lorde Project's Safe OUTside the System Collective (S.O.S) is organizing a Provocative Discussion called "We Got Next!: Change For Obama Elected, Now It's Our Turn" Please join us. We are a group of LGBTSTGNC People of Color interested in challenging violence that affects our communities. Let's talk about how we can harness the power of the political hype from Pres. Obama's Change campaign and use it for our own struggles for community safety.

Thursday, Feb 26, 2009. 6:30 - 9:00
85 S. Oxford Place, Brooklyn, NY.
Jarvie Room.

C-train to Lafayette.
G-train to Fulton St.
2/3/4/5/B/D/N/R/Q to Atlantic/Pacific Street. Exit at Hanson Place, walk up Hanson Place to S. Oxford, make a left, cross Fulton.
OR B52, B26, B25 Bus to Fulton & Greene.

Monday, February 9, 2009

"Who do you become when you can't be yourself?"

Last week, a friend randomly posted a movie trailer for Pariah (2007) on my facebook wall, with nothing else said. After watching the trailer, I realized that there was in fact nothing to be said about this upcoming feature-length film about a gender-nonconforming young lesbian of color. Check out more about the film at PARIAH The Movie. I am very excited and something in me feels like I'm, again, discovering something good for us as a community. "Who do you become when you can't be yourself?" asks the film's tagline. It's an important question, one that I often grapple with myself. For those of us in the midst of trying to navigate how to be ourselves in all capacities, this movie will probably guide us through the experience, even if we aren't youth.

If you get the chance, please check it out at the Pan-African Film Festival. I'm trying to figure out when it's being released to independent theaters.
In the past, our community has witnessed images of us in the media, many of them inaccurate and some of them simple documentations of our lives and reflections of our voices as created and spoken by us (Daniel Peddle's The Aggressives and my homegirl tiona.m's black womyn: conversations with lesbians of african descent). We've seen ourselves on screen in random spaces amongst the sea of white lesbian and queer mainstream media culture (think The L-Word's Carmen, Papi, and Tasha, and the lil tastes of brown lesbians, remember the oh-so aggressive Latina that shared a jail cell (and every white lesbian's puesdo-racist jailhouse/brown girl sex fantasy) with Helena?) and throughout history we know ourselves to have been integral parts of many different histories. If we were lucky we caught hold of narratives of ourselves in complex ways (one that surprised me was the character Dill in Suzan-Lori Park's Getting Mother's Body) and currently, we are writing our own narratives to leave behind. I hope Pariah serves as an accurate, multi-facted narrative that speaks to us not only on screen but in the cores of our many beings.

Tell me, what narratives helped you become who you were even in moments when you couldn't fully be yourself?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Lately, I feel like I'm in the midst of histories to be remembered. In the past week, and certainly this past month, I've been searching for a reason as to why I've been feeling off kilter. Yes, it's almost 2012 and we've all heard the conversations around the impending date. You know, the Bible tell us so, Zietgiest, the Mayan calendar... various theories of the sort. I am coming to terms with something in between all of these, maybe a combination of all, but more than anything, I feel like what's happening in this lifetime of mine is that the universe is demanding that as a queer, gender-nonconforming, person of color, I move against the current of the present and the past, and develop a new script for what it means to be an activ(ist) human body in the future in a sexist, heteronormative, racist, classist, and patriarchacal society.

Last Tuesday I flew to Denver, Co. to attend The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's 21st Annual Creating Change conference, a 5-day intensive conference, or retreat-ish style academic forum, with dozens of workshops, day-long institutes, and Leadership Academy sessions surrounding a variety of issues pertaining to the LGBTQ-GNCTS community. I was thrilled to go, as I'd been anticipating this for a year (last year it was in Detroit and I couldn't go) and was utterly blessed and privileged when my work was willing to send me to Denver all expenses paid.

See, I was sent on behalf of the high school I work for, a small alternative transfer high school with a student population with ages ranging between 17 and 21. As a school, it was created to educate and thrive under our mission of social justice and community liberation. We are a public school but do not have metal detectors, surveillance cameras, or NYPD hired as security in our school. We have 400 students, have one exit and entrance, and everyone is called by their first name. (No. Ms. and Mr.) On our walls we have murals painted by students, (fine art of black and brown students in graduation gowns with fists raised high holding diplomas in their hands), we have pictures of panthers and Che Guevera plastered to walls, and our school slogan "All Power to the People!" is hung up high. Our student population is one that thrives on immense and intense lived experiences on various ends of the spectrum. We have brilliant students who are parents and just as brilliant students who are in gangs. We haven't had a fight occur in 6 years and we have been voted as one of the safest schools in the city.

And yet, while we were in the midst of educating students on the oppressive history behind the "N-word," and having anti-Columbus Day assemblies, and anti-Thanksgiving Day open mics, we failed to realize just how ill equipped our community (staff and students) is as a people when it comes to queer and trans issues.

For the past month, our staff has been having small and large drawn-out conversations about what bathroom our first transgendered student would be using when she officially entered this new semester. There's no need to go into particular details about what's been said in these meetings, but what became very evident to the majority of the staff involved in these sit-downs is that the "bathroom issue" that has taken so long to resolve among staff and administration seems little to be about what bathroom the young woman uses and more about the deep-set transphobia that arose out of some staff and is feared to potentially arise out of students and parents alike.

"What do I tell a parent when their daughter comes home and tells them that a "boy" was using the same bathroom as them?" our principal asked the staff. Many were appalled by the question itself and others perhaps inadvertantly appalled at the principal for even raising the concern. Though not supporting the root of the transphobic language in the hypotehtical question from the hypothetical parent, I recognize this as a very valid concern coming from an administrator. Here you have an altnerative high school trying to truly educate and not merely school students who have been cast to the social fringes; trying to provide a safe community space for a population prodominately seen and treated as criminals; and investigate social injustices that take a more than a life time to tackle. Here you have adults, who by all good intention, are trying to sustain such principles, even if they don't fully consider themselves activists or "radical" and what's very clear is that throughout all of this, the "What if's?" stand to be very real obstacles in the process of creating safe and liberatory spaces that counter the status quo.

The first day of our second term student orientation, close to 30 teachers and staff sat in a classroom discussing how best to attend to the needs and wants of out first trans student. Personal stories were shared, tears fell, transphobia and misunderstanding unfolded, and respect, love, and liberation unified an intergenerational, multi-ethnic, cross-faith, cross-gender, cross-orientation group of educators, social workers, and counselors who all stood behind one student's right to walk through her education as she defines it. I went home that night, head heavy with some words saddening me and others simultaneously reminding me why I chose to be an educator. The next morning in the Dean's office, after sharing her similar reaction to the last "bathroom meeting," one of the Deans (I'll call her, Her Royal Fierceness) put it all into perspective. "It's frustrating," she said, "But it's a good thing. It's a good thing. I mean, what other schools across America do you think are having this conversation right now?"

I'd bet and assume, not many. This is history.

QUESTION: As LGBTQ-GNCTS people of color, what are some of your experiences with witnessing, battling (and conquering, of course!) sexual orientation and gender in education and work spaces? Is your "Eye on the Prize" in regards to liberation of queer bodies in heteronormative spaces? Write! Shout! Yell! Discuss! Complicate! Or raise another issue ...

Comment and tell us all what you're thinking. Please, join the cipHER.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


I hope that those of you who are reading this had the pleasure of experiencing Zami Like Me: Queer Womyn of Color CipHER last year, the two day event that I had spent four years dreaming about only to have it develop into a success not only for myself but for the community of queer women of color and allies that helped organize, manage, and produce a monumental occasion in my short life time.  I've said to myself, and perhaps those of you who know me personally have heard me say, that I don't want Zami Like Me to be a one-time occasion, another queer event that comes and goes, is faintly remembered, and never returns.  My intention was always to have it be an annual event and out of it launch a continuous cipHER that we are all a part of.  

Of course, due to money, time, and life responsibilities of the Zami committee and our various communities at large, we can't have a large event every month ... yet; however, we can aim to make Zami happen every year and we can, luckily through smaller events and (yes!) technology, make our cipHERs go on and on ...

With that said, for those of you who didn't get the chance to attend Zami due to the Passover holiday, and other commitments, I hope you can be in attendance to 2009's Zami Like Me, which is in the process of being planned.  For those of you who don't know what Zami Like Me is, you'll realize soon enough.  Still, stick around.  

I created this blog as the beginning of our technological cipHER, which I hope will bring people from various communities outside of New York together and talking about the issues that are important to our particular communities.  As a goal for these conversations and for the planning of Zami 2, I want us to continue with those conversations surrounding gender that were raised at the event cipHER as well as how we can, as a queer community of color (with allies) make our minds, words, and spaces more inclusive to looking at gender in a more complex way.  

I encourage passion, fueled-responses and conversations, debates, upsets, and upsides to all sides of whatever we're choosing to discuss.  I discourage hate, petty fighting and the like, so respect one another and check yourselves, and yes -- check others.

I will write; sometimes freewrite, sometimes with a well thought out thesis, and many times, probably with my foot in my mouth.  But I will write.  I will not give you a formula or predict what I think you feel is important.  I can only gauge things as best as I can.  But if there's ever anything you have a concern with, or something you'd like to be highlighted, posted, etc, feel free to email: zamilikeme@gmail.com.

I know this blog thing is on the rise (everyone wants to be a voice, everyone wants to narrate their story, right?) and I know you probably have a million other blogs to view, but this isn't just about reading someone's musings, it's about us engaging fiercely with one another like we did on those April days and evenings.  Please! Please engage!