This Is Us
A Pride Month Reflection on the Power of Positive Change
by Chael Needle
Two queer men, also partners, John Lyon Burnside III and Harry Hay, invented the teleidoscope, a sort of kaleidoscope that, instead of using colored crystals, reflects objects outside of its lens. This scope of ever-shifting mirrors, creating a multitude of designs based in the real world, always seemed an apt analogy for the LGBTQ2S+ liberation movement. We are instruments of reflection and change.
Traditionally, for LGBTQ2S+ community members and allies, June is Pride month and, for me, it has never stopped at celebrating our sexual orientation or gender identity but starts with speaking out against injustice, hate, and exploitation. That is, we draw on our collective lived realities to interrupt the status quo, in the name of social justice or health justice or economic justice, and so on. In this sense, the LGBTQ2S+ liberation movement is aligned with (and indeed intertwined with) many other movements that have determined that the business called “usual” needs to be shuttered for good. The civil rights, labor, women’s, immigrant rights, and HIV/AIDS movements, to name a few, all align and intertwine partly because of the intersectional aspect of oppression, a hydra whose heads are animated by racism, classism, sexism, etc., and which work in unison, at times, or in different combinations or singularly. And the aligning-and-intertwining exists because we, as human beings trying to make our way in the world, are radically diverse individuals who fight back against business as usual from different vantage points, some of which are based on social categories and some based on allyships.
Often, some form of “business as usual” is embedded in any particular liberation movement, so that some activists work at least two shifts to interrupt the status quo, one shift within activist or progressive groups or organizations of which they are part and one shift in their communties of origin.
For example, in response to an AIDS 2020 video produced by UCSF, activist Billie Cooper [A&U, April 2020] said in protest: “‘This. Is. BULLSHIT!! The whole thing is bullshit, the same old bullshit we are always handed! I don’t see ME in your video! I don’t see any of my trans sisters in your video! Forty years of this stuff and you still can’t get this right?! You still don’t have a trans woman in your video?! Where are we?! Did you erase us? Are you going to erase us from the conference like you erased us from your video?!”
As Cooper grew up, she had a similar experience with society in general. She told interviewer Hank Trout: “At the time, I was just ‘gay’ because there was no such word as ‘transgender.’ We were always just ‘gay,’ ‘homosexuals,’ ‘faggots.’ I had to be very careful being Gay and Black. At that time, we were barely ‘tolerated.’ If we were quiet and didn’t cause any problems, we were accepted. I also believe some people felt threatened by my sexuality then.”
The late activist Ken Jones [A&U, February 2020] had a similar experience when it came to attempts to erase whole groups of individuals from the queer movement. He told interviewer Hank Trout: “‘[Activist Konstantin Berlandt] asked for my input on a flyer for an upcoming [Pride] Parade Committee meeting. When I pointed out to him the lack of diversity in the all-white all-male images, he broke out into a huge grin and hugged me. He insisted I attend that meeting to discuss my concerns about all the white male images.’”
Trout writes: “Ken left that meeting as Co-Chair of an Outreach Committee. ‘I charged the Committee with getting more under-represented or non-represented segments of the community to march with the People of Color Contingent and to join in the parade planning process.’ Ken served in that role for a number of years. And then, in 1985, ‘I had brought a majority of new, non-traditional members into the planning process and actually had the votes to run for and win as President of the Planning Committee.” At his first meeting as President, he passed a motion to add ‘Bisexual’ to the name of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade and Celebration.”
Jones interrupted the status quo of the movement and the movement was better for it. And, while sometimes the movement encourages positive transformation, at other times the movement seeks to freeze in place oppressive power dynamics. When I asked Sheryl Lee Ralph [A&U, August 2015] about how #BlackLivesMatter and AIDS activism intersected, she offered this experience: “‘I will never ever forget one of my early meetings around HIV and AIDS. I was in a group of gay men and a few straight female allies and we were all sitting and talking and I got up from the table to speak with someone and I heard someone say, ‘Well, why are we talking to the n*****?’ And I remember being speechless. In my brain, I was. I was absolutely on pause because I thought we were all here all on the same page to talk about what was going on with this disease, but this person just said, ‘But why are we talking to the n*****?…I guess in his mind because I was black I wasn’t worth talking to and I certainly didn’t need to be talking with them about this subject as if it wasn’t a human disease that affected us all, no matter who we were, gay, straight, black, white, rich, or poor. I always knew that HIV and AIDS did not discriminate, but somehow some people still do.’”
Thank heavens Sheryl Lee Ralph persisted because she has been vital to the HIV/AIDS movement.
I could cite more examples from the pages of A&U, but I wanted to bring together these voices in this column to reflect on and remind ourselves of the precious, tenuous bond called us. Ever shifting, ever reforming as we link together, like mirrors in a teleidoscope.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.