BARBARA SMITH: WHERE’S THE REVOLUTION?, THE NATION, 1993
Kim Crenshaw: June 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the convulsive beginning of the gay rights movement. Now the celebration of this historic event will bring to a head divergent and sometimes controversial questions, questions about how, when and where the movement grapples with its own intersectional history and how it deals with current intersectional politics. Some of the issues this year will range from whether leading figures of the movement's origin such as Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will be lifted up to whether the current celebration of same-sex marriage reflects an agenda that has been authorized by the many or by the few.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Lady Sill just as she was transitioning to her new job as the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust. We were in London a few weeks ago. We look forward to highlighting her work in the future and on hearing about how her hangout with Billy Porter and the cast of Pose as co grand marshals of Wold Pride work, Lady Sill. And just as we were finishing up our last podcast on apologies, the New York City Police Department issued one for their actions that led to the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago.
Two weeks ago, Commissioner James O'Neil issued a short, maybe not so sweet statement calling the actions of the police discriminatory and oppressive. He made assurances that something like this would never happen in 2019. Now this comes after decades of the NYPD resisting demands for an apology. In fact, just two years ago, O'Neil himself declined apologizing for the raid, saying that, well, the past was the past. Now some see this as a step in the right direction, and I have to acknowledge that, unlike some of the bystander apologies discussed In the last episode, Joe Biden's non-apology, for example, this one at least acknowledged past wrongdoing on the part of the police. But critics of the apology aren't so impressed. They say it says nothing about harm being done today, right now against LBTQ-plus people by the NYPD. The Reclaim Pride Coalition, for example, stated, "The NYPD's vice squad is still in business, busting sex workers and others while its own members run their own brothels." They pointed out that the NYPD arrested a trans woman in the Bronx and held her in custody, in handcuffs for 24 hours. Her crime, walking to work while trans.
Now apologies aren't nothing, but they aren't quite the it's-all-good-now blanket for contemporary harassment. I'll say that again. Apologies aren't nothing, but they aren't an it's-all-good blanket disclaimer for contemporary harassment. Some see the apology as a further softening of the violent history between the police and queer people. Now for some, this is a welcome rapprochement, while for others it's just another step in the de-politicizing and corporatizing of the movement. The incorporation of uniformed officers in ... The incorporation of uniformed officers in the parade has been a particular point of contention. It leads some critics like Reclaim Pride to organize the Queer Liberation March.
Now that's an alternative march to retain more of the radical elements of Pride, especially its resistance to unjust domination. We'll hear a little bit more from them in a minute. Now that's something that Barbara Smith knows all about. On June 19th she penned an op-ed entitled "Why I Left the Mainstream Queer Rights Movement." In her iconic and no-nonsense way, she explains why she, one of the key figures in the history of queer freedom, has become isolated from the current gay rights movement.
Now to any reader of black feminism, lesbian writing or intellectual history of intersectionality ideas, Barbara Smith needs no introduction. But to the newbies, I'm going to tell you just a little bit about Barbara Smith, lesbian, feminist author, activist, independent scholar and co-founder of the Combahee River Collective. Barbara Smith has been in the driver's seat of the literary and political vehicles carrying black feminism into the public square for a half century. The titles she has edited and the projects she's co-founded tell it all. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Black Women's Studies, Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, I am Your Sister, Black Women Organizing Across Sexuality, Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, The Combahee River Collective, Conditioned Spies, The Black Women's Issue.
Now these were like stops on the underground railroad for us black feminists who were all coming of age in the late '70s and the early '80s. Let me tell you, by the time I was in grad school in the mid '80s, Conditioned Spies, now that was like Prince's The Black Album. You'd heard about it. You wanted to get it, but it virtually sold out almost immediately when it was published. So my little study group at the University of Wisconsin had one copy of it. And this is a shout out to you, Judy and Ryan, we'd steal it from each other every chance we'd get. We were so thirsty for the work that would amplify what we were seeing, what we were experiencing and what we were trying to think and write about. And Barbara Smith led the way in quenching that thirst nurturing an entire generation of black feminists.
That's why, in addition to the Stonewall Award for Service to the Lesbian and Gay Community in 1994 and her nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, the African American Policy Forum awarded Barbara the Harriette Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award. We call her the OG of black feminism. Barbara, welcome to the podcast.
Barbara Smith: Thank you so much, Kim. I'm so happy to be with you. Kim Crenshaw: So this year is a big anniversary for queer rights, he movement, and it looks like all stops are being pulled out, so here in New York, the NYPD, as I mentioned, has apologized. The New York Times has published a series reflecting life after Stonewall. And your contribution to that theory, "Why I Left the Mainstream Queer Rights Movement" pulled no punches about some of the continuing problems of the movement. And for that, it's so much of the piece that you wrote and then of course the piece that you wrote in 1993 in The Nation, "Where's the Revolution?" Actually gives a trajectory that in many ways informs some part of even the contemporary critique of the movement. Walk us back to that trajectory- what do you remember about the first March?
Barbara Smith: Well it was exhilarating. Everything in those days was exhilarating, because we were making it up from scratch. We were making it up as we were going along. One of the members of the Combahee River Collective, Demita Frazier said something I've never forgotten and have quoted many, many times. She said, "This is not a mixed cake. We are making this from scratch." And what she was talking about was building Black feminism and the feminism of women of color and a space for out, queer people of color to be. There were no givens. So as I said, it was exhilarating during those years. It was certainly exhilarating to go the national march, and I may get the exact title incorrect, but the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, because there had never been anything like that before.
One of the things about that period is that there was not the incredible divide or the incredible chasm between establishment gay rights and liberation movements plural. There was not that level of chasm, because we were absolutely stigmatized and that included white, gay men, if you see what I'm saying. I don’t mean that we all had the same politics or that we, as women of color, were universally respected and seen as equals in the movement. We were not. But at a time when we were absolutely anathema and viewed as anathema to not even polite society, but just society. But as I said, at a time when we were so ostracized, so marginalized, so scapegoated, there was not, as I said, that chasm. There was this feeling of we're all in this together. This was pre the AIDS epidemic, '79. So the difference between the ‘79 march and the ‘87 march were worlds apart.
Kim Crenshaw: Now as you pointed out, when '87 march came around, you were one of the speakers. So the group was now not 100,000, it was like a million-plus people. You were one of eight speakers. Do you remember what your message was at that march?
Barbara Smith: I think, I haven't looked at that speech for quite some time. I actually had to shorten my speech, because there were more than eight speakers. We were considered the eight major speakers that were given somewhat more time. But because of how things had unfolded, like at most events like that, by the time it got to me, I was in the very difficult position of having to cut my speech on the biggest stage I've ever been on. That was my biggest audience to date, and I'm up there trying to cut my speech as it happened.
But the full speech was published in Gay Community News, which was Boston's fabulous newspaper for our community. And so the complete speech is there, and so I will go home and read that after the fact. And if I'm wrong about what I talked about, I will let you know. But I suspect that I focused a lot on issues of racism and probably also economic oppression, probably also talked about some of the international issues that were happening at the time. I'm just kind of supposing, because there was a lot going on in Central and Latin America at that time with the US government doing its usual kinds of negative interventions. So who knows? I'll let you know if I talked about fashion trends. I'll get back to you on that.
Kim Crenshaw: That would be shocking. Well it's so interesting that you mentioned that they listed in the 1993 march a quote from your earlier speech, because the 1993 march seemed to in some ways be a turning point, or at least the recognition that things on the ground had shifted, because that one was much more about the military. It seemed to be at some distance from where the earlier two marches had come. At some point then as we moved to 1999, you said you got to the last straw.
Barbara Smith: Right, indeed.
Kim Crenshaw: Do you recall some of the moments when you decided, okay, you know what? I'm done with this. Barbara Smith: Yes At a certain point I said, "No, this is not for me. I need to put my energy elsewhere." And that's really because of the kind of politics and theoretical understanding that you have brought to the world around intersectionality, that I've always done work that would be defined as intersectional. And at a certain point it was very clear that that's not what the flourishing and growing LGBTQIA movement was about. We had not just been involved in one vector of addressing and challenging oppression. We had been in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We had been involved in Black liberation. We were involved in solidarity with Cuba, all kinds of things that really affected and influenced how did we understand freedom, how did we understand organizing, what did we think was liberation. There was a split between people who wanted that multi-issued intersectional understanding of what gay liberation looked like and people who only wanted to focus on so-called gay issues. And this was organizational. There was a gay liberation front that started right out of Stonewall, and then there was a gay activist alliance which decided that it only wished to focus on gay issues and not on carnage in Vietnam. So those splits have always existed.
Kim Crenshaw: And so that's when you were done. You didn't go to the 1999 march.
Barbara Smith: No, I did not. I haven't been to one since 1993.
Kim Crenshaw: So '93 was it as far as the mainstream movement. So this gives us a sort of historical trajectory of, as you pointed out, there were always these tensions. But at some point the side that says, "We're only going to focus on gay issues," actually is on the ascendancy and then becomes the center of the mainstream movement. And it's important for us to think about this, as this is the celebration of Stonewall, so Stonewall is a multiracial, gender-diverse insurgency. That's what's being celebrated, against the police. Now we're in a moment where the broader set of issues that might have been seeded by that movement have more or less been marginalized. The police are actually being brought in as partners in ways that were probably unimaginable 50 years ago.
Barbara Smith: Yes.
Kim Crenshaw: And people like you don't even go anymore. So what is it that allowed this ascendancy to happen? What is it that allows this exclusivity, or dare I say elitism to continue to now be at the center of setting the agenda?
Barbara Smith: I think the answers are complex. However, one of the hallmarks of homophobia and transphobia and of LGBTQIA oppression is a lack of acceptance. I think because of this push for acceptance, I'm thinking about it in comparison to what Black people were fighting for during the civil rights era. We weren't necessarily fighting for acceptance. We were fighting for rights, basic rights, the right to go to schools, signally the right to vote, the right to employment. It's kind of like I don't care if you like us or not. I don't care if you like me or not. I don't like you, so we're even on that. But I would like to be able to, for example, get a mortgage.
Kim Crenshaw: Feed my kids.
Barbara Smith: Yes. And the thing is that it's not that there was none of that or none of those impulses and none of those goals within the LGBTQIA movement. There definitely were. But that thing of acceptance I think was a stronger kind of motivator than it was with Black people, because we had no expectations around ever being accepted or acceptable, at least those of us who were functioning in a reality-based way. And I hope that no one who's listening things that what I'm saying is that it's not possible for people of color, including people who are Black, of African heritage and people who are of European heritage to have genuine and sincere relationships. That's not what I'm saying at all. That's absolutely possible, history bears it out. I'm not talking about that whatsoever. I'm talking about what was the trajectory of the political movement as far as its goals were concerned.
So as I said, this push for acceptance quickly and easily turned into a push for assimilation. We're just like you. We have 2.5 children, a picket fence, and we do whatever people do on weekends. We have a lawnmower, and you know. You know what I'm saying? It's just like, but the thing is, see, that had validity, because they painted people who were queer as being somehow from some other species or just ... We were vilified. And then there's also the fact that if you only have one thing that is a problem for you in a society where everything else is a privilege and a plus, then that's really all you need or want. With white, cisgendered males who demographically have the possibility of having more class privilege, and they already have white skin privilege, if the only thing that's messing up their world is the fact that they are ostracized and discriminated against because they're gay, then there's only one thing that needs to be fixed. And of course for us as women of color, that's never been the case, so there are a lot of reasons.
Kim Crenshaw: Absolutely, and when I thought about this in the context of anti-discrimination law, I thought about it in terms of like a pyramid. And if you have only one thing to complain about or one thing that pushes you sort of down in the basement, then all you really want is a little escape hatch, right? So that you can crawl through the basement to get to the upper floor, and for the most part, anti-discrimination law is sort of about that. It's like if but for your sexuality, you'd be heterosexual, then we'll acknowledge that. You get one pass or one way to climb up. But you can't fit all this stuff together, right? You just got to be one thing or another, and it seems as though some, in a number of ways, that logic took precedence over the formation and the ideology that you identified as one of the other possibilities that had been opened up by Stonewall. And just to encourage readers to read your New York Times op-ed, you point out that a quarter of the LGBTQIA community experience food insecurity. 24% of lesbians and bisexual women live in poverty. Black men who have sex with men, among the highest rates of HIV. And transgender women, of color in particular, experience, as you say, appalling levels of violence.
Now here's something I hear, and I wonder whether you hear it as well. It feels like a contradiction. So what typically gets said, and you've written about this, is, well, those aren't our issues. Those aren't gay issues, even those these are people who are claim to be part of the queer community, the issues that they face aren't their issues. So that gets said, but then here's the other thing that's really interesting. I've been in conversations lately where the argument has been made that, because marriage equality was successful, all of the other movements can learn something from it. So racial justice advocates, advocates for women, the idea is that now we can be tutored by the leaders of the marriage quality movement because they did it and it was successful, so we can learn a lesson from them.
And I always thought that was interesting, because within that movement itself, they're not really that capable of incorporating issues of race and in some of the other movements that are currently in need of rebooting. So within this space, these populations aren't well served. But outside the space, we're supposed to think that there is, I guess, knowledge that can be shaped around the experience around marriage equality. What should we make of that? Is this parallelism the lesson that we can learn from, or should we be concerned about the fact that the mainstream gay rights movement hasn't figured out how to do race and class and other issues very well?
Barbara Smith: Well we should definitely be concerned. Any movement that doesn't do those things well and doesn't have that kind of inclusive perspective is not genuinely a movement for profound change. I am frankly shaking my head about this concept of other movements should look at the marriage equality successes as a model. A model for what? I mean, I believe that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities should have the right to marry, I think that it is a basic human right. This idea, though, that we should model other kinds of liberation struggles, how would you, what would you learn from the fight for marriage equality if you're involved in the fight for 15, for a $15 minimum wage? I can't. What would you get from the successful fight for marriage equality around the ongoing egregious exploitation of women and violence against women? What would you get from that? Because that point that I was making, I can always argue with myself, the point I was making about how maybe people could deal with the concept of marriage, because they had kids and relatives and cousins and whomever who were gay, and they were all right with them, and they wanted them to have nice lives too. But women are embedded in all of these networks and families, and yet violence against women crosses every single class and race identity. So how would we use the successful fight for marriage equality to eradicate violence against women? I'm waiting. What's the answer. To that. Maybe you know, Kim.
Kim Crenshaw: We can't let you go without talking about Combahee. But before we talk about the differences in the trajectory, the vision that's reflected in Combahee and the neoliberalization of some mainstream dynamics, like in the parade, the corporate sponsorship, and as we've been talking about, there's the police presence. I read somewhere that after one city had disinvited the police, the New York Pride invited the police. We want you here.
Barbara Smith: And what does that tell you about the people who are making the decisions?
Kim Crenshaw: Exactly, exactly.
Barbara Smith: Have they ever heard of Eric Garner? Good grief.
Kim Crenshaw: This is the question. This is the question. So again, one could say on the other side, well, you're naïve to think that a movement can exist without resources. A celebration of this magnitude can't actually happen without having to incorporate sort of a corporate space to it. What should we think about that, like we need the money in order to make something like Pride happen year after year?
Barbara Smith: I don't know if you hear me sucking my teeth, because I am. Reclaim Pride is having a queer liberation march on next Sunday, June the 30th in New York City. And I'm delighted that this is the case. They're trying to get back to our roots, and I think it will be a really dynamic march. They're not trying to entertain people. It's not going to be the biggest party, extravaganza that anyone has ever seen. It's going to be about issues. It's going to be about community. It's going to be about solidarity, and that's what's happening. And I would suggest that people find out about Reclaim Pride, easy enough to do on Facebook, Twitter, online, and find out about an alternative. They have a wonderful statement about how they're ... a statement of principles about why they decided to do this. And they grappled with Heritage of Pride to try to get them to be more open to a different perspective about this celebration and what this commemoration should look like. They were not successful, so they created their own, and I think that's terrific.
About the money, that you have to have a certain level of money in order to be effective, one of the questions that people have asked me throughout the years about Combahee is, "Where did you get your funding from?" And I just start laughing hysterically. It's like, really, are you kidding? We had no funding, but of course it was the '70s and going into the early 1980s. But this idea that you cannot be politically effective unless you have lots and lots of bank, lots and lots of money, I don't think it's true. I think we live in an age of celebrity. We live in an age of glamor. It's a different kind of world, but is that liberation? I don't really think that that's liberation. But if what you think is important is how you look and how you look on a lavish level, not on a level of being presentable, if your whole thing is, I want to have the most expensive outfit, I have to drive this kind of car. I have to eat in this kind of a restaurant and live in this kind of a place. Then your priorities get shaped by that. And if what you're concerned about is I just want to be able to be safe and pay my bills and to make sure that the children at the border who don't have changes of clothes, who don't have soap, who don't have toothbrushes, that's more important to me than whether I have the last word in consumer objects.
Kim Crenshaw: Well on the note that you mention about Reclaim Pride, how they tried to negotiate and tried to broaden and refocus. And when they weren't able to, they created their own space. That seems to be, I think, a powerful modality of articulating what the dominant frame does not allow you to. And in some ways that's exactly what seems to have happened in your decision collectively to create Combahee. So first of all, tell us. I think a lot of people don't know where the name came from.
Barbara Smith: Well the Combahee River, which I have recently discovered is actually pronounced “Cumbee” not three syllables but only two. I say, "We pronounce it as Northeastern Black women of the 1970s would pronounce it." And we were wrong, we were completely wrong. Be that as it may, the Combahee or “Cumbee” River is a river, an existing river in South Carolina, where Harriet Tubman, who was a scout for the Union Army, organized a military action that freed over 750 enslaved Africans. So that's where the name of the Combahee River Collective comes from, from that militant action.
Kim Crenshaw: And why did you all call it that?
Barbara Smith: Well because it was an intervention for freeing Black people. It exemplified courage, a Black woman's courage toward freedom, and that's what we were trying to build. We did Black feminist organizing in Boston from the mid 70s until around 1980, 1981. And we’re most known for having written the Combahee River Collective Statement, which people are still dealing with and using to this day.
Kim Crenshaw: To this day.
Kim Crenshaw: When people read it, and I reread it every so often. Not that often, but when I have had the opportunity to reread it in recent days, it’s not old. It is not old.
Kim Crenshaw: At all. It’s enduring.
Barbara Smith: It could have been written last week. And the reason it’s not old is because we had this analysis that was applicable to realities of oppression at the time, but also going forward.I always say that the reason that Combahee was as meaningful as it was is because we were part of the left. We identified as socialists, and we actually understood that freedom under capitalism was not really feasible. So we were democratic socialists, of course, but we had an understanding, a material condition. It was not just about identity. Some people, we use the term identity politics in the statement, so we might be the people at fault for everything that's been laid at the feet of identity politics as being so wrong and so negative. But when we said identity politics, what we meant is that we are allowed, as Black women, it is legitimate for us to create our own political agendas and to follow them, to implement those political agendas. That's what we meant. We didn't mean that we hated other people who didn't have the same identities. It didn't mean that we were dismissing other people's realities. It did not mean that we though that just being a certain thing was enough. It was about practice, or praxis. It was about getting the work done.
Kim Crenshaw: And one of the things in rereading the statement, and I agree, it could've been written this morning, that people who engage this critique of identity politics seem to miss is that the statement is thoroughly about structures, of disempowerment, structures of subordination and how those structures shape the lives of people who are caught within them. So no one who reads the statement can come away with an idea of identity politics just being about, hey, recognize my identity, and it's all good. I also think there's an intentional misreading of the statement, an intentional misreading of Black feminism and everything that's come out of Black feminism, including intersectionality. There's sort of this ... We know what they're about, and we can completely dismiss and disregard them without actually having to engage in the thinking and the politicizing what Black women have actually produced.
Barbara Smith: Well I think that people are alarmed when the subject people, that is people who are subjugated and who are considered to be inferior, they get very alarmed when we rise up and speak up. They don't like that. That has been my experience, that that makes them very nervous, when we act as if we're just as empowered as they to determine the conditions of our lives. They don't like that, because that makes them think, maybe I'm going to lose something. Or maybe I'm not a part of the master race, or whatever their thinking is. That alarms them, so there's a significant segment of white people in the United States at this time who think that white people are undergoing and are being subjected to discrimination and oppression. Where did they get that idea from?
Kim Crenshaw: My colleague and co-founder of AAPF Luke Harris talks about that the diminished overrepresentation of basically white men everywhere is the crisis of the moment, diminishment of their over representation. You started Kitchen Table Press as a way of diminishing the overrepresentation of voices that get published. What did you hope to achieve when you resolved to create Kitchen Table Press?
Barbara Smith: We co-founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, we started the discussions in 1980. It was really a conversation with Audre Lorde and I that the seed was planted. And this was at a time when women of color ... You know how people, comedians say, "I couldn't get arrested in New York. I couldn't get any kind of attention at all." Well we can get arrested all the time, so that's not exactly the right metaphor. But this was at a time that nobody was interested at all in literary work, political analysis, you name it, poetry, fiction, nonfiction. They weren't interested in anything by or about women of color. And so we realized that we needed to do that ourselves.
Some of the white women's presses at the time were indeed making efforts to be sincerely inclusive, but we just knew, as Virginia Woolf had said, we needed to have a press of our own. She talked about a room of our own. We knew we needed to have a press of our own. But in stark kind of political science terms, the Kitchen Table Women of Color Press was our propaganda arm. We created a mechanism for producing our own propaganda, although nothing that we ever published was propagandistic, because we were very unique. We were both a literary press and a political press, high literary standards and very, very hard-hitting political writing. So that's what we did, and it still has impact I believe, even though it's not active. Even though it's not active as a press and hasn't been for many years, that model I think inspires people to this day.
Kim Crenshaw: So as someone who's been in the struggle for a long time, what advice do you give to younger queer activists, younger Black feminists, younger radicals?
Barbara Smith: I don't know how this is going to sound, but I think it's so important that younger generations who don't necessarily find their information through reading and reading articles and books, my major suggestion is that we bring back the study group, and that we read work together and discuss it. And as I said, that can be articles and that can be books. But there is a real kind of disconnect with the historical roots of what it even means to be political. People think that being political means that you tell someone very effectively to get lost on Twitter. That's not political work, I mean not per se. They may be completely wrong. I mean, I'm not saying that they don't need to be made aware, but that's not political work. Political work is day after day, so strategic, so thoughtful. And we need to know, all of us need to know, how did people before us get it done? How were people doing it previously? How did these things evolve? What was the civil rights movement like before the Montgomery Bus Boycott? What were people, Black people and other people doing towards Black freedom before those iconic years of the mid 20th century, all those stories that we think we know?
And then I think also to really understand that we have to treat each other how we would wish to be treated in all contexts, that this is, the motivation, the bottom line of it should be our love for ourselves, for each other and for humanity. And we have to function in that way. It's not about being the most important person in the room. It's not about being able to dictate to others what they're supposed to do or how they're supposed to think. It's about being able to meet people where they are, particularly those who are most affected by oppression, and try to figure out solutions to that.
Kim Crenshaw: And there we have it, from the OG of Black feminism, Ms. Barbara Smith. Thank you so much for spending so much time with us. As always, I walk away re-energized, renewed and with a reading list. Thank you so much.
Barbara Smith: Thank you so much, Kim, such a pleasure.
Kim Crenshaw: Intersectionality reveals that movements are defined as much by their fault lines as their in-group ties. Corporate floats and police presence don’t jibe with everybody’s sense of what a pride march should look like. Joining the ranks of longstanding community-held marches like the NYC Dyke March and the Trans Day of Empowerment March, Reclaim Pride aims to repoliticize the movement starting with the march. Here from the Reclaim Pride Coalition are Colin Ashley, Robert Baez and Francesca Barjon talking about what it means for them to reclaim pride and recenter intersectional, multi-issue organizing in the fight for liberation. The Reclaim Pride Coalition is a coalition of LGBT groups and individuals committed to restoring the Queer Liberation Movement to its radical, anti-oppressive roots.
Colin Ashley: Reclaiming pride is about the radical legacy of the Stonewall uprising. It’s about remembering that that legacy began in a tradition of anti-state violence, specifically anti-police brutality.
Robert Baez: Reclaiming pride means both honoring the legacies of movement work that have come before us, and understanding that there’s still so much more work to be done.
Colin Ashley: Intersectionality is fundamental to queer liberation.
Fran Barjon: People come from such different backgrounds, from different races, classes.
Colin Ashley: When we separate out our politics into single-issue politics, we fail.
Fran Barjon: We need to consider the ways in which a black trans woman is affected in ways that a white, cis gay man will never be affected
Robert Baez: As the mainstream movement would like to have you think marriage equality was the final destination, this was and is not the primary concern for many queers.
Colin Ashley: When we understand an issue like police brutality from an intersectional view, we are allowed to see how housing precarious Black trans and queer youth face issues of continual forms of stop and frisk, racial profiling, and the overpolicing of sex work.
Robert Baez: Access to resources like housing, steady income, medical care and food are queer issues.
Colin Ashley: Starting from a place of intersectionality shows us how interrelated systems of power are.
Robert Baez: Our upcoming Queer Liberation March rejects alliances with oppressive institutions such as police and corporations as a way to repoliticize queer struggles.
Colin Ashley: Reclaiming pride is about rebuilding an intersectional and a coalitional movement.
Robert Baez: And we hope to see you on June 30th.
Kim Crenshaw: That was Colin Ashley, Robert Baez, Francesca Barjon of the Reclaim Pride Coalition, talking about what it means for them to recenter intersectional, multi-issue organizing in the fight for LGBT liberation.
I met London-based LGBT activist Lady Phyll last year when we were both interviewed for a conversation in Them magazine. When we spoke, she passed along a quote she’d heard: “my fellow Black woman, when I see her, she is my road atlas.” Just as Barbara Smith’s work as an activist, writer and publisher served as a kind of compass for me, Lady Phyll is an increasingly visible lodestar for LGBT people of color in the UK. The first Black woman to head a major LGBT organization worldwide, Lady Phyll is also the co-founder and director of UK Black Pride, Europe’s largest celebration of LGBT people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, and Latin American descent. Phyll is also the editor of Sista! an anthology of writings by LGBT women of African/Caribbean descent with a connection to the UK. This Sunday June 30th, Phyll will serve as a grand marshal of World Pride in NYC, alongside Billy Porter and the cast of Pose. As an admirer of Lady Phyll and her exploits from afar, I had to ask her about the story of how she became a lady by defying the Empire. In 2016, Phyll was awarded the prestigious MBE, given for an outstanding achievement or service to the community for her accomplishments in LGBT activism. However, she declined, citing the ongoing persecution, torture and even murder of queer people across the world due in part to laws put in place by the British Empire. Embodying real nobility by rejecting colonialism, Phyll joined the ranks of other queer and POC figures like Honor Blackman, David Bowie and Benjamin Zephaniah who also refused the award. She is known as Lady Phyll partially in reference to her choice.
Kim Crenshaw: First of all, I have a confession to make in just describing how blown away I was by something that you did. So, I'm going to confess, as an American, I'm kind of fascinated with all this royal stuff, right? So, click bait for me, if I am doing my work, and something pops up about Meghan Markle, I'll try to ignore it, and it’s like, "Oh! I gotta read it right now." So, when I saw that you were being given the MBE award, the Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and, you turned it down. You said, "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm not going to be meeting the Queen. I'm not going to go get this award." That was huge.
Lady Phyll: Are you starting trouble again? They gave me hell for this.
Kim Crenshaw: So why did you do it, Phyll? Why did you do it?
Lady Phyll: I think the title alone, British Empire, says an awful lot. We have countries around the Commonwealth that the Queen is still responsible for, that continue to practice, penalize, criminalize, LGBT people around the world. I don't want to accept anything that elevates itself over the people I set out to serve.
Kim Crenshaw: Well, and your reading about that prompted me to look. And my team found that 71 countries around the world in which same sex sexual relations are illegal- of 71, more than half are former British colonies or protectorates.
Lady Phyll: The British went everywhere.
Kim Crenshaw: There's this frame that there's the West, it’s enlightened. And then there's the African continent, and other places in the south, and we have to go and rescue them from their backward homophobia.
Lady Phyll: Right. But, who placed it there?
Kim Crenshaw: Yes. That's completely missing from the political discourse.
Lady Phyll: I mean, there’s this mentality that we from the global north parachute into the global south and tell them that this is bad, it's an oppressive regime. You're criminalizing, torturing, persecuting, even in some countries, death sentence for being LGBTQ. But, let's unpack that a bit more. Where and who left that there? The British went in and they took the Bible in one hand. They were talking about all different sorts of things, and saying that, "Actually, the relationship between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman was wrong in the eyes of the Lord." Being gay, being queer is not un-African. We have to do something about claiming back our narrative, and I think that part of that work is all very much intersectional. It is very much about looking at the real barriers of oppression that have steeped in what colonialism did.
Kim Crenshaw: Was it hard to take this stand, this principled stand?
Lady Phyll: No. As a Black queer woman, there is no other response to that than, "Thank you but no thank you, Queen."
Kim Crenshaw: So, I guess with that as one of the stories about Lady Phyll, it can't be a surprise to anyone that you are the moving force behind UK Black Pride. Now, I think what is interesting about the story of origin is the initial reaction to your effort to create a support network among the existing pride organizations.
So, I asked you about this at an event that we did on May 28th, called Mythbusting Intersectionality. And, here's what you said:
[AUDIO CLIP] Lady Phyll: In 2005, well 2004 I was running an organization with some sisters called BLUK, Black Lesbians in the UK. And Black Lesbians in the UK went out on a trip, and we were talking about, "My gosh, this feels so amazing!" We were sharing space, we were eating jerk chicken, playing domineos, we were playing volleyball, well, I wasn't but. So beautiful, we've come back, and in 20015 when we're like, "How do we create this safe space for us as Black and brown queer people to not just celebrate ourselves, but talk about our lived experience, have that shared commonality with one another?" So I went to what was the then London Pride, and we sat down with some people an deveryone in that room was white, and there were two women, apart from the three of us, three Black women who walked in there. And I said, "Well, this is what we want to do, and we want to set up a Black Pride because we recognize that we are often on teh sidelines or the peripherals when it comes to pride. The wider mainstream LGBT activities… you know what we got told? "How dare you. why don't you fuck off and go back to where you came from." And excuse the language, but I kid you not. So those are people who are supposed to be- and this is a long time ago, but, these are people who are supposed to understand margianlzaition, discrimination to greater or lesser degree, right? Because they're LGBT+ people. They're supposed to be the ones who'll stand at the forefront alongside us because they were the ones marching around Section 28. They're supposed to be the same ones that stand in solidarity because they understand the need for equality. They understand the need for justice, they understand the need for safe spaces. But when it came to three Black women, standing in front of them, they told us to F off and go back to where we came from. I'm from Islington, so."
Kim Crenshaw: That was Lady Phyll. Brought down the house. A story that was a direct, clear-eyed illustration of one of the main problems that intersectionality is trying to draw attention to, how a narrow conception of what our social justice politics actually looks at and responds to. So, these were leaders of the LGBTQ movement here basically telling you to fuck off.
Lady Phyll: Yeah, that's what it was.
Kim Crenshaw: So first of all, what was your reaction to it? What did you do? And how do you analyze it? What did you tell yourself this was about? Where you surprised when they did that?
Lady Phyll: Firstly yeah, absolutely surprised. I don't think that the leaders in the community, the LGBTQ community could fathom or grapple with the fact that Black people, people of color who are queer, required space, required a place which felt safe. They felt, "Why can't you just join the regular pride, the normal pride?"
Kim Crenshaw: The regular, the normal. The white pride.
Lady Phyll: Yeah. You're going to get me into trouble. But, yes.
Kim Crenshaw: I kind of stay in trouble.
Lady Phyll: But, that's what’s been said, it’s the white pride. White pride comes with the white supremacy feel to it. But actually, when you are disregarding us, and not understanding that as queer people, we are also Black and POC, and our issues around fighting homophobia, biphobia, transphobia- we’ree are also fighting against racing, xenophobia, Islamophobia.They didn't see it as important. They felt, "We've already got a pride that talks about being LGBT, and the issues we face. Why on earth do you want to come and muddy up the waters, and try and bring race dimension into this?" And, that's because they didn't want to understand. And I think there's a natural distrust whenever we're talking about race, or Black matters. People start losing their shit when you talk about Black lives not mattering. We've seen it in America. Why is it so difficult for you to understand that our Black lives don't matter when we cannot have a Black pride in this country. It cuts so deep. You question are they really your tribe? Are they your people?
Kim Crenshaw: While projecting you as the ones that are actually cutting yourselves off from the tribe. Why didn't it stop you?
Lady Phyll: My ancestors didn't come this far, and I know they live through me. They speak through me. Speak around me. They orbit around me. So “no” is not an option. Staying silent, that's not an option, because it's not about us just in the here and now. It's about what happens in the future, when that next generation of young queer people who are people of color start to say, "Where's our space? Where are we? We don't see ourselves as leaders in the LGBTQ movement." So, no is not an option when it's about our lives and our lived experience.
Kim Crenshaw: And, when you talk about our lives and our lived experience, one has to wonder where that sentiment that was expressed to you finds expression when the issue is, so what are the political priorities of this political formation? Who gets to set the agenda? Whose interests are being served? So over the last decade, marriage equality has been a centerpiece of the LGBTQ agenda. I'll just say the LGB agenda. Let's put it that way. Is it your sense that if Black and brown queer people, trans people, non-binary people, had a full seat at the table, would marriage equality have come out at the top of the list, the number one priority?
Lady Phyll: Having been a Trustee of Stonewall, Stonewall was set up in the hope of fighting for justice but also equal marriage. We have equal marriage, but has that changed the issues around racism even within our own LGBTQI community? It hasn’t. Marriage equality is important. And, I get it. And, I'm glad that in most places people have the right to get married. But, if we don't have the right to be seen, to be heard, to be understood, to have the same rights as anybody else, then there's no equality in marriage, there's no equality in anything that we're doing.
Kim Crenshaw: And the upshot seems to be, "Okay, Black queer people. You can get married, if you can get yourself to the chapel. Now, you might not be able to make it there because you could be pulled over and killed by the police on the way. Or you might be incarcerated for some BS, or any number of the other things that you will be deprived of on the basis of race. But, if you manage to jump all those obstacles, if you can hurdle all of those things, then at the end of the day, you get to be married. Now, whether you can find a place to live, work, survive, that's not our issue.”
Lady Phyll: And, that's what I mean by, "Do Black lives really matter?"
Kim Crenshaw: Do they. I mean, if you were to look at the mainstream LGBTQ agenda, in the way that, for example, right now there are debates about police presence in pride parades. That's a big issue. I suspect it will be a significant issue in this 50th anniversary of Stonewall. So what are you seeing and anticipating and hoping might come out of this very important year?
Lady Phyll: I mean, the Stonewall uprisings are significant and huge for us. And that story is not often told in the right context. For those who have watched Stonewall the film, it wasn't little Danny, the lovely white guy that threw the brick. It was our queer people of color, gender nonconforming, trans siblings who were at the forefront of the uprising because of all the persecution faced.
Kim Crenshaw: So if our sisters, queer, trans sisters of color, were at the forefront, and now we're 50 years later, would we say that there is a huge gap between the leadership, what made this possible, and how the “it” is now being defined?
Lady Phyll: The disconnect, from a UK perspective, is about the power dynamics that play out. You mentioned earlier about that seat around the table- I will boot down every single door. I will attend meetings I haven't been invited to, because if we're not present, then we don't get heard. When you don't get heard, you're dismissed, erased, not thought about. So we have to occupy spaces.
Kim Crenshaw: So let's talk a little bit about the controversy about the flag. Amber Hikes has, I think brilliantly, added a brown and black stripe to the rainbow flag. And a controversy erupted. You supported her. What was the objective of the new stripes? And, what was the objection to the new stripes?
Lady Phyll: So, I had the pleasure of meeting Amber Hikes when she came to the UK. And, she brought the flag to me. And, I'm like, "Absolutely. We'll be using this for UK Black Pride." I think ... not I think, I know the objective to having the flag is about inclusion. When you've got so many flags that represent trans people, that represent bears, that represent asexual, pansexual, that represent bisexual people, what is wrong in having a flag that represents Black and brown bodies?
Kim Crenshaw: What was wrong with it?
Lady Phyll: We're talking about race again, remember? It's always going to be so controversial for some. But why should it be, when all we're trying to do is give voice and agency to who we are as queer people of color. I absolutely support her. And I said, "Did you speak to the family of the, I think it was Gilbert, who originated the original flag?" And she said, "Yes, I spoke to the family. And, they were absolutely in awe of the additional stripes." So let's look beyond the stripes, but let's think about how Black and brown bodies are in the space of LGBT narratives that are shaped for us, but not by us.
Kim Crenshaw: Right. And just to make it clear that the critique is also a critique of Black spaces that haven't been hospitable to queer bodies. We recognize that there's a huge controversy that went on under the rubric of Black Lives Matter. A lot of people questioning whether it was legitimate that women, queer women, queer Black women had a leadership role in that. So, it's sort of like, where can you be where one's inclusion in leadership is actually wholly held by everyone in the respective movement. That seems to be a challenge.
Lady Phyll: It is. But I take great responsibility in making sure that I show solidarity. I look at the collective action, and hold Amber up when she needs holding, because as a Black woman, a Black queer woman, she took some real shit for just talking about real meaningful inclusion.
Kim Crenshaw: Yes. So, the good news is Lady Phyll is going to be?
Phyll O.: A grand marshall.
Kim Crenshaw: At?
Lady Phyll: World Pride in New York.
Kim Crenshaw: Yeah.
Lady Phyll: So, I'm so excited.
Kim Crenshaw: Not only is that important as part of the globalization of pride, but putting Black bodies in the center of that
Lady Phyll: At this particular time-
Kim Crenshaw: This time-
Lady Phyll: 50 years-
Kim Crenshaw: 50 years. So it’s a big deal. It’s an important moment.
Lady Phyll: I also, the next week after that, will be finalizing the plans for UK Black Pride, which talks about-
Kim Crenshaw: Which is when?
Lady Phyll: The 7th of July.
Kim Crenshaw: Where?
Lady Phyll: At Haggerston Park.
Kim Crenshaw: All right. And, where can people find information about it?
Lady Phyll: Ukblackpride.org.uk.
Kim Crenshaw: All right.
Lady Phyll: Yeah. And, it's going to be brilliant, because we are always talking about centering who we are, putting the politics back in pride, ensuring that it's about people over profits. And not profit over people. But I will be front and center of World Pride, and excited to be there. But, many don't feel that the politics are in the pride, and feel that it's lost the essence and the roots and the origins of where it’s come from. But, what I would say to any pride, is never ever forget the reason why you set up the pride in the first place. And if you lose centering the people it's supposed to serve and support, then you haven't got a pride.
Kim Crenshaw: And with you in the mix, there's no way we lose sight of that. Lady Phyll, thank you so much for spending this time with us. It's always such a pleasure to talk to you.
Lady Phyll: It's a pleasure to speak to you, and I'm truly honored and humbled to be on this podcast. And I hope that your listeners enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed being in this space with you.
Kim Crenshaw: Both the Queer Liberation March and the the World Pride Parade will take place Sunday June 30th in New York City. The NYC Trans Day of Action takes place Friday June 28th; The NYC Dyke March will take place Saturday, June 29th. UK Black Pride will take place on July 7th in London. You can learn more about all these events in our episode notes. Keep listening and support us on our Patreon page for bonus content from all of our interviews. You can find us at Intersectionality Matters on social media, at aapf.org and everywhere podcasts are available. Intersectionality Matters is produced and edited by Julia Sharpe-Levine. This episode was recorded by Elizabeth Press and the Sanctuary for Independent Media, and by Michael Kramer. Additional support was provided by G’Ra Asim, Naimah Hakim, Peter Gaber, Ezra Young, and Madeline Cameron Wardleworth. Special thanks to guests Lady Phyll, Barbara Smith, and the Reclaim Pride coalition. I’m your host Kimberlé Crenshaw and this is Intersectionality Matters.