Cross Section of a Revolution: an Interview with Amy Sonnie, Editor of a New Queer Youth Anthology

When Amy Sonnie was in school in Syracuse, NY, she shaped her senior thesis around a collection of writing by her peers -- lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (lgbt) young people. Over the next four years, she watched the collection grow and transform. She channeled her connections and experiences as a community organizer into the anthology that is now appearing on the shelves of booskstores everywhere, Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology.

The book includes youth from diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds coming together to voice their perspectives about the obstacle coarses that queer youth make their way through every day. Their poetry, prose and artwork delves into homophobia, family, eating disorders, sex, love and self acceptance, and gives readers a glimpse of the strength that can come from having to face complex challenges head on.

Below, Sonnie tells WireTap readers just what this revolution is all about.

WireTap: After reading Revolutionary Voices it is difficult not to see lgbt youth as potential leaders of the rest of their generation, instigators of real revolution. Was that part of your vision in creating this book?

Amy Sonnie: Definitely. I think queer and questioning youth are leaders of their generation. Not future leaders or leaders only in the LGBTQ community, but active participants in struggles for social justice whether it be freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal or against the expansion of the prison industrial complex; whether they're working with labor unions or employed as service providers for other queer youth. I think our identities as young queer and trans people are complex and so our work is complex. We work on many issues inside and outside of the queer community because our activism is about our survival, like Revolutionary Voices contributor Qwo-Li Driskill says. Currently, the broader LGBTQ movement doesn't embrace queers for the entirety of who we are, our class backgrounds, our race and ethnicity, our different abilities, gender variance and so on. And the broader social justice movement is full of the same homophobia and transphobia we learn in larger society. In order to build a revolution, we need to represent ourselves and be recognized as leaders in social change work. And writing and art are one of the ways that we lead. This book is really just a cross-section of that.

"I have been thinking a lot about how the vision didn't change, but the vision changed me."
W: How did your vision change over the span of time you were working on Revolutionary Voices?

AS: Well, I started putting the book together when I was 19 and by the time it went to the publisher I was 23. So I think my vision changed as my politics changed, my own creative work changed. The work of the contributors changed too. I was in dialogue with most people for a long time and we shaped together the things we hoped to see represented in the book. What didn't change was the idea of the book as a forum for queer youth artists and activists, particularly those queer and trans youth from traditionally underrepresented communities. What did change was the way in which I reflected on this process as a white, college-educated queer woman. I grew a lot and was critical of myself the whole way through about what it meant for me to be a white woman soliciting work from youth of color, or an "able-bodied" woman doing outreach for work from differently abled youth, and so on. I have been thinking a lot about how the vision didn't change, but the vision changed me. And, as contributors, we all challenged and supported each other. I think the key was building trust with all of the people involved. Building those relationships, building trust between us and among us, is what made the book possible. And those relationships have also impacted me tremendously. They're my family in every sense of the word.

W: Now that it's out and appearing in bookstores, is there anything you've discovered/realized you would have done differently?

AS: Sure. I would like to have done some fundraising for the collection from the outset to do more specific outreach to youth in rural areas. I also think the collection isn't representative of youth who are differently abled, Southeast Asian and Native American youth. As well, I would have liked to have connected with more youth who have been homeless or faced psychiatric abuse. All queer youth voices are important and some of these stories never get heard because their voices aren't valued or are silenced. I think we could have created a better network to get the word out, support people in their writing and also network with service providers to help people meet their basic survival needs. A huge issue for our community, and part of the reason we need to keep organizing, is that so many young people can't write an essay or get it published, or get work or show up for a meeting if they don't have a place to sleep at night, if they can't afford food or healthcare. A book like this is important, but my work as an editor was limited at times. There are stories behind the stories that get told and we need to be addressing those issues as well.

W: The range of age, culture and life experience of the artists and writers is pretty impressive. How much was this a conscious aspect of creating the book, and how much was about the submissions you received?

"The title came from the contributors, and I don't believe you can even call something revolutionary or radical if it's not made up of the people who have been f****d over. An anthology of white, middle class, christian lesbians and gays wouldn't be revolutionary. That's the status quo in the LGBTQ movement."
AS: It was conscious. I was conscious of wanting to open a forum that prioritized the voices of marginalized queer youth, and that influenced everything from the wording of the call for submissions to the places I outreached to, from the one on one relationships to the title of the book. The title came from the contributors, and I don't believe you can even call something revolutionary or radical if it's not made up of the people who have been fucked over. An anthology of white, middle class, christian lesbians and gays wouldn't be revolutionary. That's the status quo in the LGBTQ movement. The contributors liked that title because this book reflects a change in what's being published, in who's being heard, in what we're saying and what we're demanding. And it wouldn't be a change if it didn't consciously reflect the myriad communities we represent.

W: This book is a great example of the members of one group sharing stories of struggle and inspiration with each other. Is it also important to you that this book get into the hands of non-queer young people and potential adult allies?

AS: Of course. That's one of the benefits of working with Alyson Books. They can get the book into libraries and schools, community center and bookstores. I think this book is for anyone, really, wanting to listen to young people from an oppressed community speak out. I think every teacher, parent, service provider, school administrator, religious leader and so on should read it. And most of all I think young people should read it.

W: If so, what have you done to make sure it gets out there-beyond a queer youth audience?

AS: So far we've let Alyson handle most of that. But we also went on a tour recently to 14 cities in the U.S. where we held events at bookstores and community centers. We also went to the YouthAction conference in Atlanta. As well, we've been telling all of our friends, queer and non-queer, about the book, trying to get non-queer media to write about the book and so on. And right now, some of the contributors are trying to get the collection in Braille and books on tape. We're looking for resources and hope to have that underway soon.

W: Tell us some more about you. How does this book fit into the rest of your work right now?

AS: Well, I'm an activist and this book was really a form of activism. A way of using art as a tool for change. So in that sense it's a part of me and what I do on the day to day. But specifically, my friend Yk Hong and I co-founded an organization called RESYST last March. It's a national resource network for radical queer youth activists and artists. We're working on community organizing, political education trainings and an arts, media and culture program for young queer folks, especially youth from marginalized communities. For me it's an extension of the anthology--a home for the type of outreach and education I always considered a part of this book. We're working on getting started now, fundraising, establishing a network of youth trainers and starting a queer youth activist magazine. It's been amazing working with more queer youth from all over the country and we're working to set up structures that support local organizing, as well as training and arts work, nationally.

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