LGBTQ

Meet 5 Movement Leaders Across the U.S. Fighting for LGTBQ Issues on the Ground

From Black Lives Matter to native resistance at Standing Rock, young organizers and leaders are shaping today's movements.

Photo Credit: Elainiel Baldwin / Southerners on New Ground

"We've gotten dragged into a national conversation where same-sex marriage is held up as the pinnacle of the LGBTQ struggle, but there are so many other things our communities struggle around, issues that have to do with life and death,” Paulina Helm-Hernandez, the co-director of the queer liberation group Southerners on New Ground (SONG), told AlterNet. “We’re dealing with issues like criminalization, health care access and core safety. We’re thinking about ways our people know a lot about violence and how to survive."

Helm-Hernandez is one of countless movement leaders in rural communities and urban centers across the country bringing a queer lens to racial, social and economic justice activism. LGBTQ organizers are at the helm of the Movement for Black Lives, calling for an end to extrajudicial police killings, and on the frontlines of native resistance at Standing Rock, where indigenous earth defenders have erected a "two-spirit camp," for gay and lesbian indigenous people. 

They are demanding a stop to deportations and mass incarceration and devising concrete, community-safety alternatives to calling the police. While fending off the racist incitement of the 2016 election cycle, LGBTQ organizers are also going on the offensive, preparing to mobilize for demilitarization at home and abroad no matter who wins in November.

AlterNet spoke with five U.S.-based organizers whose political and cultural work shows that LGBTQ movements go far beyond marriage equality, and are shaping the social movements that define our times.

1. Kym Anthoni, New Orleans

“Second lining is very big in New Orleans culture,” said Anthoni, an organizer with the youth-led LGBTQ organization BreakOUT. “After someone passes away, people will do a dance celebrating resilience. Every year around the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we do a second line for the people who died to celebrate resilience, strength and moving forward.”

“When a transgender woman has been killed, or you’ve gone through a bunch of bullshit, we embody the culture of second line, recognizing that we have a lot of pain and embracing resilience, saying let’s let go of the harsh shit that you’ve been through and celebrate the fact that you made it,” Anthoni continued. “Last year for the Trans March of resilience, we had a whole second line. We were uplifting the voices that are normally not uplifted in our culture.”

New Orleans has been hit hard in recent years by a wave of killings targeting transgender women of color. Among them was BreakOUT community member Penny Proud, a 21-year-old black transgender woman murdered in 2015. This summer, the organization released a statement reading, “It is with heavy hearts that we share the news that another young, black trans/gender non-conforming person, Devin Diamond, has been murdered in New Orleans, just a few weeks after 24-year-old Erica ‘E’ Davis was shot in the Treme neighborhood on her way to work.”

Key to BreakOUT’s organizing is the principle that “we deserve to walk down the street and not be attacked, we deserve to not be criminalized,” said Anthoni. This demand is aimed at curbing vigilante violence as well as law enforcement brutality. The organization’s first campaign was called We Deserve Better and took on rampant abuse by the New Orleans Police Department.

According to a report released in 2014 by BreakOUT, police abuse is widespread. The survey found that “75 percent of people of color respondents feel they have been targeted by police for their sexual orientation or gender identity or gender expression compared with 24 percent of white respondents.” In addition, the report states that “43 percent of people of color respondents have been asked for a sexual favor by police compared with 11 percent of white respondents.”

Anthoni emphasized that it is important for the broader public to understand that police brutality is also an LGBTQ issue. “Police always target trans women of color just for being trans,” Anthoni said. “They over-eroticize transgender bodies. The queer and transgender youth of color are most targeted by law enforcement. It’s a huge issue because it takes your power away, it makes you feel vulnerable. Our vulnerability can sometimes cost us our lives.”

In addition to organizing, political education and youth work in local high schools, Anthoni said, “The main core of what we do is heart healing justice work. We focus on finding ways to heal as a community.”

2. Paulina Helm-Hernandez, Atlanta

“When the conversation about community safety comes up, the LGBTQ community has a role to play in building that conversation, based on what we know about building our own safety net, when it wasn’t safe to call the police,” said Paulina Helm-Hernandez. “Historically we have had to fight for our lives, so we know a lot about that.”

Helm-Hernandez co-directs SONG, whose mission statement says it “envisions a sustainable South that embodies the best of its freedom traditions and works towards the transformation of our economic, social, spiritual, and political relationships.” According to Helm-Hernandez, achieving this mission requires taking on the deep, structural challenges LGBTQ southerners face, from police violence to deep poverty.

“Nobody talks about LGBTQ poverty, but it’s a huge epidemic—how many people are living below the poverty line and struggling to even be part of the informal economy,” she said. “In small towns in rural communities in the south, our people have a hard time finding jobs and staying employed. They have to put up with so much homophobia and racist harassment.”

In addition to tackling economic injustice, Helm-Hernandez said SONG is building a campaign to “look at how LGBTQ communities in the south are being criminalized,” as well as working to halt the deportation of undocumented people, in concert with the #Not1MoreDeportation campaign. At the same time, Helm-Hernandez added, the group is working to build a large base of members and support people becoming leaders in their local movement.

“Black women are the creation story of SONG,” she explained. “We draw a lot of our legacies from black feminism, drawing inspiration from the Combahee River Collective Statement. A lot of the work that I come out of around immigrant rights is about home, place, sanctuary and building community.”

“I think we are in a moment nationally when a lot of our issues are being flattened and sold back to us as ‘gay acceptance’ issues,” said Helm-Hernandez. “Since Orlando, a lot of conversation about gun control have been devoid of racial justice analysis, with people talking about gun control as the next gay issue. We should have a conversation about guns, but the reality is that a lot of our people have been fighting to demilitarize the police and make sure we don’t play into the hands of militarized police state.”

“We need to make sure we are pushing our broader social justice community and building a deeper conversation,” she continued. “Yes our people are resilient, but our people are struggling.”

3. Afrika Queen Lockett, Chicago

Afrika became involved in the LGBTQ prison abolition organization Black and Pink while she was incarcerated. From January 2013 to August 2014, Afrika was in solitary confinement at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois. "I was put in solitary because I am transgender, and because I didn’t want to do the dirty work they wanted me to do, like snitch on people,” she said.

One of Black and Pink’s many initiatives is a pen pal program, premised on the principle that building authentic relationships between “free world” members and those who are locked up is a critical aspect of rehumanization and movement building.

This is how Afrika first became connected, and she said that her ties to the group ultimately changed her life. “It’s so important, because we get treated badly in prison as well as in society,” she said. “We don’t get fair housing, jobs or other services, included health care. We are mistreated and misrepresented by the media. It gets swept under the rug.”

According to a national prisoner survey released by Black and Pink last year, “LGBTQ people, particularly people of color and poor people, experience high levels of policing an decriminalization, leading to arrest and incarceration. Once inside prison, LGBTQ people are subjected to constant violence by both prison staff and other prisoners.”

Now that she is no longer locked up, Afrika says she is proud to continue her involvement with the organization, and she shares the group’s stated conviction that “Abolition is our goal, and our strategy for action. Any advocacy, services, organizing, and direct action we take will remove bricks from the system, not put up more walls.”

“Without prisons, we could help people live better lives, instead of incarcerating them for nonviolent crimes,” she said. “This would give more LGBTQ people better lives. The system is just for locking us up, mentally abusing us, mentally hurting us.”

4. Holiday Simmons, Atlanta

“’Two spirit is the modern term that relates to LGBTQ Native Americans or people of native descent who are playing a significant cultural role in remembering their tradition,” explained Holiday Simmons, one of the founders of the Southeast Two Spirit Collective, which works in 11 different states.

“Two spirit organizing is so important because it gives a language for the intersection of race, gender, cultural and sexual orientation,” continued Simmons, whose other hat is the director of community education and advocacy for Lambda Legal, which focuses on LGBTQ civil rights. “It’s not just a gender identity, it’s a cultural role. So many other people of color play those roles, but we just don’t have a name for it. Two spirit organizing provides a language and a platform.”

Simmons said his organization is part of a larger push to “decolonize liberation movements,” emphasizing, “We need to take into account the land that we’re on.”

5. Cara Page, New York City

“After the Orlando massacre, this framework emerged that police are somehow our saviors,” said Cara Page, who serves as executive director of the New York-based Audre Lorde Project. “There was a narrative based on the criminalization of Muslims and leaning on police for security. We had to push out another narrative, saying that increased policing targets our communities.”

On June 15, the Audre Lorde Project released an statement titled, “Do not militarize our mourning.” It reads, “In order to prevent the violence we witnessed in Orlando, it is more important than ever that LGBTSTGNC [people of color] turn to each other for community safety rather than relying on systems that were never meant for us. It is more important than ever that we reject increased militarization at home and abroad.”

“What does safety look like for us?” posed Page in an interview with AlterNet. “We are deeply troubled no matter what happens with the election. There’s a centralization of militarization and the absolute idea that brown and black bodies are the ones to fear.”

Amid this climate, Page is seeking alternatives. “Much of our work is rooted in prison abolition. We don’t believe prisons or detention can ever be a place of transformation. We don’t believe that the mass incarceration and criminalization of black and brown people has anything to do with creating safety and valuing our lives.”

According to Page, “transformative justice centers the analysis that we know best—the legacies and traditions of survival, knowledge about how to exist without relying on state systems to keep us alive. The question is, how will we continue to honor and transform what we already know. We don’t want to be perceived as communities that have not resisted and survived.”

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Sarah Lazare was a former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams. She coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.