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Unlearning Privilege, Re-Defining Success

January 25, 2012

I am currently in Baltimore awaiting the beginning of the Creating Change Conference, a massive LGBT conference where I hope to improve my skills and strategies as an activist.  The conference begins with the Building An Anti-Racist Movement day-long training institute, which includes topics such as “How my ‘Whiteness’ matters: Exploring White Privilege” and “Engaging race as a Multiracial Person in the LGBT community,” both of which definitely apply to me. I am eagerly looking forward to the training institute, and I think it’s incredibly important that the LGBT movement works towards making racial privilege visible, because the differences in how heterosexism and cissexism affects queer and trans people of color are too often forgotten or glossed over.

Recently I wrote an article for the Humanist Magazine discussing the extremely high percentage of transgender women who  depend on sex work–especially transgender women of color–who depend on some form to survive day-to-day.  In the article, A Dangerous Groundswell:  Banning Adult Classifieds Is Not a Panacea for Child Sex Trafficking, while discussing the dangers of online censorship, I also demanded that humanists, feminists, and yes, LGBT activists, place the needs and struggles of the most oppressed members of their community first:

 …A transgender woman walking the streets, especially if she is black or Latina, is at an extremely high risk for violent hate crimes, and in my six months at TIP[Trans Health Information Project] I attended a funeral for one of my clients who was killed in a hit-and-run hate crime incident. Police never investigated the crime despite demands from the transgender community.

On November 17, 2011, transgender activists held a demonstration in Washington, DC, at the Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters to protest the failure of police to properly respond to a recent surge in anti-transgender hate crimes. At this point, the dereliction of the police in protecting transgender individuals from harm is hardly surprising. It is merely symptomatic of society’s larger failure to recognize how dangerous transphobia—often fueled by religious moralizing—is to individuals. I believe that humanists, atheists, feminists, anti-racist activists, and all those involved in fighting for social justice must recognize their common struggle with the transgender community and speak up when religious leaders help enforce rigid gender roles and sexual taboos that ultimately rob human beings of their inherent dignity.

The article was heavily informed by my work at the Trans Health Information Project(TIP) in Philadelphia, as well as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a transgender organization who does an excellent job of placing the voices of transgender women of color and sex workers first and involving members of the community directly in the leadership of their organization. I wish more LGBT organizations followed SRLP’s model, and I wish more white LGBT activists consciously engaged more in non-hierarchical, anti-racist organizing that helped amplify, rather than drown out, the voices of queer people of color:

SRLP functions as a multi-racial, inter-generational collective of people committed to a broad understanding of gender self-determination. As a collective, we recognize that it is essential to create structures that model our vision of a more just society. We believe that in the struggle for social justice too often change is perceived as a product and not a process. We seek to use a non-hierarchical structure to support work that aims to redistribute power and wealth for a more just society. We also strongly believe that our community-based structure, which maximizes community involvement, will support the sustainability of our work and the accountability of SRLP to its constituency.

In 2007 I helped organize an LGBT conference at Swarthmore College which examined the dangers of such “normalizing” discourses as the gay marriage movement.  When activists demand “gay marriage” using normalizing arguments that gays/lesbians  should have the same rights as “everyone else,” it white-washes the LGBT movement along with contributing to the erasure of non-normative queer and transgender identities. I personally invited Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, as a speaker, and he gave an amazing lecture–Building Radical Queer and Trans Movement Infrastructure in the Context of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex–which completely shattered my understanding of what “successful” LGBT organizing strategy looks like. Since that lecture I have been on a never-ending search for how to do LGBT organizing better.

I am hoping that tomorrow’s Racial Justice Institute at the Creating Change conference helps provide me with some answers. Privilege is a weapon we have to spend our entire lives learning to dis-arm.  And I still have a lot to learn.

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