Unapologetically fabulous: fighting to thrive during a global crisis

Amnesty International Belfast Pride Lecture 2020, delivered online July 30 2020 - Dr Senthorun Raj

Lecture text below. Video of lecture and follow-up Q&A, chaired by William Crawley:

 

Fabulous. It’s a word that packs a lot of punch. Most of us aspire in one way, or another, to be gifted with the compliment, “You’re fabulous!” I know I do! But, what, exactly does it mean to be fabulous? In their wonderful book, Fabulous (Yale University Press, 2018), performance artist Madison Moore describes fabulousness as a “theory of political glitter.” Fabulousness is more than an aesthetic or compliment – it’s a political practice rooted in the lives of queer and trans people of colour who dare to sparkle in a world trying to dull our existences.

Fabulousness, then, isn’t just about bathing in glitter, displaying rainbows, and dressing in sequins. It’s a process where social outcasts work to transform themselves into a “spectacle” to unapologetically claim space. We “do” fabulousness from scenes of cultural marginalisation, economic deprivation, and trauma. It isn’t easy. Being fabulous means navigating vulnerability, love, beauty, pain, joy, and creativity simultaneously when your life is in perpetual crisis.

In my lecture today, I borrow from Moore’s moving articulation of fabulousness as a kind of “glitter politics” to talk about how we, as people fighting for justice and human rights, can aspire to make space in the world to be fabulous. In doing so, we can create a world to thrive with love, safety, solidarity, freedom, recognition, justice, and community.

Let me begin then with that special moment heralded as the birth of Pride: Stonewall. In the early hours of Saturday 28th June 1969, the New York Police Department raided the Stonewall Inn in an attempt to permanently close a bar that served alcohol to homosexuals, which violated licensing regulations. Police raids on Stonewall and other gay bars were routine at the time but, on this particular night, local patrons refused to disperse or allow their friends to be arrested. These “queers” or “street hustlers” (such as drag queens, sex workers, trans women, gay men, lesbian butches), who came from various parts of the city to hang out at the bar, sung, threw objects, and used their bodies to resist the police invasion. The protests gathered momentum and continued throughout the week.

Much is written about the various people involved (such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Stormé DeLarverie, and Mark Segal). These accounts differ, sometimes wildly, in relation to the impetus, role, scale, and nature of each person involved. But, Stonewall doesn’t have a single “hero” and it’s the disparate accounts of people coming together as part of the rebellion that gives Stonewall its enduring legacy.

Stonewall is less a single event in gay history and more a historical constellation of queer expectations and experiences. This constellation captures the rage, pain, joy, and hope of queer people – both then and now – fighting to exist in a world that negates atypical pleasures, intimacies, and identities. In other words, Stonewall – as a movement led largely by Black trans women and lesbians – has come to represent the fabulousness of people coming together, often with the most to lose, to defend their communities against violent policing and moral persecution.

Many were poor, many were homeless, many were hurt, many were risking greater abuse. But, they were still refusing to compromise who they were or who they loved. This is why our existence – our Pride – is political.

Stonewall was a riot that sought to radically transform political institutions that prized the heterosexual family and patriarchal kinship. Connected to related movements like Women’s Liberation and Black Power, many of the people who rioted at Stonewall campaigned not just to end sodomy laws (gay sex was illegal in every US state except Illinois in 1969) but also to end military interventions and police brutality.

These political aspirations to end state violence aren’t consigned to a radical past. Campaigns like Black Lives Matter, for example, have exposed the continuing ways in which Black people face disproportionate levels of policing, incarceration, and death. Started by queer women Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrise Cullors in 2013, Black Lives Matter began as an online response to the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida and his killer’s subsequent acquittal.

Black Lives Matter has recently gained enormous global attention following killing of George Floyd by a police officer. This prompted global protests about racist policing specifically and the need for social transformation more broadly. As Alicia Garza said in an interview with National Geographic a few weeks ago:

In the midst of all of the grief and rage and pain, there's a hopefulness. There is a longing for who we can be together. This movement crosses so many others, which shows that we can build new kinds of communities where everybody can belong, and where everyone can be valued and where everybody can be powerful.

For Garza, Black Lives Matter isn’t a movement about one person or one identity or one issue. Much like Stonewall, a movement to defend Black lives is necessarily tied to movements aimed at ensuring reproductive healthcare, migrant safety, safe housing, quality education, etc. As the famous Black lesbian poet Audre Lorde once said, “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Black feminist activists like Garza and Lorde point to the problem with limiting political aspirations to one axis of identity. People aren’t just LGBTIQ+. People aren’t just Black. People aren’t just migrants. You can’t claim to be fighting for LGBTIQ+ rights if you ignore the fact that LGBTIQ+ people who seek asylum are being turned away at the border or sent back to places criminalising homosexuality. Stonewall and Black Lives Matter resonate as movements showcasing how our freedoms are intersectional and indivisible.

However, activism isn’t just about embracing what can, at times, feel like an academic way of describing the world. It isn’t enough to share a meme about intersectionality, change your profile photo to a black fist, or add a hashtag to the end of your name for one day to memorialise someone who has been brutally murdered by police. These are nice gestures, of course, but activism is difficult work, often involving personal and political risks.

Last month, we witnessed thousands of people in places like London and New York take to the streets to march for Black trans lives while having to confront police at these protests. Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Riah Milton, Dominque “Rem’mie” Fells are the names of a few Black trans people killed in the last few months. Saying their names is an important act of memorialisation. There are many more to learn, name, and honour.

But, it isn’t enough to mourn Black trans lives or care about them when people die. We need to make spaces for them to flourish and be fabulous when they’re alive. The Black Trans Lives Matter protests aimed to highlight the ways in which, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia consign Black trans women, in particular, to precarity and poverty. Yet, they also made clear how trans communities of colour continue to nourish each other by providing mutual aid, creating ballroom houses, and even gossiping together. If you need a decent pop culture reference to get a better sense of what I’m talking about here, I would recommend the series Pose and the documentary Disclosure on Netflix. While Black trans people face enormous violence, they also aren’t defined by their trauma or oppression.

Alleviating the kinds of inequalities captured by the Black Trans Lives Matter movement requires us to disrupt existing political systems and reimagine our ways of living together. Law reform and legal recognition aren’t enough. Black trans people face enormous challenges in accessing appropriate, gender-sensitive healthcare. They are abused by police in public and killed by abusive partners in private. In death, they are often referred to by a name and gender that don’t align with who they were.

The continuum of violence against Black trans people, and trans people more broadly, isn’t confined to the visible acts of physical violence that we witness at homes or in streets. We see it emerge in laws that criminalise sex work or “public debauchery.” We see it materialise in print or online media everyday as newspaper after newspaper treats the identities of trans people as debatable, trivialises the validity of being non-binary, casts trans people as potential predators, and treats trans children as confused and sick.

Resisting the attempts to deny and degrade the existence of trans people, demonstrating unapologetic solidarity in the face of enormous political and media pressure, is key to making space for such people to flourish. This was beautifully and simply demonstrated recently by the hashtag #WhyImATransAlly. Though, of course, being an ally demands more than a sincere tweet.

This now brings me to saying a few words about the importance of solidarity as a condition of not simply surviving but thriving in a world that negates your existence. We suffer differently because of who we are. We have differences in how we define our sexuality, understand our sex or gender, and pursue relationships and families. We don’t always understand each other’s differences, but we can respect each other’s rights to live without systemic abuse.

Solidarity doesn’t mean we ignore or cover over those differences in order to present a harmonious front. Yet, we can still come together as a community, to resist political and social attempts to police who we are or who we love. Moral persecution affects us all.

Solidarity means thinking about the space we occupy in the world and being willing to address the fact that how we occupy that space might impede the lives of others or exclude them. I remember when I was giving a talk to a group of gay lawyers earlier this month, I was accused of being “indoctrinated” because I’m both gay and Hindu. I was told that being religious was a vestige of “internalised homophobia.” I initially brushed it off with awkward laughter and, after the talk, reflected on my discomfort at hearing this statement.

Of course, politicians and institutions have weaponised religion to perpetrate horrific violence and vilification of LGBTIQ+ people. The persistence of so-called “conversion therapies” are one disturbing example of this. Yet, for many of us, our faith has also been a way to sustain and nourish our queerness. As tempting as it might be to insist, “You can’t be religious and gay,” such politics can mean that queer people of faith are less likely to find belonging in spaces that are meant to welcome them. It also makes it easier for religious bodies to exclude us by saying, wrongly, that our sexuality makes us incompatible.

Solidarity is also not a self-congratulatory exercise or one to show off your charitable compassion. As LGBTIQ activists, we’re drawn to the plight of those who face abuse elsewhere. This is important. After all, about 70 countries still criminalise gay sex and many more have laws targeting the so-called “promotion of homosexuality.” But, when we fight against the criminalisation of homosexuality in Uganda or the purges of gay and lesbian people in Chechnya, we need to do so in a way that recognises our colonial legacies and refuses to see ourselves as their “saviours.”

Feeling good is fine but when we centre our emotional sensibilities at the expense of those we claim to care about we make activism less about creating a better world and more about making ourselves feel better about the world. Creating space for others to thrive means becoming a little more humble, self-reflective, and uncomfortable. We need to be open to accountability and critique without feeling attacked by either.

So, where does that leave us now as we face a pandemic? COVID-19 has exposed the disproportionate ways in which political measures in the name of “public health” can harm those of us who are LGBTIQ, especially if you’re from Black and ethnic minority communities. In Uganda, authorities raided a shelter housing homeless LGBT people and beat a number of them under the pretext they were violating public health orders. In South Korea, some media vilified gay bars as sites enabling the spread of COVID-19. In Hungary and Poland, the government has cited “gender ideology” and used the expanding reach of government power to block the legal recognition of trans and intersex people and create “LGBT-free zones.” In the US, the government issued directives that would allow religious-affiliated healthcare providers to deny medical treatment to LGBT people. In the UK, despite promises made years ago, trans people lack a simple process to change their legal gender marker. Intersex infants endure non-consensual medical and surgical procedures to “normalise” their bodies.

The rise of discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people in the context of a pandemic isn’t new, just look at past and present responses to HIV. But, as our communities organised against a virus that killed (and still kills!) friends, lovers, family, we can find hope in the ways our communities challenge stigma, which leads to internalised shame and social regulation.

The fight for marriage equality in Northern Ireland is also a powerful example of this. The Love Equality coalition brought together disparate groups of people, from different sectors, to campaign for equal relationship recognition. Yet, that campaign also showed we are organising for much more than law reform. We are organising to create spaces for LGBTIQ+ people feel like they have space in the world to exist.

Gavin Boyd from the Rainbow Project in Northern Ireland told the BBC in June, “In just the last three weeks, we know of three LGBT people who have ended their lives.” The issue of suicide is complex, and is one that requires sensitive discussion. Creating the conditions for liveability means making room for everyone, especially young people, to express their sexuality and gender in unexpected ways.  As the late journalist Lyra McKee reminds us in a letter to her younger self:

Keep hanging on kid. It’s worth it. I love you.

Loving ourselves and each other is still a political act when our bodies or relationships are treated as sick or sinful. Creating the space for us to belong means creating homes, workplaces, schools, temples, and playgrounds that not simply “tolerate” differences but nourish them.

I want to conclude my talk with the words of Angela Davis, a Black lesbian abolitionist who has been campaigning for social justice from the time of Stonewall through to today. In an interview with The Guardian Davis stated:

The most important thing from where I stand is to begin to give expression to ideas about what we can do next.

We might not have perfected all our ideas yet about where to go next but our communities are already imagining fabulous new ways to live and thrive in the world. We could thrive in a world without violent policing. We could thrive in a world without suffocating social norms. We could thrive in a world without militarised borders.  There is no one way to be fabulous, of course – but we have a responsibility to make space for everyone to express their fabulousness.

Happy Pride and stay fabulous!

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