Queridx Abigail

Welcome to the family. I wish I could have been there on your born day, but I hope you understand that although I was not physically present, I was there in spirit.

There’s a lot that I want to say to you, a lot that I hope I have the courage to share with you as you get older and wiser, a lot that I wish someone had told me when I was younger.

Our parents really love us. They have sacrificed so much to make our lives possible, and I know that this knowledge can weigh heavily on our shoulders. I know that we, as their children, want to make them proud, want their sacrifices to be worth something. I am here to tell you that you are already worth the sacrifice, just as you are. No matter how difficult it may seem to believe that, no matter how impossible it may feel to meet their expectations at times, I promise you that they love you, and that I love you, and that we love you just as you are.

Speaking of expectations, I hope I can be there to remind you that the only person you have to impress is yourself. You are going to face a lot of pressure in this world, as a brown girl, as the child of immigrant parents. There might be times where you feel unloved, unwanted, or simply unworthy of the best, and I hope I can be there to assure you that those feelings are normal. The reality is that you are loved, you are wanted, and you are worthy of the very best. I hope I am there to remind you that your brown skin is beautiful, and that our parents are beautiful, and that our family, as hectic as it can be at times, is beautiful.

I hope I can be there when you make mistakes, because we all make them; I make them all the time. I know our parents may tell you that I’ve got it all under control, and that all it took was hard work, but that’s not true. I am only where I am now with the help and love of family and friends, and several mistakes that I had to learn from to be ready for my life now. I hope I can help you through your dark times, and sit with you when you need someone to just sit with you. I hope I can encourage you to cry, because it helps, it really does, and I hope I can help you laugh when you are ready to laugh again.

I hope I can help you learn how to love your body, how to hold on to yourself and your autonomy. I hope I can be there when you feel powerless, and remind you that your power is never truly gone; sometimes it’s just hiding, and we have to spend some time remembering where it could be. I hope I can be there when you feel alone. I hope I am someone you call when you feel alone, because I promise you will never really be alone.

I hope that I can be there to help you reject all the policing of your body that will come as you get older. I hope I can show you that it is possible to honor your truths and your family, even when they are in conflict with one another. It has taken our parents a long time to expand their ideas of gender and sexuality, but I promise you that you will never have to face their rigidity alone.

I hope that I can learn from you, just as much as I hope you will learn from me. You have already taught me so much about embodying joy and love in the short time you’ve been in my life, and I know that I will only continue to grow as our relationship deepens.

I know I won’t be around all that often. Believe me when I say that I think about you everyday, and that the pictures and videos of us make me smile even on the hardest days. I might not be there when you take your first steps, or when you have your first day of school, but I’m only a phone call away, I promise. It’s hard to be so far away from you and our parents, but I do this work so that one day I can come home and stay.

I love you, habichuela. Thank you for bringing so much love and joy into my life.

 

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Genesis was born and raised in Santa Ana, and currently resides in Oakland, CA. She is starting her senior year at Mills College, and will be receiving her BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She hopes to one day work as a surgeon in her hometown.

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Accountability, Community, and Restorative Justice

Over the past year, The Brown Boi Project has been approached by several people who have shared that members of our community have engaged in harmful behaviors.  We have supported multiple accountability processes to address these harmful behaviors that community members have engaged in.

This process has been difficult, challenging and one we do not claim to do perfectly. We recognize that while we have been working through creating and engaging in processes, people have still experienced a great deal of pain, resulting in the distrust of our organization and community.  However, it is a process that we are committed to continuing to develop in alignment with our core values. Knowing how to support each other in the context of harm is hard, and BBP and our movement more broadly is still learning how to best do this.

How We Have Addressed Harm:

We have been intentional about how we try to address these concerns and struggled with when and how to share these things publicly. We recognize it is important to share with our community how we address harm in BBP and how our core values shape this process. When we are made aware of harm that was created, our policy is to believe the survivor and offer support. This is then followed by BBP engaging in a restorative justice process either through an active facilitation or in other supportive roles, based on the needs of both parties.

We work to invite all parties, the harmed as well as the one who did harm, to the table. In order for the process to be truly restorative and not punitive, all folks must willingly choose to be a part of this process. Our intentions and hopes are for the person who engaged in harmful behavior to work towards a resolution that will aid in everyone’s healing and ability to be in community with each other. We recognize that this process may or may not actually lead to that.   

We strive to recognize the context in which harm occurs: the political, systemic, and structural issues rooted in racism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that give rise to a culture that often makes harm and violence a common way to relate to each other at home, in our families and in our organizations. We also know that survivors are seeking the support of BBP because the criminal justice system has failed our communities and contributes to significant harm in communities of color specifically. We recognize both that individuals need to acknowledge and make amends (if possible) for  the harm that they perpetuate, and know this harm does not exist in a vacuum. We strive to grapple with the complexities of each incident.

In addition, we recognize that these incidents impact the community as a whole, and that we are all affected by the harm. This work, and conversation surrounding it, is critical to our movement. As a movement there are many ways that people create harm within our organizations and our relationships–from physical violence to embezzlement and systemic violence around race, gender, ableism and much more. We need to engage as leaders to push our organizations to develop internal conversations and processes to address harm and find a way towards healing.  

Our Values:

Our accountability process is one that attempts to utilize the values of restorative justice to restore and repair relationships that have been impacted by harm as much as possible. We are not restorative justice practitioners and rely on the expertise of circle keepers in our community. We do not ‘out’ or publicly shame survivors or people who have committed harm in our community. Our process is one that aims to support the survivor and provide the space to heal and grow for those who have caused harm, without being invalidated and villainized.

Our commitment to maintaining the privacy of all involved can often be misinterpreted as a lack of concern or care for the survivor. However, we are deeply committed to building and practicing a restorative process that does not engage in forms of punishment, retribution, retaliation or isolation. This is why we believe that all parties need support and care when harm is perpetuated in our community. This care can only happen in the context of relationships. This is why we do not ‘out’ or dispose of any of our community members, so long as they show a commitment to grow, learn, and change their behavior. In the few instances where this was not possible, we have no longer allowed individuals to participate in community events, gatherings and discontinued all communication via social media and email. Even in these instances, we are open to folks returning to the community, but only if they demonstrate a willingness to change.

Our Next Steps:

Our ability to address harm in the BBP community is a work in progress. Our community includes a broad spectrum of LGBTQ people of color, not just masculine of center folks. We are actively engaged in an internal conversation as an organization to strengthen our processes around this work.

In moving forward, we have dedicated additional resources to support restorative justice circles that can address harm when it occurs. We are working on further developing and documenting the process we have in place, and seeking support from people who are trained to hold restorative justice circles. We are in active partnership with other organizations that are navigating similar challenges within their memberships to leverage our collective wisdom around this work.

We are also working on being more explicit about the kinds of values and behaviors we expect from the members of the BBP community. While we are clear that work with our members during our 3-5 day retreats does not erase a lifetime of learned trauma and harm, being in community with us comes with a deep responsibility to do the work of growth. Our expectation is that those who would like to call themselves Brown Bois share our organization’s commitment to leveraging power in a way that creates a world where we are all free and safe, especially for the women and femmes who make our work possible.

“They” and the Emotional Weight of Words

Language is the space in which we carve a place for ourselves, where we demand to be seen. A reflection point for culture, community, and family to acknowledge our existence on our terms. For decades, “butch” was the only identity and term available to those of us who identified as “masculine of center.” Like many others, I lived in that space. There was much about it that I loved: the community of brotherhood, the worship of femininity, the gentility of the old-school butches. Yet, like so many other words, butch failed to capture the full depth of my soul. Its White cultural origins and resulting denial of my Black body took its toll.

I went in search of myself. I took a detour on the road to law school and, instead, went to study gender at the London School of Economics. The lone student in my Gender Research program, I cobbled together stories, interviews, and research on how our gender identity and expression become language that makes us visible in the world. In the powerful piece from the disability justice movement, “Disease Is Not A Metaphor,” essayist and librarian Cyrée Jarelle Johnson argues that “there are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”

Over the past decade, young people of color have created an alternative conversation around identity that has since spilled into everyday lives. From social media to college campuses and community spaces, the emergence of terms like “boi” has challenged the language and imagination of people everywhere. Instead of he or she: “they.” And they are using multimedia platforms to push the boundaries of the understanding of masculinity and femininity. It’s hard work. The daily pushback against a world that is constantly trying to make you stay in a gendered box makes you resilient but incredibly tired. Doing it in a way that offers people the humanity they themselves sometimes deny to you requires grace.

Almost every day, whether at work or standing in line at the grocery store, we too often miss opportunities to meet someone where they are in their gender understanding and help them change the way they think about gender. Instead, we’ve made it perfectly normal to educate someone by “checking” them on their lack of understanding. This approach inadvertently creates a call-out culture that reinforces hypermasculine negativity. One of the most powerfully feminine things one can do is to create; it’s a courageous act. We should be encouraging people to create and build new ways of approaching language, not cultivating fear and shame around not knowing the right thing to say.

The way forward starts from a place of vulnerability and love. A daunting feat, yet, in my life and work, it has been profoundly moving.

It begins with relationships. Even in small interactions, we can create connections that allow us to challenge one another with a goal of greater understanding. At restaurants, I gently let folks know we don’t go by “ladies” and offer up “folks,” “peeps,” “homies,” and “fam” instead. When they inevitably apologize, I remind them that we are only just meeting. How would they know the language I choose to reflect myself? I have no expectation that they will know my preferred pronoun. The interaction makes it clear that they should not simply assume gender preferences and that asking is actually welcomed.

Pronouns can be the basis from which all of us learn to see and respect each other’s identity. “What pronoun do you prefer?” is always welcome. It shows respect, intention, and commitment to see me as I see myself.

The entire lexicon for how we understand gender is shifting. For many of us, it can be a weighty, disorienting experience. But for a handful of us, this is a moment of freedom. If each of us does our part to challenge old language that pushes us back into small gender boxes, all of us will be a bit more free. Eventually we will align language with the complexity and beauty of our bodies and our authentic selves.

 

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Cole wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. Cole holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and has worked as a community facilitator, strategist, and consultant for the past 15 years. In 2010, Cole launched the Brown Boi Project, the first program in the country to bring Trans men, Queer men, straight men, and masculine-of-center women of color together to build a new vision of masculinity. They work to change the way communities of color talk about gender in the United States.

Unpacking Shame In Our Movements

At its origin, the HIV movement was based in the spirit of grassroots organizing and activism. The movement had an expressed commitment to LGBTQ people, people of color, substance users, sex workers and, most importantly, folks from within these communities living with HIV and dying from AIDS. Throughout the 80s and 90s, activists and organizers affected by HIV protested and demanded treatment and protections for people living with HIV at a time when discrimination towards poz people was legal and acceptable to the general public. This history influenced my entree into HIV advocacy and direct service and continues to fuel my commitment to this work.

Today, the mainstream HIV movement appears somewhat ambivalent towards movements for social justice and liberation. HIV and AIDS is big money and billions of dollars are spent worldwide to address the pandemic. In the President’s budget for FY 2016, he has requested $25.3 billion for domestic funding on HIV/AIDS.

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Image from recent article from Kaiser Family Foundation.

My attempts at finding data on the amount of profit pharmaceutical companies stand to gain from HIV care and treatment were unsuccessful. But the recent scandal involving Turing Pharmaceuticals’ 5,000% increase of Daraprim, a medication used by people living with HIV/AIDS, is a glimpse into the motivation of some of these companies which Martin Shkreli (Turing’s CEO) clearly stated is profit. As capitalism drives this movement, there becomes a financial incentive for people to continue to become infected with HIV. I know this may sound harsh or like a conspiracy theory to some of you, but whether or not this is conscious or intentional, it is true. I have been disappointed at the lackluster attempts to speak to the root causes that increase black folks risk for HIV. The inability of these movements (HIV, racial justice, gender justice, etc.) to work at the intersections of these overlapping issues are having the greatest impact on queer, trans, and poor black folks, as well as black people living with HIV.

In my work outside of the field of HIV, I have had opportunities to work with leaders in LGBT Justice, Gender Justice, Racial Justice, and Reproductive Justice. This past year, I have attended multiple gatherings focused on boys and men of color, and have not heard HIV mentioned even once. LGBT, Gender, and Reproductive Justice organizations tend to have an analysis around HIV that is more sophisticated and often focused on criminalization and violence. Mainstream organizations from these movements tend to lack the same level of sophistication around anti-blackness in their work. None of us are perfect (myself included) and neither are our movements. We are constantly growing, developing, and learning from our mistakes and some of us have an expressed commitment to transform even when it hurts. However, given the level of urgency for black people affected by HIV and AIDS, we need to do much more to shift the differential impact HIV has on our community.

The fear of black sexuality surely contributes to the radio silence around HIV in our social justice movements and in black communities in this country. As a people, we have been hypersexualized as a way to justify repression and violence by those who uphold white supremacy. The stereotypes of “jezebel” and “mandingo” have led many black folks to project and encourage sexual piety and chastity to combat these messages as a way to re-assert our humanity. HIV – which has long been associated with sexual deviance and addiction – is an ever present reminder that indeed, some of us are actually having sex, outside of marriage, with people of all genders and with more than one partner (heaven forbid). Some of us (in fact many of us) are also having sex without using condoms, prophylactics or contraception. And what does this say about us as a people in the eyes of white supremacy? This is the often subconscious question that is at the root of our sexual repression and denial. This is why I can attend a conference for black sexologists and clinicians in 2015 and there is little to no conversation around HIV/AIDS, but there is a workshop on young black women becoming a born again virgins.

The need or desire to appear “respectable” to dominant society will never lead to our liberation. You or someone you care about can do “all the right things” and still contract HIV because it does not come from black people’s amoral behavior, but from the innumerable consequences of anti-black racism and poverty as well as the complicity of our silences. We need our movements for racial and gender justice to draw the connections between how issues such as police brutality, gender based violence, and lack of housing, jobs, education and healthcare all create the context for black people to continue to have the highest rates of HIV in the WORLD! We need to address the rampant homophobia and transphobia that exists behind our collective shame around HIV. We need the field of HIV to support the leadership and work of radical black HIV positive folks who are combatting anti-blackness in HIV organizations and services across the country.

Where do we go from here? The last part of this series will lift up practices, policies and frameworks to address the intersections of anti-black racism and HIV/AIDS in our movements, communities and organizations.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.

Erica is a healer, activist, trainer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in communities most impacted by the prison industrial complex and HIV/AIDS. She is a founding member of Power Inside, a harm reduction organization in Baltimore city that serves women who are survivors of gender-based violence, incarceration and abuse. She has done extensive work with youth, people of color and the LGBTQ community providing direct services and advocacy rooted in social justice and self-determination. She believes that using harm reduction strategies and community organizing will lead to healthy and powerful families and communities. Erica also works with HIV Education and Prevention Project of Alameda County and the Downtown Youth Clinic providing clinical supervision and consultation for a new project focused on expanding sexual health services for young queer men and trans people of color.