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.

It Is Time to Combat Anti-Black Racism in Mainstream HIV Service Work

by Erica Woodland

I came into the social justice movement by way of harm reduction and work in the fields of HIV prevention and the prison industrial complex. After college, I returned home to Baltimore (one of the few remaining Chocolate cities) and began volunteering at Power Inside, an organization that works with women impacted by violence, the prison system, and HIV. I was guided to this work because of its explicit focus on healing for black women, poor women, lesbian, queer and trans women. Direct service work rooted in the core understanding that “risk” for HIV and incarceration are deeply tied to poverty, white supremacy, and patriarchy.

Mainstream HIV work continues to deny the ways that these systems of oppression are set up to feed black bodies into the HIV and prison industries. With coded language such as “racial disparities” and “disproportionate minority confinement”, we are allowed to distance ourselves from the real legacy of genocide and slavery that are the basis of this country and the so-called health care system. Baltimore continues to have one of the highest rates of HIV in the country and in 2010 was ranked number 3 for the rate of people living with HIV*. Having privilege and access to even a few basic resources in this city may mean the difference between going to college or jail; and most definitely influences how much you are affected by HIV and AIDS.

I only later learned how close to home HIV was to me and my family. Silence, stigma, and isolation surely contributed to this. Growing up, my mother had a very dear friend named Russell. At an early age he was one of a few consistent, nurturing and beautiful men in my life. What I remember most is his deep devotion to my mother and her children, the emotional and likely financial support he offered her, and visits to his house, which was reminiscent of Studio 54 – black and red velvet, mirrors, all gold everything and dim lighting. He would take my brother and I on outings probably to give my mother a much needed break. Recently I found a photo of him at my mother’s baby shower a testament to their long-term friendship.

In my early 20s, my mother and I were having a rare conversation about homophobia amongst black folks. She shared that Russell was gay and that after a long period of time of losing touch with him, she found out that he had passed away. His family did not inform her or likely any of his other friends but only told her that he had “cancer”. She knew that he had died from AIDS and regretted not being able to see him before he died or attend his funeral. As with most grief-laden topics, my mother only mentioned this to me once and we never spoke of it again.

Since then I have worked with many HIV positive people – primarily black folks who are also poor and LGBTQ. I have had dear friends get diagnosed and struggle to navigate accessing healthcare and healing resources while maintaining a sense of dignity. I have worked in social justice movements that rarely mention HIV or AIDS as an issue that impacts people of color and I have engaged in HIV prevention work that is disconnected from national and global movements for racial and gender justice.

This series is my attempt at bridging this gap. To honor and celebrate our black poz ancestors, as well as black people living with HIV who have pushed me to think about these intersections in my own work; to use my privilege and access to support movements for justice that will lead to substantive change and healing for black people most directly impacted by HIV. This series builds on the work of other black people transforming the field of HIV and the movements for gender and racial justice who know that until we bring intersectionality into this work we will never be free.

*Most recent data available: http://www.jhsph.edu/research/affiliated-programs/AIDS-linked-to-the-intravenous-experience/_documents/New_HIV_Rankings_for_Maryland.pdf

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.