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.

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On Queer Possibilities

It has been incredible to be joined with Tiq Milan as his partner, wife and co-conspirator. It is the greatest adventure I have ever embarked upon and I wouldn’t change a thing about all the heartbreak that came before, because if I had done one thing differently, I might not have met him.

I have often described myself in so many ways: dyke, gay girl, queer, homo. I love the search to name ourselves, and I applaud anytime we reclaim that process all too often afforded to people with systemic power. In my falling in love and marrying an incredible man, I have found that the way I name myself, the way that I know myself, now implicates my husband. It’s complicated.

I want to be careful in using the word transition, as a cisgender woman I want to be clear that my experience is not comparable to that of Trans* folks; my use of it is to describe the ways I have grown. There have been so many transitions in all of this. New home, new family, new friends, but it is the internal transitions that I find are the most transformative, in particular for me my gender and sexual orientation in response to my relationship with my Trans* partner, Tiq.

We exist in an ecosystem with each other where another person’s experience does not invalidate my own, but it does necessarily complicate it. As a first generation immigrant, an Afro Native mixed race women, I have been acutely aware of the power of naming. On the other end, I have often experienced the incredible disempowerment that comes when colonial constructions of race and identity erase the layers of my identity.

I am also descriptively light skinned, cisgender – these are experiences of privilege I have in the world and although I didn’t choose to name myself in these ways, they are integral to me challenging systems of oppression and to honoring the space being claimed by others. I am Black. Queer. Arawak. Femme. I politically identify in these ways. I find solace in Brandon Wint’s words ” Not queer like gay. Queer like escaping definition.” My queerness was exactly the durable and malleable fabric that brought me here to this love. My Blackness as well, despite differences in geographies and ethnicities; it was a deep connectivity that resonates across the diaspora, a commitment to resistance, in an era where #BlackLivesMatter, that bonded us to each other. I am so grateful to finally have this powerful Black revolutionary in my life, I am thrilled about the quickly manifesting potential of our combined energy, nurturing creativity both for ourselves, our kin and our community.

I have found a new fullness in my femmeness. So many partners were so threatened and unwilling to understand how powerful it could. While I helped them choose bow ties and blazers, I was critiqued for my pace in heels and the amount of makeup I wore. His embodiment of his masculinity makes more space for my femininity to be acknowledged as integral to my mental and emotional health. For the first time, my femininity feels essential and valuable. We have done away with any idea that we are required to be natural. We don’t want to look natural, we want to reflect ourselves as we determine. Tiq uses the term ‘Man of my own design’ to describe the ways in which his masculinity is intentional and thoughtfully constructed physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have often said that I am ‘Femme on Purpose,’ that my femmeness was not something I stumbled across or an unconscious brainwashing from corporate media. My femme-ness is executed with purpose; from my choice to wear a menacing smoky eye to deter street harassment to the tattoos to honor my Arawak roots.

I’m not going to lie, in my partnership with Tiq, being read as a straight/heterosexual couple there are things to miss. I miss the ease of being able to communicate to young gay or lesbian folks a sense of solidarity particularly in public spaces with a smile or a nod. I have an enduring sense of love and admiration for Black Lesbian & Queer women both historically (Audre Lorde tattoos on my forearm) as well as in my peer group (LA Femmes of Color Collective). Being in a monogamous relationship with a man means that I need to find other ways to deliberately express my love, support and solidarity with women & femmes. My orientation has changed but my value system is much the same.

But there has been so much to gain and so much to take with me. I am so grateful for a community of Queer women, Masculine Of Centre Folks, Trans* Folks and allies who have held on and a whole new extended family. And as Yumi Tomsha says, “I am layers not fractions.” I am the sum of all of my parts, of every girl I was before all reconciled in the woman I am today. With that in mind, I am thankful and welcoming of love when I find it and I know that this love, this Black love is something worth fighting for until my very last breath. It is the most delicious love that I have known. And I am so honoured after many close calls to have made my way to him. And now as we prepare to have our first child, I look forward to the exponential growth of that love.

A daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, hailing from Trinidad and living between Toronto & New York, Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, speaker and educator. She is the co founder and the Executive Director of The People Project, 8 years in the making; a movement of queer and trans folks of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration. This year she was recognized by 'The Root' the premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers as a young. Black feminist to watch as well as one of Autostraddle's 100 LGBT Black Women to know sharing the list with Angela Davis, Marsha P. Johnson & Mia McKenzie. She has completed a residency both under D'bi Young and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre and has curated exhibitions, cabarets, events and performed at stages across Canada. She is currently producing and curating the Buddies In Bad Times Cabaret Insatiable Sisters. She also engages in community based healing initiatives including teaching Queer and Brown Girls Yoga, and hosting yearly healing retreats for femme identified Folks of Colour and Indigenous Folks.

A daughter of the diaspora, Arawak, West African, Indian and Dutch, hailing from Trinidad and living between Toronto & New York, Kim Katrin Milan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist, activist, speaker and educator. She is the co founder and the Executive Director of The People Project, 8 years in the making; a movement of queer and trans folks of color and our allies, committed to individual and community empowerment through alternative education, art activism and collaboration. This year she was recognized by ‘The Root’ the premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers as a young. Black feminist to watch as well as one of Autostraddle’s 100 LGBT Black Women to know sharing the list with Angela Davis, Marsha P. Johnson & Mia McKenzie. She has completed a residency both under D’bi Young and Buddies In Bad Times Theatre and has curated exhibitions, cabarets, events and performed at stages across Canada. She is currently producing and curating the Buddies In Bad Times Cabaret Insatiable Sisters. She also engages in community based healing initiatives including teaching Queer and Brown Girls Yoga, and hosting yearly healing retreats for femme identified Folks of Colour and Indigenous Folks.

The Feminine Masculine

by Chavelita from da Block.

The concept of transcending masculinity and femininity is still confusing to me because, I’ll be honest, the binary of thinking and internalizing identities and expressions is still something I grapple with regularly.

But there has been a shift.

These expressions of femininity and masculinity operated in isolation in my head. I had clear distinctions of what was what and what I’d perform to be just that. These beliefs were embedded both on a conscious and subconscious level. Although I felt so radical, my ego boasting in “consciousness” it was all clogged with the same heteronormative bs that I was claiming to be against. The political arguments that I was part of included all these convoluted words that I hadn’t come across before heading to college. I was reciting what I’d learned as oppose to embodying the transformation that I sought.

Months prior to graduating, I met my partner. This transformed and challenged me in so many ways. It shook my foundation, rooted in deeply strict forms of being. I was with a woman. Who was gonna do what? And who was gonna play what role? It’s actually really amusing to think back about how incredibly confusing that was and, at times, can still be. The internalized ideas of performing masculinity and femininity were so deeply attached to the person who “looked” the most masculine. “Naturally,” I assumed she would play this role of mainstream masculinity rooted in her being this strong, desensitized provider of unconditional economic and emotional support. I expected all these things from her. In contrast, I was to embody the femininity that my mother had taught me; to be a lady. This meant that my appearance was to be graceful, that my demeanor gentle, my voice less coarse, be friendlier, a little sweeter, that I’d comb my hair, polish my nails, and shave my legs. In a sense, I’d been performing that version of femininity for a while. It made me happy to feel beautiful in the way my mother has felt beautiful, pretty, girly and feminine but there was more to me. I was blocking myself from being me without really knowing or understand what or why.

I really came to understand more of myself as both a masculine and feminine embodying person through my partner’s involvement with Brown Boi. Through her own deconstruction of masculinity, I began to reflect on my own understandings of my gender and performance. I began to disentangle the complexities of my very existence, understanding that I operated in multiplicity. The very fluidity that I’d rejected, yet simultaneously craved for, was coming into practice and fruition.  I learned what it meant to be honest with myself. Through that journey, I started to uncover my fears, the very ones that had stopped me from being my true self. These fears were really rooted societal expectations of my being. I realized that I also performed and possessed masculine energy and that, ultimately, that was okay.

In some ways I embodied a deeply traumatic form of masculinity that I had learned and inherited from my experiences dealing with power and trauma. I wanted to exude power and be powerful, not for reasons that established connections or positive transformation, but the kind of power that would keep me safe by distancing anything that could hurt me. I can see myself standing there, wearing a body hugging ensemble, hair flowing and larger than ever, lips stained red, embodying a type of feminine appearance, yet my demeanor was an aggressive form of masculinity in which my words were used to release power that left me intact and the other person belittled. In this sense, I presented femininity but emanated masculinity while simultaneously rejecting traditional notions of femininity, sweetness and gentleness, in order to prove that I was a powerful woman. I began to ask myself, “What was I really shielding myself from?” “How did this type of masculinity really protect me?”

As time went on, I began to uncover the shield of masculinity that I was hiding behind. This was all to protect myself from a type of pain and trauma that extends beyond me. As I learned and allowed to be my real and true self, I began to see the shields and superficial performance slowly melt away. I no longer had to operate as one or the other or perform both in their gender role extremities because I could really just be me as oppose to what I thought was expected of me. I relearned how to be both masculine and feminine in a positive way, one that is for the fulfillment of my self as oppose to the protection of self.

At the end of the day, it is difficult to be true to yourself when most places push you to be somebody else. I still have a difficult time just being. I’ve learned to say that it’s okay, that I have nothing to be afraid of. Although we know that there’s much of the world that expects you to be somebody else, there is also beautiful and nourishing communities that encourage and support finding our true selves and remain who we are even when we are in the places that expect us to be otherwise.


Chavelita from da Block is a 27 years-wise, depending on what mood and day, glam-fabulous or chilled out lipstick wearing kinda gal. Thinking about social justice, children, art, food, colors, glitter, make-up, equity, fashion, family, love, hair, music, community, the motherland, and hustling for that $$$ every day.

She’s a TRUE gemini. Double-dose of REALness. But she’s really a cry-baby softy.

 

Shiva, Shakti, BBP and an Ethic of Love

by Niralli D’Costa

In my spiritual tradition, Shiva (the divine masculine) falls at the feet of Shakti (the divine feminine) in full surrender and devotion. He is unconditional awareness and absolute love and She is the dance of creation and destruction that is the continual unfolding of the Universe. One cannot exist without the other.  On a social level, love is expressed as justice. Justice reflects a balance in relationship to various parts of a whole. In the realm of society, the divine masculine principle can be seen as promoting balance through justice while the divine feminine is expressed in the diverse manifestations of individual identity, roles, and expression.

At a time in our culture when both masculine and feminine energies have been distorted to reflect human ignorance and greed, we see the manipulation and commercialization of the feminine in the form of life negating standards of beauty and the exploitation of Earth’s resources, and the abuse of the masculine in power imbalances resulting in inequality and injustice. Under these circumstances it can be easy to feel angry and want to deconstruct the systems that are responsible for so much suffering. As a result many of our social movements excel at critiquing the social structures and norms that cause so much pain and suffering for us all, but seem to have forgotten the essential link between love and justice.

The Brown Boi Project draws this connection between love and justice by building transformative relationships based in mutual reciprocity at the crossroads of the gender justice, racial justice, and lgbtiq social movements.  Relationship based social change is at the core of Brown Boi’s work of generating new models of healthy masculinity. Brown Boi asks people to examine the privilege they hold because of their masculinity in our male dominated society. This kind of reflective work requires the kind of love and awareness that Shiva as a representative of the divine masculine represents.

Brown Boi works with people of color that identify with masculinity across a spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation including straight cisgender men, queer men, gender non-conforming and trans men, and masculine women. This inclusivity reflects an embrace of the divine feminine manifest in the diverse range of human experience and expression. Brown Boi’s gender justice framework is rooted in the understanding that transforming masculinity lies in coming into right relationship with the feminine both within and out in the world. If you have ever been in a BBP space you have felt the sense of inclusiveness and embrace of the continuum of gender expression and racial identities. Beyond that there is a feeling of safety knowing that your challenges and shortcomings will be met with authenticity and love. BBP invites us to show up with all of who we are, knowing that without full acceptance, transformation is not possible. Just as Shiva does not exist with Shakti, the BBP knows that the work of social transformation does not exist without relationships based in love.

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Niralli D’Costa (MFT #54007) is a Holistic Psychotherapist and founder of the Oakland Holistic Psychotherapy Center. Niralli teaches people to access the wisdom inherent in their bodies and in 2013 launched the experiential workshop series Moving Through the Chakras. To learn more about Niralli’s work visit her website at http://www.nirallitara.com

Photo Credit: Vay Miko Hoang, March 2011 Cohort