I am often kept awake at night thinking about issues such as war, the international trafficking of women and girls, indigenous rights to land and water and the US's role as a global exporter and enforcer of colonialism and genocide. I realize that these are not exactly the kinds of issues that are on the radar screen of the mainstream LGBT movement. Yet, for me, they are quintessentially queer issues.
As a US born queer person of color committed to sexual liberation and gender justice, I feel that it is critically important for our movement to be deeply conscious of and connected to an expansive view of justice. I'm talking about a form of justice that doesn't allow us to stop thinking and acting at some false, man-made boarder. I'm talking about a form of justice that moves us beyond a narrowly defined LGBT rights-based agenda to a thoughtful, deliberate and accountable commitment to the full breadth of depth of the LGBT community and to the world around us.
The US based LGBT movement has a long history of connecting the struggle for sexual liberation and gender justice to a global picture. Yet, in large part, we don't discuss the important ways in which LGBT leaders throughout our movement's history have held a complex international perspective. A perspective that laid the foundation for so many of us to deepen the thinking and organizing work that has taken place in the US based LGBT movement. We also rarely discuss the many LGBT organizers throughout history that got their start making revolution either in other movements for social justice and/or around issues of war, apartheid and US colonialism.
The moral of the story I am about to tell is that there is a big world of issues out there LGBT movement! A world of issues that not only impact LGBT people around the globe, but also challenge us to have a more interconnected and nuanced understanding of issues of privilege and oppression. This is important because oppression does not move in a straight line. It is multi-faceted and it is swiftly and strategically enforced by states and people with power whose primary goal is to strike at the heart of communities at the margin of societies across the globe.
To understand the way oppression works it must be examined in all of its contexts and in all of its inhumane forms. How does the queer movement even begin to understand the injustices we face if we don't know how these injustices are connected to a bigger picture? Equally important, how do we understand the privileges we might hold if we aren't connected to that same big picture?
Case in point: Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X understood this all too well. As they evolved as organizers, thinkers and movement architects their perspectives became even more complex and international. They intentionally connected the struggle for black self determination and civil rights to a global community of black people and people of color struggling for peace, justice, economic self determination and freedom from slavery in all of its forms. Their love of black people and all people of color knew no bounds. They both embodied the words of Dr. King in his 1962 Letter from A Birmingham Jail "we are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
As this interconnected and global map of injustice plays out, we must make a commitment to knowing and knowing means grappling directly with the current and historical realities of global injustice. Lucky for us as a queer movement, we have many LGBT leaders who have paved the way before us in not only committing themselves to life-long global consciousness but engaging in revolutionary acts of global solidarity.
Bayard Rustin was a primary advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King throughout the civil rights movement. Rustin's early organizing roots were in the pacifist movement of the 1930's and 1940's. He not only opposed World War II but served time in prison for being a conscientious objector. While in prison he organized to challenge and dismantle the racism throughout the prison system across the United States. Rustin was a gay man whose organizing genius and passion shaped much the civil rights movement and significantly impacted several other movements here and abroad. In the film entitled "Brother Outsider" there is extensive time dedicated to detailing Rustin's commitment to global justice including this passage:
"As a Vice Chairman of the International Rescue Committee, he traveled the world working to secure food, medical care, education, and proper resettlement for refugees. His visits to Southeast Asia helped to bring the plight of the Vietnamese "boat people" to the attention of the American public. In 1980 he took part in the international March for Survival on the Thai-Cambodian border. In 1982, he also helped found the National Emergency Coalition for Haitian Refugees. As Chairman of the Executive Committee of Freedom House, an agency which monitors international freedom and human rights, Mr. Rustin observed elections in Zimbabwe, El Salvador, and Grenada. His last mission abroad, coordinated by Freedom House, was a delegation to Haiti to help create democratic reform in that country."
Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues, Transgender Warrior and other seminal books, articles and speeches on so many matters of justice is another one of our LGBT organizing visionaries. In the following speech Feinberg challenges us to think about our values and commitments by asking us all one very important question: which side are you on? Feinberg states:
"Cuban Revolutionary Che Guevara said so well, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, a revolu-tionary is guided by great feelings of love." It is the love felt by people who are willing to risk their lives for changes that generations yet unborn will cherish. It is the love we feel for all who are resisting tyranny, because we know which side we are on. [I] know that many of us will find each other as we take to the streets for demands for eco¬nomic and social justice and against the war. But I, and millions more in this country and around the world, will not stop fighting until every battle is won. We are modern-day abolitionists, who are organizing to end this system of capitalist economic enslavement and build a society in which each individual can contribute what they can and in return, receive all that they need and desire. So I leave you with this question: Which side are you on?"
What I love about this statement is that it makes it clear that we can make the choice to be committed to a more expansive vision of justice. We can commit to the knowing, the studying, the seeing beyond our own boarders or narrowly insulated movements to commit to self determination for all. Isn't that what movements for social and economic justice should be about?
Yet, it is also important that we recognize that for many of us in the US "making a choice" to be more committed and more aware is a privilege. People around the world are often much more aware and educated about international issues because they are directly experiencing the impact of our governments actions abroad. We benefit so deeply from not knowing the pain, suffering and oppression our government is perpetuating outside of the US. Our media, our government and our own lack of collective commitment collude and lead to a system of benefit based on the adage "what you don't know, won't hurt you." I'm quite certain that I don't want to live in a country or work in a movement that is steeped in the lies and hidden truths about what is going on in the world. Holding the knowledge that we can do something, that we can act, along with the recognition of our complex US based experiences of privilege and oppression are key to creating more global interdependence and solidarity.
This deeper contemplation about how LGBT people and our movement can responsibly connect to a global context is not new. In the 1983 forward to their groundbreaking book entitled This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color, visionary LGBT feminist writers and organizers Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua reflect on how they would have written the book differently in 1983 than they did in 1979. They assert in a piece entitled "Refugees of a World on Fire" that:
"The second major difference a 1983 version of Bridge would provide is that it would be much more international in perspective. Although the heart of Bridge remains the same, the impetus to forge links with women of color from every region grows more and more urgent as the number of recently-immigrated people of color in the US grows in enormous proportions, as we begin to see ourselves all as refugees of a world on fire. [The] question and challenge for Third World Feminism remains: what are the particular conditions of oppression suffered by women of color in each of these situations? How has the special circumstances of her pain been overlooked by Third World movements, solidarity groups, "international feminists?" How have the children suffered? How do we organize ourselves to survive this war? To keep our families, our bodies, our spirits intact?"
Our world is on fire just as it was in 1983 when Moraga and Anzaldua wrote these words. Our world is burning from genocide, capitalism, hatred, ignorance, man-made boarders, nationalism and US imperialism. We must join together in responsible and meaningful ways to work towards our collective liberation and self determination. What that means is going to vary based on context, access, privilege, geographic location and economics. Yet, we must ask the complicated, messy and hard questions: what does self determination look like for you and your people? How do we achieve it together without some of us getting less than others? How do we examine our privilege and oppression? Where are we benefiting and where should we give up our power?
Yes, the world is on fire and, as it burns, I want to know which side you are on?
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales