Kyle Bella

An Open Letter to Ryan James Yezak

Filed By Kyle Bella | January 20, 2012 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, The Movement
Tags: Akilah Oliver, LGBT rights, queer critique, queer people of color, Ryan James Yezak, Second Class Citizens

Dear Ryan,

I was sitting in Ost Cafe, on 12th Street and Avenue A, on Wednesday afternoon with my friend, who is one of relatively few active gay, black poets. Just the previous day I had gotten to see your controversial trailer, "The Gay Rights Movement." envelope-letter.jpgMy friend hadn't yet seen it and, as I explained the noticeable erasure of people of color and transgender individuals, we found ourselves engaged in a discussion on representation, history, and what it means to have queer ancestors.

These questions have not been unfamiliar to me. Just this week I also submitted my academic thesis, which examines strategies authors since Truman Capote have used to represent queer identity. The result of combining these strategies since the 1930s is a storytelling practice I have coined as "queerstory." This practice, which interweaves personal narrative, academic writing, and creative prose, has the ability to empower LGBTQ individuals to build community and find commonalities through apparent differences.

But these attempts to restructure and create new histories, my friend and I decided, have to be conscious of their inclusion of people of color and transgender individuals because even gay and lesbian communities have written these particular groups out of history.

While it is impossible to expect every historical narrative to be encompassing of every group, a near total lack of representing these more marginalized LGBTQ groups reveals, at best, significant privilege on your part, or, at worst, an active effort to use your privilege as a means of securing a series of largely heteronormative legal and political reforms.

Undoubtedly we have made political progress, and changed consciousness surrounding LGBTQ issues. But this progress was certainly not achieved only by the white political and celebrity figures that populate the frames of this video.

I wonder, for instance, why you chose to ignore the Stonewall riots, which were one of the major catalysts for igniting gay liberation movement, ignited by a mixed-race, lower income subset of people with widely different forms of gender expression. I also wonder how you decided to mention the murder of Matthew Shepard but failed to include the brutal murders of multiple transgender women of color in 2011.

I am a white man, but I identify as queer precisely because the political movements that have been most influential in defining how I see the world have been propelled not by white gay men or celebrities, but instead by activists and artists of color.

As a 17 year old, I read works by mestiza activist and academic Gloria Anzaldua, gay black poets Essex Hemphill and Assotto Saint, and trans writer Kate Bornstein. Through this process, I found myself stuck between recognizing tremendous privileges I had, at the same time being moved to go beyond those privileges to form alliances.

But my story, or their stories, don't exist in your video. Nowhere can we see their often everyday struggles just to exist in the world. They are not, like myself, tied to celebrity status. In fact, as my friend so profoundly pointed out in our conversation at Ost, many of them are dead and, as a consequence, they only have other proxies to try promoting their ideas.

I will acknowledge that many people have been moved by your video, which speaks to its ability to capture a sad history marred by self-erasure, shame, and violence. But in the hopes of creating a coherent progress narrative, you've problematized just who made progress, who gets immortalized as notable queer figures, and who gets written out of history.

While I respect the idea behind a project like "Second Class Citizens," I remain firm in my belief that the trailer, and anticipated full-length film, will only do more harm than good in promoting a necessary counterhistory to the one currently being promoted by conservative political factions.

I do not claim to represent everyone. I do, like everyone else, have certain privileges that limit my ability to hear every story. But given my prior history, and the resulting practice of queerstory, I am steadfast in this truly intersectional approach to history-making that empowers the widest swath of LGBTQ individuals possible. This practice of making history is informed by everyday experience and the subtle, but no less valuable, changes in consciousness.

As I close this letter, I am reminded of yet another deceased queer poet of color, Akilah Oliver. In a poem in the elegant, effortless A Toast in the House of Friends, she makes the following remark, "& just as your death becomes mine, / someone else will wear my broken bones, / wake trembling from sleep, / try to get the work done."

You seem to possess the right impulse to try and advance LGBTQ rights, yet you fail to wear the bones of tireless, dedicated activists like Oliver who have long existed outside of historical narratives. Prove me wrong.

Thankfully "Gay Rights Movement" is only a trailer; you have the ability to change the trajectory of your larger documentary to be more inclusive to so many queer and trans people of color that struggle as second class citizens in this country.


Kyle Bella

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