Defining Themselves, For Themselves: Supporting Black Queer Youth Agency in Perilous Times

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By Sikivu Hutchinson, from An Injustice Magazine

A few weeks ago, at a Black parent meeting hosted by my child’s high school, I encountered homophobic pushback from parents who objected to my recommendation that Black queer-affirming material be incorporated into the curriculum. A few folks implied that doing so would “marginalize” Black straight students because race/racism are the most “important” issues confronting Black children.

The prevalence of this toxic narrative only underscores how critically important it is for Black parents and caregivers to fight for Black queer-affirming youth spaces. Earlier this month, Black and BIPOC queer students from South L.A. participated in a Black LGBTQ+ retreat that focused on youth leadership, artmaking, yoga, music, and Black queer social history. The retreat took place at L.A. County’s Stoneview Nature Center preserve. It was co-sponsored by the Women’s Leadership ProjectBlack LGBTQI+ Parent and Caregiver GroupGSA NetworkProject QREACH L.A., the Amaad Institute, and Black Skeptics L.A. It was a rare opportunity for Black and BIPOC queer youth from elementary to high school to collaborate with each other and connect in a safe Black-focused environment with community mentors. The session was facilitated by Women’s Leadership Project (WLP) youth interns Ashantee Polk (class of 2020) and Brianna Parnell (class of 2019) and drew from the grassroots organizing work that students are doing at their schools to create safe spaces for queer students.

For the past two years, WLP students have conducted GLSEN campus climate survey presentations at two South L.A. high schools. The longitudinal data suggest that queer students of color are not getting the support that they need from administrators, teachers, and resource providers. Their work bears out the fact that many BIPOC queer youth say they experience intersectional homophobia, transphobia, anti-blackness, and other micro-aggressions on a regular basis in their schools, homes, and families. And, although California has some of the most progressive LGBT educational policies (due to the 2011 FAIR Act, which mandates the inclusion of LGBTQ contributions to American history in K-12 education, the first such legislation in the nation), only 31% of the state’s schools implemented LGBT inclusive curricula in 2019. Culturally responsive curricula that speak to the lived experiences, social capital, cultural knowledge, and community context of Black and BIPOC students of all genders is severely lacking. Implementation of BIPOC queer-affirming curricula, classroom management, and campus climate supports is virtually nonexistent (aside from the representation of Gender and Sexuality Alliance, or GSA, youth leadership groups on campuses).

Photo by Zorrie Petrus

At the retreat session, students had the opportunity to read books by influential Black and BIPOC queer and feminist authors. One of the

Photo by Sikivu Hutchinson

the featured books was All Boys aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson, which is one of the most banned texts in the U.S. Johnson discusses the need to affirm one’s name and pronouns against pushback from the dominant culture. Chosen names are more legitimate than given names because they reflect an individual’s authentic gender identity, sexuality, and personhood. In his introduction, Johnson notes that “When we are assigned a gender at birth, we are also assigned responsibilities to grow and maneuver through life based on the checking off of those boxes.” Binary notions of gender shape and negatively influence the course of our entire lives. When we challenge students to explore how binary gender identities operate, there is often silence in the room. Because gender binaries are so normalized, it may be difficult for youth to identify the ways these damaging categories affect their lives concretely. In their peer education outreach on LGBTQIA+ identities, WLP students often begin by unpacking how gender informs toy marketing, clothes, and household roles. Corporate commodification of gender norms/roles is reinforced and embedded in our everyday practices of assigning “masculine” and “feminine” attributes to boys and girls from the moment they’re born. Visit the kids’ clothing section of a big box retailer, and the implications of gender programming and indoctrination are painfully evident. Boys are bombarded with messages that they must like action figures, cars, guns, and construction. At the same time, girls are targeted with brands and products that promote dolls, princesses, kitchen items, makeup, and glamor as the feminine norm.

This is borne out in many of their classroom discussions. Young men of color often report using homophobic and misogynist language to affirm their masculinity in peer groups. Stigmas around being considered feminine are still a knee-jerk way boys demean and ostracize each other. Further, cis/het boys are provided with little training, guidance, or modeling on how to intervene in or disrupt these microaggressions (in fact, during one outreach our students conducted, some youth reported that they were harassed when they attempted to intervene).

Of course, these everyday microaggressions simply reflect the national climate. Scores of anti-LGBTQ+ bills in the Midwest and the South are denying trans and nonbinary kids gender-affirming care, discriminating against trans athletes, and terrorizing queer families. Right-wing white Christian fascist extremist groups like “Moms for Liberty” are shutting down multicultural, anti-racist, and queer-affirming curricula in school districts across the nation. And, although last week’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act was an important move to enshrine marriage equality amidst persistent GOP-led legislative and judicial attacks, marriage equality won’t ensure LGBT+ enfranchisement in jobs, health care, housing, and education. These protections would be guaranteed under the Equality Act, which was passed by the House last year, but failed to be confirmed in the Senate. The Equality Act would provide federal civil rights protections for LGBT+ individuals, families, and communities by amending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. It would override anti-LGBT discrimination laws in over twenty states and ensure economic justice for generations of Black LGBTQ+ youth who are more likely to be jobless, unhoused, and living below the poverty line.

Ultimately, supporting movements and organizations that advance Black and BIPOC queer youth and families is one of the best antidotes to hate and terrorism. It’s important for Black and BIPOC queer youth to see adults and community advocates donating and showing up as accomplices who are willing to write, publish, testify, organizeamplify and fight back against violent religious bigotry, white supremacy, misogynoir, trans-antagonism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, and sexism.

*Founded in 2019, L.A.’s Black LGBTQIA+ Parent and Caregiver group meets virtually monthly and is open to all Black parents/caregivers of Black queer youth.

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