Keynote Speech for Newark Pride Week
Remarks for Newark Pride Week City Hall Flag Raising Ceremony
Monday June 6th, 2011
First I want to thank the Newark LGBTQQ Advisory Commission, Newark-Essex Pride Coalition, Liberation in Truth Social Justice Center, and the African American Office of Gay Concerns.
When I first moved to the east coast from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio in 1999, I moved to Jersey City. And like many people living in Northern New Jersey, I would spend a lot of time traveling on the PATH train into New York City, in the hopes of finding some safe space for a young Black gay man like myself, something called community.
I spent a lot of time on the Christopher Street piers in the West Village. Listening to the latest hip-hop, R&B, or house beats blaring from boom boxes, watching the next generation of ballroom legends perfect their best duckwalk, or butch realness runway—the broken slabs of concrete slung over the dark river that once upon a time, nobody else wanted, transformed into red carpet worthy of a Hollywood award ceremony. I would head into Two-Potato, a hole-in-the-wall dive bar just up the way, and catch the drag queens dart in and out of the flimsy curtain keeping their latest fashion creation mostly hidden from the audience until time for the big reveal. From there, the night might take me to Chi-Chiz, the bar that stood right next door to the PATH train, where I would sit at the bar, mostly getting drinks bought for me that I was to broke to afford, and in between the Anita Baker or Stephanie Mills oldies playing where the bar would seem to be singing in unison, I’d be talking to whomever was sitting next to me.
After some time, of spending many nights riding the rails underneath the Hudson River, I began to notice how many of us, mostly Black and Latino lesbians, gays, bisexual, queer and transgender folks were coming to and fro from Jersey City, Newark, and all parts of New Jersey in between, in search of community, a good time, or some place that felt safer than the homes, apartments, shelters, or street corners from which we were fleeing. I thought back on the many conversations I’d had at the pier, or on bar stools dotted along Christopher Street, where so many people who I’d socialized with in the West Village, NYC, were actually from New Jersey.
It made me think a lot about home, and even in my own work as an activist with FIERCE!, why we were fighting the gentrification and displacement happening to Black and Brown queer youth in the West Village, but had not yet stepped up to the task of working in the places where many of us actually lived.
Being from a city like Cleveland, which is the butt of many national jokes in the same way that Newark is, in that people blame the condition of the city on the people itself, and coming from such a place, means that you carry that stigma or mark. People carry the blame for a city’s condition, instead of understanding the way deindustrialization, the undermining of organized labor, the gutting of welfare and other safety net programs, education systems dependent on property taxes and the bloated policing and prison budgets as more responsible for the ways in which people have to live. In cities and communities like these, in the national conversations and media about the “gay community” it is almost as if LGBT people do not come from places like this.
Our cities are not places where life—certainly not fabulously queer life—can flourish, or so goes the logic. Most of are are not wealthy. Most of us do not have expendable incomes. Many of us have children—either our own, children of other family members we’re raising, or other people’s LGBT kids who’ve been kicked out. We, like most people around us, are a no more than 3 paychecks away from utter ruin. It feels cliché to say it, but the television images and sometimes advocacy organizations claiming to be speaking for us, don’t not only look like us, but aren’t speaking to the realities of what it means to be gay, black or latino, in a place like Newark. Race, class, gender and the community in which you grow up or live, all impact the way in which your life, and life choices are shaped. It is not that there can be no LGBT community in cities like Newark, but that it looks different, and sometimes in ways that are illegible to the so-called mainstream. In may ways, when primarily Black and Brown cities like Newark are discussed, especially in their proximity to being “LGBT friendly” is similar to the ways in which African countries are discussed, as “backward” where there are no local activists or communities of LGBT folk in those places who are working hard to challenge homophobia and transphobia, and are not waiting to be rescued by an American or European NGO.
Whether or not we are on the radar of the national LGBT movement as a legitimate set of organizations and coalitions with expertise in organizing in cities like Newark, is not important. It would be nice to be recognized. It would be nice to have some of those many millions of dollars in support from LGBT foundations coming in to support the work here.
But sometimes the best work happens in the places where there isn’t tons of support. With abandonment can come freedom—some sense of radical possibility. It is a place where innovation can occur, and where our community, or base constituents we are organizing, have the most opportunity to hold us accountable for the work we’re claiming to do in their name. And it is also important to me, that we do this work not just in the gayborhoods of America like the West Village & Chelsea, but that the work happens in Cleveland, Detroit, New Orleans, Bed-Stuy and East New York, Brooklyn, and Newark, NJ.
When the life of Sakia Gunn was taken in 2003, the question of where we do work became even more important to me. And although I knew there were organizations and activists already in place in Newark, like Liberation in Truth, AAOGC and longtime Newark activists like James Credle, I was impressed by the level of activism that took place here around her case, and a level of social justice work for the LGBT community here in Newark has only increased since. And Newark Pride Week, the possibility of public celebration of who we are, and our contributions to this city, is the fruit of all of the labor its taken since 2003 to build a better world for the LGBT community in Newark.
Though there have been other acts of violence, and other forms of targeting and bias that have occurred since, and sometimes challenging moments from members of the community who feel like having Pride Week or any LGBT recognition is an imposition, or a somehow in a city like Newark, separate from concerns about racial justice. To those people, I would offer that the work being done here by the coalition of grassroots organizations to make schools safe for students, to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to provide community activities locally for LGBT people is a benefit for any of us interested in reducing violence of any sort, of creating events and organizations that foster community and sense of belonging, and increasing the opportunities for supportive education environments for every student.
The fact that that we are here, celebrating PRIDE in Newark, because local organizations, local activists, decided to take care of home, is a testament to the strength, tenacity, intelligence and beauty of community organizing, the organizers who are here, many of whom have become close personal friends over the years. Struggle is never about arriving at some utopian destination, it is about the process of challenging what’s difficult, and continually building towards your vision of the world you want to live in.
So now the gentrification in NYC’s West Village is nearly complete—The Christopher Street Pier was redeveloped and privatized. The boom boxes have long been banned. A seemingly never-ending runway on which many a ballroom legendary icon trained, was paved over. With it, the numbers of yuppie baby carriages, joggers, and high-end retail shops have sprung from the ashes of Black and Latino LGBT bodies lost to concrete, their ghosts just visible in the shadows of the Hudson River. Some of their stories have been captured in history. On Christopher Street itself, Two Potato was shuttered around 2002, and that bar that sat right next to the PATH station, Chi-Chi’z, poured its last drink this past March. What stands in its place is a large fluorescent spotlight owned and operated by the New York Police Department, that probably cost several annual tuitions for a CUNY education, as a way to deter the young people from even stopping to hold a conversation.
So now that the NYC Christopher Street area has intentionally been made an inhospitable place for those of us who used to flock from Harlem, Bed-Stuy, East New York, Jersey City, and Newark night after night, I have to be thankful for the foresight of the LGBT community in Newark to be building community spaces right here, at home, for people to be able to organize, worship, receive needed services, and socialize.
So this year, we will celebrate Newark Pride with the usual mix of parties, marches, and festivities. We will raise this flag on Newark’s City Hall, which in many places is an act taken for granted. But I know that the celebrations are the result of struggle—a struggle that began long ago, has come along way, but has so very far to go!
Happy Pride, Newark!