Gay Marriage to Ferguson

(Serena Sebring)

From Gay Marriage to Ferguson: LGBTQ Organizing and Black Liberation

In 2012, Southerners On New Ground (SONG) organized against Amendment One, an anti-LGBTQ amendment to the state constitution, that passed, and consequently, stripped all unmarried North Carolinians (LGBTQ and straight) of their domestic partnership rights. Last week, Amendment One was overturned; at the same time that organizing in Ferguson continued to build power. Serena Sebring, SONG's North Carolina organizer, and a black queer mother of three, spoke with me about the contradictions and possibilities of the moment for LGBTQ people of color.

1. We won gay marriage in North Carolina last week, while organizing in Ferguson continued to grow. What was the past week like for you?

For many queer people of color, and for me, it was a moment when the intersections of our identities, as black people, as people of color, and queer people, became very clear. It is important to me as a queer person that I can have legal recognition for my family. This makes a big difference to my kids, in concrete ways. The real time implications of marriage for my family, headed by two working class, women of color, are real. This was a win that so many of us fought for: I'm thinking especially of the rural people in North Carolina who took life and death risks to come out in small towns during that campaign. Yet, as people of color, we cannot deny that our lives are still on the line. Ferguson shows what we already know: that we are threatened every day by state violence, and that we have the power to change and shift that. I think that the complexity of this moment is that even with legal recognition for our family (gay marriage and adoption rights), I still have to go to bed every night worrying about how to protect my black son from the reach of the police and a system that could swallow him up.

2. As we rack up wins for gay marriage, what do you think are the best ways for the LGBTQ organizations that are committed to Black Liberation, to support black-led organizing around the country?

We cannot pretend this is the final win. We need to think about how we can channel the energy of these wins into further work. We need to fight back against a focus on individualism--because the totality of this fight was never just about individual families and relationships being recognized--it was about fighting back on state-sanctioned discrimination against whole classes of people. Organizations like SONG need to stay close to a Queer Liberation agenda. One of my favorite things about SONG is that we are unapologetically pro-black. Across the organization, our leaders who are black and those who are not, are all vocally for the survival and power of black people. As others criticize the organizing, or are quiet on Ferguson, it is only the LGBTQ organizations who are staunchly pro-black that can move with integrity to focus LGBTQ attention on this moment of black-led transformation.

3. What is most exciting to you about what is happening in Ferguson?

The most exciting thing to me is seeing so many people ready to respond to the harms of police brutality that we've endured for so long, in ways that are bolder, more urgent, and more effective than I've witnessed in my lifetime. I am watching people ready to take important risks for our own survival as black people. Risks like opening up spaces for new kinds of leadership, new alliances, and new forms of protest that engage the power of civil disobedience and bodily resistance. I am excited about the willingness to do what is necessary - including, topple the established civil rights traditions that we have outgrown, and about the disruption of politics as usual. We need new models of leadership, that push back on the idea that only some "respectable" few can speak for us as black people, people of color, or queer people - because as queer women of color we will never really be seen as respectable.

4. What do you think is the role of Black Queer women in this moment of Black Liberation work?

I think our role is to step into that moment of disruption, and to fight for our own survival and our own right to dignity, life and community. We need to put that forward now, like never before. History shows, no one is going to do that for us. We know that queer women of color experience extremes of family instability, violence, housing insecurity, poverty, etc. We have some of the most limited access to benefits of the state, and have been some of the people most monitored and controlled by the state. Our perspectives, and our action, is deeply needed. Right now, it is clear that it is time to put the effects of racist profiling and police violence on communities of color - and their effects on the black community in particular - front and center in our campaigns and work.

5. Given this moment, what should be the next move of the LGBTQ sector?

First, I think we need to unapologetically claim this gay marriage victory as a testament to the capacity of queer people of color to impact our own lives and circumstances. This win is also ours-- it does not belong to white gay men alone. In North Carolina, a lot of queer people of color were part of the fight against Amendment One; it was not only white-led or only about white LGBTQ lives. We cannot win Queer Liberation in a place like the South, by ignoring the impact of basic legal protections for a sizeable number of LGBTQ people of color in SONG's base. For some of our members, last week they received basic partner and adoption protections for the first time, and that means their already fragile economic existence is a little bit more stable.

At the same time, there were more than 840,000 people that voted against Amendment One in 2012 on a Republican primary election day. Now, it is our responsibility to mobilize as many of those people as we can towards fights to defeat the terror and violence that LGBTQ black people and other people of color experience every day. That requires us to hold complexity and recognize our connections to multiple communities--as black people we need to take a lesson from Ferguson and sharpen our direct asks towards all people that say they care about our survival, and hold them accountable to put that commitment into action toward saving black lives, including the lives of black people who are LGBTQ. We need to ask people who want to be in solidarity with us to take risks with us; in honor of the risks we live with daily, without choice. We need non-black people to choose a side. We need to collectively refuse to be satisfied with any approach that is so incremental that we can barely see it move at all.

6. I know you to be long committed to SONG's belief in leadership inspired and connected to other leaders. Which leaders inspire your work today?

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, for their incredible work on #blacklivesmatter. Angela Davis, of course, for being someone who has been drawing our attention to this intersection for decades. Paulina Helm-Hernandez and Marisa Franco, as queer women of color who are not black, who work at the intersections of anti-criminalization, detention, and deportation--without ever separating themselves from the communities of color they come out of, and while continually staying, unapologetically, pro-black.