Nine months after my breakup, I met up with a mutual friend to observe the occasion of a lunar eclipse by drinking cheap red wine on her deck.
She brought out an old box of Christmas lights to wrap around the railing. She looked at me with beaming eyes as she plugged them in, and told me my previous partner had spoken highly about me just a couple weeks earlier.
“She said that she never felt as loved and well taken care of as she did when she was with a Black woman.”
I glanced up from where I was sitting and debated whether I was going to end the night in a slew of tipsy text-message exchanges reminding all my past lovers and friends that I’m nonbinary. Instead, I poured myself more wine and drank as if it weren’t a weekday.
The sentiment seemed harmless, but being Black, queer and femme means you battle the “angry Black woman” trope by day and the “mammy” caricature by night, with little or no space to exist outside of these roles.
I wasn’t necessarily offended that people have perceived me as someone who can take care of others and take care of them well. I was more so drained from the broken record that plays in both my relationships and my community organizing work: that I was created to do everything for everyone at all times. While being loved and cared for is important, it’s also important to understand that centering someone’s identity around what they do for others can be complicated.
The feelings I have about this aren’t new. Throughout history, Black and brown queer femmes have been the backbone of LGBTQ+ equality movements. But they haven’t been publicly recognized as such in mainstream queer media, and they certainly haven’t been supported or uplifted like they deserve.
Marsha Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy were all prominent activists whose protests, riots and advocacy work, during and after the Stonewall Riots, led to the creation of many LGBTQ+ advocacy groups and organizations that still exist today.
Over time, organizers and community members have found ways to uplift the femmes from the past who played important roles in equality movements. It’s clear there should be a change in the way we acknowledge queer femmes in this space, but acknowledgement without action and accountability is a dead-end street.
In 2020, there was a widespread circulation of images of the Progress Pride flag that artist Daniel Quasar developed in 2018. The flag’s intention was not just to recognize the diversity in our community, but also to pay homage to those Black and Brown femmes who led resistance movements.
Reinventing the flag felt necessary, and it especially pulled on our heartstrings that year, as we were knee-deep in the pandemic and news outlets were offering little or no coverage of the alarmingly high rate of trans and gender-nonconforming people who were murdered in 2020.
While recognition is an important step, Black and Brown queer femmes in your community today should be appreciated, valued, uplifted and supported in spaces as well.
There have been very few times when I was able to navigate spaces without engaging in any community work. Sometimes, it’s because I am open and willing to engage. Other times, people look to me and other femmes to teach them how to be inclusive, how to be an ally or how to understand queer terms and phrases. I often find myself frustrated because I am not allowed to have an “off” button. When I assert my boundaries as an organizer, it confuses people, because we have been told by society that we must always be self-sacrificing.
When I first entered the advocacy space at 19, I joked that I was married to the cause. Five years later, it seems like the same cause that I fought so hard for served me divorce papers every year, and their rationale for calling it quits was always that I’ve changed.
And that’s not completely untrue. I have changed. Back then, I thought I would come out of the closet, become an activist and change the world. These days, sometimes all I can do is change my sheets.
At times, I feel moved by people thanking me for the work I do. But never have I seen society radically engage in protecting Black and brown queer women and femmes. It’s always just us, protecting ourselves.
“It’s extremely exhausting,” said Maite Nazario, a nonbinary Guatemalan and Puerto Rican artist and activist based in Atlanta. “I have to be my own voyeur to make sure my words are clear and concise and not read as overly emotional, or even aggressive.”
“It takes up so much of my mental space, when in reality the only thing I would like to be focusing my energy on is the rights of my people,” Nazario said.
Black and Brown queer femmes are exhausted. They deserve not only recognition for their contributions, but also radical community support ― which can look different for different people.
It’s important to ask your organizers what they need. Often, we become so caught up in community that we forget we are community as well, and that we deserve to have some things taken off our shoulders.
You should also hold yourself accountable. Do not solely rely on your local queer femme organizers to provide you with research, language and resources. While they can point you in the right direction, it’s important that they take breaks. I find myself constantly playing the role of a spokesperson, and I become severely burned out when people expect me to answer questions around my identity every day.
Lastly, prioritize the work that they do, and pay them. I often have flashbacks of my graduate school class last semester, when one of my classmates claimed that “people who do community work probably don’t care about getting money from it.” While organizing in your community may not be a paid position, the fact remains that organizers work tirelessly and should be compensated for the work they do.
“Straight up just pay Black and Brown femmes,” says Bri Joy, a performance artist and activist based in New York. “If you have extra funds after paying your bills and rent, you should always, always be setting aside a certain portion of that for Black femmes.”
A majority of us will probably spend the rest of our lives devoted to this work, because the work never really stops. I’d like to think that the Marshas and Stormés of today are not dressed in Pride apparel in corporate ads in June, pushing out rainbow capitalism products. Instead, I’d like to think they’re somewhere in the mix of mutual aid initiatives, giving out free condoms and pads and telling folks where they can get affordable gender-affirming care and housing.
As your city hosts Pride parades this year, take some time to remember the organizers from the past while actively uplifting and supporting the ones around you. It’s not enough to wait. They deserve their flowers while they are here.
We are tired. But we show up. Every. Damn. Time.