Community + Activism / Activism

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Women's March: A Reflection

by Kristin Russo

In eighth grade I discovered the musical Hair and watched it over and over and over again, blasting the soundtrack from my bedroom at full volume (sorry Mom and Dad). I became endlessly fascinated with the protests against the Vietnam War & the many civil rights movements of the 1960s and 70s, and wished desperately that I had been born earlier so I could have been a part of those crowds myself, demanding justice, demanding equality, and marching shoulder to shoulder with thousands in demonstrations for peace.

I didn’t know exactly what I was wishing for, of course, since along with that fiery passion of a movement comes its counterpart: horrible racism, war, and unspeakable inequality for so very many. I also didn’t realize, at the time, that my white, middle-class upbringing shielded me from the fact that those very same inequities were still at work in this country, still holding tight all around me, and that there were loud, angry, passionate, and incredible fighters still gathering, still protesting, still demanding that their voices be heard.

In the last two decades, I have come out and grown up as a queer woman. I have worked alongside thousands of people in efforts to bring equality, awareness, and change. In doing so I have also learned more about my own privilege, about pervasive, systemic racism, about the effects of sexism, ableism, transphobia, Islamophobia. I have learned what it feels like to be treated differently and to have rights taken away based on who or how I love. That work, and that ever-evolving awareness, echoed many of the sentiments of that 1960s activism I so admired.

On January 21, 2017, though, I marched in a protest for the very first time. My fear of crowds finally met its match with the horrors I continue to see unfold in my country. I stood in a sea 750,000 people deep in downtown Los Angeles. I screamed and shouted: I am here, I am full of fire and life, I will not stand for the inequalities and injustices that still exist.

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Millions of people stood up yesterday and screamed those same words. Together, we challenged the world to listen. The inequities, the sexism, the racism, the homophobia, the transphobia, all of it is being doused with gasoline by a new administration that does not include the interests or rights of millions of its citizens.

As I stood with my wife, with my sister, my family, I realized: I was there. I was in the pictures I had seen all those years ago. I was right in the middle of that moving sea of protest. My wish, both powerfully and devastatingly, had come true.

To those who still have yet to listen: I am not going to stop shouting. I ask you to please think about the fact that millions of people are all, in unison, telling you that we are facing danger, that we demand better, that we need you to step up. If that isn’t worthy of your deep, concerted consideration and engagement, then I ask you one more thing: what ever will be?

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"I am queer and Muslim, and I am overwhelmed by how to move forward, especially right now, days before our presidential inauguration. I am scared, and I don't know how to help myself, and how to help my communities."

- Question submitted by Anonymous

Aaminah Khan Says:

I, too, am queer and Muslim, which is another way of saying that there aren’t many places where I feel like I belong. The US, and especially the deep South, had already felt hostile to me pre-election. In the state of Louisiana, where I lived for two and a half years, police were still arresting people under our (unconstitutional) anti-sodomy laws as recently as 2014. I’m out online and almost everywhere else – but while I lived in the US, I wasn’t out at work, because I lived in one of 28 US states that still allow employers to fire people for being gay. The local attitude toward Muslims was similarly horrifying; anti-Muslim rhetoric played on FOX News everywhere from hospital waiting rooms to chain restaurants. Pre-election, I had already felt an overwhelming pressure to try to hide the aspects of my identity that might get me fired, ostracised or worse; I didn’t talk about my religion or cultural heritage often, and I kept any relationships I had with people other than men quiet. I thought that by doing this, I could keep myself safe, even if it did make me feel like a coward a lot of time.

Post-election, even that didn’t feel like enough to keep me safe any more.

The reports of hate crimes had already started filtering in on social media as I got to work the morning after the election. Many of my students were from the Middle East, and I wondered how many of them would have to bear the brunt of this newly-validated bigotry in the coming weeks. I had flashbacks to my own experiences after 9/11, when people had screamed obscenities at my family and me from their cars, thrown things at our house and vandalised the local mosque – but this time would be worse, because not only did people feel like they had an excuse to attack anyone who looked sufficiently foreign, they had a President-Elect who would and did back them up when they did. It was difficult to look my students in the eye and tell them everything was going to be all right when I didn’t believe it myself, so I didn’t. Instead, I told them to be safe, and prayed that they would be. I felt powerless to do anything else.

I didn’t voice my other fears to them – that this would mean the end for marriage equality, for LGBT workforce protections, that this would mean that people I knew and loved would be hurt, even killed, by people who now felt like they had a presidential mandate to rid the country of queer and trans people. I kept quiet because I knew that while my students – just like many people of colour around the country – feared for their futures in Trump’s America, a lot of them were also conservatives who didn’t particularly like queer or trans people any more than Trump voters did. It felt like even more cowardice, but as I’ve told many young LGBT people of faith in the past, being out and proud should never come before one’s personal safety and security. Choosing when and where to be out, just like choosing when and where to be openly religious, is part of the series of tough personal decisions we have to make in order to ensure our continued survival.

Navigating the dual identities of religiousness and queerness often feels like walking a tightrope. How much do you tell your family about your sexuality? How much do you tell your friends about your religion? It’s a precarious balancing act, and post-election, the wind is picking up and someone’s started shaking the rope; keeping that balance is getting harder and harder. Do I seek comfort in my faith, knowing that many members of my community couldn’t care less if trans people are denied healthcare or gay people are denied inheritance and marriage rights, or do I organise more actively with my fellow queer and trans people, knowing that they see my religious identity as an offensive eccentricity at best and a harmful liability at worst? Neither community feels like home, because both of them implicitly reject or disapprove of at least one part of me – and what is home, if not a place where all of you belongs?

Internally, I am entirely at peace with being both queer and Muslim, and I am lucky enough to know a small community of similar LGBT people of faith around the world on whom I can rely for comfort and support. But there are too few of us, and we are spread very, very thin – and sometimes, talking to friends on the other side of the world doesn’t feel like enough. I want to be able to share in the grief, mourning and consolation happening in the communities around me – want to be at the mosque, at the gay bar, offering strength and support of my own to people I love, people like me. But I don’t know how to without compromising at least one part of myself, and every time I have to do that – every time I have to hide my relationships with women or pretend I’m not really that religious – it hurts, both because I feel like I’m being forced to lie to people I love, and because I feel like I’m lying to myself. I don’t think there’s any easy solution to that problem.

So here’s what I suggest to young queer and trans people of faith who write to me for advice: be out where you can, find allies where you can, do the work you feel capable of doing – but most of all, don’t be ashamed to put your safety first. These days, I try not to beat myself up too much for needing to compromise, for not talking about girls with my mother’s friends and not praying audibly in public. When I have the energy for it, I try to do work that bridges the gulf between LGBT and faith communities – writing pieces like this one, participating in workshops and dialogues about the intersections between queerness and religion, talking about LGBT issues with my students – but sometimes I don’t have the energy, and I’m slowly learning that that’s okay. No one person can do it all at once. Sometimes I need to retreat and lick my wounds for a while, and sometimes I need to bite my tongue to ensure my personal safety. I won’t pretend it feels good, but it keeps me alive to fight another day.

The good news is that we’re not in this fight alone. Around the world, LGBT people of faith are making strides bringing their communities together, and each time an imam comes out or a priest speaks up for marriage equality, it makes it easier for us to start having those conversations with our loved ones. When I feel particularly alone in this struggle, I think of my friends and loved ones around the world who are doing this work with me – speaking in mosques; starting interfaith and LGBT dialogues; writing radical and inclusive reinterpretations of faith; attending pride marches in their hijabs, unapologetic. They are sources of strength and encouragement both at the times when I feel capable of confronting community prejudices head-on and the times when I know I need to stay silent. They provide a framework for having tough conversations with loved ones as well as a reminder that the conversations are worth having.

I don’t spend every moment of every day working or fighting because that’s not sustainable, but when I do, it’s with the knowledge that I am part of a new kind of community, one that is global and growing, a community with whom I can stand in proud solidarity. In short, by working to navigate the spaces between queerness and faith, I have finally found the place where I belong.

Learn more about Aaminah Khan here on our contributors page, and follow her on Twitter! So much gratitude to Arlan Hamilton, who sponsored this post as a part of our ongoing POC Writers’ Fund initiative.

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"Yesterday"
thoughts & reflection
by Kristin Russo

Yesterday I woke up after a night of tears, and saw dozens of emails and donations in support of my work with LGBTQIA youth.

Yesterday I wore my Nasty Woman t-shirt to the coffeeshop, and a black man came up to me to tell me he wanted to get one for himself and his son. I told him I would always fight for him.

Yesterday my mom called me in tears. She said she felt alone. She said she loved me. She told me I used to watch The Smurfs as a little kid, and I would look at her and say, “Look, mom, they are all holding hands. That is how you know they are gonna win.”

Yesterday I went to therapy.

Yesterday I blocked family members on social media.

Yesterday I cried. I held my wife, Jenny, close. I cried more.

Yesterday I did a livestream to create space for others in our community who were scared. We talked. We shared resources. Jenny sang The Rainbow Connection.

Yesterday I worked and I worked and I worked and I worked.

Yesterday I recorded a voice memo in an attempt to comfort a six-year-old who had woken up crying, and who asked his two moms how we could let a bad man be our president.

Yesterday I recognized and acknowledged my privilege as a white, cisgender woman.

Yesterday I feared for my brown, black, disabled, immigrant, undocumented, and Muslim friends. My trans friends. My friends who are survivors of sexual assault. My friends.

Yesterday was November 9, 2016.

Today I will fight. Tomorrow I will fight.

I will never, ever stop fighting.

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