Friday, April 24, 2009

Remembering Barbara Jordan

The following is an excerpt from my reflection journal:

Today, I went to the Barbara Jordan Stature unveiling. Barbara Jordan is one of my heroes; I am amazed by her life and her accomplishments. The ceremony was so incredibly moving. I cried, I laughed. But, one thing was strikingly omitted from the celebration today: Jordan’s relationship of over 20 years with her partner, Nancy Earl. I could not help feel an incredibly sadness for how the most significant relationship of her life was made invisible. Although she was not a queer activist, nor was she an “out” lesbian—she lived her life as a woman who loved women. She was honored for her political career. I do not believe that her sexuality should have been a focus; I do not believe that her sexuality should have been politicized. But, if we are going to truly honor her life how can we leave out something so fundamental to the human experience as the person we choose to walk through life with.

Just because Queer Americans have the ability to pass as heterosexuals doesn’t mean we should have to. We shouldn’t have to deny a part of who we are. And, when we are honored, after our deaths, our whole lives should be celebrated. I could not help but think what would happen if we tried to erect a statue of a queer activist. I wondered if people would protest its existence at the unveiling ceremony. I imagined what the signs would read: “God Hates Fags,” “Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve,” and all the other tired slogans I have seen at every rally every, every Pride Day, and every protest since I came out almost a decade ago. I remembered the controversial Advocate cover that decried: “Gay is the New Black.” I remembered the outrage surrounding the cover and the article by Michael Joseph Gross. I was angry that people refused to get the nuance of the actual article and instead focused on the inflammatory nature of the cover. I thought of one line in it: “gay is the new black in only one meaningful way. At present we are the most socially acceptable targets for the kind of casual hatred that American society once approved for habitual use against black people.” And, I thought again about what the signs the protesters of a Queer activist statue might read. I then scanned the crowd and saw that there weren’t any protesters present.

Now I do not assume to know what it means to be Black. Nor, do I presume what it means to be Queer and Black, to have to negotiate two oppressed identities and to exist simultaneously in two cultures. I cannot imagine what that might be like. I also cannot imagine what it was 40 years ago to be a queer woman of color in Texas, and a public figure. I cannot imagine what it would be like to have to eclipse one identity in order to create change for the people with whom you share another identity.

Barbara Jordan once said: “earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: We the People. It’s a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that We the People. I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left my out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in We the People. Now that may be true for her as a Black person. But, that is still not true for women and Queer Americans. There is no Equal Rights Amendment to protect women; gender-based discrimination cases in the courts are not subject the same strict standard of judicial review that is applied to cases about race and ethnicity. Queer Americans have even fewer protections; we can still be fired and evicted on the basis of sexual orientation with no legal recourse and are denied the 1,049 benefits that come with legal marriage.

I remembered reading the statement of the Combahee River Collective. I remembered how they argued that all of us—all people—would be emancipated with the emancipation of the Black lesbian. This was due to the fact that queer women of color are subject to the intersections of so many oppressed identities. I couldn’t help but think that it was a huge stride forward for Barbara Jordan to be celebrated as a Black person and as a woman, but it was clear to me that there is so much more work to be done. The black lesbian has not been liberated yet, so not all of us are free. Barbara Jordan stated: “We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose, to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.” All of us includes those of us who aren’t white, who aren’t rich, who aren’t heterosexual, who aren’t men—all of us, all of the “others.” Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist, argues that we must replace “divide and conquer” with “define and empower.” We need to honor whole people, for everything that they are.

“Every lesbian is worthy of inclusion in history.

If you have the courage to touch another woman,

then you are a very famous person”

–Joan Nestle, Not Just Passing Through

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