Reflecting Upon My Twenty-One Years of Pride
This essay, written on Saturday, June 25, 2011, barely 24-hours after the Marriage Equality Act was passed in the New York Senate, was originally posted on
Marc Anthony Neal’s NewBlackMan site
It is also posted on
June 25, 2011
For Michael (Dad), Cheryl D., and Wadia…
In Memory of Toni and Audre…
On the eve of the Pride parade in New York City, I reflect upon my very first New York Pride, which was in 1990. I was a very ‘wet behind the ears,’ 21-year old OUT ‘Baby Dyke.’ Wadia Gardiner, who was my first girlfriend as an adult, took me to the big city to celebrate PRIDE. That experience changed my life forever.
My being out as a LESBIAN is not solely political. It is literally and metaphorically about my own survival in the entity known as Aishah Shahidah Simmons in this lifetime. I will never ever condone my rape, which resulted in my pregnancy and abortion. At the same time, I know that my rape was connected to my deep seated internalized homophobia where I was a frightened teenager who literally thought I was going to be struck down by Allah (God). I can very vividly remember literally looking at the sky wondering when the striking would happen because of my attraction to women. I went to a high school (Philadelphia High School for Girls ‘231) where there were many of us who were either comfortable with or struggling through our queer identities. Equally as important there were many straight identified girls who were staunch allies of those who were/are queer. And yet, I still was terrified.
When I was eighteen in my senior year in high school struggling with my sexuality, Michael Simmons, my father, asked Cheryl Dowton, an out Black lesbian to talk to me about being a lesbian. My father didn’t want me to think that being a lesbian was a bad thing. Equally as important he didn’t want me to think that becoming a lesbian would mean that I would have to give up my racial identity. So it was extremely important to him that I have the opportunity to talk with a Black lesbian about all of my questions, anxieties and fears. Having the opportunity to talk with Cheryl allowed me to literally see that Black and lesbian were not contradictory identities. Even with my having a girlfriend in my senior year in high school, I was SO afraid that my connecting with Cheryl, didn’t enable me to fully embrace my authentic self until three year later…
I had a boyfriend my first year at Swarthmore College whom I loved. We had a wonderful relationship, while it lasted, but I always knew my feelings for women. And, at the same time I wanted to be “normal” (aka Heterosexual)… I wanted to be as accepted as Black (presumed) heterosexual women could be in racist and sexist Amer-i-KKK-a.
During my second year at Temple University, I went on a study abroad program to Mexico. During that journey, I was raped. My rape from an acquaintance in Mexico was directly related to my thinking something was wrong with me because I hadn’t had (heterosexual, or homosexual, for that matter) sex in over a year (post my break up with my boyfriend). Clearly, as a woman, regardless of my sexual orientation, I could get raped at any point or time. This is based on the wretched global statistics about violence against women. However, in my specific instance, I was trying to prove that I was heterosexual and that’s why I made the poor choices I made. Again, I want to be explicitly clear, I’m not nor would I EVER condone my rape. Poor choices and poor judgment should never EVER equate rape. The rape probably resulted in my pregnancy, though I’m not sure exactly. In my quest to both deny what happened and anesthetize my pain, the following night, post my rape; I had consensual sex with another man. When I returned to the States, I was six weeks shy of my 20th birthday and pregnant. I’m one of the fortunate women who was able to have a safe and legal abortion about one week after my 20th birthday. Albeit, I had to cross vitriolic anti-choice/anti reproductive justice protesters to get into the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for Women in Philadelphia.
Fast forward to the following year when I was 21 years old and finally coming to terms with the fact that I was a lesbian and that I could no longer keep it a secret from myself foremost, and the world secondarily, I called my teacher/mentor/Big Sista Toni Cade Bmabara several times and talked to her about my internal struggle, my fears of rejection, isolation, and alienation. Toni listened to me. She affirmed me. She encouraged me to be true to my spirit and myself without regards for what anyone else thought, said, and or wanted. During this conversation, Toni taught me two of many invaluable lessons, one, that the word sistah was both a noun and a verb and two, that the responsibility of the artist/cultural worker is to use their art/cultural work to make revolution irresistible.
During that same time I read Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde, which was given to me by a Holli Van Ness a colleague of mine at the American Friend Service Committee. Prior to reading that book, I didn’t really know about Audre Lorde or her groundbreaking work. Audre Lorde’s words both invigorated and challenged me to break the vicious cycle of silence and shame around being a lesbian. I was literally transformed in my bedroom while reading Sister Outsider. I devoured every single word as if my very life depended upon it. It was as if Audre Lorde were speaking directly to me. In that book, she addressed all of my issues and concerns. Her written words taught me that I had a responsibility to not only be out, but to be engaged in the international struggles of the oppressed as an out Black Feminist Lesbian. I know a metaphysical transformation happened where I went from being an afraid, frightened, and ashamed Black lesbian young woman, to an out Black lesbian activist after reading Sister Outsider.
I am keenly aware that the metaphysical transformation that occurred was a gradual process that began with my father’s ongoing support, which commenced with his arranging for me to meet and talk with Cheryl Dowton as well as the conversations that I had with Toni. And yet, at the same time, Audre Lorde’s words gave me the initial tools that I needed to embark on my journey as an out Black feminist lesbian. It was in April 1990 that I came out with a vengeance and vowed never ever to go back in the closet again.
It was during this time that I met Wadia. Nine years older than me, she was, in my eyes, a Lesbian veteran. While the relationship barely made it slightly over a year, it was one of the most profound connections for several reasons. One, Wadia is a Muslim who didn’t see any contradiction between her sexuality and her spirituality. This was critical for me because I was raised Sufi Muslim and yet I thought Allah had forsaken me because of my sexual orientation. Wadia’s absolute clarity about her connection to her faith helped me to understand that like with my race and my sexuality, which are bound into one, my spirituality is an integral part of who I am. It was a transformational experience because prior to meeting and getting involved with Wadia, I made the decision that I would face and burn in Hell later and live my life now, which meant I would sever my relationship with my faith. It was profound to perform Salats (Prayer) and do Dhikr with my Black woman partner. I still get teary eyed when I think about that homecoming where all of mySelves were embraced and acknowledged. I’m most grateful that my first partner was/is a Black Muslim Woman.
Two, in addition to helping me reintegrate back into my Spiritual life, Wadia introduced to me to a world of Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, European (American) and Arab feminist lesbians who were/are cultural workers, musicians, scholars, jewelers, activists, healthcare practitioners, and organizers based in Philadelphia, New York, and other parts of the country. More often than not, I was by far one of the younger ones in the private and public spaces where we gathered. I have many fond memories of our tenure together, including a two month journey to Mexico where I reclaimed the space/place where I was raped. However, the one memory that will always hold a deep place in my heart is New York Pride. This was years before the police clamped down on the Pier where after marching in the PRIDE Parade, we (women, men, trans) gathered to pour libation, drum, perform spoken word, eat food, embrace, dance and BE IN ALL OF OUR (predominantly) COLORED LGBT PRIDE AND GLORY well into the wee hours of the morning… My Goddess that was a profound gift… Once I made peace with my lesbian identity, I was able to focus my attention on my life’s work, which was/is to use the camera lens and written word to (hopefully) make radical, peaceful, compassionate revolution irresistible. To this very day Wadia is one of my most trusted friends/confidantes/comrades. We are family.
June 2011 a different landscape from June 1990.
There’s marriage equality for all in NY, and yet for so many of us who are Queer identified, we’re still not safe and protected. I believe EVERYONE, regardless of their sexual orientation, who wants to get married, should have the right to get married. At the same time, I don’t want to have to get married to have rights and privileges, which should be made available to everyone, regardless of their marital status. I celebrate this Marriage Equality victory while not losing sight that the battle is SO far from being over that it’s not even funny.
Just ask my Black Lesbian sisters (The New York Four) who are (unjustly and inhumanely) incarcerated for protecting themselves against sexist and homophobic violence perpetuated against them in the (safe, White) queer friendly Village… You can read Imani Henry’s poignant 2007 essay http://www.workers.org/2007/us/nj4-0628/
This is one of many countless examples of the ongoing assaults on Queer people of Color throughout NY and across the country… Just ask or check in with The Audre Lorde Project http://alp.org/ or Queers for Economic Justice http://q4ej.org/about, to name two radical and revolutionary NY-based Queer organizations. Also the recently released Queer (In)Justice The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock is groundbreaking, sobering, and a must read. http://www.queerinjustice.com/
Twenty-one years later, I joyously celebrate PRIDE while I interrogate the various ways, at various junctures on my journey as an out lesbian; I colluded in my own invisibility. I recognize that there aren’t any clear-cut lines in the struggle to eradicate internalized and external oppression. Often times it’s a trial and error process, where hopefully we can learn to both have compassion and forgive each other and ourselves.
"I AM A FULL WOMAN" ~ Rachel Bagby
Julie Yarbrough-photographer; Jennifer Ferriola-make-up, Summer Walker-Stylist