Black Joy

Queer history is Black history, too | Black Joy – October 1, 2021

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October is more than just a time to grab the candy and get spooky.

It’s the first day of LGBTQ history month. LGBTQ+ people didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, y’all. They’ve always contributed to our culture in more ways than one.

Just a few years back, the world seemed to be dressed up in colors as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Quick reminder that transwomen of color stood at the front lines of an uprising that ushered in the modern gay rights movement.

But this year is a milestone for the Black LGBTQ+ community.

It’s been 30 years since the first Black gay pride took place in Washington, D.C. According to the Center for Black Equity, which is a global network of community organizations and prides dedicated to improving the wellness of Black LGBTQ+ lives, Black Gay Pride Movement was created to celebrate the community while highlighting issues that affect Black and brown individuals – issues the predominantly-white LGBTQ+ prides weren’t hitting.

I am a firm believer that history is now. So to commemorate this fabulous occasion, we are uplifting the Black queer folks making moves today. Share the Black queer joy with us by forwarding this email to a few of your friends.

– Starr

Building the “Utopia” of Black queer joy in Arkansas

The barriers to Black queer joy are coming down in Little Rock, Ark.

Job discrimination. Lack of safe social spaces. Homophobia. These are the “joy snatchers” of the Black and brown LGBTQ community, according to 31-year-old Antoine Ghoston, director of the nonprofit Arkansas Black Gay Men Forum. But the organization is providing solutions by opening the Utopia Empowerment Center later this month.

The center features an event venue and a multipurpose room with free wifi.  The nonprofit plans to use the office space for its advocacy programs, including mental health and job placement programs and HIV stigma program. Ghoston said the Pulaski County, Ark., center is the first of its kind.

“We should call it Utopia because we’re bringing a whole new world of services with ‘U’ in mind,” he recalls telling members of the organization.

Creating community is vital to the wellbeing of Black and brown LGBTQ+ communities. Ghoston learned that lesson during the early 2000s. In order to dodge the stigma of being a Black gay man, Ghoston would link up with his LGBTQ+-affirming friends. The small things that got him by, like going out to eat or playing basketball. But when they wanted to do it big, they would make a short road trip to Memphis, Tenn. If someone in the group didn’t have the right attire, Ghoston said they shared clothes, sneakers, jewelry and hats so that they could all look fresh on the town.

They would hang at Paragon, a club that catered to Black gay men, and Incognito, a club celebrating the Black LGBTQ+ community that later changed its name to Illusions, Ghoston said. More than just spaces to dance and watch drag shows, these were cathartic experiences where they didn’t have to water down themselves like they did in their hometown.

“We didn’t really want to go out here (in Little Rock),” Ghoston said.  “We saw people who were like us in Memphis. Being able to share a space with those who act, look, sound like me, that was a moment when I was like, ‘O.K., this is a whole ‘nother world that I might be able to enjoy.’”

Ghoston said community elders came together in 2006 and created Pride in the Park on Sundays, a cookout-like event where people ate, played spades, sung, rapped and danced.

As Pride in the Park started heating up, both of the Black clubs Ghoston and his friends frequented closed. Ghoston believes that had they not started Pride in the Park, there would have a been big hole in the Black LGBTQ+ community.

“There wouldn’t have been a whole lot of joy because we would have been stuck in the house,” Ghoston said. “With Black and brown folks, we’re social people. We like to reach out and touch and hug and love on one another.”

Luckily, Pride in the Park remained – and grew over the years. They started adding educational services, HIV/STI testing, mental health services and drag brunches. The family reunion atmosphere turned into a four-day event now known as Little Rock Black Pride, officially established by Ghoston’s friend Stanley Rogers, who handed over the executive director reins to Ghoston in 2013.

In the span of almost 20 years, Ghoston has watched his community transform from the LGBTQ+ social life ghost town it used to be. He said they still need more spots to celebrate their joy, but he can sense a difference when it comes to a level of acceptance when it comes to their visibility.

So for those who may feel oppressed by the whole “South is a lost cause” narrative, Ghoston says don’t lose hope on being able to express your full, authentic, Southern and Black self.

“I always say, don’t try to knock the top off the box. Run out of the box. You want to live outside that box so you don’t have that closed ceiling about you. The sky is always the limit,” Ghoston said. “What’s going to happen 16 years now? Who knows? But we have to keep this ball – this domino effect – going. We have to keep rolling.”

Birthing a new world for the Black, queer fam

When 29-year-old Kayla Bitten made the decision last year to shoot her shot and start the process of opening Alabama’s first Black-owned lactation clinic, the idea seemed daunting at first.

While the panorama was shutting down the world, Bitten, a queer childbirth and breastfeeding educator was running virtual breastfeeding classes and workshops for low-income mothers of color in north and central Alabama. In this community support program called Coloring Between The Lines, she kept seeing families pleading and searching for support in a state where there was already a lack of access to postpartum services for parents. While the need for a lactation clinic was clear, the resources needed to help parents beyond the birthing room just weren’t there, Bitten said. So she started to ask whether she could show people the big void in healthcare while also trying to create something to fill it?

More than a year later, and let me tell y’all, sis did that and more. Although she is still fundraising for her dream, Bitten plans to open the lactation clinic full-time in early 2022. But she has already made moves to help Black, brown and queer families in Alabama.

Earlier this year, Bitten virtually started the Postpartum Clinic LLC, where a team of doulas, perinatal specialists, and lactation counselors help provide BIPOC parents with comprehensive and culturally competent care during their “fourth trimester,” or postpartum care.

While prenatal care is important, Bitten believes postpartum care is vital to the wellbeing of the parents life. She said that is a missing piece in the medical world, especially for Black, brown and queer families.

“There’s so much that’s missing throughout the first year or two in postpartum for people, including the lactation journey, and that affects the mental health of a lot of people,” she said. “The world doesn’t seem to understand why there is a huge amount of suicides connected to postpartum psychosis, depression and anxiety. And that’s why. No one’s checking in. No one is supporting. No one’s caring.”

The depth of care a parent receives through the Postpartum Clinic depends on the type of services a parent purchases. They can sign up for an individual lactation or postpartum consultations or they can pick one of their two memberships. One of those options guides parents through the first year of their child’s life by educating them about lactation and newborn wellness. To make sure low-income and young families don’t fall through the cracks of care, the Postpartum Clinic also provides multiple community programs. The Sponsor Family Membership helps families who can’t afford memberships and the Young Family Sponsorship helps BIPOC adolescent parents get access to education, which decreases the likelihood of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

In March, Bitten expanded beyond the parent experience by creating the Southern Midwife. Through multiple workshops, she educates those who are a part of the birthing experience – nurses, OBGYNs, lactation counselors – about how to tap into more culturally competent an equitable care.

Bitten said that in order to fix Alabama’s reputation of being the second-to-worst place to have a baby, the state needs a Black-owned lactation clinic to help those who have already been left out of care.

“Often black people are left out when considering protocols and what support and care should look like and needs to be,” Bitten said. “Creating equitable access means that lived experiences are just as important as certifications and degrees. It’s the ‘For us. By us.’ idea.”

Bitten chatted with me about her favorite moments of joy during her 11-year career in being a radical birth worker:

  • Building a better future: Bitten has been with her partner, Imari White, for six years. She said Alabama’s reproductive spaces are dropping the ball when in comes to helping queer families.  “I’m realizing that my partner and I could get the exact care that we need and want as a Black, queer couple because I created it,” Bitten said. “So, the number one thing is seeing that come into fruition and to be an actual thing versus just a medical theory or an idea of Black futurism.”
  • Momma’s proud: Bitten’s mother experienced a wide spectrum of care when she had her three children. She had a certified nurse midwife with Bitten’s brother. She had an OBGYN for Bitten and her sister. “Listening to my mother explain to me how proud she is for the work that I have done and that I continue to do and how that made her comfortable enough to open up about her obstetric history and experience within the health system during her pregnancies and births – that brings me joy,” Bitten said. “She wanted more equitable care in being seen and heard and in return that would have helped her have a more or better emotional, mental and physical experience of bringing life into this damn world.”
  • The Black power of birth work: Bitten is learning from and meeting so many other Black student midwives and birth workers who are advocates and activists fighting to make sure that BIPOC people have more equitable access and choices. This work can feel so lonely and like you are fighting a fight that no one cares about. To see so many other people doing the same is the type of Black joy that keeps me going every single day,” she said.

Pauli Murray: ‘bible of civil rights’ author

Now that we have gotten to know some folks who are creating queer history now, let me introduce to someone who I am sure wasn’t included in your whitewashed textbooks.

Even within the Civil Rights Movement, there are still many Black queer legacies, such as Pauli Murray, who didn’t get the recognition they deserved during their lifetime. Born in Baltimore in 1910, Murray moved to Durham, N.C., to live with family after their parents died. As a civil rights activists, lawyer, poet and educator, Murray, who changed their birth name to the gender-neutral Pauli during college, made moves throughout history.

They attempted to integrate the University of North Carolina for graduate school in 1938, but their efforts were unsuccessful due to the lack of NAACP support. Murray defied public transportation segregation by refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Richmond, Va., in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks.

A year later, Murray was accepted into Howard University School of Law, where they coined the phrase “Jane Crow” after becoming aware of the oppression they faced as a perceived Black woman. After graduating top of their class at Howard, Murray started documenting segregation laws of each state. This research led to the 1951 publication called “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” which has been lauded as the “bible of civil rights law.” The book became a crucial part of the NAACP’s legal strategy in key court cases. But Murray didn’t even stop there. In 1977, they became the first African American woman to become an Episcopal priest.

If you want to learn more about Murray, you can check out this podcast or you can watch the new “My Name is Pauli Murray” documentary, which came out on Amazon Prime today.

Keep spreading the Black Joy by celebrating all of Black history. See ya’ next time.

The Reckon Report.
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