From the naked eye, Queer The Land’s newly purchased house appears full of contradiction. Located in Beacon Hill, the washed-out sage green coating surrounds its two main doors, one the color of sangria and the other maroon. Under the house number, a small aluminum banner dangles, saying: HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Across the street are brand new apartment buildings, tall and boxy with golden wood panels and splotches of orange sidings. Maybe it’s the contrast between the new and saturated buildings against the Queer The Land house and general overcast of the cloudy city, but one thing is true: these contradictions are representative of the jarring housing crisis in Seattle, and Queer The Land, a queer and trans BIPOC collective with a mission of owning their own land and labor, is persistent in making a living for Black and brown LGBTQ people anyway.
I met with one of the co-founders Neesha Powell-Ingabire downtown at Mr. West Café, where she was already in line. Over the long line of people waiting to order, she waved towards her spot, nudging me to skip the crowd and join her. Her small act of generosity mirrored Queer The Land’s mission as a whole, from housing to money, skills or food: We take care of us.
“How many more GoFundMe’s will people have to create to [not be homeless]?” said Neesha, who told me that the start of Queer The Land was a direct result of the Seattle government, private sectors, and nonprofits letting Black and brown LGBTQ people down.
In the summer of 2016, two different collectives in Seattle held an informal meeting: the Queer & Trans Pan-African Exchange (QTPAX), a group for Black LGBTQ people of Seattle, and Building Autonomy and Safety for Everybody (BASE), a predominantly Asian American and Pacific Islander self-defense workshop group with a gender justice mission. Amidst the city’s rabid gentrification and displacement, Queer The Land explores “what it would look like to have housing for us by us, but also having a space where we can own our labor, have co-working space, and have a community garden,” Powell-Ingabire said. “Essentially, a political hub for Black and brown, queer and trans folks in this area.”
Alongside Neesha, Queer The Land was co-founded by their partner Aimée-Josiane Powell-Ingabire, and friend Kalayo Pestaño—who said that being a part of immigrant communities had shown even more prominent disadvantages in Seattle. Prior to Queer The Land’s formation, Pestaño, who is Filipinx and nonbinary, was making ends meet while being in school and organizing without having consistent paid work, where “almost everybody had unstable housing and or livelihoods at the time. A lot of folks like me were spending a lot of time couch surfing,” Pestaño told me over the phone.
Pestaño’s nonprofit jobs were not enough to survive, and it didn’t help that activist movement spaces seemed unpromising, with little possibility for stability in the future. “What if we want to start a family?” Pestaño said. “Those things seemed a lot less attainable to us because we didn’t have the same kind of family networks of support due to the fact that we’re queer. People have needs, and those needs should be met.”
According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 28% of LGBTQ youth reported experiencing housing instability—37% for trans and nonbinary youth. Housing is unreliable and often unstable for LGBTQ people of color in Seattle, and the case remains true for Evana Enabuele.
Shortly after moving to Seattle in 2013 at 19 years old, Enabuele, who is Black and nonbinary, moved in with a boyfriend. When Enabuele found themselves paying both of their cost of living and therefore was being financially abused by their boyfriend, Enabuele filed a restraining order and it backfired; Enabuele was displaced from their housing.
Less than a decade later, Enabuele—along with Pestaño—spearheaded Queer The Land’s house purchase in 2020, which wasn’t finalized until 2021. The process was taxing, and despite the major win, much work was still to be done.
The revolution will not be funded: Looking beyond the nonprofit model
The condition of the house was far from Queer The Land’s vision. If anything, the condition was closer to Enabuele’s living situation after their breakup from years before, where they settled in a rat-infested apartment in Chinatown. Their apartment was an income restricted housing run by “slumlord” Carl Haglund, who is the president of Columbia Modern Living, a property management and real estate development company that was under fire around that time for its poorly maintained apartments and unethical rent raises in 2015 with over 200 other code violations.
Walking into the Queer The Land house was like time traveling for Enabuele. The house reeked of urine, and due to several holes throughout the seven doors, rodents had taken over. There were even rat droppings coming down from the ceiling. The garbage itself required twelve trucks to be removed. The work of Queer The Land is anything but glamorous—one of many things that differentiates the collective from nonprofits.
Sure, nonprofit spaces don’t smell like rodents or are covered in rat poop, but Queer The Land and their work have found much freedom and innovation in ways that are simply limited—and in some cases not possible—for nonprofits.
Whether it’s the government surveilling a nonprofit’s programs, or the level oversight and grant restrictions that need to follow specific rules in how money will be distributed, nonprofits inevitably fall short in showing up for community. Due to the rigid system that nonprofits need to follow, they often turn away community members in need. According to Queer The Land’s 2020 member Akoth Ombaka, who is trans and originally from Kenya, “the revolution is not like a 501c3,” he said.
On a Zoom call, Ombaka was joined by a fellow 2020 member Tolu Taiwo, and LèMíng Yocum, a Queer Network Program Organizer at API Chaya—a nonprofit community-based organization for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. Yocum joined Queer The Land around the same time as Enabuele in 2019.
“Nonprofits are often the left hand of the government, providing the social services that the government is supposed to but doesn’t,” Yocum said. On my screen, Ombaka and Taiwo nod vehemently. “A nonprofit, to me, is a place where you can access the resources provided by the government and foundations, and funding that is so often close to the pocket where they aren’t gonna just be like ‘Here, have some money!’ They need you to go through these avenues [first],” Yocum said.
Ombaka added that “Queer The Land is [always] going to figure out a way.” Even if the way is unconventional to nonprofits, be it mutual aid, or direct no-string-attached donations, the hope is that their work sets precedent for disregarded communities who want to look out for each other. “I haven’t seen that in nonprofit spaces,” he said, and the sentiment echoes, yet again: We take care of us.
An authentic dream space: the first step in land ownership
House imperfections aside, Taiwo shared that despite the condition of the house, it was the vision and the what-could-be that moved her. “I remember when I stepped into the house for the first time,” she said. “I could [imagine] folks filling up the house and having meetings there. I could see the space for the garden. I could see the library that I [dreamt] about. It was very beautiful to be in a space that I had dreams for [that I thought] was beyond me.”
The house used to be the Emma Goldman Finishing School, an egalitarian and anarchist housing community in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle that was founded in 1996. The house had originally been worth $1.4 million dollars, but due to a lawsuit regarding the damage done by its residents over time, it had to be sold at a reduced rate of $225,000. The drastic change in price allowed Queer The Land’s vision of owning a home to be very possible.
This was the year-long battle: Rhonda Busby and Sheldon Cooper, who owned the house, were initially excited to sell it to Queer The Land given the alignment of the collective’s mission and the history of the house. In a meeting with the owners and Evergreen Land Trust (which encourages the development of cooperative communities and sustainable land use practices), the collective shared their excitement about finally having a house, including the possibility that maybe one day they could even establish their own land trust. Busby and Cooper, interpreting this as Queer The Land wanting to possess, sell, and make profit off the house, pulled the deal. Ultimately, they agreed to sell the house with a covenant: Queer The Land was not to part ways with the land trust until they demonstrate their ability to run the home, under Evergreen Land Trust, successfully.
“They basically made us beg,” Enabuele explained during a call. “[Getting a covenant] is racist as hell, especially given Seattle’s history with redlining. People have covenants in their deeds, and they don’t even know that.”
Since then, the house had been in rotation with different contractors to vet, and recently settled on a promising one. As of now, subcontractors have been walking through the house, and their renovation plans are closer than ever.
Ombaka looks forward to the day the collective is able to feed themselves using the produce grown in their own garden and cooked in their house’s kitchen. “We center convening with each other because that’s when we go to authentic dream spaces,” they said. “When you’re comfortable, when you’re fed, when you’re with people you trust.”
Looking ahead into the future of QTL
It was clear to me, then, that much of Queer The Land’s visions go back to the idea of the land itself: their house that resides on the land property, the garden in which fruits and vegetables will grow from below, even the fact that the collective consists of real community members ‘on the ground’ who serve fellow members also ‘on the ground’. And in light of so much of what LGBTQ people have on the line recently, be it permission to transition or the ability to watch drag queens at brunch, the grounded work of Queer The Land reminds people that yet again, and always: We take care of us.
Although Neesha and their spouse Aimée-Josiane have since moved to Atlanta to start a family, Neesha is optimistic about Queer The Land’s impact outside of Seattle. And for other collectives in Seattle, it has already begun.
GenPride, an organization for aging, senior, and elderly LGBTQ people in Seattle announced the development of an eight-story, LGBTQ-affirming affordable senior housing just months after Queer The Land purchased their home. Trans Woman of Color Solidarity Network (TWOCSN) acquired a permanent home in Aug. 2022 called the “House of Constance” program, which will provide housing and services for Black trans women and femmes in an 8-bedroom house in Capitol Hill, Seattle’s gayborhood. In Oct. 2022, the Lavender Rights Project, an organization for Black LGBTQ members of Tacoma, Wa. released a project charter wherein a housing facility for thirty LGBTQ tenants is in the works.
“We are a model for folks,” Neesha Powell-Ingabire said.
“I would love to see queer and trans BIPOC continue to be autonomous, to express our self-determination that we can do it. We don’t have to wait for nonprofits to do it. We don’t have to wait for the government to do it. We can do it on our own. If we don’t know how, we can find people in our communities to know how we can share skills, we can share resources, and that’s the beauty of being in a collective.”