by Deanna Gao
“Which side are you on?”
I am struggling to understand what it means for myself, as a queer, gender non-conforming, Chinese-American woman, to stand on the side of freedom. My models include visionary activists like Grace Lee Boggs and what I learn from her is that the answers are never easy and likely never absolute. I challenge myself to sit in the important discomfort of these questions and meanwhile to practice, motivated by intentions of love and justice. I want to name and leverage my own position to bring visibility and capacity to queer and trans Black liberation, and my solidarity may not and, I expect, will not be perfect.
My political, social, and economic standing in this country has been attained through centuries of the violent exploitation of Black people’s labor and bodies. Assimilation and adopting this country’s constitutional culture and practice have been the rules of the game for my people. To get ahead means purchasing into a state whose foundation depends on indigenous genocide, capitalism, white supremacy, anti-Black racism, colonization and war, heteropatriarchy, ableism—we are asked to forget our own and each other’s humanity. We are in a moment of political upheaval that reveals just how threatening it is to this nation’s foundation to declare unequivocally that “black lives matter.”
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This country has been in crisis, an unending cycle of violence and trauma. I know how that feels in my own life, in my own body, to carry and enact this legacy of violence. It feels like a tightening in the belly, a clench in the jaw, an entire nation of a body seizing in trauma response, prepared to defend its own demise. I also know the possibility of healing means not allowing history to repeat itself, interrupting cycles, committing to transformation. The personal has always been political and by this point, we have no other option but to do the work of a spiritual transformation.
Inspired by the call from Black activists to disrupt “business as usual,” a group of queer and trans people of color decided to disrupt a Saturday night in the Castro district of San Francisco, an LGBTQ neighborhood whose anti-Black racism hides just beneath the surface. On January 17th we held space for fifteen minutes of ceremonial mourning in two separate bars, Toad Hall and Badlands. We wanted to make clear that queer liberation depends on the safety of queer and trans black people.
We brought this message to the Castro because of long histories of anti-Black racism in a neighborhood that prides itself on being a safe haven for LGBTQ communities. Bars in the Castro have used the logic of white supremacy to justify the homogeneity (ie the “safety”) of their white patronage. This has included targeting people of color for multiple forms of ID and racially-coded dress requirements that denigrate the fierce style and fashion of fitted caps, the studly swagger of pants slung low around the waist, born in the streets of QTPOC communities. This tradition of anti-Black racist practice is particularly infuriating in light of history: the neighborhood itself would not have emerged as a social and politicized sanctuary for LGBTQ people, if it had not been for the labor of Black transwomen in particular. It was black transwomen who, in 1966 three years before Stonewall, led an uprising against police violence in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco, historically home to black communities including a stronghold of drag queens, transwomen and gender transgressors.
Toad Hall was formerly the Pendulum, a bastion of space for gay Black men in the Castro until the owner shut it down in 2005. Over five years later it reopened under a different brand and caters now primarily to gay white men. Since the 1960s people have protested these anti-Black racist practices and yet the Castro has only become increasingly unwelcome and unsafe for queer and trans Black people.
In the bars, our tone was sober and somber as we took the dance floor. We invited people to face the pain of acknowledging the reality that Black people, queer and trans Black people, and especially Black transwomen, are routinely murdered by state-sanctioned violence.
At Badlands, many people joined us in mourning. Some abandoned their night’s plans to join us in the street afterwards to force a standstill at the intersection of 18th and Castro. About 300 more convened at the intersection to participate and bear witness to ceremony.
The shutdown was powerful and not without cost. In Toad Hall, QTPOC activists were abused. Bar staff turned up the music to drown QTPOC’s voices. A patron grabbed a woman by her hair and smashed a glass bottle at her feet. He then hurled a trash can into the circle of QTPOC injuring three on their heads and upper back.
It is heartbreaking, this reminder that when the willful ignorance of gay white assimilation is at stake, violence will be justified, even and especially against a peaceful assembly of QTPOC. This confirmed just how unsafe the Castro has become for queer and trans Black people and those who take action in solidarity.
From my own experience of the action, these are some reflections:
1. We need to center the self-determination and safety of Black transwomen in our movements. Black transwomen were largely invisible in Saturday’s action and this is due in large part to our group’s lack of knowledge and tools to prioritize the safety of Black transwomen.
2. It is important to practice non-hierarchical models of leadership. People have diverse skills, capacities, and energies to contribute that do not and need not look the same.
3. White gay communities can easily ignore the violence against queer and trans Black people unless we take space and interrupt them in their kingdoms of pleasure and play.
4. It is powerful to come together as communities of queer and trans Black, mixed-race, Latin@, Chican@, Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Indigenous/Native, diasporic, and immigrant people demanding justice for Black people.
Solidarity is about showing up, including:
- equitably redistributing time, money, resources, and physical and emotional labor
- prioritizing sustainability in our work by taking care of ourselves and each other
- centering the lives, needs, and concerns of those most impacted by violence, particularly queer and trans Black communities, Black transwomen, and queer and trans Black disabled communities
- acknowledging where we make mistakes, learning, and committing to grow
- taking ego out of our work
- taking ACTION although this need not look any one way
My response to the heartbreaking and resonant refrain “which side are you on?” sung by queer and trans Black activists on that Saturday night is this: I—as a queer East Asian person, cast in this country as a “model minority,” as a tool of anti-Black racism—am clear about which side I’m on. Choosing freedom’s side means resistance, showing up, making mistakes, shifting, and growing a practice of solidarity.
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Deanna was raised on the white liberal racist streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has since transplanted to Oakland where she works with Asian youth and by night does a lot of dreaming. She’s inspired by generations of qwoc leading this work and by struggles for justice rooted in love.