Visibility, Intersectionality, Inclusivity: LGBTQ Activism After the Right to Marry

true colorsTrue Colors youth have some fun at an April rehearsal. Photos by Jess Benjamin.

“Say a black woman is an immigrant; she migrated here from Haiti. So she is a woman, she is black and she is an immigrant. Now there are three intersecting identities for which she can be discriminated [against]. And we haven’t even started talking about whether or not she is straight or gay.”

Boston Black Pride board member Charlene Charles is explaining intersectionality—the ways in which multiple identities, from gender to race to sexual orientation, are present in just one individual. The idea is that the systems of oppression linked to those identities are interconnected; they cannot be examined separate from one another.

Promoting this concept is a key focus for organizations like Black Pride, which aims to increase visibility, raise awareness and establish a community for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of color who might otherwise feel disconnected from white LGBTQ culture. “And though we are Boston Pride, our reach is to the Greater Boston and Metro Boston surrounding areas,” Charles explains. (The group has held numerous events in Cambridge, including a recent screening of The Same Difference, a documentary about gender roles in the lesbian community, at Kendall Square Cinema.)

In 2004, Cambridge became the first city in the nation to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples. There have been major advancements in the 12 years since the legalization of these unions in Massachusetts, including the Supreme Court ruling almost a year ago that requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages. But marriage equality doesn’t mark the conclusion to the fight for LGBTQ rights. Programs like Black Pride exist because the marginalized members of the community, especially transgender people of color, continue to be underrepresented and at risk of both racialized and transphobic violence.

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“There is a great value in these organizations,” says Mayor Denise Simmons. “While Cambridge may be a very tolerant, inclusive city in 2016, we need to remember that this didn’t just happen because the calendar turned over. This is the result of generations of people working to raise awareness around issues of intolerance, of bigotry and exclusivity.”

Boston Pride has itself come under fire from activists demanding a greater emphasis on intersectionality. Last year, an LGBTQ group interrupted the 45th Boston Gay Pride Parade by sitting in the middle of the route for 11 minutes—one minute for each trans person who was killed in the US in the first half of 2015. Prior to the sit-in, the activists released a statement addressing the disconnect between the successes of the marriage equality movement and the lack of resources available to trans people of color.

“We are a group of black, Latin@, Asian and white people, queer and trans allies who are interrupting this annual party to declare that all our struggles are interconnected,” the statement read. “We won’t wait for the advances of the most privileged of our community to trickle down to the rest of us. We live in a society that has declared war on black people, women, immigrants, trans people, poor people and—at the intersection of all that—trans women of color.”

denise simmonsFor many, claiming more than one identity may not mean that they have multiple welcoming communities but rather that they have none at all. It’s an awareness that’s spurring the efforts of both activists and arts-based organizations like The Theater Offensive, which strives to “present the diversity of [LGBTQ] lives in art so bold it breaks through personal isolation, challenges the status quo and builds thriving communities,” according to its mission statement.

One of The Theater Offensive’s programs is its youth theater troupe, True Colors, which supports and provides a safe space for its LGBTQ or questioning members and their allies age 14-29.

“Everything we do comes from a personal story told through theater,” explains Nick Bazo, associate director of programs and director of True Colors. “It’s the root of social change, and providing space to amplify those stories is quite literally what we do.” The troupe includes one transgender youth who experienced neighborhood violence, who was not accepted at home and had limited access to resources. “To watch this person not only transition to becoming a woman, but also transition to becoming an activist and an artist, has been so moving,” said Bazo. “From four or five years ago, seeing her develop such strength and resilience … I’m proud of her and I’m proud that True Colors was a part of that journey.”

True Colors’ unique approach caught the attention of filmmaker Ellen Brodsky, who profiled the troupe in her documentary The Year We Thought About Love, which received the “DIYDS” award from the Do It Your Damn Self National Youth Film Festival at the Community Art Center in Cambridge earlier this year. Brodsky and her crew went behind the scenes with this diverse group of LGBTQ youth, and her film tells the story of how they transform their personal struggles into theater for social change. According to Brodsky, a student once raised her hand during a screening of the documentary and said, “I don’t have any questions—just wanted to thank you. Watching your film is the first time I’ve seen two black women kiss on screen. So, thank you.”

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Increasing visibility and encouraging intersectionality remain key issues among activists in Greater Boston. “Every time I look at something, I’m looking at it through a very diverse cultural lens because, for me, that’s reality,” says Boston Black Pride’s Charlene Charles.

There’s still plenty of work to be done; in many states, employers still have the right to fire staff members for being gay. Earlier this year, two black transgender women were killed within 24 hours of each other—one in Philadelphia, another in San Antonio.

“Certainly, my very public identity as the city’s-slash-state’s-slash-country’s first black, openly lesbian mayor is something that I am proud of and that I use to promote our tolerance and acceptance for people from all walks of life,” says Simmons, who also advocates for and supports local projects centered around intersectionality. “Certainly, our GLBT Commission and our periodic LGBT Town Hall Meetings are important initiatives that help spread these messages and help us take a reading of how far we’ve marched—and how far we have yet to go.”

“Even if Cambridge is a shining example to other communities,” she adds, “we know that once you leave this community, there are other communities that have much more work to do.”

This story originally appeared in our May/June print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription