Monday, March 31, 2008

Midwest Social Forum: Dare to be Powerful

(This is my last entry in a series of reflections on the Midwest Social Forum Teach-In, which took place March 27-30 in Camp Lake, Wisconsin)

“When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether or not I am afraid.” -Audre Lorde

I spend a lot of time being afraid. I am afraid I am not going to be able to pay my bills. I am afraid that I am not going to figure out what it is that I was put on this planet to do. I am afraid that my faults outweigh my worth. I am afraid that the abuse that I survived has damaged me beyond repair. I am afraid that the hurt I have done while lashing out from my own pain is unredeemable. I am afraid of my own power and strength because I am afraid that I am not worthy of that either.

It is moments like those that took place this weekend at the Midwest Social Forum Teach In, where the opportunity to live the famous Audre Lorde quotation is possible. It doesn't matter if I am afraid, if, in spite of my fear, I dare to hold my power in my hands and use it towards the end of justice and liberation. During the entire event this weekend, fear based thoughts were front and center in my mind. Am I prepared enough? Has my work thus far legitimated me standing in front of this room? Are the people in this room getting what they need out of this? Am I making sense? Do I sound stupid? All of these thoughts, consciously went through my mind at one time or another, which means that at all times they were running in an unending powerful undercurrent on repeat in my subconscious. But, ultimately, none of that mattered because I continued to show up.

As I have spoken to folks that were at the event and those that were not at the event, I have come to an understanding of what being a part of the teach in meant to me. For me the benefit did not come from sitting in a workshop. The richness of the experience came from being able to learn as I taught, and to confront the fear of my own inadequacy by being forced to acknowledge my own failures and successes in the context of personal, political, and collective growth towards a vision of justice where inadequate is a term never applied to a living being. It was about looking at the work I have done since my first environmental justice campaign 20 years ago, as a ten year old in the fifth grade at Longfellow School of the Arts, where five children learned about the damage caused to the ozone layer by styro-foam and decided to launch a campaign in South Minneapolis against McDonald's use of styro-foam hamburger containers. It was about acknowledging that this year, as I turn 31, I also celebrate 16 years of continuous organizing and justice work, starting as a youth organizer and now as an organizer around blowing apart our idea of democracy and working for true democratic practice in this use another of Audre Lorde's concepts...create new tools that the master has never touched and has no power to resist.

The work that we do as social just organizers is damaging. We, who are the front lines of various segments of the movement for liberation, are constantly taking psychic, emotional, and physical wounds from foes and allies alike. We hear messages aimed at de-constructing our sense of self worth. We are attacked for our beliefs and ideas. We are physically assaulted for living out loud and being who we were meant to be. And, despite our best efforts, some of these wounds sink deep beneath the surface where they continue to bleed and lock into a cycle of self-inflicted pain. But, when we come together, be it across the dinner table or at a formal gathering, there we have the alchemical ingredients necessary to help each other be powerful and in doing so, in being powerful publicly, moving beyond shame and fear, we are able to bring some of our wounds to the surface and have them lanced in the heat and light of our own spiritual and communal glory.

Audre Lorde passed away five years before I would have been in a place and space where I could have touched her physically. But, spiritually, through her writings and through associations with her friends Mandy Carter, Barbara Smith, Suzanne Pharr, and others, I am able to see and touch and feel the essence of who she was and benefit from the work she did and the gifts she left as she moved on to her next great journey. I look forward, years from now, to meeting her on that great shining road and thanking her for being a guardian angel to those of us for whom she prepared a way to live with our fear and still stretch our arms wide and embrace the power that is our inheritance.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Midwest Social Forum: Talking About A Sexual Revolution

Last night, during the evening plenary at the Midwest Social Forum Teach In, a small group of folks broke from the larger break out groups to chat, build community, and, as usual, the talk turned to sex. The group was diverse in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation. And the flow of the conversation was punctuated by giggles, snorts, indignation, and embarassment. Considering the age range of the folks in the circle went from early 20s to late was a very visible reminder that the queer movement has so much to offer the rest of the movement for social justice.

The one truly refreshing moment in the exchange came from the late 40s/early 50s, straight, African-American woman faith organizer who just happened to be into leather, bondage, and S&M and had a special place in her heart for the "leather man conference" aka International Mister Leather, which takes place each Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. Old girl was an old school sex radical from back in the day, took advantage of (in the early 80s and today) the dungeon scene in New York City. I can't remember her name, but I am in LOVE with her.

In February, I was at the Creating Change Conference in Detroit. Creating Change is the largest gathering of queer organizers in the country. After the conference, I wrote an essay called "Talking About a Sexual Revolution." I am going to repost it below. After the conversation last night and the seemingly pre-teen reaction to sex that these sexually active adults were having reminded me even more that as we continue our revolutionary struggles that sex, sex positivity, and pleasure organizing need to be front in center in that work.

Talking About A Sexual Revolution--An Essay and a Call to Bed (2.22.08)

On 28 June 1969 queers, trannies, and drag queens, many of whom were people of color, expressed the explosive repressed anger of the queer community and in a night of resistance launched what would become the global movement for queer and transgender freedom of expression, freedom of being, and the freedom to fuck without social, moral, or legal discrimination.

The decade following Stonewall and before the advent of the AIDS crisis, the queer community, took the Free Love movement of the 1960s to new heights. Bears, leather queens, S/M communities, lesbian dominatrix, bath houses, the Christopher Street piers, Fire Island, the Castro, polyamorous/non-monogamous/multi-partner relationships, tea rooms—these were some of the people and some of the sites of a sexual revolution that declared that consensual pleasure, where ever it may be found, will be found and enjoyed. The right to fuck whoever, however, wherever with whatever was never simply about getting was the battle cry of a community reclaiming their bodies, their spirits, and their connections with one another.

Without a doubt, sexism, racism, and other forms of institutionalized oppression were (and still are) present in the community, but never before had identity politics been intimately linked to the politics of sexuality. Queer folks pushed the envelope of what was considered acceptable sexual practice, and in doing so, forced the definition of acceptable to expand. Straight women could find auto-erotic supplies and learn about self pleasure. Straight men found that they could explore being topped by a woman with a strap on and not lose something of their masculinity. The queer sexual revolution was not just for queers.

Every gay bar in every city had a “back room,” and the movement knew that the revolution was created, stirred, and advanced just as much in these places as in the offices of the newly formed (what was then called) the National Gay Task Force (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) and the other LGBT advocacy organizations beginning to find their voices during the same period.

With the advent of the AIDS crisis there was a systemic backlash both inside of the queer community and outside of the queer community against the sexual liberation politics of the 60s and 70s. As the era of Reagan and the “Me Generation” took hold in 80s, a conservative attack on queer sexuality and sexual expression, coupled with the AIDS crisis, created a sex paranoia that caused many to back away from the radical sexual politics of the previous decade—some in shame and some in fear. There were still many advocates that continued to fight for both a strong sense of health education and a healthy, positive sexuality—but the court of public opinion and the lack of response from the Reagan administration to the AIDS crisis conspired to set the sexual revolution back. It is clear to me that the queer sexual revolution was not to blame for the spread of AIDS, it was the systemic denial, demonizing, and hate mongering of Ronald Reagan and his administration.

I grew up in a different era.

Coming of age in the mid to late 90s, I was lucky to be a part of a resurgence of positive sexuality, sex positivity, slut politics, and diverse expression of sex interests, forms, and play. I believe that this resurgence, led largely by a strong and vibrant queer youth movement, was a direct reaction to the sexphobia and sexfear of the 80s and early 90s. Having grown up in the upper Midwest, my idea of sex and sexual play was understandably vanilla. Minneapolis closed all of its bathhouses a decade before I even thought about coming out of the closet. I believed that the only valid relationship was a long term monogamous relationship, and the thought of getting spanked, pissed on, fisted, double-fucked, or anything else that was outside of the queer version of the missionary position was simply beyond my experience.

As I matured as an individual and as an organizer, I was blessed to be surrounded by loving and caring peers that took great and gentle joy in blasting apart everything I thought I knew about myself, my beliefs, and sex. At my first Creating Change conference in 1998, I found myself surrounded by kinky, slutty, loving, caring, radicals that taught me figuratively (through workshops) and literally (through hook-ups) about the power of sex as a tool for movement building. At Creating Change, and subsequently while working at the North Carolina Lambda Youth Network, I was surrounded by folks that had done enormous work to leave behind, or at least mitigate, the puritanical U.S. sexual construct. My friend, mentor, and boss—a fierce New York lesbian Jew-- told me just before my first Creating Change conference that I should go and hook up. At the time, I thought she was just encouraging us to have sex, what I learned later was that she was encouraging us to use all of the tools at our disposal to connect with others in our movement and to celebrate, without shame, a core and fundamental aspect of our being: our sexual selves.

As the new millennium hit, the queer community found itself again at a crossroads. This time our sexual revolution was not under attack by the establishment, indeed by the early 2000s, the Supreme Court struck down Bowers versus Hardwick, decriminalizing sodomy and de facto ending a large portion of the institutionalized sexual homophobia (although, it is still illegal to buy dildos in Texas!), our nascent resurgent sexual revolution was under attack from our own “success” stories and from our own political organization(s). By the end of the 90s, queer folks could see themselves staring back from Ellen, Will & Grace, MTV, Bravo, and a host of feature films. Except for Queer As Folk, and later the L Word, all of the media images screamed one message, to the straight community, “DON'T BE AFRAID, WE ARE JUST LIKE YOU!” Instead of June and Ward, you had Jack and Will---still a chaste American couple. Queers had been made palatable by removing the sex and ramping up the camp. Baby gays and dykes began to see and hear overwhelming conformist images and messages: find a man or woman (forget a tranny!), settle down, get a house in the burbs, adopt a baby girl from China,vacation in Europe, work for Target, resistance is futile!

And on the political side, you had organizations such as HRC (and later Freedom to Marry) continuing on the conformity battle cry while sucking up vast community resources and achieving next to nothing of their federal agenda. HRC, as the fairly unchallenged “national voice” of the movement until a recent resurgence by the Task Force, had the ear of the media and the nation...and used queer celebrities to extol the virtues of the heteronormative lifestyle—their sexual politics can be summed up by the image of Ted and Steve, white, in great shape, perfect hair, extremely butch, Log Cabiners, in business suits saying: “Hi I'm Ted and this is Steve, were are just like you...except I like to deep throat his cock and he likes to take it up the butt now and then. Buy American!”

And so, the growing visibility of the queer community, to me, was a blessing and a curse. It is great to see in media and in politics individuals with whom I am able in some ways to identify. It is horrifying that those same people have forgotten that our movement consciously tied sex and politics together in an effort to erase, permanently, regressive efforts to control our bodies and our pleasure.

During the last 10 years, the one place that I could count on to find the old spirit of sexual revolution was the Creating Change conference, For a decade, walking into the registration room of the conference was like taking one big politically charged viagra. For a week, I was able to fall in love with the politics, personality, and ass of dozens of revolutionaries---and I could, with celebration instead of shame, end my night deepening my connection to someone else in the movement through gymnastic rompings on the heavenly bed at the Atlanta Westin.

This year was different. Around the third day of the conference, I called a good friend to tell her that she was missed. She asked me what I thought about the conference, and I shared that in terms of style it was amazing, in terms of substance, somehow, the HRC had finally managed to infiltrate and suck every bit of sexual energy from the conference. The program book contained almost no workshops on sex, sexual organizing, polyamory, or any of the other staples from years past. There was no conference sponsored S&M play party as their had been in Milwaukee. Creating Change had lost an integral part of what made it truly about creating change...changing our beliefs and thoughts through conscious, shameless, safe, and supported exploration of our entire identities—including our sexual selves.

Although I was saddened by the specter of desexualization at the conference, I was not surprised. It was only a matter of time before the marriage movement/HRC borg was able to worm its way into the few places left that embraced radical sexuality and a sexual revolution.
I shared my thoughts and concerns with the conference staff at the Task Force, and they assured me that the evaluation process would include these concerns. But my concerns run much deeper than an annual conference. My concerns run to an active distancing of sex radicals from the queer movement. The same conformist queers advocating for marriage and monogamy, are the same ones you can find on Manhunt advertised as bareback, fist fuck, piss whores. Through the Reagan era into the mainstream conversion process, it has become unacceptable to bring to work and our lives the freedom of sexual expression that was at the core of our movement 40 years ago.

I challenge our national and local organizations, our youth organizations, our faith organizations, our media, and all of the other institutions we have created for ourselves to challenge the messaging we have been given about our sexual expressions. It is one thing to examine your core sexual attitudes and, through a conscious process, come to decide for yourself that at your deepest level you are meant for the long term partnered monogamous life. It is wrong and antithetical to ourselves as human beings and to the roots of our movement to accept a framework for sexuality crafted by James Dobson and approved by the board of the HRC.
It is time for the sluts, whores, kinks, leather community, chicks with dicks lovers, and every other shade and stripe of queers to come out of the closet and declare that our sexuality is not the price we are willing to pay for a grudging tolerance of ourselves as queer people.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Midwest Social Forum: Facilitaton

This weekend at the Midwest Social Forum Teach-In, I have had the blessing of being one of the facilitators of the cohort groups and the LGBT organizing (both the Caucus and a workshop continuing the work of organizing the Queer Left started at the U.S. Social Forum last June). I count it as a blessing even though this weekend is reminding me just how mentally tiring it is to be a facilitator.

I remember sitting in workshops and caucuses and attributing all sorts of superhuman characteristics to the facilitators. I thought, for the most part, that they were uberly wise, hip, and so damn cool with their fancy lefty talk and their seemingly boundless grasp of the intricacies of politics, community building, power analysis, and vision. I still feel that way. Adrianne Maree Brown of the Ruckus Society ( is one of the star facilitators here this weekend as well as one of the plenary mavens. She makes facilitation look effortless. She has a commanding and relaxing presence. Which, of course, makes me feel like a complete sham when I leave the plenaries and walk into a room that I need to facilitate.

Facilitation is one part preparation and one part empathy and two parts prayer. This weekend, I have had a brilliant collection of engaged individuals from across the age, race, ability, class, gender, and sexual orientation spectrum. In my cohort group one young 14 year old woman, Devyon from Urban Underground (, blew me away with her transformation in one day around her engagement with the work at the teach in but also the analysis she has come up with around the work of her own group. Yesterday, she was a little shy and somewhat disengaged. After a single day of working with people with whom she would not normally engage, and, in her own words, people from ages groups with which she normally does not collaborate, she came to our cohort today with a cogent breakdown of her groups challenges and self defined solutions that, I believe, will move her group passed some of the places they have been stuck.

There is also Lisa, an environmental and development organizer from Bermuda, who yesterday walked into the cohort group with a list of challenges around how to more broadly engage folks from different racial and class backgrounds around her work in Bermuda, who today was able to articulate some clear strategies for bridging the divides that exist around her work and with the ability to say straight forwardly that she needs help and resources and clearly illuminated what those needs and resources would be.

It is those growth moments that, as a participant, I have not gotten to see in the past. As a facilitator, it is my job to listen, guide the conversation when necessary, and offer resources when appropriate, but the greatest gift is being able to have the space to observe the room, watch the dynamics of the interactions, and, in the case of the structure of this teach in, see some of the growth that has taken place as folks have moved through the processes and engaged more deeply with the themes as time and the agenda has progressed.

And, it was surprising and humbling to have, in several instances over the course of today, people with whom I have worked and facilitated this weekend tell me or repeat back to me or in a group insight or support that I was able to provide them and their work. The beauty of it is that each of those people are also people from whom I have taken away a perspective or insight that I will be able to apply to the organizing work that I do.

This entire weekend is a testament to the principles of popular education (bless you Paolo Freire, Highlander Center, Project South, and Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed). It is evident to me that the skills, know how, drive, stamina, vision, and power to drive real revolutionary change is present and accounted every generation....from the 14 year old black woman from Chicago to the 60+ year old Latina woman from Minneapolis. To be here and a part of this, though tiring, is a gift.

The Midwest Social Forum Teach-In: Djembe

This weekend, I am in Camp Lake, Wisconsin at the Midwest Social Forum Teach-In, an intentional multi-issue, cross-movement, cross-community gathering of radical organizers from the middle of the United States. The space, to this point, has been an interesting experience in the nascent intentional work of creating an interconnected, self-identified, liberation movement in the U.S.

To be clear, there have been communities and movements working for liberation in the U.S. since the first white man set foot on Native soil 500+ years ago, but this is the first time in our history that various issue based and identity based movements have done the conscious work of addressing the barriers that keep us from working together. In the few hours that we have been together, I have met queer folks, folks from a half dozen ethnic and racial communities, women, people with disabilities, people working for disability rights, folks working against unsustainable development, folks working against war, for peace, against violence, for democracy, against environmental racism, for green spaces and clean air. It is a frustrating and exciting place to be.
There has been an effort to integrate cultural work into the structure of the weekend. It is refreshing, as a cultural worker, to be in a space that honors the vision and work of cultural organizers. But last night I had a moment.

Four hundred years ago, with the advent of slavery, the only slave nation to deny the use of traditional African drums to its slaves was the United States. Drums for me, in particular the conga, bongo, and djembe are sacred instruments akin to the shofar. And, frankly, unless you are of African descent you should not put your hands on one of these instruments. The history and struggle around access to African drums is such a heavy and powerful history that these pieces of wood and skin are more than instrument, they are holy devices, a chalice, the Host.

Personally, I have been in more than one space where white men with dredlocs are playing these instruments, while white girls with dredlocs and doing “traditional” African dances. Even better, I have seen and heard these same white women and men berate black folks for not playing the “right way” or that they were not doing the dances correctly. I understand that for the white folks that are engaged in his appropriation, they are, in their view, honoring these art forms. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet one of them that actually understands the power, significance, and history of the drum and its particular relationships to slave descendants in North and South America.

I have, lately, been engaged in significant conversations with various folks about what it means to be an ally, how to show up and be present, and how to live your life in a manner that reflects ally values. For me, an ally is not someone that tries to erase their own privilege by appropriating what they believe to be cultural expressions of people of color. A friend of mine said to me that some appropriation is good. I agree. But I believe that there are particular forms of cultural expression that should not be the very least...should be hands off until the communities from which they are appropriated have, themselves, had a chance to claim and celebrate their culture.

I remember the first time that I saw the conga played. I remember the power and spirit I felt the first time I saw the djembe played. I was transfixed. And I was angry. I was angry that this part of my inheritance had been systemically and intentionally torn away from my ancestors. These instruments wake something so visceral in me that I need no convincing that genetic memory is real.

Of course, this is part of a larger conversation about racism, cultural appropriation and expropriation, and the need of some white folks to run so far away from their own history, power, and privilege that they attempt to jump history and land somewhere in the middle of mine...but with the super hero power of being able to assume only the best while leaving the oppression for the rest of us.

To my white brothers and sisters, if you want to truly be an yourself...engage with your history...appreciate my history...and honor what is sacred. You have taken from us what you deem to be of value...our labor...the bodies of our women...our music forms...our children...our food...indigenous knowledge...and our languages. Your continued cultural appropriation is no different from slavery...once are taking what you have decided is of value and that you covet...and you leave the rest behind without thought or regard for your actions, our history, or your unchecked and overexercised power.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Second Coming of the Blog

For those of you that journeyed with me to Albuquerque a coupel of years back, you also were treated/tortured by my almost daily bloggings at

For roughly a year and a half, I shared with the world just about every bit, pinch, and inch of crazy I endured or called down upon myself while living in New Mexico and during my transition back to Minnesota. Well...I have laid It Ain't Truth to rest...but I have called forth My Feet Only Walk Forward.

My Feet Only Walk Forward will be similar to It Ain't Truth but with a small twist. I will continue to spout my emotional drama into the blogosphere but I will attempt to connect my day to day or week to week or occassional to occassional musing to a broader and deeper analysis of the world. Either that or I will restrict myself to commenting on the plethora of white hippies with dredlocs I am forced to endure on my frequent trips to the home office in Madison (please note, It Ain't Truth also started with a rant about white hippies with dredlocs...I am keeping a tradition alive here).

Also, My Feet Only Walk Foward is going to be a bit of a personal experiment. I am going to use this blog, through specially marked entries--no proof of purchase required---to start a prose and poetic journey along my life path thus far...basically...a memoir. As well, I am in the midst of writing a series of ten spoken word pieces, each of which is going to be a stand alone anchor piece for a one-man-show that I hope to finish up by the end of 2008 and start performing next year. As I finish each poem (of which I have completed four), I will post those here and welcome feedback.

And, finally, I am a political creature (surprise)...My Feet Only Walk Forward will also include progressive analysis and commentary on the Presidential election as well as other national issues and analysis of local issues specific to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The ride at It Ain't Truth was fantastic. More than 15,000 individuals took that journey with me. Let's see how many unwary traveler's I can lure into my cyberweb with My Feet Only Walk Forward.