Activist actor Laverne Cox at Creating Change. Credit: Anna Min of Min Enterprises Photography LLC. All rights reserved.
The past few months, I’ve been living on an island with a population of 800. Many days I might only have one conversation, if you don’t count the ones with my dog.
So it was quite a departure to find myself surrounded by 4,000 other LGBTQ people at Creating Change, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's annual conference, in Houston last weekend. Since coming out as queer at 45, I've been coming to understand what that means. “Queer” is a reclaimed word that aims to reject oppressive cultural formations of sex and gender identity. But to me it also means a new perspective on radical love.
This kind of love was brought home during the opening night plenary session with Laverne Cox. Cox is an African-American trans activist and actor, who appeared in a breakthrough role as a trans woman prisoner in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. She recently made headlines after schooling Katie Couric in trans identities when Couric questioned her and trans model Carmen Carrera about their “private parts.” Cox made clear to Couric that cis people's obsession with genitals and surgery demeans trans people and serves as a distraction from the violence and discrimination they face around the country, from physical violence to verbal harassment.
From the Creating Change podium Cox was both organizer and spiritual teacher: she put names to the degradation trans people endure, described activism unfolding around the country and implored people to support various efforts to right these wrongs. She mentioned Cece McDonald, a trans woman who served jail time in a men’s prison for an act of self-defense against a man who attacked her. Cox and others have made a documentary about the case.
Cox touched briefly on the incident with Couric, professing her affection for the commentator and maintaining it was the collective voice in social media that transformed an awkward and potentially humiliating exchange into a teachable moment. Cox wound up her remarks by talking about love – both the self-love she has fought hard for and the necessity of bringing love as we engage in dialogue across lines of difference.
While at the conference, I led a yoga workshop for 30 people in a large hallway at the hotel. Because bodies can be a source of shame, confusion and violence for queer people, loving attention to both the physical and emotional realms is paramount. We’ve been conditioned into a very mainstream, limited understanding of gender expression (what a “girl” or a “boy” look like), who appropriate partners are and even what the parameters of sex and sexuality should be.
When these norms are transgressed, people act out, meaning that a transgender woman like Cece McDonald can become a victim of violence simply because her gender isn’t immediately understood or respected. So helping LGBTQ people form a safer, kinder relationships with their bodies seems like a critical part of the overall work for change.
When we gently move our bodies into various shapes through a practice like yoga we can explore reality in a new way. I invited people to rock back and forth from their heels to the balls of their feet, and then consider whether they are more likely to lean too far forward or too far back from difficulty? Why does that matter? Well, if you notice you tend to lean back when tension arises in the workplace, for example, you can experiment with becoming more interested in the tension and see what shifts as a result. Instead of anxiety about the tension, for example, you might start to feel compassion for the people involved. Towards the end of the practice, we did “tree pose” in a circle, with everyone standing on one leg and lightly connecting with the person on either side of them through upraised palms. It was moving to watch people engage in both collective support and individual stability.
Later in the weekend I led another session titled “Suffering and Liberation”. Through reflection, dialogue and work with a physical posture in the body that expresses the wholeness they want to feel all of the time, participants were able to identify patterns that limited their quest for justice in the outer world and ability to find peace in their internal world.
I was inspired by how the group quickly made an unspoken decision to engage with each other from the place of love that Laverne Cox had modeled. As one participant who grew up in a poor neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, who now enjoys a more comfortable life, said:
There's a certain cushion from the realities of poverty that my salaried job in higher education affords. In the “Suffering and Liberation” workshop I realized that in some cases I am actively avoiding work within impoverished communities. I feel ashamed because it means that I've internalized the wide spread messages about "people like that,” about who I was, about who my mother and father are, my brother, my niece… At times, I can pretend the suffering associated with poverty are no longer my issue. I had 'made it out'. Before attending this workshop, these were my dirty little activist secrets. The workshop was an opportunity for me to get clear with myself, an opportunity to break the silence that was certainly connected to my shame and thus connected to my own relationship to suffering.
The work many of us did using explicit frames of healing, transformational practice and spirit at the Creating Change conference brought a small amount of difference into a program largely focused on skill-building, analysis and strategy. Improved strategy is vital to making an impact, but it will never be enough if we don’t also fundamentally transform old, limiting patterns and come into fuller expressions of our humanity. If we stay stuck in a feeling of unworthiness, for example, we will never be able to access all the intelligence and grace we have to bring to the work for justice.
Even under an umbrella like Creating Change, there were still palpable differences in the room: a range of race/ethnic backgrounds, people from the South of the United States and outside of it, those who lead movement work and those who fund it, folks who focus on policy change and those at the grassroots. The repressive structures of political and economic power in this country do not want all of these people in one room together talking about strategy! I facilitated a meeting of 60 LGBTQ funders and movement leaders from the Southeast about how to increase funding for LGBTQ work in the South.
These leaders represent a wide spectrum of political goals from winning marriage equality (which Southern states have been slow to embrace) to organizing multi-issue, multi-racial coalitions led by groups like Southerners on New Ground.
Building bridges across these various lines of difference will not result in immediate victory or beloved community but it does create new parameters and possibilities for collaboration and even solidarity across a range of struggles. The group came to important wisdom, in particular the distinction between organizational capacity, such as money to hire staff and build infrastructure, which is sorely needed, especially in rural and low-income communities in the South, and capability, the wisdom and grit needed for movement work. The region has capability in abundance. These insights were possible because we set an intention not to build consensus but to hear each other’s truth. It was only a start but it is something to build on.
I have watched many activists suffer: exhaustion, mental illness, trauma, addiction – or even die because they didn’t have this type of love. We know that those of us engaged in justice work need to be the change we want to see, to bring compassion into how we treat ourselves and each other, and to embody a sense of freedom and liberation in how we do our work, not just how we define our goals.
At Creating Change I was reminded that transformation happens when people refuse to accept the boxes and borders others have created. To do that repeatedly requires a radical kind of love, for oneself or from others, one that brings both support and solidarity.
Creating Change both affirmed and deepened my belief that the possibility of liberation rests not “out there” in halls of power but inside each of us: it lies in the communities we create together.