Whose Pride Is It, Anyway?
By Chrysten Jackson
The nickel city.
The Queen City.
Monikers of a city from a bygone era.
Living in a post-Rust Belt world, where my city – a city once renowned as the eighth largest in the nation – now rides high in poverty rates and in racism. To quote the Vice Chair of the Pride Center, SE Bishop, “…..the complexities associated with these social and economic ailments seemed insurmountable.”
Indeed, the social and economic issues that we Buffalonians face oftentimes seem insurmountable. As LGBTQ folks, these systems can be far worse for us, especially those of us of color. Racism and sexism from the area can be noteworthy enough to emerge in the national spotlight (see: Buffalo Jill’s controversy and the more recent racist tirade from ‘Janelle Ambrosia’ a woman from Cheektowaga, NY). Reflecting on the past year and a half, in the midst of my city’s Pride festivities, I can only think with a forced calm. A forced sedation to prevent the shrillness of my anger from protruding out of my voice in a Valkyrie-like fashion. An anger exacerbated by trauma and stress – the stress of neglect and dysphoria; the stress of shoddy medical care and conditions made worse by racism and other systems.
It has been my attempt this month to channel this trauma into something productive, to fight the silence I see choking the life out of my community. To uncover truths. My observations all leave me wanting to ask more questions. I’ve had time to ponder these questions — especially when I marched with LGBTQ youth in my city’s parade on June 1st.
It was a hot, sticky day and although my outfit consisted of all black, I was not warm. I was in fact still mourning the loss of my transition, of my hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I was mourning being forced to detransition because of my lack of access to hormones on a job that I was working to promote the same incompetent services. I was as cold as ice that sunny Sunday afternoon, chilled by the fact of my health care being denied to me and so many others of my community. In my resigned calm lingered the most prevalent and insidious question I found myself asking while surrounded by faces that do not look like my own:
Whose pride is it anyway?
I am living in a city where the wool has been pulled over the eyes of its LGBTQ folks. Where to be trans* or non conforming; to be of color, is to be used and abused, for the ‘greater good’, and to smile while it is happening. This PRIDE, this struggle for ‘equality’ or rather, this business plan; has been nothing more than contemporary conquistadores/colonizers advancing assimilation and homogeneity in nice rainbow-colored slogans, epithets, funding and tax dollars. As Alok Vaid-Menon, one half of the queer South Asian Brooklyn performance and literary arts duo, DarkMatter, succinctly explains in a Bluestockings Magazine interview:
”What’s becoming increasingly relevant to those of us invested in meaningful racial and economic justice is that ‘gay rights’ is not actually that relevant for change. In fact, as they have currently been articulated, gay rights are actually more about stabilizing the status quo (capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, ableism, etc.). What we’ve seen over the past few years is a shift away from cultural imagining of the (white) gay body as ‘criminal’ to the (white) gay body as ‘unthreatening;’ a shift from ‘exiled’ to ‘embraced,’ from ‘illegal’ to ‘nation.’ The gay (white) subject and increasingly the trans* (white) subject have been incorporated into the national project with all of its aspirations and techniques of empire. Rather than critiquing state violence, the gay rights ‘movement’ has readily sought to become a part of it. What this means is that now state power can point to gay rights to brand itself as ‘progressive’ while continuing to participate in its age old racist and colonial projects. Gay rights are so palatable because as they’ve been expressed (cleaved from race, class, citizenship, gender and other intersections) it’s largely been a politics of recognition rather than redistribution. There’s not much political work in snapping a Human Rights sticker to your car and listening to Macklemore in comparison to giving up land back to indigenous peoples and paying reparations for slavery. The ‘ask’ of the gay rights movement has simply been: let me oppress brown and Black people just like you!"
The focus of my previous article, ‘Why I Ran Out Of Pride’, came to be in order to highlight the plight that I and so many of my brothers and sisters have voiced over the years at the hands of a local structure of violence, Evergreen Health Services of Western New York. What I failed to take into account was that Buffalo and it’s so-called “LGBT community” are not unlike many LGBTQ communities nationwide, where the love of capitalist values (or the lack thereof) supersede that of the community. Where the ‘pink dollar’ reigns supreme, and shows no signs of slowing down or restructuring to stop the continued oppressions of LGBTQ people who are not white, cis, able-bodied and in a higher tax bracket. Often, we the poor and marginalized are tokenized and exploited by the very same structures in place to eradicate/end these issues that plague us systemically.
I currently live in a city where there is a great divide. The Rust Belt has taken its toll, and the aftermath is where opportunists have emerged. Cue the emergence of AIDS Community Services of Buffalo, a non-profit org to fight the AIDS crisis locally. Through restructuring and acquisition of smaller orgs, it is the local behemoth now known currently as Evergreen; shaping the LGBTQ landscape of the eight counties of Western New York. As a former employee for their NYS State Health Department-funded ‘Transgender Health Initiative’, I experienced that divide first hand.
Being the second Peer Educator to quit within a year of employment, I too began to wonder whose PRIDE I am representing. The period of time, from April 2013 to February 2014, I was in the belly of the beast, or rather the bowels of the non-profit industrial complex. Before my eyes I experienced and observed modern day colonization within marginalized LGBTQ communities of color; as it was the original focus and direction of the initiative for which I worked. Stuck on the periphery, I was simultaneously visible and stifled. Through many interactions with community members and former/current employees of this structure of violence; it was breathtaking to experience such exploitation firsthand. The extent of what Evergreen has been capable of is astounding. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project article ‘The Non Profit Industrial Complex and Trans Resistance’, by Dean Spade and Rickke Mananzala detail verbatim the experiences that current and former employees face:
“..Lack of community accountability, elitism, concentration of wealth and resources in the usual places, and exploitative labor practices are norms within these organizations, and so create and maintain a disappointing political agenda that fails to support meaningful, widespread resistance to oppressive institutions in the United States — and sometimes even bolsters them…”
“Lesbian and gay organizations have also, generally, followed labor practices that do not line up with progressive social justice values. The most well-funded organizations have pay scales similar to those of the private sector, with executive directors often making three to four times the salaries of the lowest-paid employees. Pay often correlates to educational privilege, which again means that the most resources go to white employees from privileged backgrounds and the least go to employees of color and people without the benefit of educational privilege. Furthermore, these organizations for the most part do not provide health benefits that include trans health care, despite the fact that this social justice issue is an essential one for trans people”.
As the lack of estrogen in my bloodstream can testify, this is to be expected, which is shameful. Having to put my schooling on hiatus indefinitely because I lost the job, in my major field, that was going to help pay for school has made things equally shameful for me. With my former boss being a Law professor from the university I cannot attend, I am disillusioned, as are many single parents, professionals, students and youth in my community. Older LGBTQ community members who have sympathy in their eyes when I describe the plight, can only offer support on how to get away, not to address the problem. And that in itself is a problem. It’s time to change the conversation, to end the oppressive silence. In a city where 30.1% of citizens live below the poverty line; where Buffalo is ranked as fourth poorest in the nation, where a structure of violence, Evergreen Health Services can intake $16 million dollars USD, in 2012 alone and have little to show for it but glossy magazines and charging an entry fee for Pride Festival activities; whose pride is it? Because it is not my community’s pride.
When 74% of trans and gender nonconforming individuals report harassment or mistreatment on the job; when 20% reported losing a job? Whose pride is this? When one is forced to detransition involuntarily at the hands of an organization that touts itself as helping to make the ‘community safer, and healthier,’ but has a track record of violence against the trans community;
Whose PRIDE is it anyway?
When former and current employees as well as patients continually speak out and are silenced by the ongoing and unchecked structure of trans* misogyny and cissexism;
When local professionals, single parents, students, nurses, professors and youth complain about the “care” they have NOT received;
When patients have to teach their own doctors, nurses, and aides about correct levels of dosage and best practices;
When Evergreen employees make public Facebook statuses about having to turn off a phone due to no funds, or needing bottles to return for spare change;
When the only transgender employee at Evergreen is belittled, taken advantage of, forbidden to attend the THI-staffed trans* support groups;
When my doctor was switched without my notification, and when I found out in an unrelated work meeting;
When people who have been documented and shown to be harmful to trans* people, especially within the Transgender Health Initiative grant are given full-time paid positions instead of actual community members;
When multiple trans people have spoken up about this place as an ‘anti-trans organization’ and nothing has been done;