#QueerHeroes Day 30 – Activists and Organizers.

#QueerHeroes Day 30.
Activists and organizers.

This Pride wasn’t what we thought it would be when we were envisioning it last year, but in some ways, that’s a good thing.

The murders of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others have reawakened in some of us what began Pride in the first place: uprisings against a system that’s permitted by the state to commit violence unchecked.

But state sanctioned violence against Black people doesn’t resurge after dying down for a bit, though it feels like that to a lot of us who don’t have to fear interactions with police or aren’t treated as suspects by our neighbors.

This violence is unyielding, and it’s activists and organizers who take what can so easily become momentary outrage and they create an inferno out of these embers. What can so easily turn into a fad for us is literally their life’s work.

I was amazed this year to see the thousands who marched in remembrance of Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Riah Milton, and countless other trans women whose lives were cut short due to hatred.

This weekend, similar numbers of people turned out for the same reason, and were tear gassed by the cops.

We needed to reinvigorate the sense of protest in Pride. We can continue this momentum by following activists and organizers like Raquel Willis, Indya Moore, Aaron Phillip, McKensie Mack, and others who keep that momentum alive with their resolve and their effort.

No justice, no peace.

#QueerHeroes Day 29 – Ernestine Eckstein.

#QueerHeroes Day 29.
Ernestine Eckstein.

Eckstein moved to New York in the 60s after graduating from Indiana University, where she was a star student, with a degree in magazine journalism, government, and Russian.

She learned from a friend in Greenwich Village what the word “gay” meant. That’s when she came into her lesbian identity.

One of the most progressive activists of her time, Eckstein joined the early lesbian rights organization Daughters of Bilitis. Her experience with the civil rights movement made her an asset and she became Vice President of the NYC chapter. Nearly all gay and lesbian organizations at the time were founded by and catered to white people. She understood the importance of intersectionality before it was widely used in the social justice lexicon. In leading her majority-white chapter, she encouraged them to examine the intricacies of simultaneous identities.

The majority of gay and lesbian activists at the time focused on educating healthcare professionals, and would only occasionally picket or publicly proclaim their sexuality. Eckstein thought picketing was an education in itself. Three years before Stonewall, she called for bolder and more effective demonstrations:

“Picketing I regard as almost a conservative act now. The homosexual has to call attention to the fact that he’s been unjustly acted upon. This is what the Negro did.”

Eventually fed up with infighting in Daughters of Bilitis, Eckstein moved to the west coast where she joined the activist group Black Women Organized for Action.

Nothing conclusive is known of her life after her work with BWOA. Death records indicate that she died in 1992.

#QueerHeroes Day 28 – Billie Holiday.

#QueerHeroes Day 28.
Billie Holiday.

Lady Day got her start working in the buffet flats during the Harlem Renaissance. She was born Eleanora Fagan and changed her name to Billie after the silent film star Billie Dove.

She was openly bisexual and her alleged lovers included many stage stars (Tallulah Bankhead is rumored to be among them). She often covered the blues standard “T’aint Nobody’s Biz-ness if I Do”: an anthem of self ownership and determination.

Throughout her life, Lady Day struggled with addiction. A bull shit cabaret law in New York would ban her from performing in the city toward the twilight of her career. But the tangible pain and the almost contradictory resilience that swirl within her voice have made legions of people feel understood for over a century.

#QueerHeroes Day 27 – Angel Haze

#QueerHeroes Day 27.
Angel Haze

Angel Haze is an agender pan Brooklyn rapper. As a child, she used writing as a form of therapy, with their first poem published at thirteen. She began freestyle rapping at 18 and quickly gained popularity through free streaming of their original songs on sites like SoundCloud.

Her tracks are motivational in their anger and emotional transparency, addressing blackness, misogyny, organized religion, and sexuality with a complexity that’s nothing short of mesmerizing. Before releasing her first full album Dirty Gold, she released a version of “Same Love” with all new verses that strike to the heart of what it is to be queer.

“We are boxed in and labeled
Before we’re ever able to speak who we believe we are
Or who we dream we’ll become
Like drum beats forever changing their rhythm
I am living today as someone I had not yet become yesterday
And tonight I’ll only borrow pieces of who I am today
To carry with me to tomorrow
No, I’m not gay
No, I’m not straight
And I sure as hell am not bisexual
Damn it I am whoever I am when I am it
Loving whoever you are when the stars shine
And whoever you’ll be when the sun rises
So here’s to being able
Here’s to love
Here’s to loving just because
Here’s to acceptance
Here’s to never fearing the fear of rejection
Here’s to love and never neglecting who you feel you are
Here’s to bullies because beatings cannot last forever
Here’s to the moment you realize things do get better
Here’s to the parents who will get it when its too late
Here’s to second chances
Here’s to new fate
Here’s to every single moment you’ve ever had to hide you
Here’s to the single star shining bright inside you, asking you to guide you
Here’s to who you’ll be when you figure it all out
Here’s to momentary doubt
Here’s to feeling, because we all feel it the same
Here’s to the moment that things will change
Because we all feel love, we all feel it the same
Here’s to love, here’s to change”

“I’m really fucked up right now too, because I’ve learned that I don’t even write my own music. I stopped doing every drug known to man, I didn’t drink before. I’ve been completely sober since last March. I’ve been living my life every day inside of my body, working on this kind of awareness — understanding that every area of your life is calling out to you in some way. It’s not about the Bible. It’s not about going to church. It’s not about anything other than that we are all energies connected with a force that’s greater than us. It’s an energy that’s omniscient, it covers the whole world and everybody here is created for a reason. Mine happens to be to make the music and inspire the people who are stuck in dark places.”

#QueerHeroes Day 26 – Sandra Caldwell.

#QueerHeroes Day 26.
Sandra Caldwell.

In the early days of her transition, Sandra walked the balls in the legendary House of LaBeija.

But her passion was acting, and she would suppress her very identity to achieve it.

For decades, Sandra “lived stealth”—a term used by trans people for those who pass as cisgender and conceal the sex they were assigned at birth in order to escape violence, unemployment, and other persecution.

Fearing a loss of work, she kept her assigned sex a secret as her acting career flourished with performances at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and roles in “Little Men,” “The Cheetah Girls,” “Serendipity,” “The Book of Negroes,” and dozens more.

But she lived every day with the threat that she would be exposed and called a fraud. They call it “living stealth” for a reason.

“Do you know what it’s like to go on a set and be afraid?” she asked. “Your head is trying desperately to stay in the scene. You wake up afraid. You go to sleep afraid. You’re trying to figure out if somebody’s going to drop the bomb that day, the next day. When is it going to happen?”

Then, Caldwell auditioned for a play in New York called Charm, about a trans woman who starts a charm school for trans and gender nonconforming youth (the character was inspired by Gloria Allen of #QueerHeroes Day 20). They wanted a trans woman to star.

For a chance to play the part, she would have to give up a role she’d played her entire career. It was her first audition as an openly trans woman. She booked it.

Crediting trans pioneers like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, Caldwell came out publicly in a New York Times article (posting in comments). Critics lauded her performance in Charm and she continues to act today. It only takes hearing her voice and seeing the spark in her eyes to know why.

You can learn more about her story—and about trans representation in tv and film—through the incredible new Netflix documentary “Disclosure.” It’s one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen.

Her New York Times profile concluded with her thoughts on what would happen after coming out:

“I don’t know what it’s going to be like, but I kind of want to live the rest of what I’ve got on this planet as if there’s such a thing as complete freedom. I want to live in that.”