It’s hard to know the best way to measure time. We have these calendars, and planners, and online portals to tell us the date, but what does that tell us about time. I was sitting in a going away party yesterday (one for me actually) looking around the room at the people assembled and thinking about all the time we had spent together. How do you quantify all the hours training, scheming, laughing, plotting, complaining, eating, talking, and just trying to make one week feel shorter? That is what confuses me the most about time, I more often than not wish it away when in reality I need to be thinking about how fast its actually moving. I came to Charlotte 5 chronological years, which is 1825 days, or 43800 hours ago as one version of myself. I am leaving Charlotte in just a few weeks a very different person who has clarity, focus, and drive. I think what I struggle with is that this move is the first that I have made totally of my own volition. I am free to do as I choose, not running from something, not looking for an escape. I am doing a thing that scares me, I am taking a leap. I have loved this chapter in my life and have been rewarded with amazing friends, colleagues, lovers, and work. Yet, it was time for me to take a leap. It’s funny to think about how much time it took me to jump and yet as I move ahead I am falling into a project that gives me purpose. I am soaring into the arms of people who love me, and I am being gently pushed to do so by many more. I guess it was time after all.
The first lesson that Queer folxs learn is “self-hate.” Hatred of who and what we are becomes the center of our existence and feels very natural. This hatred causes so much damage simply because we cannot imagine our lives existing without it and with this lens we are unable to do anything because of it
In the midst of all this self-hate we never learn how to love correctly. We never learn about the nuance of love, it’s ferocious and capricious nature. The way it shows up in unexpected places and changes everything. We measure how we love by how much we loose.
And so, the feeling of being loved is always fleeting, always just out of our reach. These who love us can never love us enough because that love is always gossamer, always so rare that we can never deserve it simply because we cannot imagine ever being worthy of the real thing.
Here lies the danger of not understanding how we can love each other as Queer people. Our love is unique, powerful, forged in battle, ever expanding because it can. If we try to mimic the way that non-Queer folks love, if we try to reproduce that style of love it will always fail, and at its base it is an exercise in self-hate.
We have never imagined our own love as plausible or laudable. We have attempted to reproduce the love we are told is normal or necessary to our survival.
What makes us think that mirroring the behavior of straight people is the key to our success? We condemn any attempt by the straight community to lump us into one large category without nuance, and yet straight marriage or “long term relationships” seem a comfortable stereotype for us to mimic. The majority of straight people could tell you what the “natural” or “typical” relationship looks like for them, but just because they have a clear picture doesn’t mean we have to follow it.
To break this cycle, we have to acknowledge that our ability to hate ourselves and our Queer siblings is killing us. Throwing shade, quick sharp criticisms of everything from clothes to jobs is a self-defense that is not working.
Can we imagine that Queer folks might potentially hold the key to a bright new future full of possibilities for both individuals and relationships? So many of us have experienced the freedom associated with finding our logical family, of finding support and affirmation from people who see us clearly, and yet when it comes to how we love, we lack imagination.
Let’s imagine this radical love together. Let’s practice this radical love and free ourselves and each other from one more moment of hate.
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”
― James Baldwin
I have a confession to make, because this is something that I don’t talk about much. You probably didn’t notice when I moved to Charlotte that I was broken. Broken, beaten, and so tired that I wasn’t sure what the next day would look like. You probably didn’t notice because extroversion is a type of weapon; because humor is as much a sword as it is a shield. You probably didn’t notice because I was so scared that my only way to survive was to make certain that all my cracks were filled, that what seemed like solid ground was mostly mirrors.
I left Alabama to come to Charlotte so that I could survive. I had spent 2 years working for a person whose mandate was to force me out. Whose every decision regarding me was a concentrated effort to belittle me, frighten me, and destroy (if possible) my reputation. I did all the things I was supposed to do to try and get out of that place. I filed the requisite complaints with the right people. I scheduled meetings and keep track of emails, I recorded everything and kept a paper trail. And then nothing happened. I was told “there is no evidence that we can find to support your claims,” and was politely shown the door. I didn’t know what to do and I knew for certain that my days would simply get worse, so I did what a lot of people do to cope, I made bad decisions. I drank too much, I slept with the wrong people, I didn’t take care of myself. I only wanted a distraction from what I knew would be another terrible day at a job that I actually really loved.
Then something happened to me. I got an offer for a job in Charlotte. A city still in the South, but perhaps one with enough distance to give me some peace of mind. I ran here, I ran away so that I wouldn’t fall apart completely. I sold the house that I loved, I left my friends that I love, I left my students & colleagues that I respected to come here alone. Coming here was the hardest thing I have ever done. I spent weeks not making a sound so that I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. I kept backing up emails and writing things down just in case it started all over. This lasted longer than it should because I had gotten so good at hiding.
Hiding was the first skill I learned. I hid myself for years from everyone. I hid other people along with me. In some ways my ability to hide was second nature. But Charlotte, you did something that I didn’t expect. You gave me hope again. You gave me a place where I could grow professionally and personally. You gave me amazing people and opportunities to shine. You reminded me of all the love that I have back home in Alabama. Of all the people who held me together when I was flying apart at the seams. I am no longer hiding, in fact I couldn’t be more visible.
I’m telling you this because I am not ashamed anymore. I’m telling you this because I know who I am I a way I didn’t think was possible and I have experienced so much joy these past 4 years. I am telling you this because my life is no longer broken, just mending. I have been torn apart and with the help of amazing parents, and friends, and family I have come back to myself. I am telling you this because I realize now that I was strong when I made the decision to leave. I didn’t run away so much as make the choice to find a way back to who I wanted to be. I am telling you this to say Thank You and that I love you and I am still growing.
"There are no easy answers to the problem of HB2 because there were never any easy answers to begin with. The great lie of the last 20 years of Gay/Lesbian political activity is that we could simplify the movement into 2 issues in order to make progressive gains. The oversimplification of our movement, the insistence that we could make significant change by watering down the complexity of our community has led us to this very moment. We stopped investing in the "long game" approach to liberating our communities in favor of easily manufactured photo ops of people in love just wanting to get married. What about the folks who are too poor to even consider marriage, or the folks fighting for a minimum wage job so they can live indoors? These are not problems that we can simply legislate away because they require our admission of how we benefit from the labor of people in poverty or how we claim exhaustion from fighting for one issue while others struggle with many.
People are correct that HB2 is not “about bathrooms” but it’s also not just about LGBTQ discrimination. HB2 is an indictment of our culture’s inability to talk about sexual assault. It’s a reminder that when the conservative majority wants to distract from their assault on the poor they use our Trans siblings as a scapegoat to organize the Right. HB2 is also a critique of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual people who have been content to sit by while our Trans siblings are murdered and are only now ready for the slogan t-shirt of bathrooms. How about Trans access to healthcare, or living in poverty? How about the complexity of “who is Trans enough” that has come up time and again with posts about “Do You Want to Share Your Bathroom” with this perfectly passing person? HB2 is about our inability to see beyond the slogan or the moment into the multiple ways the poor, and the gender non-conforming, and the undocumented are often the same people and we ignore it until its time to hold up a sign.
I am delighted at the work being done to fight this unjust law. It’s nice to see new folks in the fight walking alongside groups that have been fighting for years. But its difficult to balance my optimism at our renewed interest in activism with groups like the HRC who see fundraising opportunities in our local struggle. When institutions like the GLBT Historical Society send out fundraising requests with the fear based message of “Lets not be like North Carolina or Mississippi.” Our own community has monetized our struggle, and is incentivizing our discrimination. The old specter of the bigoted South is alive and well and being used to scare the "progressives" into being better at being Queer in their Urban oasis.
This is a complex issue and perhaps this will be a moment to burn away all the detritus of the last 20 years for a future movement that sees how our true struggle is in the complex details. You are right, this isn’t about bathrooms, it’s about the very future of what it means to be Queer. If #WeAreNotThis then what are we like and who will be become after HB2?
It’s been a rough few weeks for Queer and Trans folks in North Carolina. I suppose it’s been a rough lifetime for the community. I have been to a conference with Southern Queers, I have spoken to parents, I have watched my identity and those of people I love become illegal, and I have been fighting against my desire to quit and collapse. Through it all I have seen the support of people that I love and that love me in return pour in from all over the country. I have read articles of people boycotting the state, of people creating new All Gender restrooms in public spaces, and it is in this moment that I am reminded of something that I too often forget.
We have forgotten that we are stronger because we are together. I don’t mean the kind of together that looks like agreement. I mean the kind of together that pushed me out of the closet at 19 and showed me that being Queer was a powerful place full of people who loved me simply because I was me. We have forgotten that the most powerful tool in our arsenal is Hope, and that is what the conservative republican governmental idiots want to take from us. But they can’t, not if we remember how strong we are and have always been.
We are constantly fighting with our sense of worth, with the ever-present total burn of shame that is the glue that holds us together too often. We tell others and ourselves the most horrific stories about how we live, how we are treated, and how the world tries to kill us everyday. These stories are true. These stories are real and they have merit. These stories are also not the only thing that we are. We can’t have a future if we have no Hope. We can’t have a present that is worth living if we have no Joy.
We can mourn our dead, and lament our troubles, and nurture our anger at stupidity while expressing our Love, yelling our Joy, and demanding our Happiness. I want a different kind of future for us all, but I don’t want one that is built upon despair. I want my Queer family to be proud of who we are, and to show each other how much in love we are every day. Without Hope we have no future to look forward to, so lets work and hope and love and live in joy so the future is even better than we could have imagined.
I would say for the most part that when I am searching for things to collect, the process is pretty much the same. It goes a little like this:
“Hi Mr./Mrs./Mx _______ my name is Joshua Burford from UNCC. I am calling to ask if you would be interested in donating to our local LGBTQ archive”
“Hey there, I have heard about your project and am thrilled that you thought of me. I would love to help out and here are 10 more people you should call”
(Good feelings all around, my day is nice).
Recently in my searching for items for the archive I was granted access to the “homosexual” file from our local newspaper. I had heard rumor of this file from several people and was so pleased when their archivist said that I could have it for a time to see what might be useful for the project.
I was not ready for the “homosexual” file. I was not ready for the piles of clippings going back to the 50s, of seeing myself in those stories, of reading *Alternate Subject Headings: Sex Offender. I was excited to read about Gay Liberation happening at UNCC in 1975 (visits from Barbara Gittings and Frank Kamney). I was thrilled to read a poll that showed most people felt it was time to accept Gay folks into the community without restraint in the late 70s.
I was not ready for the list of names of the dead. Men and women and Trans people and Gay and Queer people dead in a matter of fact way with details about where they were found and how they died. I was not ready for reading those names and crying in my apartment because it was possible that I was the first person in a really long time (outside of their family) that read those names and wonder who they were. I wasn’t ready to have a person simplified to “local homosexual/female impersonator found dead.” I was not ready for the crushing weight of responsibility I felt to move beyond simply collecting and to start finding. Finding their truth and who they loved, finding their history and how they lived. I want so much for their lives to not be defined by their death but by who they were.
History teaches us that there are no new things under the sun, only patterns of how we behave. I am not surprised by what I have found so far, but I am convicted. I know that what I am doing now is in investment in our future here in Queer Charlotte, but I want so much more now than before. I see new purpose in old dusty clippings. I want to be ready for the next “homosexual file” I come across and to use it to inspire my own future by shining a light clearly on our past. I want my own name in the next “Queer radical” file to be attached to a story about a guy who saw the complexity of the past and present and whose life was spent both collecting and making visible all of who we are and possibly will be. Future archivists look for me in that file and know that I tried to leave something for each of you that would make you smile (and perhaps cry a little) in some Queer future I can’t even imagine yet.
There is no separating my activism from my teaching. When the conservatives talk about our “Queer Agenda” and they fear we are teaching it to students, well they are right. I certainly advocate for people and ideas in my classroom, and I agonize over what they will take away from the experience. I want my students to see themselves as part of the process and as a result part of the change. As I am thinking through integrating all the parts of my life together I thought that this month I would share some lessons that I have learned over the years of being an activist and a teacher. I also want to say a special thank you to my friend Milo Miller who is constantly reminding me that I need to stay in Higher Ed (even when I want to quit which seems like every day) so that I can be in the position to speak change and activism to my students. So here we go!
#1: I want to tell my students “Thank You” for how they affect my life!
Teaching is always seen from the lens of what the students learn, but where is the place where you can tell your students how much they mean to you. Over the years I have been challenged (both in good ways and bad) by students whose insights and ideas push against my own. I learn so much from them and its in this process of learning that I am able to hone and challenge my own ideas about what is right and what is valuable about my activism and my teaching process. I want to say “Thank You” to them all the time and it’s a shame that we don’t have a way to do this more organically. You don’t know how much you have changed me and I am so grateful for it.
#2: I want to celebrate the collaboration that is the teaching experience!
No one learns or teaches in a vacuum. Over the years I have had mentors, friends, colleagues, and inspirations both inside and outside the academy that have made me what I am in front of my classes. I have been able to lean on people with more experience than me as I try to accept my authority as a purveyor of information. I have been fortunate to have people critical of Higher Ed be my guide as I try to reconcile my own distaste for the limitations of the college experience. Every lecture I do is a collaboration of the insights of writers, activists, malcontents, and intellectuals all who bring something to the table for my students to learn. When people tell me that I am good in the classroom I want them to know that I am an extension of a large group of people who are trying to make changes for the better.
#3: When they succeed, I succeed!
I have certainly not kept up with everyone that I have taught over the years, but there are many that I now follow with the advent of social media. I made the decision a few years back to separate my social media from my classroom so I could keep some distance from my personal life and my professional. What I realize now is that while I still crave some separation, I also get so much joy in seeing my students follow their paths and affect their own communities and worlds in such amazing ways. It’s hard in the brief moment that is a semester to think beyond those walls and into what my students might do or become. Seeing them grow and change, find happiness and experience loss, find their passion or learn their dislikes, is such a gift. When I see them do the things they want it makes me push myself harder to be certain that I am doing the same thing. It is also a reminder that the arbitrary nature of “professor” and “student” is worth remembering as I too grow and allow them to see me becoming a full-fledged human being one day at a time.
#4: I am an Activist Teacher
What they never told me in graduate school (and perhaps they couldn’t) was that every time we talk about Queer history, or race, or class, or about cities we are engaging in an act of resistance. It isn’t just that Queer history is a radical discipline in and of itself, its that the very act of giving students something that cannot get other places forces them to rethink their world and their place in it. I am both deliberately and subconsciously pushing them to try and imagine a world that is different from the one we live in. American culture has become increasingly anti-intellect and the classroom is the antidote for that. Not because Higher Ed is a lofty place of ivory tower principles, but because the act of teaching and learning and advocating are at the core of what makes it possible for things to change. I tell my students at the beginning of class that I have a politic, that I wont leave it at the door, and neither should they. I want them to fight me, challenge me, be pissed at me, and to understand me so that we remember that we are all a part of the process.
Teaching is tough. People who think that its simply lesson plans and lectures do not understand the exhaustion that happens from deep intellectual inquiry and the ways you must constantly push to make the classroom environment work. I understand now more than ever before that want to continue to teach and to advocate for a better and more complex world. I want to train the next generation of Queer historians, archivists, and activists so that they work spreads even further. I want to model for my students the behavior that learning is ongoing, and my position on one side of a podium only gives me the authority of time, not the authority of knowing all.
When I was 17 the first boy that I ever slept with died. He died as a result of suicide and the belief that he simply could not survive the world that we lived in. He was the first person that I ever lost who was close to me, and at the time I was so scared that his life was just like my own. What you have to understand about “H” (I’m not including his actual name because he was never out to his family) is that he represented to me all that was possible in life. I was 15 when we got together. I was eager, terrified, and desperate to feel connected to someone else. He was older than me; he seemed to have a clue as to what I might end up being, and it was in his eyes that I saw desire for the very first time. That desire was directed at me and my eager 15-year-old self didn’t just lose my virginity, I lost a good portion of my fear of being alone.
When we returned to my very small, very conservative high school in Alabama after having been together, I was terrified of him. So scared in fact that I did all I could to avoid he and I being in the same places. For weeks after we returned I avoided his phone calls and spoke to him only in short curt conversations. I just knew that he would give me away and I was certain at that young age that my life would come apart if someone found out about us. When he died 2 years later all I could think about was how alone he must have felt and how many times I could have been there for him if I simply picked up a phone or walked up to him in the hall. I remember thinking at his funeral that no one really knew him at all and that I would now carry two secrets with me for the rest of my life. Now I am not narcissistic enough to believe that his decision to end his life had anything to do with me, but I carried guilt about my choice to ignore him for years.
I thought that I had put all that behind me until this past year. When my student and friend Blake died as a result of suicide it all came rushing back to me. I was stuck by feelings of helplessness, feelings of failure, and the feeling that if only I had been more diligent then they might both be alive. The guilt and shame hit me hard and I all but fell apart. I have begun to realize (with the help of my very smart and compassionate therapist) that my whole career, all of my energy to build a better community started with the loss of "H" and that I was still holding myself responsible for something that simply was not my fault. I had to forgive myself for choosing my own life over “H” and that if I let it eat me alive I would never be able to help anyone ever again.
I know now that I am always trying to save that young, desperate 19-year-old boy who felt so alone when he died. I know now that he lives inside me every day and that the world that I am trying so hard to create would have been one that he would have loved to have lived in. I know now that I can’t save everyone (and it isn’t my job to do so) but I want to keep “H’s” memory alive and see him in the faces of all my students and friends. I was able to place Blake’s name into the title of our local archive so that he will be remembered as the amazing person he was, forever and I want “H” to know that he lives on in me and in all the people I help, every day.
Greetings everyone from the American South! I trust you all had a nice holiday season and are ready to get back into the business of anti-assimilation and radical Queer organizing. In the spirit of the New Year, here is my first blog of 2016. Enjoy!
I train a lot, like a lot a lot, during the course of an academic year. Safe Zone trainings, language trainings, historical trainings, and conversations about social justice just to name a few. The majority of the people that I train are adult folk over 35 who have some “interest” in the Queer community and its inner workings. The majority of these people are non-Queer and Trans folks. Within the last year or so I have been questioning more and more the validity of these trainings and their purpose for Queer/Trans folks who are in theory benefiting from them. The more I sit in rooms with people who have some passing interest in who and what we are I have to wonder if I am doing the right thing.
Do we really benefit as a community by taking the time out of our busy and often at risk lives to convince str8 people that we are worth supporting? I am just not sure anymore. The radical in me feels like we might be better off taking that energy and putting it into training our own community. Teaching each other about the complexities of our own identities, teaching each other how to be activists and advocates for ourselves. I for one would like to spend more time teaching younger Queer folks about how to organize, to work in communities that reject hierarchy, and how to take their anger and make it into change.
Ultimately I think we have gotten too much into the habit of taking our “individual stories” and making them into universal examples of how the community works. I think that it might be time to let str8 folks educate each other, and Queer/Trans folks need to get back to the business of making our own communities stronger. That feels very much like my responsibility.
There are so many Gay wedding posts on my Facebook feed these days that I spend more time hiding posts than I do reading them. It seems that the hysteria associated with being the next in line at the altar is not only is full effect, but is also picking up steam. I became so enraged by a post (by a former Facebook acquaintance) that I had to take several days off from being online just to get the old blood pressure down. Now you have read my rantings about Gay marriage several times now, but I have an honest question for you, does anyone remember when Gay marriage was supposed to be the “gateway” issue that got us working on other things?
I seem to recall (ohh I want to say 20 years worth of) people saying that we had to work on one issue at a time and that the “civil rights victory” that was Gay marriage would open up the G/L community to all sorts of new wins from employment to access to heath care. What I see now is realization of the real aim of Gay marriage from its inception. This was never a political bulldozer that would create new pathways for liberation; it was a scam to create new methods of access for Gay and Lesbian people who have desired acceptance more than anything else in the world. This was the way in for the capitalist machine to get its nasty fingers into the lives of all Gays and not just the super rich ones. As new same sex couples run down the aisle to get validated they spend more time talking about receptions than homeless Queer/Trans youth, more time on china patterns than the violence facing Queer/Trans women of color, and more time posting about their happy futures tucked away in Str8 middle class life than posting articles about politics. I don’t know about you, but the promise of a liberated future for my community was a sham.
What is happening right now in America, in our states (North Carolina for me), and in our communities has us at the highest risk we have faced in 20 years. Gay people are being attacked in Texas, Trans women of color are being killed at the highest rate in our modern times, and Queer/Trans homelessness continues to rise. Are we still going to pretend that our post-Gay marriage era is the “better” future we spend decades and millions of dollars trying to realize? I for one cannot read one more post about your upcoming marriage while so much of the community suffers. If Love Wins, then who is the loser?
Josh Burford is an archivist, an activist, a Queer historian, and a radical educator with over 17 years’ experience working with LGBTQ communities and diversity education.