One night while driving through rural Georgia, Ansley Pope, a 22-year-old College of Charleston student and trans man of color, was pulled over by police. He says the officers initially interrogated him about drugs, but following a search of his vehicle, an entirely new line of questioning began.
“When they found testosterone and needles in my car, they threatened to arrest me since I didn’t have a copy of my prescription,” he says. “Once my trans identity was disclosed after I explained to them why I had it, they spent another 20 minutes telling me that ‘Oh, you don’t look like a girl. Have you always had a beard? Who are you attracted to?’ All of these very invasive questions about my personal life that they didn’t need to know 10 p.m. at night when I’m trying to get back to Charleston.”
Stories like Pope’s and others who exist at the intersection of the African-American and LGBT communities was the focus of this year’s Spirit Day, an annual event that serves as a memorial for the members of the LGBT community who lost their lives to violence, while highlighting the difficulties LGBT youth face.
“Providing platforms and spaces for young black folks who are queer to talk about their stories and to give more visibility to their lives is crucial, so I think Spirit Day is important,” says Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the national #BlackLivesMatter movement and a queer woman of color. “The way in which Charleston is presenting Spirit Day is absolutely important by giving a platform to young folks and saying that their story matters.”
For many members of Charleston’s LGBT community, the event addressed an often-ignored segment of the population.
“I think that this is a conversation that’s been lacking in Charleston. We really want to center the stories of African-American LGBT youth in all this because often they’re the token minority on a minority panel,” says Melissa Moore, executive director of We Are Family, a local organization that provides direct support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth. “With mainstream LGBT stuff that happens in Charleston, the majority of the people you see are white and cisgender, so the whole point of Spirit Day in general is to highlight and amplify the voices of the most marginalized youth that we serve. To that end, we want these youth in particular to envision a world where they have opportunities for leadership and growth, where they have opportunities to be involved in the political process, where they feel empowered to make their lives better.”
Cullors served as the keynote speaker for this year’s Spirit Day rally and also took time to talk with the City Paper about issues facing members of the African-American and LGBT communities, such as unfair police practices and lack of political representation.
“We can’t say our police systems are broken because they are not broken. They are exactly what they are meant to be. What we should be talking about is how do we imagine a world without police. How do we imagine a society that does not need armed military to occupy our streets?” says Cullors. “Quota systems, we saw after Furguson they did an entire report where it was seen that policing was used as a form of revenue, and we see that throughout the entire U.S. So the question for us should be how do we divest from policing. How do we start having a conversation about what is necessary, and I believe what is necessary is divestment from law enforcement.”
Asked about the recent Democratic presidential debates, Cullors said that although the candidates did not do the conversation on African-Americans justice, the fact that the #BlackLivesMatter movement has changed the national narrative is important. Regarding candidates on the national and local levels, she believes voters should seek out representatives who do not answer to police and prison unions and will actually align themselves with #BlackLivesMatter in a way that’s not co-opting the movement.
“We’re looking for elected officials that will have the courage to talk about #BlackLivesMatter and talk about the work that they’re going to do to reinvest in black communities and poor, black communities. We’re looking for officials that will be stewards for the people, not for their own individual careers,” says Cullors. “Eradicating anti-black racism, eradicating transphobia and homophobia takes a very long time … Part of the call is for people to understand that this is a lifetime affair. We might not see the eradication of these social ills in our lifetime, but history has shown that if groups of people stay at it, what is most important will be illuminated.”
According to Cullors, #BlackLivesMatter is about bringing together all black lives, especially members of the LGBT community who are most marginalized. For her, Spirit Day is an important way of telling students that just by existing they are resisting a culture that in many ways tells them they don’t deserve to live.
“This current movement is your movement. Join it. Be a part of it. Help build it and develop it,” says Cullors. “We need you. We know there are very high suicide rates in the queer community and the black community. We need you, so stay alive. The last thing I would say to this team is ‘You’re fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.’”
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