MPA Program at CCNY
This year’s Pride Month was perhaps like no other. Amidst a pandemic and economic crisis, Pride crossed paths with a nation-wide uprising for racial justice, monumental decisions by the Supreme Court on DACA and LGBTQ workplace protections, and a primary election that shook up establishment politics. In the conversation below, three activists from the MPA Program – Kalima Mckenzie-Simms, Antonio Lopez, and Patrick Koslecki (pictured above, left to right) – discuss Pride, its intersections with Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights, and where these movements must go from here.
We’ve just finished a unique Pride Month. What is the state of the LGBTQ rights movement – its strengths, successes, and areas for improvement and growth?
Kalima: I’m really excited and happy about the passing of non-discrimination against LGBTQ employees, but we have to ask: we just now got that? Many people reached out to me after the Supreme Court decision and told me they didn’t know that this ruling was not already in place. So, yeah, it’s something to celebrate, but it’s something that should have happened a long time ago. To think that last year someone still could have gotten fired because of their gender identity or their sexual orientation is mind-blowing to me.
Patrick: I totally agree with you, and to add to that, I saw this Pride Month as a reset of Pride. It was a chance to re-examine how Pride started, what Pride is about, and who we are as people. And I definitely saw a shift in the planning of Pride, not just because of the pandemic, but also a real re-imagination of what Pride month should be bringing to people – human rights in general, not just corporate sponsors.
Antonio: That has been an issue with Pride for the longest time. Corporations have taken over. A lot of times nonprofits or small organizations that are actually helping the LGBTQ community, like Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), are getting frustrated that they’re getting ignored and overshadowed by corporate sponsors like Walmart and Chipotle.
Kalima: We need to stop referring to Pride as a parade; it’s a march! I feel like over the years, people have lost that. They just see a colorful parade, but they don’t know that it used to be called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. I feel like this year, the march got back to what it should have been this whole time: a demand for rights, equality, and justice!
Antonio: Right! That’s why Stonewall occurred in the first place. The police were harassing LGBTQ communities. And it’s still happening. I participated in the Queer Liberation March, parallel to the big march, and there was a lot of focus on trans women, especially Black trans women, who have been murdered. And I participated in the march last Sunday and saw how the police attacked and maced people, which shows again why we have this movement.
Kalima: There was an event in Brooklyn, a trans women liberation day gathering. I was so pleasantly surprised to see thousands of people showing up to Brooklyn to address the issue that Black trans women are disproportionately being murdered. People aren’t talking about that as much as they should.
Antonio: I also was at that march, and it was a very impactful movement because everyone was wearing white. The sister of Layleen Polanco, who was murdered by being put in solitary confinement at Riker’s Island, spoke. They are now releasing footage of the way she was treated at Riker’s. Police and law enforcement have also murdered these trans women.
Patrick: During quarantine, I’ve been staying with my parents in New Jersey. It is nice to see that some houses around me have Pride flags, but overall I know this community is not as accepting as where I was living in Williamsburg. So for this Pride 2020, I doubled down on my commitment to bring a sense of Pride to this community, to organize and move people to get together and spread messages of Pride, which has never really happened here before in this very white, very conservative community – and people were willing to do it! People are really fed up and are willing to go out and use their privilege to say that Black trans lives matter. Those are the huge steps forward that I see happening right now.
Kalima: That’s great that you are organizing locally, especially right now, when we can pretty much only do local things.
Patrick: I have a question for you all. Have you found yourselves all month having to educate people about what it means to be queer, and this month specifically, having a lot of people who want to be better allies bringing questions to you and expecting you to educate them?
Kalima: I have had that experience. Most of my friends are not LGBTQ. I feel like now especially, a lot of people as questions like, “Ok, gender identity: different from sexual orientation?” or “Ok, they-them pronouns: explain that to me.” And personally, I don’t mind at all. I want people to ask, and I want to educate. I know that not everyone who is LGBTQ wants to be the person to answer these questions – and that’s valid – but personally, I love talking about it.
What are your thoughts on the intersections and parallels among the various movements that have gained momentum in the past month: LGBTQ liberation, Black Lives Matter, and immigrant rights? You’ve alluded to these intersections when talking about police brutality against Black trans women, for example.
Kalima: This year it has been more difficult for me to acknowledge LGBTQ Pride. Usually, June is my month. It’s like my Christmas, my time to scream from the rooftops. But this year, the Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of my mind. Of course I’m always going to be a queer person and part of the LGBTQ community, but when I’m walking down the street, people don’t see a queer person, they see a Black person. And that has been something that has really hit me in the face. I can’t take this face off. I mean, I can’t take off the other parts of my identity, either, but people see me, and they treat me according to what they see. And that has made it really hard for me to wish people, “Happy Pride!” because I’m not feeling very happy with everything that’s going on. I’m always going to proud of my identity in terms of my sexuality, but I am more focused now on fighting the fight that is so present in my community, in the Black community.
Antonio: I’m thinking, where did we learn a lot of these tactics that protesters are using now? They probably learned some of that from ACT UP, an HIV/AIDS awareness organization. But a lot of what ACT UP was doing had elements of what the Black Panthers were trying to do. So I feel like all of these organizations are constantly evolving and borrowing from each other as they try to find a way to really tackle these oppressors.
Patrick: I can only speak from my experiences and perspective. Last weekend, my town of Nutley, New Jersey was in the news because of a bad clash between police and the Black Lives Matter movement. And at the same time, about a half-mile away from where those protests were going on, I hosted the attorney general of New Jersey for the town’s first Pride march. And at our Pride event, the sentiment was that even though the Attorney General was there, we had to wrap it up fast, because there’s a more pressing issue right now, a more pressing protest that we have to get to. So definitely, Black Lives Matter comes before Pride in my mind. We were there to pay homage to Pride Month, but to really pay homage to it we were getting back to our roots, like Antonio said, back to protesting and using our voices in a more radical way.
Is the demand to defund the police relevant mainly to the Black Lives Matter movement, or is it also part of LGBTQ rights?
Kalima: You know, the people who oppose the defunding of the police don’t really understand what we mean by defund the police. They get upset because they think there will be no laws and there will be mayhem, but they don’t acknowledge that we’ve been defunding education for years.
Kalima: There are so many different cups you could fill from the pot that funds the police: affordable housing, education, things that are lacking and that people are struggling to hold onto. And this pot is being used in the wrong ways. Police are not trained to respond to these social problems in the correct ways. I feel that it is crucial, vital that we change the way the system is working.
Patrick: I do see Defund the Police as a rallying cry in the LGBTQ community - from the people in my network, the people I speak to, my friends, and my colleagues that are queer. I know what it’s like to be discriminated against by the police based on being gay, and I feel like a lot of people in the queer community have had those experiences, as well. And it’s not just about interactions with the police. It’s also about making life better for queer people in general. Around 40% of homeless youth in New York City are queer. Imagine if Kalima’s organization, PFLAG, got some of the police funds. Imagine how much you would be able to do for so many queer youth. These are the issues that we have to be addressing, rather than buying more equipment for police officers. The deeper you dive, the more you see how connected BLM and LGBTQ rights are.
Antonio: Trans women, too, are constantly being harassed by police officers. They get profiled as sex workers, since we know that many trans women have to rely on sex work because of discrimination in other types of employment. If we were to get funding for a job training program for them instead of having to fund cops who are only harassing these women, then we wouldn’t be having tragedies like Laylee Polanco’s death at Riker’s.
Another major Supreme Court decision this month was about the legality of the president’s attempt to cancel DACA. How does that relate to these other movements?
Antonio: To me, it’s a very personal story. A friend of my family is a trans man who is a DACA resident and is a doctor, graduated from University of Texas. He is somebody who a lot of trans men can go to and receive appropriate services and navigate the system. Knowing that he can stay in the US and have protections is reassuring.
Patrick: I see any queer person, no matter what their country of origin, as part of our LGBTQ community. I see us as brothers and sisters in arms, no matter their immigration status. Some people would not be able to be true to their authentic, genuine self if they were not able to be here and live in this country. To me, they are Americans and they deserve the rights that everyone else has here. To have the right to be who you really are revoked, and to be sent to a country that isn’t really your home, is heartbreaking.
Kalima: It’s traumatic!
Patrick: It’s the opposite of what America is and what we are fighting for.
Antonio: There are a lot of LGBTQ DACAmented people who could be killed if they are forced to go back to their country of origin. They could be targeted, bullied, or harassed in a country they are not familiar with.
Kalima: To be forced back into the closet like that – I can’t even imagine it. And actually, it’s similar to the way students are having to stay home from school amidst the COVID-19 pandemic currently. For a lot of LGBTQ youth, school was the only place where they felt safe being out, to use the name they prefer if they are trans or non-binary, and have their teachers’ support. A lot of kids have been forced back into the closet because they’re at home with unsupportive parents.
Antonio: I think it could also be seen as vice versa. Some kids might feel safer being able to be at home doing their work and not having to deal with the bullying at school and the influence of their peers. So I can see it both ways.
What are the most strategic next steps for the LGBTQ movement and the movements with which it intersects?
Kalima: I think we have to keep protesting. It needs to keep happening. It doesn’t have to be huge. I love walking down a road and seeing a group of people with signs, and I know that it is still happening and that we are all rising up together and staying together.
Antonio: I think also electing people to hold everybody accountable, to defund the police, to protect Black lives, to protect trans lives, and to make sure that these police officers who are using excessive force are held accountable. And another next step is to make sure we are all aware of what is happening.
Patrick: We need to make policy proposals succinct and presentable and easy for every person in the country to digest and understand. I think voter education is so overlooked. And it’s really worrisome because we live in such a polarized world right now. Whether conservative, moderate, or progressive – getting trust and accountability back into the system is crucial.
We’ve been talking about the movement more broadly, but in your experience, how has this past month affected you personally?
Patrick: It has been a really heavy month emotionally. It was a time for me to revisit the core principles of what Pride was about: it was a riot led by a trans woman of color. It’s been a month of reflection and education and learning. I consider myself a pretty good ally in LGBTQ issues, but I realize that I don’t know everything. There are still implicit biases that I may not recognize, and I need to challenge myself and push myself even further and make myself uncomfortable with things to be more comfortable with things. These conversations need to be ongoing, not just during Pride Month.
Kalima: I have felt really anxious, seeing people that look like me being killed, and being fearful for my brother. I’ve been trying to check in on my friends who have had similar experiences. It has weighed very heavily on me. At the same time, I am trying to keep my spirits up and educate folks who ask me for that education, because that’s who I am. But overall, trying to find my way through this and not be weighed down by everything that is going on.
Antonio: It’s been a roller coaster of emotions. There are days that I am excited, and then there are days when I just can’t read another article or see another death. It can take a big toll. I take it day by day, inform myself, and if I can’t go out and protest then I donate to organizations that I feel are tackling the issues in the best possible way. I share what information I can with friends and family members. And just continue having this dialogue and discussion and be sure we don’t forget about issues that are happening once they’re no longer being circulated in the news media. We still have to get accountability for these deaths that have happened because of police brutality.
Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and taking the time to have this important conversation.