Editors' Note: Guest blogger Katie Burgess is a community organizer and artist living in South Minneapolis. She grew up lobbying for LGBT Equality in her small hometown in Maine, has traveled the country performing direct action-from tree sits in the old growth redwoods of the Northwest to opening squats in San Francisco, and has been working as the Executive Director of the Trans Youth Support Network for almost a year now.
I was invited, as the Executive Director of the Trans Youth Support Network to give a speech last week at the 18th Annual National Coming Out Day Luncheon put forward by our local GLBT business bureau:
"This inspirational community luncheon gives voice to the power of living openly, honestly and with authenticity at work, in our families and in our communities of faith. The realities of living an authentic life are deeper than being 'out'. We all have many layers of identity and we must work together to create a world where people can bring their 'whole self' to everything they do."
In preparing my speech, the Executive Director of the organization that hosts the event provided these words as inspiration:
"This year we are focused on our place not only within our GLBT and Allied Community, but within the broader definition of community as a whole. The reality is that all of our identities are multi-faceted, multi-layered and complex. True authenticity is when all of these layers can be fully expressed, and hopefully embraced by those like us as well those who are different.
Think about how times in your life when you have felt included in a context broader than our LGBT friends, when allies have played a part in your ability to fully express yourself. Or what it would have meant to you to have that support and understanding. While this is a day we celebrate our diversity, it is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of inclusion. Think of all definitions of community: geographic, faith, racial, ethnic, socio economic class, cultural... this goes on forever."
The mission of the Trans Youth Support Network is to promote racial, social, and economic justice for trans youth. We are an organization rooted in holding solidarity with young trans women of color as we all struggle against overtly violent, powerful, and complex systems of oppression. I was excited at the prospect of a forum that held focus on our broader community and collective liberation.
But when I read further in this email preparing the speakers of the day I found this:
The program more broadly: Note that there will be a host, myself and someone from Cargill (our presenting sponsor) in the program and we will also have a vocal performance.
At seeing that Cargill was the presenting sponsor, I immediately thought of my "definitions of community: geographic, faith, racial, ethnic, socio economic class, cultural... this goes on forever." I thought of our collective liberation. I thought of the crimes against our collective community that Cargill and other massive corporations are responsible for.
I had a hard task ahead of me. Here was an audience of economically privileged people, the majority of whom work at corporations that through extensions of our capitalist economy are bound to systems that violently oppress my community. And here was a GLBT and allied audience that was also my community, my peers, and many whom I call friends. How do I ask for justice? How do I ask for solidarity? How do I applaud the work of corporate representatives working to ensure employment non-discrimination policies and effective healthcare policies-healthcare policies that can begin to change the landscape of available insurance resources for trans people-and begin discussing the appalling nature of our capitalist economy and corporatized healthcare system to oppress not only trans youth, but our global community?
To an audience full of economic privilege, do I ask for charity to pass on to trans and gender non-conforming youth, who are in much need of their resources? Or do I ask for their solidarity, with trans youth and our greater community? In asking for their charity, I must encourage a relaxed atmosphere and affinity. In asking for solidarity, I must ask us all to reflect on our privileges and place within these systems of oppression.
Because of the lack of accountable, accessible, and culturally sensitive resources for trans youth, TYSN is often asked to step forward and provide charitable services, such as shelter, mental health support, legal aid, or case management for trans and gender non-conforming youth. We navigate a difficult process of helping identify possible outside resources to meet these needs and organize trans and gender non-conforming youth to reshape the landscape of these resources so that they are not so barren and to identify what systems are responsible for sustaining the barrenness. We have chosen to not provide charity, but to provide solidarity. As the saying goes: "Spare your coins. I want real change."
TYSN is vastly under-resourced. We have one staff person, share a tiny office space with two other organizations, and are barely able to sustain an annual budget less than $50,000. We desperately need the resources of our economically privileged community. The temptation of charity is always there, but it is my job as Executive Director of the Trans Youth Support Network to ask for solidarity.
In asking for solidarity and in the process of reflection on our privileges and position within various systems of oppression, I also wanted to highlight some victories and power within our community. Such power as harnessed in the CeCe Support Committee, a community organization convened by Chrishaun McDonald (or CeCe, as her close friends and family call her) through her relationship as a young community organizer in TYSN. The CeCe Support Committee has been an invaluable tool in calling out the inherent racism and transphobia in our community and our legal system. In solidarity with CeCe, TYSN works to promote sustainable systems of community accountability to young trans women of color, and to find solutions to this epidemic of violence.
I also wanted to highlight the victorious birth of The Exchange, a community center that houses TYSN, MN Trans Health Coalition, and RARE Productions. I wanted to highlight our strengths and the approaches to end employment disparities that our own local community has begun to enact. I wanted to build our collective power and solidarity and harness people's energy towards these efforts.
Years ago, I briefly attended the National Coming Day Luncheon as a TYSN Youth Member. I hardly remember any of it. I helped out at our informational table and ate lunch. I remember feeling intimidated by the atmosphere and feeling out of place. Other than that one experience and the information in my email, I had little knowledge of the event I had agreed to speak at.
The morning of the event, I realized I didn't have the address for where the luncheon was. I looked it up and saw The Downtown Minneapolis Hilton listed. That was my first inclination that perhaps I had not researched my audience well enough. When I arrived to behold the landscape - an array of tables displaying fine food and drink, a stage equipped with state of the art sound and light equipment, and a small section for informational tables that included huge corporations and a small collection of the most economically privileged GLBT businesses and non-profits in the Twin Cities - I became scared. I knew now that my audience might not be ready for what I had to say. Perhaps there was some other more diplomatic approach I should have taken. I did not see around me our broader community. I sat at the presenters table dreading my turn to speak. The Cargill representative came on stage and came out about his wife and three children in the suburbs. Then he went on to tell a story about a trans person that transitioned in a local Cargill branch, using the persons former legal name in his story. The hostess then went on to introduce me, although was unable to remember the name of the organization I work for.
Had I known what I was walking into, I would have declined the invitation. This was not a place that TYSN's values could be heard easily. I do not regret my decision to move forward and take the stage though. I believe in TYSN's values and believe in using my voice to promote them, even when they are hard to hear.
I am disappointed to say that while my speech has stirred up some controversy about my personal and professional positions in the community, people have had little to say about the positions of corporate interests in our community. While we are busy drawing lines in the sand, Cargill is still busy turning rainforests to dust in Indonesia.
And so here is the speech that I drafted:
I came to this work through being a homeless young queer trans woman, seeking sobriety and sanity in the Twin Cities eight years ago. Having access to competent, culturally sensitive services here saved my life. Now I have taken on the job of ensuring that these services maintain a lasting foundation, and that trans youth not only can meet their basic needs, but identify the violent, racist machine works that seek to systematically slaughter us.
To do this, I need your help. I am here today to ask for solidarity - a fellowship to fight for common interests. And to identify, in reality, what our common interests are. I need you to keep fighting for workplace non-discrimination policies that are inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming people. I need you to keep fighting for corporate insurance benefits that holistically cover transgender healthcare needs (not just one type of benefit). I need you to continue your battles for the rights of all workers to collectively bargain and find footing in this capitalist economic machine that caters to rich white cisgendered straight men and creates a lower class for them to exploit, filled with young queer and trans people of color.
And I refuse to stop there. Your equality is linked strongly with my liberation as a queer trans woman. And I need your solidarity in demanding justice for my community. When you ask for non-discrimination policies in your workplace, remember to ask for non-discrimination policies in the workhouse - policies that protect the human rights of trans women of color, 30% of whom are living in prisons. Women like Chrishaun McDonald, a TYSN Youth Member fighting for justice within a legal system that defends her white supremacist hate filled attackers. Remember that when you ask for workplace equality, that trans people face twice the unemployment rates as cisgendered people, almost half of us have experienced adverse job outcomes, such as being fired because of being transgender or gender non-conforming, and 16% of us work in underground economies with pimps and drug dealers that have yet to be assessed by HRC's Corporate Equality Index.
Make the connection of all of our liberation clear in your mind, because if you achieve equality with this racist, transphobic ruling class, you have assimilated into my enemy. You have left a sea of bodies in your hurried wake. Bodies who are continuously policed by this system for existing outside of gender norms, for not being white, for being disabled, for being born in foreign countries, or for desiring and expressing their own femininity.
Let me share with you some examples:
In 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit against Cargill, Nestlé and Archer Daniels Midland in federal court on behalf of children who were trafficked from Mali into the Ivory Coast and forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day with no pay, little food and sleep, and frequent physical abuse on cocoa bean plantations.
Cargill is the leading importer of palm oil into the United States. Palm oil expansion is a leading cause of forest loss in Indonesia and has a devastating impact on biodiversity, forest-dependant peoples, and the climate.
In 1970, Cargill sold 63,000 tons of seed grain to Basra, Iraq treated with methylmercury, a practice banned in most Western countries. Though intended for agricultural use, and not for human or animal consumption, some recipients used it as food, as the only printed warnings about the poison were written in English and Spanish, intended as warnings for American dock workers. This led to the deaths of 93 people.
How many of them were LGBTQ? Were their deaths and mistreatment factored into Cargill's 100% rating in HRC's 2010 Corporate Equality Index? Our struggles are bound together. When they came for your children in Mali, I did not speak up because I am from the United States. When they came for my workplace equality, there was no one left to speak up. Our community spans more than these strung together letters of LGBTQ. Our liberation is bound with all whom struggle against these machine works of oppression.
In collaboration with the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition and RARE Productions, TYSN has opened the doors of a community center on 34th St. and Chicago Ave in South Minneapolis, called The Exchange. Attached to the community center is Café Southside. Together this meager center and café hope to provide a foundation for increased employment opportunities for trans and gender non-conforming youth. With community support and accountability, we can provide much needed job skills to young trans youth of color. Keep fighting for workplace rights. Keep fighting for the right to a place to work. Let us build a community that is racially, socially, and economically just, without the oppressive burden of corporate interests and call me next time you're in the neighborhood. Trans Youth Support Network - 3405 Chicago Avenue South.
What does liberation look like to you? What is your definition of community? What is the relationship you would like to see that community have with capitalism and corporate America? What is the relationship you would like to see that community have with TYSN and other trans youth? I reiterate my closing remarks: call me. If your definition of community includes me in it, then let's talk about how we are going move forward together. Let us find liberation together.
My intention walking into that room was to build solidarity. I want to see my life and the lives of trans and gender non-conforming youth develop with power and integrity. I want to lend my hands in carrying this power and integrity out to our community and see it shine as a beacon of leadership, guiding us towards justice. I want to do this honestly and accountably. I have seen enough violence in my life and I am not interested in picking fights. It is hard to say things that are hard to hear. If hearing something I said was hard, it is your privilege to dismiss me. In doing so, please take time to hear other voices of trans youth. And, in your dismissal, remember that I not only have a big mouth to speak with, but I also have big ears to listen with. And my big heart beats for nothing less than seeing our community foster love among ourselves. This was an act of love.