This week Stacey Blahnik, a trans woman of color, was murdered. And so few people have noticed. In September, Tyler Clementi and several other young white gay boys and men committed suicide. And national movements were born. Two good friends, Darnell Moore and Larry Lyons, wrote about the way race intersects to silence and erase the bodies of trans and lgb people of color. With their permission I am posting their "scribblings" here. Pull up a chair.
"Brief Remarks From a Talk Today...
Reflection on the Tyler Clementi Tragedy"
Remarks that I gave at the American Studies and Women's and Gender Studies Program (Rutgers-Newark) "Politics, Culture, and Media in the Tyler Clementi Tragedy: An Open Conversation"
Stuart Hall, noted cultural theorist, comes to mind at this moment.
As I seriously consider how certain bodies are coded and commoditized, the ways in which particular identities are reified, reconstructed and reconstituted, how various knowledges are designed, delineated, designated and duplicated….I can’t help but to reconsider the workings of what Hall aptly named “regimes of representation” and the “practices of representation” (which are utilized to further the labor of such regimes). But, why a reconsideration of these notions now, in this moment, after having been awakened, once again, by the nightmarish reality of suicidality among LGBT, queer youth?
Here are some questions that have prompted my reconsideration:
1. Whose names, of the many youth who have committed suicide within the past month, are most familiar to us?
2. Whose face, or what faces, has been posted on the covers of popular magazines? What images are we left to reimagine?
3. Which, of all the horrific stories, serves as the master narrative in this moment? And, which story is being told by ABC, CBS, NY Times, The Daily News, and People Magazine?
4. And, why?
I am distressed and horrified–not solely by the death of Rutgers’s student, our student–Tyler Clementi, but by the literal snatching away, dis-remembering of the names, the stories, the faces, the smiles, the tears, the legacies of those for whom suicide became the only option prior to and during the moment of Clementi’s tragic death. What made this particular suicide usher in a resurgent spirit of concern, compassion and curiosity regarding LGBT youth suicidality when it has been an occurrence that many youth has had to face daily? [I was one of those youth.] I argue that we are at our “social-justice-best” [pun-absolutely-intended] when mere “notions” (i.e. LGBT youth suicidality) are made “real” in our lives, when we are faced with the practicalities of what are often bullet points on liberal, discursive agendas.
We exist in a culture of consumption: a culture that is driven by our consumption of particularized desires and bodies….a culture that, itself, seeks to consume, do away with, particularized desires and bodies that we don’t attend to or have use for. Our hands pushed Tyler Clementi…even while our eyes resist Raymond Chase. Represent!
Tyler Clementi, Raymond Chase and My Black Feminist Beef"
When the news about Tyler hit the press, I was en route to Curacao. I spent much of my time on the island with LGBT press from the states that were guests of the board of tourism. Even as we enjoyed all of the luxury and decadence that the Dutch Caribbean had to offer, our televisions and twitter accounts held us responsible to the tragedy that was unfolding back home. Being a Rutgers professor, I was called upon repeatedly to field questions about how the university community was managing the suicide and (in equal measures) how I felt about the purportedly "bad PR" for ole RU.
I spoke about the Safe Spaces conference that the Newark Pride Alliance conducts annually during Newark-Essex Pride Week, noting how the 2010 convening's focus on public health moved us to prioritize the issue of teen suicide by commissioning a presentation from the Trevor Project, which runs a national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth. I mentioned that the conference has been hosted at and supported by Rutgers - Newark for the past three years. I touched upon the collaborative work I've done with Rutgers Newark's queer groups RUPride and the LGBTIQ Caucus at the Rutgers School of Law, which have succeeded in creating dynamic, engaging programs that address a broad range of social and legal issues facing queer youth and young adults within the academy as well as in Greater Newark. I also mentioned how many challenges we faced in getting folks (from medical practitioners to community organizers and youth advocates) to show up and discuss strategies for combating teen suicide and identifying viable heath care options for trans folks. Too often, it's back-breaking labor to get folks to come to the table, blog, donate, organize, petition, stand up or speak out when there's not a martyr to lament and rally behind.
I spoke about my work with the Rashawn Brazell Memorial Fund, and how the discovery of his dismembered remains failed to register a Clementi-sized blip on the social justice radar back in 2005. I spoke about the confluence of outright failures that made such a silence possible: irresponsible and callously sensational reporting topping the list. I spoke TO the press ABOUT the press and its role in enabling and normalizing these types of violence. How their latent elitism, racism and homophobia made it impossible for the body of a murdered black gay 19-year old from Bushwick to matter or accrue the kind of social capitol and visibility lavished upon other murder victims whose identity categories made it much easier to convince editors that their stories would matter to the American reader.
Victims in the media orbit of Rashawn's case include Mathew Shephard (the 21-year old gay white University of Wyoming student whose 1998 murder brought national and international attention to the issue of hate crime legislation at the state and federal levels), Nicole duFresne (the Minnesota-born playwright and actress murdered in Manhattan in 2005) and Imette St. Guillen, the 24 year-old grad student that was tortured, raped and murdered in the Soho in 2006).
The commonality shared by these three "high-profile" cases (beyond the gruesome nature of their murders) is clear. The victims are white enough, educated enough and upwardly mobile enough to garner sympathetic identification amongst white middle-class readers. These are the stories that sell papers. Oh, and one more thing they have in common? They've all gone to trial and all have ended in convictions. (In case anyone was wondering, Rashawn Brazell's murder remains unsolved.)
During a few conversations with the press, it became clear that the narrative expected of me was that of the queer professor who could defend the university's commitment to queer issues and lament about how unfortunate this PR blunder was for Rutgers -or- confirm that the institution's homophobia somehow contributed to the event. What I actually offered was an intersectional analysis of race, class and sexuality that highlighted the ways in which the media habitual mis-management of tragedies like Tyler's ultimately leads to the obscuring and perpetual silencing of tragedies like Rashawn Brazell's and Raymond Chase's. My talking point was intentionally simple: things happen faster, louder and longer when there's a white, upwardly mobile martyr to rally behind.
My fear in all of this was that I'd sound like the bitter activist that harbored resentment for all of the suicide and murder victims whose cases enjoyed the visibility his poor little case(s) did not. And there's the rub. At what point are we allowed to speak our truths without seeming bitter, divisive or insensitive? It is the perpetual wrestling that my compatriots in social justice work and I do with this question that makes me appreciate the Black Feminist tradition so deeply. Black Feminism constitutes the wellspring, the invaluable reservoir of critical resistance that helps me say: eff yall. I refuse to remain silent at another meeting, provide a sanitized sound byte or play second fiddle in another movement while I watch people who look like me, love like me, sashay like me and struggle like me lay dead in the streets, murdered by unprosecuted bigots and hanging from preventable nooses, only to have their names curtly erased from history. Eff that. I won't do it.
I wont because I was in the midst when Brick City's best activists and organizers (many of whom are tagged in this note) came together to organize around the few Gay/Straight Alliances in Newark schools coming under attack and being unceremoniously disbanded by principals and superintendents whose short-sightedness won't let them see how these programs provide the support and community that obliterate suicide as an option. We bear witness not only to one anther's stories of literally and figurative fighting for our own lives and identities from Camden to Kentucky, from Brooklyn to New Brunswick, and now in Newark, but to the DAILY fight for injustice that simply won't wait for the right white martyr before it takes to the streets and demands action. We face hostility (and polite resistance) in various forms, from my beloved Muslim bruthas that damned us and our Pride march down Halsey Street to the attendees at academic talks that don't get why we are so terribly angry. But with each talk, with each meeting, with each teleconference and each email, we're creating a Newark, a Rutgers and a world that is forced to inquire about (and reckon with) our reasons for being so damned black, queer, angry and impatient.
And this is why we have our answers ready.