by Kiyan Williams, ’13
Four years ago you would have found me a precocious and eager sixteen-year old on the corner of Broad and Market Streets stopping every passerby scurrying through Newark’s busiest intersection. I would canvass the streets of Newark registering people to vote equipped with a pen, a clipboard, a charming smile, my favorite pair of Jordans, and a stubbornness inherited from my grandmother. During the summer of 2007 hundreds of new voters were registered by my teammates and I for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the organization that conservatives demonized as fraudulent during the 2008 presidential election in a futile attempt to defame President Obama.
Fast-forward a year and you would have found me outside of a grocery store in Maplewood, New Jersey armed with the same clipboard, pen, charming smile, and stubbornness. The only differences were that I was now garnering signatures in support of New Jersey’s marriage equality bill, was wearing black patent-leather oxfords, and the people I solicited were mostly white instead of black or Latina/o.
Between those two summers I had fiercely declared to the world that I was queer, and had added an LGBT equality button along side my “black and brown power”, “safe sex is the best sex”, and “feminism rocks” buttons pinned to my messenger bag. I was now invested in same-sex quality as I was for racial, gender, and economic equality. At the time same sex marriage was the only “gay rights issue” I knew of—it was the topic of every news headline and political debate—and so I volunteered for an organization that advocates for same-sex marriage in New Jersey.
Each day I would search my couch to collect the bus fare to travel from Newark to Montclair. After one tiring day of canvassing I had a conversation about my views on gay and lesbian marriage with another volunteer, a passionate white butch lesbian who dropped out of college to dedicate herself fulltime to the same-sex marriage movement. I told her that I was not sure if I ever wanted to get married, and had doubts that assimilation into a heterosexist institution would better the lives of LGBT folk in America. She agreed with me but insisted that same-sex marriage was our biggest battle to end homophobia.
Her words stuck with me for days; they left me unsettled. Earlier that summer the Newark-Essex Pride Coalition screened “Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Film Project”, a documentary about the fatal stabbing of a fifteen-year-old butch lesbian in Newark. As the film highlights Sakia’s murder went largely unnoticed by national media outlets and mainstream LGBT organizations while the killing of white, male Matthew Shepard was made known in every home throughout America. I asked myself: “could same sex marriage end the homophobia that led to the death of a black butch lesbian, or, did the omnipresence of same sex marriage in the media help to sustain an atmosphere that allowed the story of Sakia Gunn to go unheard”. The anxiety (and guilt) I felt as a queer, black man who left my working class community everyday to work for and with a predominately white and wealthy LGBT organization overcame me—there were more important things to me and my community than gay marriage. That day I stopped volunteering for the NJ same-sex marriage campaign.
Fast forward to the present moment and you will find me in a café in Newark’s downtown district a few blocks away from the corner I stood at years before, armed with the same pen, clipboard, charming smile, and stubbornness. I am amongst a group of talented community activists, scholars, artists, and friends who all share an open heart and fierce commitment.
This group of people, for which I am grateful to be a part of, are the organizers of an upcoming conference, “Queer Newark: Our Voices, Our Histories”. As the title suggests the conference is organized by and for those invested in the integrity and vitality of Newark’s LGBT community, and include the likes of: Darnell Moore, a Camden-bred activist and writer with a knack to conjure poetic and prophetic prose; Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers-Newark with a magical skill to pull resources together; Tamara Fleming, cofounder of Femworks LLC and a creative and marketing visionary; and Rooney Long, a board member of Newark’s LGBT Commission and a legendary performer in the ballroom scene.
The conference, to be held on November 12th at the Paul Robeson Center on the Rutgers-Newark campus, will be just as diverse and complex as the people organizing it. The day will feature presentations by Newark-based artists as well as panels arranged into three generations of LGBT Newarkers. With topics that include childhood; religion and spirituality; work and school; friends and family; and more, the conference seeks to detail the beauty and struggle of LGBT life in Newark.
Much attention was given to the composition of the panels so that they reflect the wide scope of racial, sexual, and gender identities that make up Newark’s queer community. Panelists who identify as black, Latina/o, white, butch, femme, gender-nonconforming, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and a multitude of other gender and sexual experiences will have the opportunity to speak about their lives. Arranging such a diverse panels was no easy task, yet the organizers were committed to inclusion, and took extra considerations to have panelists who are often forgotten in the LGBTQ alphabet, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming folk.
The conference is a part of “The Queer Newark Oral History Project”, an on-going initiative to establish an archive of oral histories and artifacts that document the life of queer Newarkers. With hopes of continuing the legacy of Drew University’s “Newark Project”, which was an initiative pioneered by Karen McCarthy Brown that partnered Drew University students with community organizations in Newark, “the Queer Newark Oral History Project” is being developed with emphasis on student involvement, reciprocity, and accessibility. On the initial community meeting for the project it was established that the home of the archives would not be confined within academia (and only accessible to university affiliates). The archive is planned to have a digital and physical home that is accessible to anyone.
Project developers plan to provide oral history training to Rutgers students and Newark residents by partnering with local community organizations. The “LINEAGE: Matchmaking In the Archive” project, in which artists use archives from the GLBT Society in San Francisco to produce creative pieces, has also been an inspiration for the oral history initiative. Youth, artists, residents, educators, organizers…everyone is being brought to the table.
What is perhaps most significant about the conference and oral history project is that they serve as an intervention to the historical amnesia of contemporary LGBT movements which would have you believe that HIV/AIDS, access to healthcare, and housing for LGBTQ youth are issues of the past, gone and forgotten. These were the very issues that catalyzed early queer activists into action (many of them people of color) and continue to afflict communities throughout the nation. The idea for the conference, according to co-chair Darnell Moore, “arose out of the need to document the years of work in our community, to correct a historical blight”.
Local organizations, such as Project WOW! administered under the North Jersey Community Research Initiative continue to serve the needs of largely working class, black and Latina/o LGBTQ people during a time when well-funded same-sex marriage and DADT repeal campaigns dominate the media. This year Project WOW! celebrated its 10th year anniversary of providing HIV/AIDS prevention programs, health care resources, and LGBTQ youth support services to the Greater Newark community. Unfortunately, changes in the Center for Disease Control’s funding policy will lead to cuts in Project WOW!’s budget, threatening the organization’s ability to continue providing its indispensable services (a matter that probably will not make national headlines).
Imbued with the spirit of Sakia Gunn and the lifework of past and present community organizers, “The Queer Newark Conference” and “Queer Newark Oral History Project” will celebrate the undeniable contributions of those who have and continue to build and sustain Newark’s queer community. Our resolve to fight for love and humanity will forever be etched into the historical fabric of Newark.
Kiyan Williams is a Newark-bred activist and double major in American History and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity with a concentration in Identity, Diversity, and Aesthetics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.