Decoding Inclusion: The Intersection of Race and LGBTQ+ Issues

Jess Katz

#Culture#Diversity & Inclusion

Earlier this year, MongoDB launched “Decoding Inclusion,” an internal event series for our employees aimed at building community and foundational knowledge on various diversity and inclusion topics such as neurodiversity and racial justice. In June, we had a Decoding Inclusion session focused on the intersection of race and LGBTQ+ issues. The movement surrounding racial equity and police brutality in the U.S. is an opportunity to understand and discuss the role of trans people of color in the origins of Pride and the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for civil rights.

Jonathan Balsano (he/him), who is a Lead Software Developer at MongoDB and leads our employee affinity group "Queeries," was the moderator, and Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza (they/them) and Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier (he/him/they/them) joined us as speakers. Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, who founded the Activist Theology Project, is trained as a constructive philosophical theologian and ethicist and practices public theology via film, writing, and speaking engagements. Dr. Koach is a healer and musician who is working towards the day everyone experiences liberation. He helps people reconnect with the world around them by helping them improve their hearing and providing love and support through revolutionary listening.

Photos of Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Jonathan Balsano, and Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier
Pictured (from left to right): Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, Jonathan Balsano, and Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier

The Conversation: A Brief Recap

(Note this transcript has been edited and condensed)

We began the session watching this video about the Stonewall riots in 1969, which were demonstrations by members of the gay community in response to a police raid that began on June 28th, 1969. We discussed many key figures who stood on the front-lines of the demonstrations — like Marsha P. Johnson, for example, who was a Black, transgender pioneer, activist, and a self-identified drag queen. After watching the video, we began our discussion.

Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza: Thank you for hosting a pivotal conversation in a moment in history. I move in the world with power, access, and privilege because of my skin privilege, but I live in sections of marginality with the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race. I’m very excited to be here!

Dr. Koach Baruch Frazier: I come to you as a Black trans Jew living at the intersection where life can be hard and is hard, and yet there is also joy, and I’m thriving. I want to be able to hold all of that as we talk about this important story within queer history, where there is joy and celebration of life as well as tragedy.

What is your recollection of Pride personally?

Dr. Robyn: I remember the first Pride event I attended. I had just finished my first graduate degree in Chicago and went to Chicago Pride. I had moved from a small town in West Texas to the big city of Chicago and was confronted with the rest of the world, but when I went to Pride, it was a mostly white and male event. I love the gay men in my life, but what I was hungry for was where are the LatinX people, the people of color. Because that’s who I was surrounded by growing up but I didn’t see that at Pride. It took many years for me to see that people of color have a separate Pride.

Dr. Koach: I went to Pride for the first time when I attended St. Louis University. My first interaction with Pride was Black Pride. That’s how I got enculturated into the queer community in St. Louis. I didn’t know much about this other Pride, all I knew was about Black Pride, and I was so happy to be around Black queer people. I felt like I searched for my family all my life and I finally found them. Then I was exposed to more corporate Pride and found myself disappointed both in representation and in the narrative that our movement was only about marriage. Me being a trans person didn’t come into the conversation at all.

Jonathan: A lot of what you’re saying is resonant for me. As a white cis gay man, my own relationship with Pride was complicated, for a long time, by wanting to assimilate. It wasn't until after college that I felt comfortable attending a Pride event, because I felt like going to one was too radical for me, and that made me feel as if there wasn't space for me.

Now, there are two things that always hit me hard at Pride. One is the parents who are willing to be a part of Pride. Having parental support in such a public way is something I didn’t always feel like I had, and when I see that, it always makes me want to cry. The second thing is acknowledging people who have lost their lives. After the Pulse nightclub shooting and now as we focus on the impact of police brutality, we all need to take a moment to stop and acknowledge these are people who lost their lives and can't be here to celebrate with us. Amidst all the celebration of pride, it's important to simultaneously hold onto the idea that celebration is a privilege when so many others are fighting for their lives.

We all have these distinctive Pride experiences, and we remain curious about what can become of our community. What is your imagination for our community?

Dr. Koach: If I’m dreaming really wildly, my hope is that the people who are at the center of the target for white supremacy culture in terms of transphobia, misogyny, and so on are at the center of our attention. I also hope we are able to do the work. I want us to approach each other with different kinds of energy where I don't make assumptions about who you are and you don’t make assumptions about who I am, but instead, we see each other for who we really are.

Jonathan: I want us to be at a place where we feel comfortable examining our own identities so that we can understand why we might look at somebody else and not recognize what they are going through and what they need help with. I think we should be able to interrogate ourselves about why we might deny that help to someone else.

One of the things that took me a long time to understand was the internalized misogyny I was holding onto. This was part of why I avoided Pride and the queer community in general. I was worried about coming off as too feminine myself, and I would judge gay men who were too feminine. It's just one small facet of the ways power dynamics that have been ingrained in us from society play out. So when I dream, I think it would be amazing if we can be a community that supports one another in interrogating within ourselves where those feelings come from.

How has Pride and Black Lives Matter worked together (or not) during this time, especially during a pandemic?

Dr. Robyn: LA Pride worked with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles to do a Black Lives Matter march in place of Pride. I saw that as a sharing of space and leadership and bringing together our different movements. As we know, Pride isn’t just white people, so it’s really wonderful to see these big cultural movements come together and support one another. That's one really tangible way.

Dr. Koach: It’s regional. There are some places where the relationship has been fostered for years or other areas where it’s strained. In St, Louis, the Black trans community said there is no Pride until Black trans lives matter, and I have seen that conversation happen around the country. There are folks on the street saying "Pride, get your act together, and you need to disconnect from the police," and that is an ongoing campaign where we understand what safety means for all members of our community and work on how we can achieve actual safety for all of us. People are trying to see where they fit in, and I’m grateful for that and I hope that continues.

Jonathan: For New York, there is usually the Pride "parade" and then there's the Queer Liberation March. The Queer Liberation March was still scheduled for this year as a march for Black lives against police brutality. So the question is, what is Pride at its root? In New York, we think of the parade, a celebration that is now on several news networks. But at the same time there are people marching in the Queer Liberation March in protest, drawing attention this year to BLM and police brutality, and in the past to sex workers' rights and other issues that disproportionately affect the queer and trans community.

What is the role of religion between LGBTQ+ Pride and race rights?

Dr. Koach: A rabbi I learned from says we have to have queer folks looking at religious texts, because when they see the text, they see themselves in the text. Just like back when women were able to study the scripture they saw themselves in the text and we got a feminist theology, so queer people can create a liberation theology.

Dr. Robyn: As someone who is trained in Christian tradition, I see a lot of energy at Pride and other LGBTQ+ related events where Christian supremacy is not only present but is also violent toward our community. I agree with Dr. Koach that trans and queer people need to be interpreting text on their own terms so that we can create religious narratives to create conditions for flourishing in our communities. How can that be a liberative experience for the queer and trans people in the congregation, and how can it be liberative for me even though these narratives have been formed to oppress me? How can we also have a power analysis when we think about religious traditions? Many queer and trans people feel like there is no space for them in religion or spirituality, but scripture has been weaponized against our community to marginalize us and that breeds loneliness and disconnection from the larger community. This is why for a lot of people, church is having brunch on a Sunday — and I want to say that is just as sacred and holy as being in a church house on a Sunday.

If you could choose a focus for the movement, what would it be?

Dr. Robyn: That’s a big question. I immediately go to housing for queer and trans people. Housing is a need for people to flourish, and it is a human right. People need to have their basic needs met. If we can create conditions for people to have housing, I think that would eliminate so much violence.

Dr. Koach: In addition, when we think about basic things people need to survive, I think of food, shelter, and some form of connection to other people. It doesn't have to be a physical connection, but some kind of connection to other humans. Trans folks need that too, so how can we make sure trans folks have food, shelter and connection to other humans — all of which are basic things stripped away from trans people, especially trans people of color, just because we want to live and breathe. I just want to be able to go to the grocery store without being harassed so I can buy food and eat at my kitchen table. How do we ensure we have basic rights?

Can you speak to intersection of marginalized individuals with disabilities and people with chronic conditions?

Dr. Robyn: Largely all of our communities have erased people living with mental health challenges and experiences and different abilities. Part of what we do at my organization, Faith Matters Network, is connect the dots and help people understand the reality we live in. So much of supremacy culture has made it impossible for people with disabilities to live in our communities. This is also true for Pride, where not everything is accessible. We need to realize there are people living with varying degrees of abilities in our communities, so what is stopping us from exposing people with those differences so we can live all together? If we really believe there is no degree of separation, how do we form that community?

Dr. Koach: It's putting people who need our attention at the center. When we do that, that's how we all get free. We have to prioritize those who have been the target of discrimination and put them at the center of our attention.

Thank you so much Jonathan, Dr. Robyn and Dr. Koach for joining us in this very important conversation around intersection of race and LGBTQ+ issues.

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