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The layers of economic hardship

Queers for Economic Justice has helped foster understanding about the economic injustices facing LGBTQ communities—in New York City and across the country. Interim Executive Director (and renowned blogger) Kenyon Farrow shares why.

Tell me about yourself. How did you become an activist and a writer?

I have always had an interest in history and politics. When I was a kid, I watched political talk shows and newsmagazines like 20/20 and 60 Minutes. I come from a family that likes to debate social issues and current events, and my mother had been an organizer in Cleveland, OH, and several of my maternal great-aunts and uncles had been organizer/ministers. So in some ways I got it honest. In terms of my writing, I always knew I could write well, but never considered writing and publishing until I discovered bell hooks and read Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. In them I saw the possibility of writing political essays about similar things that I care about.

For several years, you've been involved with Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), a New York City-based organization that addresses class issues among LGBTQ communities. What role does QEJ play in the city and nationally?

In our local work with queer poor and low-income people, I see QEJ as breaking the forms of isolation from queer community that exists for folks. So much of what makes "gay" community in New York is based around your access to capital. If you don't have money for the latest clothes or bars and clubs then you don't have queer community. We break those forms of isolation that exist based on class, and then begin to build community among poor and low-income queer and trans people and their allies. Once you break the isolation and build community, you can then begin to do political education, organize, and ultimately build power to change conditions in the shelter system, the welfare office, or on the streets.

Nationally, I think QEJ is seen as one of the few organizations that directly challenges the idea that the "gay" agenda is about marriage, military inclusion, or hate crimes legislation as the "legitimate" movement. People know our work is really about economic justice, especially for homeless and low-income queer people, but people across the country also know that we also have a broader analysis that also incorporates the impact of racism, immigration policy, HIV/AIDS, the prison industrial complex and other issues on the lives of LGBTQ people in the U.S., and globally.

What are some of QEJ's current projects?

We continue to work with queer folks in the shelters in NYC. It is a blend of creating support, advocacy, organizing, and increasingly political education. Many of our shelter folks have been asking for more workshops on aspects of LGBT political history, especially that where queer people of color were central to the work. Usually we work in shelters for 10-weeks at a time, but we are lucky enough to have volunteers that will be working in two shelters on an ongoing basis. We also have month "Know Your Rights" trainings where we offer concrete information and tools for LGBT homeless people to better advocate for themselves. We have been involved in several advocacy campaigns on policy issues facing LGBT people in the shelter system, as well as in coalition with other homeless advocates in NYC.

The Welfare Warriors are soon releasing a report based on a survey they completed this year, documenting the barriers to accessing public assistance, and experiences of violence by poor and low-income people in NYC. This report includes a 30-minute documentary on their process as a community participatory research project, as well as stories of about 12 people who completed the survey. QEJ firmly believes that quantitative research is important, but it is often the stories of people's experiences that change hearts and minds, and ultimately wins policy. This will inform what our local campaign work will look like over the next year or so.

In terms of our national work, we see ourselves with a few main objectives: To create more visibility for issues that impact LGBT people that are not a part of the "gay agenda"; to create and disseminate materials for progressive queers and non-queers; to create more advocacy on behalf of issues that impact poor and low-income queers, queers of color, etc.; and to provide spaces and opportunities for grassroots progressive & radical queer organizations and queers who work in progressive and radical organizations to share organizing tactics, strategies and current policy issues.

To that end, we recently launched our "Act Queer! Teleconference Series," which is a monthly conference call with a focus on queer organizing around different racial and economic justice issues. (We also post the audio from each presenter on our web site.) The first three calls have been on healthcare; prisons, violence and police brutality; and immigration. We've tripled the number of callers from the first to the last, and the hits on our web site to those pages have been picked up by bloggers and have had seven times the number of hits as number of callers. These calls have also helped us deepen our networks with queer organizers working on a myriad of issues around the country and will hopefully go a long way towards movement building.

Because many times people who care about how economic justice issues impact the LGBT community do not have the data to make the argument when doing advocacy, QEJ will be releasing a document this fall that is a culmination of data on poverty, jobs and income, healthcare, HIV/AIDS and social safety nets for people of color, rural communities, seniors, the disabled, homeless—all who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

We also continue to work to create queer progressive voices by organizing panels, workshops and caucuses at conferences like Creating Change, Critical Resistance, Facing Race, the US Social Forum and the Drug Policy Alliance conferences. QEJ continues to be asked to speak about our Beyond Marriage work to the press, at conferences, and on colleges and universities.

Through your work at QEJ or through other experiences, how have you seen economic inequities affect LGBTQ communities?

At QEJ, we see lesbians who go into the shelter system to avoid jeopardizing their partner and childrens' welfare benefits. We see people who are fired or harassed at work for being LGBT. Even in states or cities that have non-discrimination statutes on the books, the people working in low-pay service sector jobs don't make good "poster children" and get very little assistance or recourse. We see transgender people, especially black and Latino, unable to find any "legal" work at all, and then harassed or given the run-around at welfare offices when they try to apply for public assistance with documents that may or may not "match" their current gender identifications. We see many Black and Latino gay men with HIV forced to live in single occupancy hotels in deplorable conditions, because they can't get housing assistance until they have a full-blown AIDS diagnosis, and even then it may not be enough to move into better housing, or for whom trying to schedule many doctors' appointments in working class jobs with no sick time raises suspicions about their conditions with employers and employees, and then suffer stigma and harassment.

A critique offered by a number of economic justice advocates is that many leaders in the national LGBTQ movement have not adequately addressed economic questions in their policy concerns or movement strategies. (And the same critique is offered about economic justice advocates addressing LGBTQ issues.) What are your thoughts?

It is absolutely true that the national LGBTQ mainstream organizations do very little to deal with economic injustice. At best, they are advocating for the federal ENDA bill or similar bills at the state level. While people should not be discriminated against in housing, employment, etc., none of these organizations have done any work to join living wage coalitions, or the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to organize more freely, and would greatly protect queer workers. At the same time, there are many LGBTQ people who work in economic and racial justice organizations around the country, and yet they produce little or no work in their policy documents or advocacy that even names LGBTQ poor and low-income people.

As a Policy Institute Fellow with the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, you're currently working on a report about the HIV/AIDS epidemic among Black gay men in the U.S. What are some questions you're exploring?

In the last few years, there has been mounting public health evidence that Black "men who have sex with men" or MSM (a category which includes gay & bisexual men, men who identify as straight but have sex with other men, and male-to-female transgender women) have the highest HIV prevalence rates in America. Yet traditional notions of what causes high rates of infection in a community do not seem to apply. When compared to whites, Black MSM have similar or lower rates of unprotected anal sex, drug use, or number of sexual partners. Despite myths about the "down low," it is Black men who are out and identify as gay or bisexual who are the most vulnerable to HIV infection. And yet, most of our public health interventions are developed with the assumption that black gay and bi men are not "out," and that if we get them to change their behaviors we will reduce the spread of HIV.

So my work with the Policy Institute has been to think through what can be done to reduce the high rates of HIV that get to the structural issues that are driving the epidemic among Black MSM—homophobia, lack of social supports, poor health outcomes in communities of origin, violence, unemployment, etc. In essence, HIV is still an issue of social justice and yet there is almost no organization or funding that supports leadership development, community organizing or advocacy for Black gay men. What exists is mostly funding for prevention interventions, but not money for social justice organizing and advocacy. This, to me, is inexcusable.

For the last few years, your blog—KenyonFarrow.com—has touched upon a range of cultural and political questions surrounding LGBTQ people of color. What were you hoping to achieve when you launched this blog?

Part of the impetus for my blog was to actually house my work—I had written several blog entries for other blogs that had really become quite popular on the internet, and I wanted to have more control over what I put out. I was also hoping to create a venue where people, like myself, who don't think about their work as an activist on social and political issues as separate and distinct from having a sense of humor, or being able to write and think politically about pop culture. So many of my most popular blog entries were my "Non-Shock of the Week"—where I talked about new science or public policy research findings that were stating the obvious. People love the "So-Black and So-Gay" series, where I feature music videos from artists that are either Black queer artists or have inspired Black queer esthetics. Also, because I track a lot of cases of violence against Black queer folks, many times the comments section of those posts are visited and re-visited by the family and friends of the departed. It's like a web-based epitaph. I knew working across disciplines and in different voices would draw not only activists to my blog but people who are interested in pop culture would get a little politics as well.

Any current news story you're tracking that embodies this subject of LGBTQ racial equity?

Well right now I find it very disturbing to be watching the violent racist/xenophobic and nationalist sentiments occurring in these town hall meetings on healthcare, and the only emails I am getting from LGBT mainstream organizations are about asking me to "hold Obama accountable" to pass marriage equality. I mean, the lack of focus on what this healthcare debate means for people without insurance, or the implications for what this reform will mean for LGBT people to be able to access healthcare, is really maddening. Especially when we know that queer people, especially of color, face employment discrimination, which means they are less likely to have healthcare, and what a public option would mean for the lives of LGBT people. Lesbians, especially Black lesbians have high mortality rates from breast cancer. Or that trans-specific health needs are often blocked by insurance companies, or in some states having HIV is a pre-existing condition that can get you dropped from coverage. And we are out to lunch, and can only get it together to organize around our ability to wear Vera Wang some Saturday in June. I just can't.

How has blogging and new media altered—or not altered—the political and cultural landscape for LGBTQ communities of color?

I think blogging has very much challenged the dominant white mainstream LGBT politics. The essay I wrote in 2004, "Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black," which was blogged, is taught in college courses and actually created a space that didn't exist in the public discourse, which only portrayed gays and lesbians as white, and blacks as straight and homophobic.

Jasmyne Cannick really took on white gay blackface drag performer Chick Knipp (aka Shirley Q. Liquor) and pushed a national movement of Black LGBBT folks who blocked those performances from happening in several cities. I had been involved in protests here in NYC, but Jasmyne's blogging really took the work to the next level.

And when Dan Savage, pouting after Prop 8 passed, blogged that piece "Black Homophobia," the response came from Black LGBT bloggers first, and that is what embarrassed the white gay mainstream (in some circles) enough to begin to backpedal from much of the virulent racism that began to surface in the post-Prop 8 fallout.

Despite that, CNN's series Black In America acted like we don't exist, so we have a long way to go, but blogging has definitely opened up a space of visibility for Black LGBT advocacy and organizing.

What are some successes—in our society, in our political movements, in the media—that you'd like to see in your lifetime?

This will not necessarily end health disparities, but I would be extremely glad to see a single payer health system, an end to the AIDS epidemic and an end to the use of prisons as a response to social problems.

Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?

I think lots of funders are very interested in policy advocacy or electoral politics. I think that Black communities have never organized by only using [Saul] Alinsky-style organizing strategies. The conditions that cause oppression have to be uprooted because any policy can be undone by several others over the course of a decade. So I think many LGBT people of color communities are trying to actually build the capacity of their communities to be able to respond to a myriad of concerns that cannot be easily won by single issue campaigns. And that work has to be seen as valuable as passing policy.

Kenyon Farrow, Interim Executive Director & Blogger, Queers for Economic Justice (New York, NY)

Kenyon Farrow is the Interim Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice in New York City. Kenyon just completed a year-long fellowship with the Policy Institute of the National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce, researching and writing about the HIV epidemic in Black gay men. He is doing more HIV work as a member of the Prevention Research Advocacy Workgroup, and on the Executive Committee of Connect 2 Protect—a NYC based project studying and implementing structural interventions for gay men of color. As a writer, Kenyon is a regular contributor to TheGrio.com, and is co-editor of the books Letters from Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books 2005) and the forthcoming A New Queer Agenda (NYU Press).

Queers for Economic Justice

Kenyon Farrow's blog


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