Essay

We’ve Always Been Here, Fighting

Queer poets on the meaning of Pride.
people celebrating Pride month in New York City

For the past four years, I’ve edited Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color, published by Lambda Literary. In May, the journal appeared as a print anthology that surveys nearly 100 years of queer poets of color, beginning with the Harlem Renaissance. In celebration of Pride month, I’ve invited ten contributors from the book to write about queer poets of color and the works that connect them to a shared queer heritage. The prompt I posed to each of them: “Discuss the meaning of Pride as it relates to the Stonewall Riots, the Compton Cafeteria Riots, or other queer movements against state violence. Also, please mention any queer poems of resistance, rebellion, or pride that give you hope.” 

Below are their responses, which were edited for clarity.

Denice Frohman
Poet, performer, educator

Growing up in New York City, I circled the last weekend of every June [on the calendar]. I started going to Pride with my friends in my late teens. More than a festival, it was a harbor that permitted us to explore our queerness; it fed our desires, and it quieted our fears. I remember the years at Pride when none of us were out to our families and how free we felt in those streets. And I remember the first Pride we went to after we all came out to our mothers (and later our fathers). There was something deeply liberating about taking up so much space—walking down Fifth Avenue to Christopher Street. It felt radical to see so many of us in broad daylight (and sometimes it still is). The Stonewall Inn was always our final stop. We knew we were there by virtue of the people who had cracked open those streets before us; we were born out of the light they ushered in and the spaces they left behind.
 
I turn often to the writings of tatiana de la tierra, in particular her poem “Dreaming of Lesbos,” from For the Hard Ones/Para las duras: A Lesbian Phenomenology: “I can / send letters to the women who loved me in my sleep // we are in a world that is not ours. what do we do with the dreams …” To survive, queerness is a kind of “world building” endeavor—the act of authoring our bodies and our bedrooms out of reach from all that doesn’t want us here. I keep with me these words from Cherríe Moraga’s poem “Loving in the War Years:” “We’re all we’ve got. You and I / maintaining / this war time morality / where being queer / and female is as bad / as we can get.” Pride meant that we didn’t have to sneak into the world. These poems are threaded into that lineage; they invite us to live our love out loud.

Cameron Awkward-Rich
Author of Sympathetic Little Monster and Transit

Last June, a jury acquitted Jeronimo Yanez, the police officer responsible for killing Philando Castile, a Black man who was a longtime resident of the Twin Cities and who worked for the Saint Paul Public School District. Also last June—and in light of this acquittal—the organizers of the Cities’ annual Pride went back and forth on the question of whether to allow uniformed LGBT police officers to march in the parade. Either way, police would be present around the edges to “provide security.” 

This event sparked poignant protest, less poignant think pieces, and too many tweets. It hit a nerve. And though the controversy was framed in the language of feeling (the “pain and angst” of people of color who don’t feel “comfortable and safe” around cops versus police who were “hurt” by their potential exclusion), what that outpouring of feeling indexed, and what it registered, was the utter, and utterly structural, incoherence of 21st-century Pride. After all, the first Pride march marked the one-year anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, in which the LGBT community fought back against police harassment, violence, and the surveillance that was then widespread and widely legal. That uniformed police should today stand beneath the rainbow flag and act as “security” suggests a profound break from the past and insists that the state not only supports “us” and “our” flourishing but is here to protect “us,” perhaps even is “us.” For those of “us” whom the state registers as suspect—because of our bodies or our mismatched documents or our lack of documents—participating in 21st-century Pride means inhabiting two temporalities at once: a violent one in which the past is ongoing and a celebratory one in which the past is gone. Uncomfortable, indeed. 

In any case, I turn to many poems that help me live with, and in, this incoherence. Some—such as Essex Hemphill’s “American Wedding” and June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights”—keep a Black/queer insurgent spirit alive in me and insist on freedom. And whole books of poems—such as Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s There Should Be Flowers, and Justin Phillip Reed’s Indecency—offer precise language for the cognitive and emotional effects of this predicament. Poems such as Danez Smith’s “summer somewhere” and “Tonight in Oakland” help me see the impossibly beautiful world just on the other side of this one. Then there are poems like Hieu Minh Nguyen’s “Notes on Staying” that teach me how to inhabit ambivalence, how to cultivate something like hopeless hope. 

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Author of Cenzontle and Dulce

The immigration rights movement today would not be possible without the work that queer undocumented youth have done in the face of deportation, on top of alienation from their own immigrant communities. When the trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez interrupted President Obama to demand the release of trans women held in immigration detention centers and an end to the torture they suffered, she echoed the chorus of trans women of color responsible for initiating the Stonewall Riots whom history only recently recognized. Gutierrez attended that press hearing, held during Pride month, thanks to an invitation from Angela Peoples. (Peoples was later known for the image of herself at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, holding a sign that read Don’t Forget: White Women Voted for Trump while three white women in pink hats stood in the background.) 

This small intersection in history is fascinating and tells of an overlap between different but related movements. The undocuqueer movement added a new meaning to the term out and made possible the new phenomenon within the undocumented community of being “out and unafraid.” As if overnight, the larger immigrant community took on the rhetoric of being out and used it to wield its greatest influence: telling immigrants’ stories. Queer undocumented youth are fighting for immigration reform, even if the immigration community isn’t necessarily fighting for them. I think part of the rhetoric of Pride centers around recognizing humanity in the LGBTQI community, and I’m reminded of the queer undocumented artist Julio Salgado’s words of being “no longer interested in convincing you of my humanity.” Then I think of the beginning of Yosimar Reyes’s poem “Pride,” which starts, “I am more than body.” Ours are more than bodies. Obama deported more people than any other president in modern history, and the current administration aims to beat that record. I wonder when all of this will end, but, still, I’m hopeful. 


Paul Tran
Poet and poetry editor at The Offing

It’s Tuesday, June 11, 1963. We’re on the corner of Phan Dinh Phung Boulevard in Saigon. Thich Quang Duc sits in the lotus position. His robe erupts in flames. Monks and nuns protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. An American photographer zooms in. His camera captures the smoke, the flesh darkening, the petrol burning through everything but Thich Quang Duc’s heart, which remains intact in sunlit cloth. Who could’ve known that a photograph from that protest would appear in every major American paper? Who could’ve known that photograph would win a Pulitzer Prize or sway John F. Kennedy, who reportedly said that no news picture in history generated so much emotion around the world? 

Although I can’t say whether the monks and nuns gathered in rebellion that day were queer, I often return to that Tuesday when I meditate on Pride and on queer movements against state violence. It was a day when people under attack forced their oppressors to witness their end—an end their oppressors longed for—and recorded evidence of it as a weapon against those in power. I dare you to tell me that isn’t queer. Tell me that isn’t subversive and disorienting and disruptive—the very definitions of queer. I’m proud to come from such queerness and to carry in my politics of desire a politics of liberation. I think about how still Thich Quang Duc sat, how he didn’t flinch before his gods. I think of him and hear Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival.” I hear her say it is better to speak, and I wonder if this was the only way my ancestors felt they could be heard if they spoke. I wonder if poems, too, can be pyre and petrol and wildfire. Can poems bring a republic to its knees? Can they transform the heavy-footed who hoped to silence us? They must. Some of us have no other choice.

Demian DinéYazhi'
Artist and poet

I am an Indigenous Queer, and Pride has become as synonymous with my indigenous ancestry as with my sexuality. Having grown up during the HIV/AIDS crisis—part of a generation alienated from queer elders who were fighting for their lives and for the health of their communities—much of my initial exposure to queer culture was plagued with fear, ambivalence, and suspicion. I've always felt as though my relationship to my sexuality suffered because of conservative agendas, which are not dissimilar to those that motivated the attempted genocide and erasure of indigenous cultures. 
Pride for me is about survival as a force of resistance against white supremacist, heteropatriarchal colonization. Pride has come to represent an opportunity in which I am able to insert an indigenous perspective where the white gay and lesbian mainstream agenda has failed to create space, silenced innumerable non-white histories, and even dominated the humanitarian drive to adopt a European construction of sexual identity. Poems I turn to in this time are "A Litany for Survival," by Audre Lorde; "American Arithmetic," by Natalie Diaz; "Twenty-One Love Poems," by Adrienne Rich; "begging the wilderness that makes you choose me over patriarchy," by fabian romero; and "Untitled (Plants)," by manuel arturo abreu.

Ka'imilani Leota-Sellers
Poet and educator 

As a child, I was sheltered from the groundswell of resistance. My private world was embedded with the politics of sexual secrecy. The topic of sex, any kind of sex, was taboo in my family; stern looks of disgust always followed comments of being uncouth. But that day, when I first heard the word homosexual, I leaned in from the backseat of the car to hear a murmured conversation between my mother and another. Homosexual dropped heavy under low, conflicted tones. And when I asked in a clear, normal voice what that word meant, I was shushed in a drawn-out hiss, as if the very word would wake my little sister from her slumber—a mysterious word shrouded in shame. It was 1978. I was already a teenager, and for years after, I wouldn’t know how to be authentically me, how to be a warrior, an Audre Lorde of mixed melodies, of stories and poetry, of poverty and love. 

How did one transition through cultures, age, and skin color stretched across bones of persistence and truths? Her truths? I was ignorant of the chaos and violence that pebbled a pathway ahead of me, at Stonewall, or any other place. But Audre never hid her words; she was sensual and raw with brokeness and living, not muffled by years permeated with silence, like mine. It would be 37 years before I broke down in tears at a Pride Service Organization, joined an openly gay church, or attended my first Pride festival. No, I was never an Audre Lorde, but her work seeded my yearning to be me. 

Meredith Ramirez Talusan
Writer, activist, executive editor of Them

When I think of Pride, I think of the pride I felt marching down the street at Boston Gay Pride my freshman year of college, newly out, having been in the United States for only two years and coming from a devout Catholic background in the Philippines. I didn't know about Stonewall then, let alone the Compton Cafeteria Riots or Christopher Street or ball culture or Sylvia Rivera. What I did know: I was finally openly queer and celebrating that openness among other queer people. I have never taken that feeling for granted, and somehow the process of connecting dots from different places leads me to Anne Carson's translation of Sappho, whose daring and rebellion reaches me across continents and centuries, even in fragments.

Pamela Sneed
Author of Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery, KONG and Other Works, and Sweet Dreams

I come from a long legacy of queer resistance. When I think of resistance, though, my mind does not go to those foundational rebellions such as Stonewall. My mind goes to literature and to those works that helped me shape myself as a Black lesbian woman and gave me the power to stand up and say no to all types of violence. This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa was and will always be a seminal text for me. I also came of age when a lot of Black, queer, and Latinx people were dying of AIDS and cancer. The stories they wrote, the performances they created, the camaraderie they forged, their openness, their courage was a form of resistance. This is important for me to say now: in the AIDS era, as people of color and queers, those positive and those not, we could not afford to get arrested, so we wrote, we gathered, we breathed resistance. I want the record to note that we've always been here, fighting.

Caleb Luna
Writer and performer

The pride found in queer rebellions against state violence, such as at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco or Stonewall in New York, was a movement against the founding of the settler nation-state built on the ongoing genocides of anti-Blackness, indigenous removal and erasure, and the systems they produced in transmisogyny, homophobia, capitalism, prisons and policing, and more. The freedom fighters living at the intersections were, and are still, at the front lines of the movement for queer liberation. This pride is necessarily about more than representation, visibility, and assimilation. We were not meant to survive these systems, and an approximation to or inclusion in them—what the contemporary Pride movement has become attached to—cannot liberate these systems. 

The poem that gives me the most hope is “A Litany for Survival,” by Audre Lorde. She invokes the resilience of those of us who “were never meant to survive”—survive colonization, genocides against Black and indigenous people, survive homophobia, racism, sexism, fatphobia, capitalism, and all other systems intended to crush us. This poem takes us back to the structures that are diminishing our possibilities and offers us a method of resistance—through “speak[ing] / remembering / we were never meant to survive.” This pointing to quotidian power and resistance through presence helps me through this life I was never meant to survive. The freedom fighters that began our movement surely knew this, and when the circumstances shifted such that speaking was no longer enough, they found the power to defend themselves—a power we can and should draw from.

Originally Published: June 25th, 2018

Poet and activist Christopher Soto, who also uses the name Loma, is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants. He was educated at New York University.  In his poems, Soto engages themes of intimacy, trauma, and identity. In a 2014 blog essay for VIDA, Soto writes, “At dinner she asked why I...