Gender Justice Series. Gender is shifting in the U.S., spawning deep soul searching, fear, and backlash – as well as new opportunities for social transformation. In our Gender Justice series Let’s Talk will explore how gender is woven together with other social identities such as race and class, and how a liberative approach to gender can inform and strengthen a wide range of social movements.
I am a queer Chicana building an alliance with boys and men of color.
The connections between who I am and who I work with may not seem obvious to you or to many people, including those launching My Brother’s Keeper, President Obama’s new initiative aimed at empowering boys and young men of color. In fact, the connections weren’t even completely clear to me just three years ago.
Three years ago I was pregnant and bombarded with the question, “What do you want — a boy or a girl?” “A healthy baby,” I would answer.
A month into my second trimester I had a vivid dream, my wise curandera Tereza rubbed my swollen belly and gave me a consejo to take care of the little girl inside of me. I woke up from that dream thinking about how I would raise this child with the least amount of pink and dolls, and with the greatest amount of spunk and spirit.
Weeks later at the ultrasound that would confirm the sex of our baby, I looked at my partner with disbelief as the technician ceremoniously announced that we were having a boy. I was incredulous. Over and over I asked the technician to check again. In the end my partner and I were sent home with an ultrasound picture with an arrow pointing to our son’s anatomy and capitalized letters that read BOY!!!
The awesome responsibility of raising a boy of color weighed on me heavily. Having grown up with two brothers in a predominantly people of color community, I am painfully and intimately familiar with the low expectations, school tracking, and racial profiling boys and men of color are subjected to. I know that youth and men of color are seen as expendable by systems that are stacked against them.
Unconsciously I decided that the best way of protecting my yet unborn child was to keep him inside of me for as long as I could. I felt that he would be safer inside of me. Because how could I possibly protect him from the outside world? I was in denial about birthing him. Fortunately for me, I was in the care of an experienced and intuitive midwife, Eva, who saw right through my fright. At our 39th week visit, Eva and my partner gently confronted me and started chipping away at my fears. I was flooded with emotion, realizing that my role was to guide this baby into, and in, this world.
My son was born on his due date, one ounce shy of nine pounds. My fears of the world around him have not disappeared but have been abated by the network of people and organizations engaged in Boys and Men of Color (BMOC) work in local communities and through statewide initiatives funded by The California Endowment.
As a queer mami of color, my faith in a better world is restored through this work as I hear, witness, and engage in challenging yet healthy struggles about the boys of color who are traditionally left out of the conversation – queer identified and transgender boys of color. It’s undeniable that outcomes for boys and men of color are dire when it comes to higher education, employment, health, and life expectancy. These issues are compounded when we talk about queer and transgender boys and men of color.
In our work with BMOC we have found that focusing on gender and sexuality is crucial for empowering men of color. For example, the experiences of youth leaders in the Young Men’s Empowerment Program (YMEP) at the Long Beach-based Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) illustrate the power of creating safe spaces to address gender identity and sexuality with young men of color. In the words of Seng So, Young Men’s Empowerment Coordinator at KGA and a leader in the Brothers Sons Selves coalition in Los Angeles County,
YMEP serves as a safe space where young Southeast Asian men share in collective knowledge, growth, and transformation…Through YMEP we are redefining the markers of manhood, reshaping masculinity and the role that we play in being allies to our sisters and young women who are fighting to dismantle patriarchy.
Seng So describes how the empowerment of young men has allowed some to come out to their friends, family, and community––serving as leaders and advocates of LGBTQ rights in the process. Through YMEP young men are developing into effective organizers in their local communities, fighting for wellness centers and restorative discipline practices in their schools.
As Seng So’s story illustrates, focusing on gender means broadening the definition of “what a man is,” how masculinity is defined, enforced in our families, cultures, and society. In statewide gatherings and curriculum for BMOC, participants explore and challenge limiting concepts of what a man looks like. This exploration goes beyond breaking down familiar stereotypes to challenging the gender binary and widening the lens to look at the intersections of gender and sexuality.
Ultimately, a focus on gender means an inclusive way of looking at issues that affect all of us. How do we uplift our black and brown, young people of color without leaving out part of who they are – gender identity and sexuality? How do we raise our children to express their full humanity and all of who they are — for gender to support that expression — not be a prison, an expectation, a limitation, a target for state violence, a purveyor of unearned privilege and power.
Understanding and exploring gender is important for all men and boys as an essential part of their development and empowerment. Understanding and exploring gender is necessary for any program or initiative because otherwise we end up excluding and discriminating and traumatizing those who don’t fit into the established boxes, and reinforcing oppression for all.
My hope is that my son will grow to become a kind, thoughtful, community oriented human being: someone who believes in inclusion, who will struggle to find another way, a third way, that transcends the “either-or” options to which we’ve limited ourselves.
Let’s have this conversation as if the lives of all boys of color are on the line, because they are. Just like the lives of girls of color are on the line. Let’s find another way, a third way, to include boys of color in all of their wholeness.