our issues: interview with the national black justice coalition (nbjc)

April 9, 2013

Founded in 2003, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) is a policy advocacy group based in Washington D.C. that focuses on the issues of queer Black people. Given the increasing conversation about queer identities, both on an institutional and cultural scale, the NBJC has emerged as a platform that underscores intersectionality when addressing the issues of queer people. It is an institution that speaks to specificity and subjectivity—two terms growing more and more relevant given the complexity of the socio-political issues we have before us. I recently sat down with Spelman alumnus and NBJC Programs and Outreach Associate Je-ShawnaWholley to discuss the founding of the organization, influencing policy, experiences of queer Black people on Historically Black College and University as well as predominantly white college campuses, and what “queer” looks like in a modern context.

By: Justin Allen, AFROPUNK Contributor

NBJC was founded in 2003. Who founded it and how did it get started?

NBJC has many founders. Mandy Carter, Keith Boykin, Jasmyne Cannick, Roddrick A. Colvin, Maurice Franklin, Donna Payne, Frank Leon Roberts, Sonya Shields are a number of them. There needed to be a countervailing voice to Black clergy who were uniting with religious right leaders to work against LGBT rights.

Keith Boykin called together some activist friends and organized a press conference stating they were there as open and proud Black LGBT people standing against injustice. A reporter asked, “What is the name of your organization?” and Keith Boykin, thinking quickly on his feet said “the National Black Justice Coalition.” 

How do you think the voice within the movement is diverse as far as socio-economic class?

When you look at the more dominant voices in the LGBT movement, the voices that are getting the most press and getting the platform to promote their priorities, those voices typically belong to wealthy white gay men. But our communities and our backgrounds are far more diverse. NBJC ensures that queer Black people are in the room when political conversations are happening and policy decisions are being made. We make sure the Black LGBT narrative, experience, and priorities are represented, and that our community has a seat at the table. When you’re talking about economic empowerment, violence or homelessness, NBJC doesn’t allow you to ignore how that’s going to impact queer Black people. So while issues like marriage equality are certainly important, we don’t live single-issue lives. It’s just as important that we’re simultaneously talking about employment non-discrimination and our trans sisters that are being murdered because of who they are. 


So, given that we have a Black president, do you see him having a positive effect on Black queer people?

Absolutely. A new poll came out via the Washington Post that showed that the percentage of people accepting marriage equality has actually doubled since 2004. So when you are able to sit down in your living room as a queer person of color—or not a queer person of color, but just a person of color—and see your president not only say that he supports marriage equality but also be very transparent about the fact that he himself had to go through an evolution, had to go through a process of challenging himself and being challenged by his family to come to the conclusion that he was wrong and this is how he feels today, I absolutely think it has an impact for the better on our community as a whole.

You’re now traveling the country with workshops to create safe spaces on college campuses. How did you get this organized?

It happened organically. One of the things I did on Spelman’s campus while going to school there was collect stories and work with a local non-profit in Atlanta called StoryCorps. The purpose of that was to archive the experiences of queer faculty and alumni on Spelman and Morehouse’s campuses. In the midst of doing that I ran into my current mentor Shannon Miller who is the president of the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association Conference. She wanted me to use the interviews I did and do a little research to compare the experiences of queer people of color on same-sex HBCU campuses versus that of queer people of color on same-sex predominantly white institution (PWI) campuses. The findings were really interesting, so I ended up presenting at the conference, and they wanted me to bring this information to their students. Since then I’ve been very comfortable going to campuses and sharing my story.


Could you expand on what issues you discuss and what your methods are of addressing these issues?

    One of the things I focus on is building safe spaces for queer people of color, so that’s either for an HBCU campus or a predominantly white campus. The methods are usually different. On an HBCU campus, one of the things we talk about is, what is it that you want to accomplish with this space? So, for a lot of people it’s literally about building a safe space, finding a room with an advisor and a focused theme or mission and allowing people to come into this space and vent and be and share and grow from that space. It’s not about mobilizing the campus, it’s not about changing institutional policy. Sometimes we need to just get it out before we can worry about changing the world. And then I come in contact with students who are interested in changing institutional policies, and we talk about ways to go about that. We talk about building coalitions on campus with other organizations, and then finding out what an institution doesn’t have.

I encourage a lot of colleges to take the Campus Pride Index, and that is a measurement for them to see exactly, on a national scale, how inclusive their campus is. Do they have academics such as queer studies? Do they have an LGBT resource center or adviser? Are the campus staff and police properly trained to handle issues of hate crimes or interpersonal violence within same-sex couples? Do they have gender neutral bathrooms? And this goes for PWI campuses, too. What I usually find is that PWI campuses usually have more resources than HBCU campuses, but the problem is when someone is both Black and queer on a white-majority campus and the LGBT resource center is not inclusive as far as race, then that again becomes an unsafe space. It’s really about doing a lot of listening and finding out what campuses have at their disposal and finding ways to manipulate that.


A lot of these ideas, such as gender neutral bathrooms, can be very jarring to people unfamiliar to them. What are some of your methods of making these ideas more approachable?

    I always start by bringing people into the same room and having very candid and intentional conversations. So, sharing stories. When you’re in a room and everyone is talking about their own experiences of being excluded or isolated or marginalized or oppressed, you find that people can relate to each other a lot more. Also, building relationships. I went from being this very radical, F-the-infrastructure-and-institution personality to understanding, that’s not really going to help if I don’t go talk to the president of the college. Sometimes you have to be strategic, swallow your pride and have genuine conversations with people that you may think or assume are your enemy. I don’t necessarily think that all ignorance comes from a place of hate. I think all ignorance starts from a place of unknowing. But, if you provide information and they’re not interested, then you have to go to plan B. Also, get your numbers up. When you start showing that you have a backing of 200 to 300 people, you’ll be surprised how quickly people will switch something up. Use the media, too. I’m so good with putting people on blast, and you have to be prepared for whatever that backlash is. Weigh your pros and cons and make sure you have a solid foundation and backing.

With the HBCU initiative, how do you intend to address issues of homophobia and transphobia within Black frats and sororities which are very traditionally gender-segregated.

I go directly to HBCU student group and I help them start dialogue on their campuses. Often times a lot of the dialogue that starts is about fraternities and sororities on campus and leadership on campus that are also hubs for homphobia and transphobia. I think that’s the best way right now, for us to encourage students to have these conversations. But it’s still a trickle down. Even if you have stricter policies on a national level about hazing and bullying, there’s still an underground culture. So it’s about hitting it from both angles. It’s about institutional change, but also social and cultural change.


Another campaign you have is the Emerging Leader’s Initiative. Could you explain the process of being accepted into that.

    It’s funny because we don’t necessarily choose people, people choose us. And it’s about creating platforms and programs and avenues to provide leadership development. So it’s not this kind of picking the best of the best, because if you want to be engaged and you want to be involved, you find your way to OUT on the Hill or Emerging Leader’s Day or one of our forums about creating change, then  you find yourself a part of a family.


A more ideological question, your website distinguishes between secular, civil marriage and religious marriage. A lot of churches, as you know, interpret same-sex marriage as contradictory to religion, but many queer Black people are religious. How do you think one can reconcile this?

    I come in contact with a lot of religious people at this job. I interviewed a woman named Angela Davis, a theologian, and one thing she said to me that stuck is that she couldn’t understand why someone would choose to be in a spiritually abusive relationship. I say that to say, when we decide we want to get married, we decide that we want to have a certain religious experience, I think it is very crucial that we choose spaces, especially spiritual spaces, that are completely affirming to ourselves. Our whole selves. The problem is that this statement in and of itself bleeds privilege, and I understand that. Idealistically, that’s what I encourage. But that access is not always available. So when it comes to civil marriage and equality, this is where I understand the importance of policy and reform, because we have a select number of states to choose from if we want to get married. This is why it’s important to acknowledge the rights of all people, so we don’t have to look very, very hard for safety.


One critique of the fight for marriage equality is that it is a movement of privilege. Given the issues that face queer people, such as those related to HIV and homelessness, do you see the fight for marriage equality as one that takes privilege to be passionate about?

    Absolutely. I definitely believe that the movement of marriage equality is a movement of privilege. Will being married as queer Black person have benefits on our community? Absolutely. Especially considering that, of the LGBT community, we’re most likely to have children. So the economic benefits of that are good for our community as well. However, I do think that there are other things that we can be fighting for, and are fighting for. But the reason other issues don’t get as much of a spotlight is because they do not impact the more privileged portion of the LGBT community as much as they impact us.


And now a pop culture question. Do you see queer Black people gaining visibility within pop culture?

    I would say I’m seeing queer more visible in culture, and I’m defining “queer” as being something that’s not “mainstream,” that’s not conservative, that’s really outside of the lines, which I think feeds off of LGBT culture. So you have, for example, Frank Ocean coming out, and you look at the fashion industry and you look at even Nicki Minaj, not even indentifying her as LGBT. Mark Anthony Neal had a very profound perspective of Nicki Minaj as a brand—he’s where I got the idea of Black itself being queer and queer being identified as not the norm—and the way that Nicki Minaj remains in this very ambiguous space, not being able to define her as a person or her sexuality leaves room for a lot of queerdom. And when he broke that down to me, I understood how pop culture is becoming more of a safe haven for queer people and queer culture.


And I think visibility is very important. What are some ways you think we can create more visibility for queer Black people?

    Well, for one, I think we need to start electing more queer Black people into office. We need to put more queer Black people into positions of power, I think we need to start empowering our queer Black youth and creating safe spaces to set them up for success. The more we do that I feel like we start this trend of leadership. I think we need to start supporting our queer Black artists so that if their goal is to be mainstream, we need to make them mainstream like we made Lady Gaga mainstream. Also, supporting each other. Whenever someone sends NBJC something that they’re doing in their community, we’re always highlighting it. Making sure that Black transpeople are visible so that they’re not erased. Whenever there’s a murder or a crime against our community, we make sure we name it. Like withMarco McMillian in Mississippi and Robert Champion. We can’t fragment them, and we can’t ignore that being queer was a part of their identities. So making sure that we name who we are, remain authentic and give each other shine is extremely important to how visible we become.

To learn more about the National Black Justice Coalition, their campaigns and their initiatives, you can visit their website or Facebook page.