- Holding Each Other Better: Discussing State Violence, Healing, and Community with BreakOUT!
In 2012, anti-racist and queer politics both experienced important turning points.
On February 26, George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman claimed Martin physically assaulted him after he, in his capacity as a neighborhood watchman, deemed the teenager “suspicious” and pursued him. Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal on murder charges inspired massive mobilizations around the criminalization of black bodies in and beyond the criminal justice system.1 Since 2012, others have joined Martin on a growing and macabre list of unarmed black individuals killed by law enforcement or self-fashioned vigilantes, including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Rumain Brisbon, Jordan Baker, Shereese Francis, Akai Gurley, Kajieme Powell, Ezell Ford, Tyree Woodson, Victor White III, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. Outrage surrounding these deaths has coalesced into the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to challenge white supremacy, particularly police violence against black bodies, through protests, direct actions, and aggressive public education campaigns. The growth of Black Lives Matter since Trayvon Martin’s death coincides with a dramatic increase of discussion regarding police brutality and racism in electoral politics and mainstream news media.
About three months after Martin’s death, Barack Obama became the first sitting president of the United States to publicly declare support for same-sex [End Page 98] marriage. Obama’s remarks, which many saw as the culmination of his “evolving” position on the issue, came in the context of growing activism in support of marriage equality and corresponding shifts in public opinion. Between 2012 and 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in the majority of states, either through court rulings or legislative action. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that marriage is a constitutionally protected right for same-sex couples, effectively striking down all remaining state bans on gay marriage. The ruling coincided with many major Pride parades across the United States, inspiring intense celebration. To mark the historic ruling, White House staff illuminated the outside of the executive mansion with rainbow colors to express solidarity with queer individuals celebrating the decision.
Thus, as I write, anti-racist activists continue to mobilize around the claim that black lives matter, while many in the LGBTQ community celebrate victory and discuss “next steps” following the Court’s marriage ruling. At the same time, individuals standing at the intersection of these struggles, specifically LGBTQ people of color, have leveraged critiques against both Black Lives Matter and, perhaps more forcefully, the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement. Since January 2015, at least 23 transgender individuals have been murdered in the United States; a figure I have updated repeatedly since beginning the transcription of this queer conversation. Most of them were people of color. It is in this context that several black female and/or queer activists have questioned the Black Lives Matter movement’s disproportionate emphasis on violence against cisgender black men when cisgender black women and transgender individuals are equally, if not more, vulnerable. Furthermore, following the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, many queer activists and scholars have reiterated longstanding criticisms of movement strategies focusing on marriage, arguing that such an approach is assimilationist and prioritizes the interests of cisgender and white queer men and women at the expense of transgender individuals and queer people of color.2 In other words, although the struggle for LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement are largely distinct in the public imaginary, many individuals at the intersections of these fights feel neglected or, worse, erased.
Founded in 2011, BreakOUT! is an activist collective based in New Orleans that “seeks to end the criminalization of [LGBTQ] youth to build a safer and more just New Orleans.”3 The Crescent City is widely regarded as one of the nation’s queerest cities. Although located in the Deep South, New Orleans boasts a robust queer nightlife, the annual Southern Decadence festival, and the transgressive joys associated with Mardi Gras and other celebrations. The work of BreakOUT! offers a corrective to the uncritical celebration of...