Local initiatives illuminate LGBTQ community

COMMUNITY EFFORT: UNCA professor Amanda Wray, third from right, stands with fellow staff, students and community partners who have helped with her ongoing oral history project concerning the LGBTQ community. Also featured, from left: Rachel Muir, Libby Ward, Kaylin Preslar, Simon Brooks, Tina White and Gene Hyde. Photo courtesy Amanda Wray

When UNC Asheville launched its inaugural Queer Studies Conference in 1998, “It was very much academics talking to academics,” remembers Sophie Mills, a professor of classics at the school who was a founding organizer of the biennial event. In more recent years, she continues, the conference has looked beyond the lecture hall, regularly featuring panel discussions and workshops led by activists, artists and undergraduates as well as scholars.

This year’s edition, originally slated for April 3-5, had expected to continue that tradition. But the event, titled “Fitting In and Sticking Out: Queer (In)Visibilities and the Perils of Inclusion,” has been postponed due to concerns about COVID-19, the coronavirus behind the current global pandemic. Nonetheless, the topics the conference had planned to address — including LGBTQ health care, history and pedagogy — remain key issues, since this is a group that, more often than not, has been ignored by the history books.

In an effort to give readers a broader look at the local LGBTQ community, Xpress spoke with several individuals and organizations that are working to spotlight and preserve its stories and achievements.

Differences vs. similarities

GAINING GROUND: Shawn Mendez, co-chair of UNCA’s Queer Studies Conference, says the LGBTQ movement continues to gain support thanks to past and present activists and organizers “doing that superchallenging and superdifficult work of getting exposure, demanding access, demanding dignity and demanding respect.” Photo courtesy Shawn Mendez

“When you look back historically to what [gay rights] organizing looked like and what the goals were during the sexual revolution in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, a lot of what was happening at that time were not calls for inclusion or discussions of sameness,” says UNCA sociology professor Shawn Mendez, who is this year’s conference co-chair. “People weren’t talking about the ways that gays and lesbians were the same as straight people; most of those folks were talking about the ways that gays and lesbians were different.”

Within gay and lesbian communities, those differences were celebrated. The message, says Mendez, was, “We’re different from you, but that shouldn’t mean we deserve less dignity or respect than you.”

Mainstream America, however, wasn’t ready for such ideas. In the inaugural edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in 1952, notes Mendez, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” That classification remained until the board of trustees voted to remove it in December 1973, and it took further reclassifications in subsequent editions before the organization fully removed the pejorative associations with homosexuality.

Mendez, who identifies as queer, says that in the 1980s, LGBTQ organizations changed their message in response to the AIDS epidemic. Early on, a majority of Americans thought the outbreak affected only homosexual men. To counter this false assumption, she explains, activists began explicitly promoting similarities. “Gays and lesbians started saying, ‘Actually, straight people, we’re exactly the same as you. We just have this one tiny difference of who we decide to partner with.’”

Today, the message continues to evolve, and the conference has tended to reflect that, says Mendez. In previous decades, she says, those who studied gender and sexuality generally maintained a limited focus, ignoring factors such as race, immigration status, religion and family dynamics.

“I think, over time, queer studies has gotten better at grappling with those issues from a more intersectional lens, or dealing with the ways that all the statuses interact with each other,” says Mendez. “I am hopeful that that will continue to happen and that we’ll continue to come up with innovative ways to think about, research, study and document all of the ways that our lives are impacted and the unique combinations of those things over time.” 

Internal divisions

For some local LGBTQ research projects, however, representing diversity is still an issue. Since January 2019, UNCA English professor Amanda Wray has been working with undergraduate interns, community allies and members of Western North Carolina’s LGBTQ community to compile oral histories. With support from Blue Ridge Pride and the YMCA of Western North Carolina, Wray’s team has conducted over 30 interviews so far.

Up till now, however, the project has remained fairly homogeneous. “We’re in crucial need of interviewees of color,” Wray reveals.

Among the project’s many goals is creating a virtual pride center. “It’s so important to me that kids everywhere can get on the internet, click a button and see some stories about people from their county coming out,” she explains. But if the project remains predominantly white, Wray maintains, it risks losing its ability to speak to the region’s queer youth of color.

Meanwhile, the project has also fostered intergenerational relationships within the LGBTQ community, since undergraduates are conducting many of the interviews. “It’s really just this amazing thing to put a lesbian woman in her 80s in conversation with a transgender man who is 22,” says Wray.

Such interactions, she believes, can help break down barriers within the LGBTQ community. “The role that transgender people have played in inviting us to question so many things that we held sacred, like same-sex attraction,” has been challenging for some community members, notes Wray. She cites an interview with an 88-year-old lesbian who “does not believe that trans women can be lesbians.” This kind of fracture is common between different generations, Wray explains.

The present round of interviews has also highlighted a paradox: In order for the LGBTQ movement to survive, it needed allies; but now that it has a broader network of supporters, many members feel the community has unraveled.

“One of the perils of inclusivity that we’ve learned from our oral history participants,” says Wray, “is that when gay spaces become less explicitly gay — when they become more inclusive of cisgender and allies — nobody really knows where to go to find their people anymore. It becomes less clear who is in the family and who is supporting the family.”

Documenting these complex stories, she believes, is essential. “Oral history is such an empowerment tool. From its inception it has always been about preserving the history of the people, as a way to offer an alternative to what gets published in textbooks.” And meanwhile, the experience itself — conducting the interviews, hearing the stories, interacting with the people sharing them — is also beneficial.

Digging deeper

ONE BY ONE: Local artist and activist Cortina Jenelle Caldwell says bridging the gap between communities is simple. “It’s just building relationships. It can start with one person … and one conversation.” Photo courtesy Cortina Jenelle Caldwell

CoThinkk, a philanthropic organization led by people of color, has been dedicated to social change since its inception in 2014. Founder Tracey Greene-Washington says the group initially focused strictly on “centering equity.” But as the grassroots organization grew, its mission intensified. “If you don’t do this work in an intersectional way, then you’re missing opportunities to deepen your analysis,” she explains.

Beginning in April, the nonprofit will host a three-month-long workshop titled “Heart of Humanity.” Led by Alan Ramirez, a regional organizer with Southerners on New Ground, and Cortina Jenelle Caldwell, the founder and creative director of Artists Designing Evolution, the series will cover LGBTQ history, language and how to create a welcoming and inclusive workspace.

Intersectionality, says Jenelle Caldwell, will be a key feature. “We’re not really going to see things progress if we’re only focused on one particular lane at a time, because we live multilevel lives,” she explains. “Our identities are complex: We’re not just one thing.”

The sessions, adds Ramirez, will combat stereotypes about the LGBTQ community and shed light on overlooked portions of its population. “Most of the time, it’s black and brown queer and trans people who are erased from the conversation,” he says.

The series will also celebrate such figures as Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist and adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., and Pauli Murray, a writer, legal theorist, labor organizer and Episcopal priest. “We need to recognize that these people have been invisible by and large,” Jenelle Caldwell points out. “We don’t know all of the contributions that the LGBTQ community has made in America because we haven’t been welcoming them in to begin with.”

The sessions are primarily aimed at CoThinkk members, and Greene-Washington strongly encourages interested members of the broader community to consider joining her organization.

“We hope that it is a transformative process,” she says. “It’s about members changing individually — shifting and transforming and evolving as change agents in this overall work.”

So what?

Mendez has a similar feeling about this year’s Queer Studies Conference, which organizers hope to reschedule for the fall. Gaining a deeper understanding, she says, provides a crucial foundation, but learning alone is only the first step.

“Now you know this thing, but so what? Why does it matter? What are you going to do with it? How does this help real people try to live their lives in the real world?”

The goal, continues Mendez, “is that everybody walks away from the conference with a feeling that there’s something they can do within their sphere of influence to make the world better, safer, more inclusive and more supportive for LGBTQ people and their lives.”


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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