Two statue-toppling arrestees discuss the role of their identities as queer women of color
(Correction: This article has been updated after it incorrectly reported that Bree Newsome identified as gay.)
Takiyah Thompson and a date were sitting close in the back seat when the Uber driver turned around to the two women and asked, “Are you guys best friends?”
Those are the moments that bug Thompson the most, she said, when people react to everyday things that would go unnoticed between men and women, like holding hands.
“Like the way people’s faces change when a woman says ‘my girlfriend,’” she said.
Thompson, 23, grew up homeless at times but her family couldn’t get food stamps. At 13, she watched police slam a black friend up against a car. In high school she watched teachers do nothing when students picked on a gay friend.
It was those and other experiences that Thompson – who describes herself as queer and gay – said pushed her into a movement that pulled down a Confederate statue outside the old Durham County Courthouse in August. She is one of four queer women of color who were charged in the incident, part of a wave of protests that have sparked debate and in some cases violence across the country.
“I think because I occupy so many intersecting oppressed identities, it just lessens the amount of people who are willing to take up my cause,” said Thompson, a junior at N.C. Central University. “If I don’t stand up for myself, and if I don’t speak truth to power, then who will.”
Thompson and the others arrested in Durham join other queer women of color in the spotlight, among them Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, who started the Black Lives Matter movement in 2012.
Two weeks ago Lena Waithe became the first black woman to win an Emmy award for comedy writing for an episode of Netflix’s “Master of None” that explored her coming out as gay.
“To my LGBTQIA family, I see all of you,” Waithe said in her speech. “The things that make us different are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door, put on your invisible cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we’re not in it.”
In Durham, City Councilwoman Jillian Johnson, who identifies as bisexual, said Black Lives Matter has played a big part in queer women of color taking on more prominent roles – and more people paying attention to them.
“I think it is kind of a combination of many years of a growing political understanding around intersecting systems of oppression and the increasing amount of visibility that queer people have in communities,” she said.
Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at the Duke Human Rights Center, said queer women of color have fought marginalization for years.
“When we look at the leadership in the women’s movement, you are going to find queer women of color leading the way,” Lau said
Murray was an attorney, priest, author, human rights activist who loved other women and struggled with her gender identity. Her childhood Durham home at 906 Carroll St. was declared a National Historic Landmark last year.
Murray, who coined the phrase Jane Crow, argued for women to be included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Part of queer women of color’s power is speaking from their own experience, Lau said.
“It is a powerful, powerful thing,” she said.
Loan Tran, who was among those arrested in Durham, is gender nonconforming and uses the pronouns “they” and “their.” Tran, 22, runs the Youth Organizing Institute, which teaches social-justice organizing.
Tran was a baby when their parents came to the United States from Vietnam.
Growing up in Charlotte, Tran watched people try to shame their parents for not speaking English. Later, Tran watched friends in the country illegally struggle with not being able to take driver’s education and get a license.
“It helped contextualize my experience within something broader,” Tran said. “So I can recognize that I am not the only person in the universe who will get on the bus in the morning and get called f----- by a stranger.”
The first time Thompson, who grew up in Brooklyn, stood up for her and others’ rights was when she was 12 . She took the city bus to school and sometimes arrived late.
One day school officials gathered the habitually late kids in a room and tried to make them sign contracts that said they would be suspended if they were late.
“And I’m like this is against the law. I need an adult with me to enter into a contract,” Thompson said. And everyone was like ‘I am not signing it.’ From then on, I was the troublemaker.”
‘Nothing to lose’
Political writer Pam Spaulding doesn’t know if this is a unique moment for queer women of color.
“In this media-saturated world, I think that it just receives more coverage,” she said. “But because anyone with a phone can broadcast direct action, it has spurred activism.”
Spaulding, formerly of Durham, wrote the progressive blog Pam’s House Blend focusing on civil rights issues and the intersection of race and LGBTQ issues. Her grandmother, Elna Spaulding, formed Women In Action for the Prevention of Violence in the 1960s in Durham and was the first black female county commissioner.
“I think that generally speaking women of color know day-to-day about the effects of racism – and misogyny for that matter – in how oppression affects their lives,” Spaulding said. “Taking high-profile actions is a sign of leadership – and in a way, nothing to lose, much to gain.”
Not everyone in the anti-racism movement, however, supports the Durham protesters’ tactics.
When the Ku Klux Klan came to Durham in the 1980s, activists held a silent protest on the steps of a post office and then a unity rally, which led to some of the multicultural and racial networks in the movement today, said Mandy Carter, a black gay activist who co-founded of Southerners On New Ground and the National Black Justice Coalition.
Carter said she would not have pulled the Confederate statue down. She’s also not crazy about curse-laden chants that call for taking everything down.
“There is a tension,” between the radicals and others in the movement, she said, “but maybe it is an interesting creative tension about how do we make change.”
Watching black people on their roofs during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was another key moment for Thompson.
She was 9 and remembers hearing rapper Kanye West say President George Bush didn’t care about black people.
“I thought about it, and was like, hmm,” Thompson said. “I started to think about the conditions of my family and all the black people I know, and I am just like, interesting.”
Around the 2016 election, she decided to join the communist organization Workers World Party, one of the groups that organized the Aug. 14 rally where Thompson climbed the ladder and slipped a strap around the Confederate monument.
But the moment wasn’t just objecting to the system. It was objecting to liberals’ rhetoric about loving others but not wanting to push the envelope beyond vigils and voting, she said.
It was about pushing back, Tran said.
“You can’t keep pushing people into corners. And you can’t keep terrorizing people,” said Tran, who is also a member of the Workers World Party.
“You can’t keep killing black people in the streets with impunity. You can’t keep locking people up,” Tran continued. “You can’t keep denying health care to people You can’t keep evicting people without reaching some sort of boiling point. And you can’t just keep making people’s lives hell and not expect that eventually everyone is just going to be like, I can’t tolerate that any more.”
Thompson and Tran return to court in November.