Nichole R. Phillips
December 18, 2020
I’ve spent a year writing about Black lesbian religious leaders. This culminates over a decade of interviews with queer women about their faith activism and leadership models. When I am asked questions regarding religion, race, and healing after the 2020 election or how to negotiate with persons holding opposing political visions, these women’s narratives immediately come to mind. They, along with the Black Lives Matter organizers, learned how to advance their justice pursuits by pursuing wholistic justice.
Ultimately, I am suggesting that queer leadership paves the way not just for religious communities but for secular society as well. Whether considering the political savvy of Black lesbian Karine Jean Pierre, who served as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ chief of staff, or exploring the “healing justice” pursued by the queer sisters leading Black Lives Matter movements across the country, or discussing the democratic activism of an older freedom fighter like Mandy Carter, it is clear to me that the future is queer. Queer women of color—and in particular queer Black women—have demonstrated the capacity to draw expertise from the margins of society to pursue wholistic justice or justice that is by its very nature intersectional in its analysis of and solutions to the problems of society. Wholistic justice shows its concern for the most marginalized members of society recognizing that when the world is fair and just for them, it will be for the rest of us.
Wholistic justice shows its concern for the most marginalized members of society recognizing that when the world is fair and just for them, it will be for the rest of us.
Queer leaders’ life experiences have shown them that change is possible through collaboration because we are always connected to larger communities of need. Their emphasis on wholeness for their communities is paramount to all-embracing leadership, and oftentimes this meant seeking the multiple roots of oppression or doing justice work from an intersectional framework. Queer leaders have organized throughout American history with persons holding opposing political views or in the case of my research subjects, religious views that often denied their humanity. They did not accept “alternate facts” about their lives that considered their lives immoral. Instead, they stood in their truths while making the hard decisions to find common ground in pursuit of justice.
While marriage equality is a contemporary example of this lobbying of various stakeholders, for Black queer leaders, marriage was not the only goal. After all, what good is marriage if you live under-employed, over-policed, and under-insured? Observing the life narratives of Black lesbian religious leaders who advocated for greater access to the abundance promised in the American dream reflects learning to emphasize leadership strategies that are non-hierarchical (not just one solitary leader); para-institutional (involving more than just religious community); and inter-generational (including leadership from persons of varying ages), which allows for leaders at any age or stage of life.
These are certainly strategies that will benefit President-elect Biden’s transition team as it seeks to make concessions with a deeply divided population. Queer leadership promotes many of the progressive goals campaigned on during the election season like attention to environmental racism while discussing climate change; eliminating student loan debt; increasing access to equitable healthcare through the Affordable Care Act; advocating for racial justice, which includes criminal justice reform solutions for state violence against marginalized community members. Queer leaders speak from their position on the margins where they experienced many of these concerns—they were already active in pursuing solutions.
Queer leaders speak from their position on the margins where they experienced many of these concerns—they were already active in pursuing solutions.
While queer leadership speaks to these intersectional concerns, the particularity of the Black female experience has shown to be significant in progressive activism. For example, womanist scholar and BLM activist Melina Abdullah reminds us that for Black women, leadership has been a means of redesigning power structures to include their realities. Abdullah posits that what we can learn from historical Black women’s leadership is how to bridge theory with practice, how to center collaborative leadership, and how to utilize traditional and nontraditional forms of activism . Thus, examining the queer leadership of the contemporary BLM movement can be instructive for advancing the Biden administration’s goals.
Sidestepping whether association with these “radicals” cost Democrats additional Senate and House seats, when I suggest looking to queer BLM leadership, I am highlighting their potential to expand the vision, which is exactly what the Democratic Party needs to do. For example, recognizing the interconnected issues impacting Black women, BLM leaders issued a solidarity statement with reproductive justice advocacy groups seeking to address issues like the environmental racism of Flint, Michigan; the murders of transwomen and men; the fight for a living wage; along with the need for police reform. These collaborations are rooted in Black freedom and justice—and especially Black female queer leadership—illustrating the need to force discussions of inclusion and equality beyond the privileging of the elite. I contend that their queered leadership model operates from their multiple sites of oppression, which gave them insight that reflects the goals of wholistic justice, which is full human thriving.
When I suggest looking to queer BLM leadership, I am highlighting their potential to expand the vision, which is exactly what the Democratic Party needs to do.
Queer leadership, as I have witnessed in Black lesbian religious leaders, imbues their activism with deep theological beliefs that support this sense of full thriving for humanity. Their justice work seeks to address what philosopher Eddie Glaude has described as America’s value gap: the belief that white people matter more than others. This hierarchy that places some issues, some people as greater priorities is what President-elect Biden will inherit and hopefully one with the assistance of Black queer leaders he can help dismantle. Our country needs and deserves progressive leaders who promote radically inclusive ideologies and practices. What interviewing queer religious leaders and studying their leadership has shown me is that they are our future—our path back together. If we are looking to Black leadership and progressive activists as potential solutions for all that ails America, they are what I recommend.
- Melina Abdullah, “The Emergence of a Black Feminist Leadership Model: African American Women and Political Activism in the Nineteenth Century,” in Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking their Minds, ed. Kristin Waters and Carol B. Conway (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2007), 328–329.
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