REFLECTING UPON MY TWENTY-ONE YEARS OF PRIDE
By Aishah Shahidah Simmons | With thanks to NewBlackMan
Wednesday, June 29, 2011.
For Michael (Dad), Cheryl D., and Wadia...
In Memory of Toni and Audre...
the eve of the Pride parade in New York City, I reflect upon my very
first New York Pride, which was in 1990. I was a very 'wet behind the
ears,' 21-year old OUT 'Baby Dyke.' Wadia Gardiner, who was my first
girlfriend as an adult, took me to the big city to celebrate PRIDE.
That experience changed my life forever.
being out as a LESBIAN is not solely political. It is literally and
metaphorically about my own survival in the entity known as Aishah
Shahidah Simmons in this lifetime. I will never ever condone my rape,
which resulted in my pregnancy and abortion. At the same time, I know
that my rape was connected to my deep seated internalized homophobia
where I was a frightened teenager who literally thought I was going to
be struck down by Allah (God). I can very vividly remember literally
looking at the sky wondering when the striking would happen because of
my attraction to women. I went to a high school (Philadelphia High
School for Girls '231) where there were many of us who were either
comfortable with or struggling through our queer identities. Equally as
important there were many straight identified girls who were staunch
allies of those who were/are queer. And yet, I still was terrified.
I was eighteen in my senior year in high school struggling with my
sexuality, Michael Simmons, my father, asked Cheryl Dowton, an out
Black lesbian to talk to me about being a lesbian. My father didn’t
want me to think that being a lesbian was a bad thing. Equally as
important he didn’t want me to think that becoming a lesbian would mean
that I would have to give up my racial identity. So it was extremely
important to him that I have the opportunity to talk with a Black
lesbian about all of my questions, anxieties and fears. Having the
opportunity to talk with Cheryl allowed me to literally see that Black
and lesbian were not contradictory identities. Even with my having a
girlfriend in my senior year in high school, I was SO afraid that my
connecting with Cheryl, didn’t enable me to fully embrace my authentic
self until three year later.
had a boyfriend my first year at Swarthmore College whom I loved. We
had a wonderful relationship, while it lasted, but I always knew my
feelings for women. And, at the same time I wanted to be "normal" (aka
Heterosexual)... I wanted to be as accepted as Black (presumed)
heterosexual women could be in racist and sexist Amer-i-KKK-a.
my second year at Temple University, I went on a study abroad program
to Mexico. During that journey, I was raped. My rape from an
acquaintance in Mexico was directly related to my thinking something
was wrong with me because I hadn’t had (heterosexual, or homosexual,
for that matter) sex in over a year (post my break up with my
boyfriend). Clearly, as a woman, regardless of my sexual orientation, I
could get raped at any point or time. This is based on the wretched
global statistics about violence against women. However, in my specific
instance, I was trying to prove that I was heterosexual and that’s why
I made the poor choices I made.
I want to be explicitly clear, I'm not nor would I EVER condone my
rape. Poor choices and poor judgement should never EVER equate rape.
The rape probably resulted in my pregnancy, though I'm not sure
exactly. In my quest to both deny what happened and anesthetize my
pain, the following night, post my rape; I had consensual sex with
another man. When I returned to the States, I was six weeks shy of my
20th birthday and pregnant. I'm one of the fortunate women who was able
to have a safe and legal abortion about one week after my 20th
birthday. Albeit, I had to cross vitriolic anti-choice/anti
reproductive justice protesters to get into the Elizabeth Blackwell
Health Center for Women in Philadelphia.
forward to the following year when I was 21 years old and finally
coming to terms with the fact that I was a lesbian and that I could no
longer keep it a secret from myself foremost, and the world
secondarily, I called my teacher/mentor/Big Sista Toni Cade Bmabara
several times and talked to her about my internal struggle, my fears of
rejection, isolation, and alienation. Toni listened to me. She affirmed
me. She encouraged me to be true to my spirit and myself without
regards for what anyone else thought, said, and or wanted. During this
conversation, Toni taught me two of many invaluable lessons, one, that
the word sistah was both a noun and a verb and two, that the
responsibility of the artist/cultural worker is to use their
art/cultural work to make revolution irresistible.
During that same time I read Sister Outsider
by Audre Lorde, which was given to me by a Holli Van Ness a colleague
of mine at the American Friend Service Committee. Prior to reading that
book, I didn’t really know about Audre Lorde or her groundbreaking
work. Audre Lorde’s words both invigorated and challenged me to break
the vicious cycle of silence and shame around being a lesbian. I was
literally transformed in my bedroom while reading Sister Outsider. I
devoured every single word as if my very life depended upon it. It was
as if Audre Lorde were speaking directly to me. In that book, she
addressed all of my issues and concerns. Her written words taught me
that I had a responsibility to not only be out, but to be engaged in
the international struggles of the oppressed as an out Black Feminist
Lesbian. I know a metaphysical transformation happened where I went
from being an afraid, frightened, and ashamed Black lesbian young
woman, to an out Black lesbian activist after reading Sister Outsider.
am keenly aware that the metaphysical transformation that occurred was
a gradual process that began with my father’s ongoing support, which
commenced with his arranging for me to meet and talk with Cheryl Dowton
as well as the conversations that I had with Toni. And yet, at the same
time, Audre Lorde’s words gave me the initial tools that I needed to
embark on my journey as an out Black feminist lesbian. It was in April
1990 that I came out with a vengeance and vowed never ever to go back
in the closet again.
was during this time that I met Wadia. Nine years older than me, she
was, in my eyes, a Lesbian veteran. While the relationship barely made
it slightly over a year, it was one of the most profound connections
for several reasons. One, Wadia is a Muslim who didn't see any
contradiction between her sexuality and her spirituality. This was
critical for me because I was raised Sufi Muslim and yet I thought
Allah had forsaken me because of my sexual orientation. Wadia's
absolute clarity about her connection to her faith helped me to
understand that like with my race and my sexuality, which are bound
into one, my spirituality is an integral part of who I am. It was a
transformational experience because prior to meeting and getting
involved with Wadia, I made the decision that I would face and burn in
Hell later and live my life now, which meant I would sever my
relationship with my faith. It was profound to perform Salats (Prayer)
and do Dhikr with my Black woman partner. I still get teary eyed when I
think about that homecoming where all of mySelves were embraced and
acknowledged. I'm most grateful that my first partner was/is a Black
in addition to helping me reintegrate back into my Spiritual life,
Wadia introduced to me to a world of Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous,
European (American) and Arab feminist lesbians who were/are cultural
workers, musicians, scholars, jewelers, activists, healthcare
practitioners, and organizers based in Philadelphia, New York, and
other parts of the country. More often than not, I was by far one of
the younger ones in the private and public spaces where we gathered. I
have many fond memories of our tenure together, including a two month
journey to Mexico where I reclaimed the space/place where I was raped.
However, the one memory that will always hold a deep place in my heart
is New York Pride.
was years before the police clamped down on the Pier where after
marching in the PRIDE Parade, we (women, men, trans) gathered to pour
libation, drum, perform spoken word, eat food, embrace, dance and BE IN
ALL OF OUR (predominantly) COLORED LGBT PRIDE AND GLORY well into the
wee hours of the morning… My Goddess that was a profound gift… Once I
made peace with my lesbian identity, I was able to focus my attention
on my life’s work, which was/is to use the camera lens and written word
to (hopefully) make radical, peaceful, compassionate revolution
irresistible. To this very day Wadia is one of my most trusted
friends/confidantes/comrades. We are family.
June 2011 a different landscape from June 1990.
marriage equality for all in NY, and yet for so many of us who are
Queer identified, we’re still not safe and protected. I believe
EVERYONE, regardless of their sexual orientation, who wants to get
married, should have the right to get married. At the same time, I
don’t want to have to get married to have rights and privileges, which
should be made available to everyone, regardless of their marital
status. I celebrate this Marriage Equality victory while not losing
sight that the battle is SO far from being over that it’s not even
ask my Black Lesbian sisters (The New York Four) who are (unjustly and
inhumanely) incarcerated for protecting themselves against sexist and
homophobic violence perpetuated against them in the (safe, White) queer
friendly Village… You can read Imani Henry's poignant 2007 essay.
is one of many countless examples of the ongoing assaults on Queer
people of Color throughout NY and across the country… Just ask or check
in with The Audre Lorde Project or Queers for Economic Justice, to name two radical and revolutionary NY-based Queer organizations. Also the recently released Queer (In)Justice The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock is groundbreaking, sobering, and a must read. http://www.queerinjustice.com/
years later, I joyously celebrate PRIDE while I interrogate the various
ways, at various junctures on my journey as an out lesbian; I colluded
in my own invisibility. I recognize that there aren’t any clear-cut
lines in the struggle to eradicate internalized and external
oppression. Often times it’s a trial and error process, where hopefully
we can learn to both have compassion and forgive each other and
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is
an award-winning African-American feminist lesbian independent
documentary filmmaker, television and radio producer, published writer,
international lecturer, and activist based in Philadelphia, PA. Simmons
is the writer, director and producer of NO! the Rape Documentary, a ground-breaking film that explores the issues of sexual violence and rape against Black women and girls.