Deity Blair is counting on hope. And when the news wears down her spirit, she picks up a controller and plays Pokemon.
For Blair, a 24-year-old Black trans woman, this has been a year of immeasurable heartbreak. Not only is coronavirus disproportionately affecting Black folk, the killing of trans people is an epidemic.
This has been the deadliest year on record for trans and gender nonconforming folk, with at least 40 murdered, most of them Black and brown trans women. Add to that the brutalization of Black people and a political powder keg. It’s 2020 and the living ain’t easy.
“There will be some days when you don’t want to get up more than others,” Blair said. “In the video games, a certain decision can lead to the game ending. When given the choice to continue, in the game and in life, I am going to keep hitting yes.”
A recent graduate of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts School of Theater, Blair is a playwright, rapper, and poet. Not only has she been protesting in marches, she uses her art as activism, performing in fund-raisers and releasing music to raise money to support Black trans people. A Boston Foundation Live Arts Boston 2020 grantee, Blair is working on a play that explores the intersection of theater and gaming, creating an interactive experience.
Keeping Black queer lives, especially Black trans life, centered in her advocacy is paramount.
“Black queer people exist with visibility in Boston in ways I didn’t experience growing up,” said Blair, a native of Orlando. “But queer spaces in Boston are very focused on whiteness and cater to an experience that doesn’t mirror ours much.”
And for the Black LGBTQ+ community, especially the Black trans community, the movement to celebrate and protect their lives isn’t exclusive to white spaces. Despite leading civil rights movements for generations, they are still fighting for equity in the Black community as a whole.
“It is exhausting,” she said. “For me, as a trans Black woman, it’s hard to reckon as we have protested for our lives and other people’s lives, the sad realities of Black trans women coming to these protests and getting attacked by Black men. This year is a difficult reality to digest. How can we uplift and celebrate Black trans women while we still live?”
It comes back to faith.
“I don’t just sit with hope. I put it in action. I make change,” she said. “Even with all of the complications that come with existing as a Black trans woman, in the conversation of Black Lives Matter and who it centers, I have to choose to hope. I have to hope the community will heal itself.”
For London Escada, it starts with love. In the year of coronavirus, we can’t hug. Instead, with his hands, he makes a heart symbol.
And everyone he meets is his baby. His light wraps you in his warmth to make up for all the years he spent in the dark, and the ways he knows others still do.
Growing up in Springfield, in a Jehovah’s Witness family, Escada feared being shunned. But when he was home alone, he’d sneak into his mom’s room, slip into her heels, and wear her wigs. The minute he heard her car, he’d quickly shed it all and retreat to a closet of his own.
“It was hard just being Black first, and then gay on top,” he said. “In a Black family, you’ve got to be this strong, Black man. You have to protect. But I’m still a protector. Just because I’m gay doesn’t make me less of a man.”
Now, his mom passes down outfits to him. And when his cousins saw him compete on HBO Max’s vogue show “Legendary,”earlier this year, they cheered him on. He and the members of House of Escada took third place in the reality TV competition rooted in ball culture.
It was dance that helped him gain confidence in his identity. At 18, he saw the group Vogue Evolution, made up of gay and trans members, on “America’s Best Dance Crew.” For Escada, vogue is cathartic, it is competitive, and it is community.
“As soon as you walk into a ball, you have so many personalities. When you hit that floor, it’s like, forget where you need to fit. You put yourself out there and we’ll fit. Anything I went through goes out the window when I dance. I’m at peace.”
Now the 30-year-old calls Dorchester home. He teaches vogue. As mother of House of Escada New England, he leads his vogue family in ball culture, making sure everyone is reaching their goals.
“I was growing up with no guidance in the gay community. I want people to know there is a home for you,” he said. “And in 2020, with Black Lives Matter, we are getting a reset. Sometimes you have to destroy to create something new. I feel like we are coming together, cis, hetero, trans, gay, queer. We are seeing that new growth.”
It shouldn’t be a hurdle to recognize Black queer lives matter. Black queer folk, generation after generation, from James Baldwin to Marsha P. Johnson to Bayard Rustin, have been essential to the freedom fight. Even now, Black Lives Matter was founded by three Black women, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza — two of whom are queer.
“It’s really wild to be talking about Black Lives Matter and also simultaneously fight homophobia,” said Porsha Olayiwola, 32. ”It’s kind of wild, I feel I have the privilege of being cisgender in the context of this world. But I am constantly wondering what it means to be Black and show up as an ally when the time rises.”
Boston’s poet laureate, Olayiwola said despite New England’s liberal and forward-thinking ways, it is still the birthplace of colonization. That ideology is rooted in all things.
“As opposed to being constantly and perpetually under threat, it’s the ways in which systemic oppression show up. It’s like a matrix of 21 different things happening in my mind every time I get dressed,” she said. “I’m thinking of my body, my fatness, my Blackness, my womanness, my queerness. I am thinking of my partner. All of these things are at play when I am getting dressed.”
A poet, a student, and artistic director at MassLEAP, a youth literary organization, Olayiwola often wonders if she does enough. For Pride month, Netflix reached out to Olayiwola to ask what pride looks like for a Black queer woman. An excerpt of her poetic response:
Black and brown people and trans women had to be edited into a movement they started, afterthought to their labor, marginalized in marching, isn’t it gut-busting how white supremacy works, how it absorbs all the color? Isn’t it ironic, when the colors bleed together, white shines through, how it never ceases to surrender? Netflix asked what Pride means for a Black dyke in today’s world. And I wonder if they’ve seen the news feeds lined with Black bodies? I wonder what they think to see the streets filled with protesters protesting the protesters? Pride is a parody, refuses to join the fight against police brutality even though the first parade was a rebellion.
.@PorshaOlayiwola performs her original poem:— Strong Black Lead (@strongblacklead) July 1, 2020
Netflix Calls To Ask What Pride Looks Like for a Black Queer Woman for @Most Fest. pic.twitter.com/WKmBv0Fu02
Black is beautiful. Supremacy is hard. Any other marginalized identity added to your Blackness, despite its radiance, is another layer of oppression you’ll fight.
Olayiwola, like Blair, like Escada, like Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, and the Black and brown queer people living their truths before them, are saving lives.
Every day they live in their truth despite a system built to reject them, is a resistance. And some little Black and brown kids hiding in the shadows of themselves will see their light, find hope, and be free, too. Their lives matter.
Coming next: To be Black, Bostonian, and proud is a beautiful resistance. Sign up to be notified of the next episode. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Playlist, Episode 4, curated by Dart Adams, below, and also on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music. See more at Globe.com/ABeautifulResistance.
Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.