LGBT Rights and the Black Panthers: The Queer Revolution Begins with Self Love

Huey Newton Jpg

My Grandmother loves to give me self-care tips. Her basic premise is that the only person who can take care of you the right way is you; you can’t wait on your mama, daddy, sister, brother or grandmother to do it for you.

Her favorite to dish-out is this one: “Don’t tell anybody how much money you make or how much money you have. Telling people how much money you makes invites them into your household, tells them how far they can dig into your pockets and helps them dictate how you spend your money.” Of course she quickly follows up by asking, “How much money do you make?”

We live in a society that tells us in words that it is more virtuous to always place your brother ahead of yourself, but also teaches us that only the strongest survive, and that you must be able to fend for yourself. Where we are taught the value of hard work and doing things for you, yet the wheels of government and commerce don’t turn properly without someone depending on or owing something to another. It is in this climate that the words of black, lesbian poet, Audre Lorde, ring their truest meaning.

Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self –preservation and that is an act of political warfare. ~Audre Lorde

As a student of the civil rights movement, the organization that I revered the most was the Original Black Panther Party. I grew up in Richmond, CA, next door to the their home base of Oakland, and my first encounter with the BPP occurred on the day of Huey Newton’s death.

I was 10 years old, on a staycation at a local amusement park. My family and I were having breakfast when the news flash came on that Huey had been murdered. The newscaster went on to recount the Panther’s role in the civil rights struggle, complete with words like “notorious”, “gun-toting”, “subversive”, and every other negative word they could think of to drive the point home that we’d all finally been released from the “public nuisance” J Edgar Hoover had never been able to quite rid the country of. I made it my business, that day, to learn as much as I could about Huey and the Black Panthers.

To this day it, is still so shocking to me that so many negative words were attached to the Black Panthers for having the gall to love their community enough to make it their job to protect it. Imagine that. The original BPP believed it was their job to make sure children had food to eat, were properly tested for diseases, had affordable housing, and so on. They also believed it was their job to educate members of the black community on their rights, and arm them with resources that would enable them to thrive in America.

This is not to say that the BPP as an organization was perfect — we know that they were not. But was revolutionary about their existence was their platform; the idea that black people needed to be committed to loving each other. Loving yourself will push you to be the best you can be and to make sure everything around you is just as beautiful. Loving yourself will push you to fight for the rights of your brother because by extension they are your rights as well.

Don’t you let them tell you what to do… defy gravity. ~Donnie
The first step in queer black revolution MUST be self-love. As President Obama would say, you must have the Audacity of Hope. You must have a fervent love of every aspects of yourself. And, do not be ashamed to stand firm in who you are as the dignified beautiful person that you are. I tell myself how wonderful and smart and cute I am at least once a day and I’m not ashamed to share that here.

So, to my queer black family, make sure that the world acknowledges how amazing you are; how amazing your community is. Go out and receive every blessing that the world has for you; every legal right that this country owes to you. Don’t be ashamed to believe that you are deserving enough for anything. As Grandmother would say, “If you don’t, nobody else will.”

But there is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I’m now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that “even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.” Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.

  • Saba Teklu

    Love, love, love this. My two favorite parts to it: “I tell myself how wonderful and smart and cute I am at least once a day and I’m not ashamed to share that here.” YES, me too. If you’re always waiting for someone to tell you how awesome you are, you’ll never reach your full potential in esteem.

    And then: “…receive every blessing that the world has for you; every legal right that this country owes to you.” A lot of people don’t realize that this country does OWE us a lot. We were promised distinct rights and they’re at our disposal. But the government isn’t going to encourage you to use them. FIND your rights and UTILIZE them.

  • Vijay Sachdev

    I appreciate the parallel you draw between a black revolutionary movement and a queer revolutionary possibility. I think the beauty of social movements peak when there is a focus in base and coalition building, so it’s wonderful to see you making these connections.

    By reading Black Civil Rights literature, I also think it’s important to note how the BPP were working to rearticulate the identity of black folks in this country in a way which defied the controlled identities constructed for them by an oppressive system. Much different than previous civil rights struggles, the BPP were grounded in liberation rather than integration. I guess this is where I would disagree with your statement, “Go out and receive every blessing that the world has for you; every legal right that this country owes to you.” If the Black Panthers were really determined to make their rights “legal” it would counter their determination to demolish institutionalized oppression.

    This leads me to wonder what you think about the LGBT movement whose contemporary struggles have been very privileged, mainstreamed, and grounded in assimilation. Rather than forging a collective identity as queer folks accross racial, class, and sexual lines, LGBT discourse has been dominated by white gay and lesbian rhetoric.

    I wonder how queer people of color can utilize the BPP model to construct a movement which rearticulates our marginalized identities–a movement which rejects the notion of integration and does not idealize marriage equality as the end goal of our struggles.

    Your piece was very though provoking. I would actually like to see a continuation on this topic.

    • Trystan Angel Reese

      I would offer the historical framework that the panthers operated within– they did want to “demolish institutionalized oppression,” but they also accepted the realities of the systems they were currently living in. Panthers ran for office, and sometimes won. They went door-to-door registering voters in many of the cities where the Panthers had offices and leadership. At least in Oakland, many of their programs were registered as non-profits and received government funding and foundation grants.

      This aspect of their principles is what is most alluring to me– unlike the majority of folks doing queer organizing today, they seemed to understand that community building was not negated by political organizing (or vice versa); on the contrary, they believed that feeding people was as important as educating them on why they were hungry, and changing the systems such that fewer people experienced hunger. Political education was just as important as direct services, which were just as important as providing arts and self-expression opportunities for the community.

      I say this as someone who does what you are suggesting, in a way. I have studied the Panthers and co-facilitate a workshop annually at a queer organizing conference. The question is a big and important one– how can a multi-tiered strategy for liberation be used as a queer organizing model. That is the question I aim to ask, rather than pitting movements against each other and creating what I think is a false dichotomy. If the Panthers believed that registering voters was important, as important as building a non-religious spiritual temple dedicated to arts and culture, I think we too can view long-term movement building as working in tandem with seeking some form of equality within existing structures, as the marriage fight aims to.