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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gay Shame Says No to YES (Youth (dis-)Empowerment Summit (2009)

Surviving as a queer and or trans youth is almost impossible. For sure many of us know this to be true which means collective organizing for and by trans/queer youth is vital. However, many of the services and non-profit organizations that claim to be working “in the name of” queer and trans youth are invested in consolidating power for those running the show (executive directors, and paid staff, not youth.) This imbalance of power ensures organizations get funding while at the same time ensures youth are not able to collectively organize for self-determination.

There are countless examples in what is now called the non-profit industrial complex, but perhaps among the most violent is the “GSA Network” a non-profit based out of San Francisco that, according to their mission “connects school-based Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) to each other and community resources.” The GSA Network was founded and run through an authoritarian and ageist structure that gives power to older LGBT people who assume to “know what is best” for queer youth. This, of course, is the standard in the youth non-profit world where youth are called on to do free/forced labor (also called internships) while “staff” members are paid.

Gay Shame has had a long tradition of critiquing these formations of power that further the domination and disempowerment of trans and queer youth. As ambivalent as we are about these structures of power we have for the past three years, upon invitation, given workshops at the annual GSA network conference, called the Youth Empowerment Summit (YES, http://gsanetwork.org/yes/). Like most unpaid activist, we are called on time and again to donate our labor, skills and life-blood to well funded organizations. We mostly refuse to be placed in these situations. It was only because the YES offers so little truly radical information that we thought we might be able to somehow undo a bit of the terror of the GSA Network. Gay Shame felt it might be possible to suggest ways that trans and queer youth could actualize their own forms of organizing.

This year, again upon invitation, we agreed to host a workshop called “End Marriage!” However, in hopes of disrupting the accumulation of our activist labor, we asked to create a more symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between Gay Shame and the GSA Network. What we asked for (weeks in advance, though email) was the ability to film for 15 min in the school cafeteria (with our own “actors”). This scene is part of a larger activist project on trans/queer people and the prison industrial complex.

Upon arrival at the YES we set-up at a table in the cafeteria and began to film. We were quickly approached by the “conference organizer” (AKA “lower-level management”) to ensure we were not filming any youth. We assured her we would never film someone without their permission and as abolitionists are against all forms of surveillance. We went back to filming then the same “organizer” approached us and “warned” us that those higher-up in the GSA Network (and not any of the youth there) were concerned about us filming in general, obviously because we were not totally under their control. We were, radical trans and queer folks, many of color, of various ages, creating activist art outside of the non-profit industrial complex in hope of working toward our collective liberation. This is clearly against the methods of the GSA Network.

After the “lower management” had interrupted filming a second time, we were approached by “midlevel management.” Their story was different: “we need this table for the youth.” This wish was not that of any youth. It was a lie manufactured in order to bring our “queer activism” into their model of “LGBT organizing”. We then agreed to let these non-existent youth use the table until 1:45, when lunch is over. We sat on the floor, with the empty table just a few feet away for the reaming 10 min until 1:45. Then as per our agreement (with “lower” and “mid level management”) we again tried to begin filming. Our workshop was scheduled to begin at 1:45 so we had decided to work with another workshop and join in after we were done filming.

However, a few minutes after we attempted to film for a fourth time, we were then approached by “lower,” “middle” and now “upper management” (the
founder/executive director, and Stanford Alum, Carolyn Laub). “What happened to us working together?” squawked “mid-level management.” We reminded them of the agreement we had reached just 10 minutes before. An agreement reached after a few lines back and forth on the subject of how we felt about queer and trans youth organizing for themselves, and how creating a non-exploitative relationship between the GSA Network and activists should be the goal of the conference, instead of the ridiculous expenditure of attention being paid to our one table in a now empty cafeteria. All three tiers of management then demanded we “stop filming, pack up and leave.” In hope of avoiding a confrontation with the police we complied with their request.

We then attempted to go to the workshop they asked us to give. We were met at the door by “lower level management” who said, “the door is closed and we cannot go in.” In what was a pathetic attempt to ensure the youth attending the conference did not know what was done to us, in their name, we were literally locked out.

This story is really nothing new. It is one of those examples when all our critiques of institutionalized power, white supremacy, and the multicultural replication of oppression, become immediately material.

As radical queer activists, we work toward an end of the “GSA Network,” and other groups that continue the colonial project of confining resistance and toward a world were trans/queer youth are empowered to organize on their own terms, in their own ways, for their freedom.

GAY SHAME is a Virus in the System. We are committed to a queer extravaganza that brings direct action to astounding levels of theatricality. We will not be satisfied with a commercialized gay identity that denies the intrinsic links between queer struggle and challenging power. We seek nothing less than a new queer activism that foregrounds race, class, gender and sexuality, to counter the self-serving “values” of gay consumerism and the increasingly hypocritical left. We are dedicated to fighting the rabid assimilationist monster with a devastating mobilization of queer brilliance.


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