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Queer People of Color History in Boston: Thank You Letta Neely
Last night, Letta told me, “I’m proud of you,” and I was speechless. She had no idea how big a part she played in all of this.
I first saw her perform more than two years ago at the Dyke March. She performed some of her poems, and then just spoke frankly about everything from trans-people, to immigration, sexism within the queer community, and being allies to other causes outside of being gay or lesbian. At the time, I was part of the planning committee for the annual Dyke March – my first time volunteering in the queer community, and had been feeling somewhat disappointed at the world of LGBT community organizing; everyone seemed to be much older and so ‘boxed-in’ to doing things ‘the way they’d always done them’; bi-phobia pervaded many conversations but went un-checked, regularly; women of color were completely ignored (‘unintentionally’ – after all, we always invite them), and I was wondering what on earth I was doing sitting amongst ultra-American, predominantly (politically correct way to say “all”) white, New Englanders who I didn’t have anything in common with. Oh, wait… that’s right. We were all “dykes”. Yikes!
Anyway (and I didn’t know this then), the Dyke March some time ago decided that it made for a sensible formula to invite people of color to be the main performers during the annual Friday rally in order to draw out a ‘diverse’ crowd. Don’t ask. (Poor Zilli Musik, I don’t know how many times they’ve been asked to perform but…) Anyway, on this particular year, Letta Neely took the stage. And, it changed my life.
As I sat on the grass listening to her, I felt like I knew her. “Finally! Someone gets what it’s like to be me,” I kept thinking. She was loud, alright. Opinionated. Strong-willed. Idealistic. Passionate. A “wordsmith” for real. Listening to her empowered me. Somehow, she’d made it up there to get people to listen. To learn something. I couldn’t help but think that I’d been wasting my time in endless, drawn-out, unproductive meetings, organizing for the social rights of white lesbians. What the hell? Needless to say, I found my calling, and left the Dyke March Committee to do… something. I wished them well, but stated that there was just no way I could go on volunteering for them when my own people had no where to go, no place to speak and be heard… no one representing them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but being on the Dyke March, and seeing someone like Letta up on stage had confirmed for me that I could do something. I had the power to do something. And, I think, for many young idealists wanting to impact change somehow, this idea is the most important, most powerful weapon to carry.
QWOC+ Boston’s myspace page popped up that August. And the first event was planned with MadFemmePride on October 17, 2006; a bit of history someone from the crowd felt they needed to respond with last night, when Letta posed the open question, “What do you know of queer people of color history in Boston?”
It felt weird to hear my name thrown into that pool, especially since I’m so young and most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing. But I will own it today. I did do something. I did. And I should be proud of it.
Almost a year later I saw Letta perform again at a Truth Serum event at the Milky Way. I told my girlfriend at the time, “That woman… she’s the one that inspired me to start QWOC+ Boston.” Sensing my deep admiration, my girlfriend urged me to go up to Letta after the performance and talk to her. “You should tell her! I’m sure she’d be happy to know! Go on…” And so I walked over, slowly, nervously, which is quite rare for me; I’ve practiced being confident and sure of myself in public since my summer sales job in college. However, as I approached Letta, I felt really… young, and awkward, like a nerdy school boy asking a really pretty girl to dance. I don’t remember what I managed to say to her, but it couldn’t have made any sense. I probably reverted to the standard “Hi, I just wanted to say I’m a huge fan I love your work-,” to which she replied almost immediately, “Thank you. Thank you.” Of course she’d heard words like that before. I signed up for her mailing list, then promptly returned to my girlfriend. “Did you tell her?” she asked. “Yeah, kinda,” I lied.
I’m not sure when next I’ll get the chance to say this to her in person. I choked again yesterday. But at least I can say something now, on my blog:
Thank you, Letta Neely, for arming me with purpose that day. Thank you for continuing to inspire me. Thank you for everything that you have done.