June is Pride Month, a month focused on celebrating the accomplishments of the LGBTQ community, but many Black LGBTQ people in Colorado say they feel their unique challenges — and their culture — are often left out. They’ve created their own advocacy organization, Black Pride Colorado (BPC), to fill the void.
“I think it's a conversation that we often have,” said Tara Jae, co-founder of BPC, who also serves as the executive director of Youth Seen, a non-profit for LGBTQ youth support and well-being. ”How can we even acknowledge our queerness if our Blackness comes first? So layered with any sexual identity, any sexual orientation, most times we can't even get to that because the racism is so loud that we can't even show up authentically with our other identities.”
“If there was no need for Black people to have their own space, then we wouldn't need it, right? Obviously, there is a need here that we are responding to. If you look at all sorts of Pride celebrations all across the country, overwhelmingly they are uplifting white, cis gay men,” said Lex Dunbar, a Black LGBTQ advocate based in Denver.
“And so when I think about Black Pride, we are realizing that there is a void here, and there are Black queer people that should be celebrated and uplifted, and sometimes Black folks just need a space for ourselves so we can breathe. Is that divisive? No, it's out of safety. It's out of comfort. It's out of camaraderie. It's out of protection.”
Jae and Dunbar recently sat down with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield to talk about BPC’s 2023 Pride Month events and how the organization is working to build community and create safe spaces for those who need it in the Rocky Mountain State.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Chandra Thomas Whitfield: The term Black Pride, of course, has lots of different meanings. In the context of June Pride month, what does that mean to you?
Tara Jae: I think here in Colorado, more specifically Denver, when we talk about main Pride, there's one focus, there's one demographic, and it really focuses on white queer people. And oftentimes there's no space for us. So in 2021, I literally allowed myself to complain about things once or twice and felt that Black Pride really needed to have a space and connected with a bunch of folks in the community, and we started curating spaces for Black Pride specifically.
Lex Dunbar: For me, Black Pride is a public reminder that Black LGBTQ+ people have always existed and we should be celebrated. We should celebrate ourselves and see ourselves in our fullness. Take up space, especially in a place like Denver where like Tara said, it can be very focused typically in my experience, on white cis males who are gay. And so it's a celebration, it's an acknowledgment, it's an honor for all the LGBTQ Black folks who have come before us, who've been alongside of us, those who've been in closets, out of closets, and pushed out of closets. So it's a way for us to honor them and honor ourselves.
Whitfield: I have heard that a lot of Black queer people feel that they are not only navigating racism in the heteronormative world, but also in the LGBTQ+ community as well. So, a lot of people in your community feel that they are a double minority?
Tara Jae: Yes. I think it's a conversation that we often have. How can we even acknowledge our queerness if our Blackness comes first? So layered with any sexual identity, any sexual orientation, most times we can't even get to that because the racism is so loud that we can't even show up authentically with our other identities.
Whitfield: Lex, you are a Black, queer, non-binary person and an LGBTQ+ advocate here in Colorado. What has this experience been like for you?
Lex Dunbar: Being a part of Black Pride Colorado has been lifesaving because as Tara said, when you show up to LGBTQ spaces, they're often white. And so I would have to come in as Black first. But then on the flip side of that, showing up into Black, cisgender, heterosexual spaces, the question always becomes, well then where does my queer identity come into this? And so it's difficult on both sides. And I think a connection with Black Pride Colorado specifically, has reminded me that in any of these spaces, I can show up as my full self and expect for people to see me and respect me as my full self.
Whitfield: Tara, how would you say your experience has evolved over the years being here in Colorado?
Tara Jae: I don't even know where to begin with that. I got here in 2017, but it feels like decades. What Denver was in 2017 is not what it is now. And specifically within the queer community and the white supremacist culture that bleeds through very clearly within our community is devastating. It's hard in the mental health realm of things. I often question why I keep doing the work that I am doing because it is difficult. Hearing the folks that I work with on a daily basis that are suicidal, that don't see hope, don't feel hope. Because oftentimes even within our community, we can't even come together. And when I say our community, I'm specifically talking about the queer community first and foremost. We can get into a whole conversation around our Black community and even the spaces around Juneteenth and what that means, but our community is struggling. We continue to struggle on a daily basis. Lack of access to things that we think we should have that right to have; access to medical, mental health, housing, jobs, just as anyone else does. And those privileges aren't often afforded to us. So those are the things that I think about. Being in 2023, I look back and it was easier. It was before George Floyd, before 2020, it was easier. And now we can't unsee a lot of the stuff. So it's almost like when we're having these conversations, you have to go through the list. These are all the things that we are struggling with, and there's no prioritization with it. There's nothing that goes above the other.
Whitfield: Why do you think it was easier before 2020?
Tara Jae: When there's acknowledgment of the systemic issues that are happening, you can't unlook it. When there is a rupture that continues to be bigger and bigger, you can't unsee it. So it's like we can sit here all day long and be like, there's an issue here and there's an issue here and there's an issue here, and it's a distraction because there's still the undermining that is happening. There's still the lack of access. Sure we can talk about racism in our community and it's going to continue because that was 2020 and now we're in 2023. In 2023, we're not actually dealing with what was happening in 2020. And we're going to talk about allies when we actually need accomplices. And it's a whole thing. It's something that makes it more difficult, it makes advocacy work harder. It makes the work that we're doing at Black Pride and Youth Seen when we're specifically looking around mental health and wellness, it is difficult because it's the one bridge, that access, and having an understanding of what affirming access looks like. When we can have that piece, then maybe we can start looking at all of the other things that are still on the list.
Lex Dunbar: I think a part of it that also makes it difficult is visibility has both positive and negative aspects that come along with it. And so the positive aspect of seeing the anti-Blackness and the homophobia and the transphobia that we're dealing with is that it's visible and we can have more conversations. But the negative aspect of that is when things become more visible, it's easier for those in power. In my opinion, to overlook it in a different way, in a way that sort of makes allies become the champions and the heroes over providing actual access to people.
Whitfield: What can you tell us about the challenges that persist specifically for transgender Black people here in Colorado and in general? The statistics are quite daunting.
Tara Jae: To be honest, I hate this question. I don't like it because half the time we're not even identified in any data, which is like when you're saying we're looking at the numbers and they're horrific. Oftentimes it goes erased. We're not seen, we don't have names, we don't have our representation, which makes it even more difficult.
Whitfield: To your point, I did read a report from the Human Rights Campaign that said at least 32 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the U.S. in 2022. It said that transgender people of color account for 81% of known victims, 59% were Black, and trans women were disproportionately represented as they have been in the years’ past. And as you pointed out, it said, these numbers are probably well below the actual number because many of these crimes are not reported. Some victims are misidentified, misgendered. The reports said the victims were overwhelmingly, Black under age 35 and killed with a firearm. How does that make you feel to hear that? I kind of see you tearing up, Lex?
Lex Dunbar: There's like no words, right? Because folks are just trying to live and live in their fullness and their truth. And hearing that as a Black trans, non-binary person, it's terrifying. And I think about specifically Black trans folks who are so often ignored in a way that people are just like, “What do you mean you're a transmasculine person or a trans man?” It doesn't compute in their mind. And so there's this dismissal. And when folks are dismissed and ignored, it's easy to pass them by or to dismiss or to throw them away. I think about the folks I know who are consistently struggling with suicidal ideation because of this dismissal, because just the cry, “Will anybody actually see me as a full person who's deserving and honoring of love and care and kindness, basic human kindness?” It's heartbreaking. It's terrifying. I think about the ways that my anxiety is often heightened when I'm out in spaces or what are the places that I will and will not go to even to have a celebration because I don't want to run into an issue. So then what does that mean for me? And then how am I able to live my life in freedom if I have to always consistently look over my back? Not just because I'm Black, but because I'm a Black trans person. And should I have an encounter with a cis man, my little self ain't going to do much. At the end of the day, I got a big mouth, but I'm little.
Whitfield: A lot of bark, no bite.
Lex Dunbar: I'm just a little chihuahua (laughter), so it's terrifying, and it's heartbreaking, and it's completely unnecessary.
Whitfield: You both have mentioned challenges with the LGBTQ+ community, with housing, mental health, employment health. What work is being done to support this community?
Lex Dunbar: I'm going to talk about it from a personal standpoint. Before I got involved with Black Pride Colorado, I wasn't out. Oh, man, I'm going to cry. I wasn't out. I was struggling in my identity as a queer person, as a queer person of faith. And I remember my connection and the community that I found in the Black Pride Colorado team, and specifically with Tara in the conversations that we've had and the freedom to explore my identity. In the midst of Black folks who have been on this journey and have been out for a very long time in a very, very white space. And so the events are great, and they're so much fun, but the community, the camaraderie, the conversations, the times where we are laughing and joking or crying together. It was a place where I felt seen. It was a place where I realized I get to be safe around these people who see me. And whatever I land on when it comes to my identity, I'll be seen. I'll be accepted, I'll be loved. And that has been true since I met these folks in 2021. From a personal standpoint, I will say Black Pride Colorado and my relationship with Youth Seen has been lifesaving to me. And I don't say that lightly at all. And I see the other young Black trans folks coming out and coming to our events and having a great time. And for somebody just to say, “I see you. I want to be in community with you,” that's been great. That's what I've needed. So I'm grateful.
Whitfield: I see, we have some tears. I need to get some tissues in the studio today. But no, it's very emotional and I can see the connection between you two and the feeling of support and community. I think you touched on this, Lex, but I do have to ask, what do you say to people who feel that having a separate Black Pride organization and events is being divisive?
Lex Dunbar: If there was no need for Black people to have their own space, then we wouldn't need it, right? Obviously, there is a need here that we are responding to. If you look at all sorts of Pride celebrations all across the country, overwhelmingly they are uplifting white, cis, gay men. And so when I think about Black Pride, I'm like, we are realizing that there is a void here, and there are Black queer people that should be celebrated and uplifted, and sometimes Black folks just need a space for ourselves so we can breathe. Is that divisive? No, it's out of safety. It's out of comfort. It's out of camaraderie. It's out of protection. White supremacy is the thing that is divisive. And so for anyone who has an issue with it, check the white supremacy. Leave us alone.
Whitfield: Dr. Jae, I feel like you want to jump in on that.
Tara Jae: No, I think Lex said it just the way it needed to be said. I completely agree with him in the sense that if there wasn't a need, it wouldn't have come through. It wouldn't have come up. It wouldn't have been created. We would not have had the success that we have. The biggest thing that comes back every time we have an event is, I didn't know that I needed to be seen in this way. And from that, we continue to curate those spaces. We continue to have those conversations. We are ensuring that our collaborations within the community provide safety, provide comfort, provide kindness and love and resilience. That resiliency is a part of it. When our community can see hope, can feel hope, then our resiliency is powered.
Whitfield: Lex, you were pretty vocal about the experience of being sometimes the only person of color or Black person at these LGBTQ+ events in Colorado. Can you tell us more about that?
Lex Dunbar: So a lot of queer events that I've been to (have not felt inclusive) between the music choices or what is considered fun, what is considered engaging. So while it may be a queer space, it's not culturally inclusive. I don't know any of the songs. I don't know any of the people that they are propping up. And so oftentimes when I enter in that space, I don't necessarily feel queer because I'm Black, especially if I'm the only Black person in the room. And so then you deal with the microaggressions and macro assaults of folks wanting to change their dialect because a Black person has shown up in the room. Especially as a Black masculine person, they want to be more “hood” and it's a whole bunch of nonsense that happens. I think for me, it's just, where is the culture here? Is there room for any other expression of queerness that's not just white male queerness? I don't want to be in those spaces. I don't want to be fetishized in spaces. And I've experienced a host of those realities in many of white queer spaces. So I'm just uninterested.
Whitfield: Dr. Jae, how can these two communities come together?
Tara Jae: So this has been a conversation that has been happening for a couple of years now, and there are specific folks in the community who refuse to come to the table.
Whitfield: Dr. Jae, you're also the executive director of Youth Seen, can you tell us a little bit about that organization?
Tara Jae: Yes. So I founded Youth Seen in 2017, and it really is (an organization about) mental health and wellness and finding those spaces and having access to affirming care and what that means.
Whitfield: Is this for a certain age group?
Tara Jae: Our youngest person that we're working with is seven and our oldest is right around 80.. When we're talking about youth, it's across the age spectrum.
Whitfield: Of course you want to have the parties and celebrate in June Pride Month underway now, but as we wrap up, what is going on in terms of advocacy and resources for your community here in Colorado?
Tara Jae: Not enough. That's it. Not enough. There's not enough advocacy specifically for the Black queer community. We need a lot more. And being able to be invited to those tables to have those conversations, because oftentimes when I am invited to different discussions, it is very loud and clear that I'm usually the only Black, queer, non-binary person coming in, which is disheartening. When you're talking about having a larger conversation and making sure that there's representation, (the question is) why don't we have representation? That advocacy needs to be more.
Whitfield: Thanks to you both for joining us.
Lex Dunbar: Thank you.
Tara Jae: Thank you.
For more information on Black Pride Colorado and its upcoming 2023 June Pride Month events, you may visit https://blackpridedenver.com/elementor-2557/
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