Forging a New Path: Queer Intersections Portland

 “I was really responding to the fact that there were so many queer and trans people of color who didn’t feel that they had safe spaces to be themselves, to find out their identities, and support each other as young people of color in the city,” says Giovanni Blair McKenzie.
“I was really responding to the fact that there were so many queer and trans people of color who didn’t feel that they had safe spaces to be themselves, to find out their identities, and support each other as young people of color in the city,” says Giovanni Blair McKenzie.

By TJ Acena, PQ Monthly

Marriage equality has been won, but for many LGBTQ people marriage equality is not enough. It’s not enough for LGBTQ people of color, who face higher rates of unemployment and housing discrimination. It’s not enough for LGBTQ youth, who are disproportionately more likely to become homeless. It’s not enough for undocumented LGBTQ people living in America, who face the threat of being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and subjected to inhumane conditions.

Living at one of these intersections of identities is hard; living at more than one is harder. While Portland becomes more affluent and people of color push out further to the edges of the city, the people at these intersections have become less visible—but they are still here, and Giovanni Blair McKenzie works with them. McKenzie is one of them.

In 2012, not yet 20 years old and only having moved to the United States from Jamaica a couple years earlier, McKenzie founded Queer Intersections Portland (Qi). The goal was to reach out to other people who embody intersectionality. “I was really responding to the fact that there were so many queer and trans people of color who didn’t feel that they had safe spaces to be themselves, to find out their identities, and support each other as young people of color in the city.”

Jose Madrid started out as a member while a senior in high school, before serving as Deputy Director for a time: “I stayed with the organization because it helped me understand so much about my identities and why the intersectionality of those identities is so important.” Young LGBTQ people find themselves by finding others like them, in real life or in the media, seeing that people like them exist helps validate their own experiences.

Young people of color do the same, learning what it means to be a person of color in America. But young LBGTQ people of color often have trouble finding people like themselves, especially in Portland. “I found my acceptance through books that had characters who identified as gay,” says Madrid. “But I never found characters who were gay, genderqueer, and Mexican, or undocumented.”

Being youth-led makes Qi unique; it’s a small organization run by people who have not had a lot of experience running organizations but who have much experience in understanding the challenges faced by the people they want to help. They live those same experiences. A lot of experienced people have stepped in to help Qi; Nancy Davis, a local nonprofit management consultant, has been advising McKenzie on running the organization, and the Q Center provides fiscal sponsorship for Qi as well as a place for the organization to call home. But the leadership of the group remains young LGBTQ people of color.

The mission statement for Qi is simple: We advocate for, promote the visibility of, and work to build stronger communities for LGBTQ youth & young adults with intersecting marginalized identities. The question on their minds is how Qi will accomplish these goals. “A lot of this movement for us has been capacity building and making sure we are being supportive to queer and trans youth,” says McKenzie. “We’re building something that never existed in the first place.” That process started last year with a series of events called The Portland T, designed to bring together young (under 30) LGBTQ people to discuss the issues they face.

This year Qi worked with Basic Rights Oregon, Equity Foundation, PFLAG Portland Black Chapter, and several other organizations to bring together people in the LGBTQ community for a serious discussion about race. The event was called Portland Uprising. There were two caucuses, a person of color caucus for people to have honest conversations about their personal experiences in Portland and a white caucus to discuss how to be allies to people of color communities.

But young LBGTQ of color often have trouble finding people like themselves, especially in Portland. “I found my acceptance through books that had characters who identified as gay,” Jose Madrid says.
But young LBGTQ of color often have trouble finding people like themselves, especially in Portland. “I found my acceptance through books that had characters who identified as gay,” Jose Madrid says.

“The first thing we really had to do was unpack,” says McKenzie. Participants brought up experiencing racism within and outside the LGBTQ community, feeling silenced for being young, watching LGBTQ people of color leave the city, and the difficulty of talking about race in Portland. “It’s like trying to explain this new concept to everyone and they don’t get it. People get that two women or men can be in love, but they don’t get how being black and being queer is a challenge. Someone recently told me, ‘I don’t get the intersection of a queer identity and being black.’”

Teresa Nguyen, Deputy Director of Qi, knows this well. They grew up in the Portland Metro area, the child of first-generation Vietnamese immigrants. “When we talk about things at this intersection: to be queer, trans, a person of color, an immigrant, first generation, to have this dissonance from the diaspora, it’s like talking to a wall unless we are talking to other people of color. The racism here is passive-aggressive; it feels like you’re being gaslighted, you suddenly don’t know if your experiences are valid.”

Young LGBTQ people of color don’t just find it difficult to talk about the intersection of sexual identity and race with white allies, but also within their own communities of color. “Many of these communities,” says Nguyen, “for their own reasoning, only focus on their own insular existence. Qi is not only about challenging whiteness but also complacency that can exist within communities of color, to make spaces for queer and trans youth to be visible.”

This fall Qi is organizing a summit to bring together LGBTQ youth of color to strategize for the next year. “We need to start with the people we’re trying to serve,” says McKenzie. “Far too many times in movements we see people who don’t necessarily represent a community make decisions for it. The goal of the summit is to really understand what’s going on in their lives right now.”

Once that’s done Qi hopes to create a strategic plan with concrete goals to help Portland address the reality for young LGBTQ people of color. McKenzie adds: “I see so many queer and trans people of color with depression and anxiety. When I ask them if they have the proper support system, the answer is usually no. They might not know how to tell you what they need tomorrow if they still need to deal with the realities of what happened to them yesterday and trying to survive now.”

When asked about what changes they would like to see in Portland, the people of Qi have concrete ideas. Madrid hopes that by creating platforms for these youth, it will lay a foundation for greater discussion of issues facing young LBGTQ people of color in Portland, “potentially even within schools,” they hope. “I want Portland to be more accountable,” says Nguyen. “The complacency and complicities in anti-black violence and racism on a physical, social, and emotional scale is appalling.” They say it’s hard not to remember the shooting at Last Thursday in May where Portlanders took selfies by the crime scene and complained about not being able to get to Salt & Straw.

“I want to see a city that stops asking queer and trans youth of color to apologize for simply being themselves,” says McKenzie. “I find myself living in a city where I’m having to apologize for my blackness, or that I don’t identity with gender binary, or that I’m an immigrant, or suffer anxiety, and I don’t want to apologize. I want a city where I don’t have to be anxious about what’s going to be thrown at me next.”