Erica Woodland works with Brown Boi Project, an organization seeking to transform the way people of color experience gender and to create healthy models of masculinity. Erica has worked for more than a decade on issues of gender and gender-based violence, including her earliest work with men and women in prison in Maryland and her current role leading the Brown Boi Project’s middle school program for boys of color in Oakland. Let’s Talk asked Erica to help us understand this moment in gender and gender justice.
Let’s Talk: The past few weeks have been filled with public discussion of gender. What should we make of that?
Erica Woodland: I think people are ready for a new kind of discussion. Gender as we’ve understood it is no more.
There’s an explosion of conversation about gender right now, with lots of activity on Facebook and Twitter, especially from young people.
It’s been amazing to see Laverne Cox on the cover of Time, not just because she’s a trans woman of color but because her analysis of race, class, and gender is pushing us all to look at this moment in its political dimensions. The Time cover happened in the same week as the letter to President Obama from 200 Black men calling for inclusion of girls and women in My Brother’s Keeper and pushing for a more complex conversation on gender.
We’ve also witnessed terrible recent atrocities related to gender and the hatred of women and girls in our society. We’ve seen the murders at UC Santa Barbara and the assault of two black trans women in Atlanta who were stripped and beaten while others watched and took video of the incident.
These incidents – and so many others that never make the news — ask us all to look at the role we play in supporting a culture that hates femininity. We see this hatred in the way we treat women and girls, including trans women and girls. We see this hatred in discrimination against men, straight and queer, who embody femininity. We hear “boy’s don’t cry” and “man up” and wonder why men of color struggle to heal.
The big incidents dominate public consciousness for really short periods of time. We get angry or excited and share something on social media, but what are we going to do after the buzz subsides? How are we going to do the proactive day-to-day work of transforming ourselves, our relationships and our culture?
LT: What does the day-to-day work of transforming gender look like?
EW: At Brown Boi Project we offer space to create the relationships necessary for deep conversations about masculinity and power. Brown Boi has developed leadership circles engaging more than 150 young people of color nationally; these leadership circles have included young people across the masculine spectrum from masculine of center womyn to trans men to queer men to straight men. We have reached hundreds more young people of color in the circles we have held at universities and conferences.
Brown Boi has helped spark bold conversations about gender and race in unlikely places. In 2012, we brought three of our high school leaders from Los Angeles to facilitate a training with faith-based leaders open to the work of Brown Boi and gender justice. The youth identified as either queer or trans and were concerned that the faith-based leaders would judge them for their gender expression and sexual orientation. One gender non-conforming young person even considered wearing a dress to make the folks in the training feel more comfortable!
Despite their worries the youth shared their experiences as young queer and trans people and the challenges they face in their communities and from their families. The faith-based leaders got the opportunity to build relationships with young people which helped them to understand how everyone gains from exploring gender, to work more effectively with queer/gender non-conforming people in their congregations, and to begin to imagine programs that would make gender justice a real part of their work.
People often only see the work of the Brown Boi Project as LGBTQ. But everyone is affected by gender, race and power in our culture, not just queer and trans folks.
LT: How can people get involved with gender justice?
EW: Everyone can show some love for gender justice!
First, support organizations and work led by and for women of color, especially trans women of color in your community. At the Brown Boi Project we have a commitment to donating money and sharing relationships that can be used to leverage resources to work led by women of color.
Second, own our privilege as people of color. For all of the challenges we face, there are always others in our community who need our support. Make a commitment to step up in situations that reinforce violence and hatred towards women and girls, queer and trans people, people of color, poor folks and people with disabilities. Gender justice cannot exist without racial, economic, LGBTQ and disability justice.
Third, accept that we are all learning and growing and will make mistakes. Cultivating the practice of gender and racial justice is an on-going process. The moment we think that the work is done, we are faced with our own blind spots and unconscious prejudice. Be open to feedback and doing things differently in these moments — they are a gift.