WORDS BY JOSH RIVERS
“It is absolutely essential that we participate in the revolutionary process with an increasingly critical awareness of our role as subjects of the transformation.”
My suggestion that my friends and I read the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Friere’s most enduring work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as the first book in our gay book club, was met with hardcore eye-rolling: “Josh, can’t we do something fun?” It feels the time is right, though, to dive into philosophical texts in order to better understand how we navigate what can often feel like an increasingly unnavigable world. Nothing is new; no problem our community is facing right now hasn’t been faced before and so it seems prudent to search for tips and tricks in the times of philosophers, educators, and those on the front lines of major movements around the world. What I like most about Friere’s work is his insistence that we are the change we seek. We transform and the world transforms around us.
As a queer man of color who for too long drank from the poisoned chalice of mainstream white culture, I know all too well the deleterious effects of ignorance, complacency and confusion. I’ve experienced hopelessness and despair first-hand, have cried out at the world around me in angst, and have said things of which I’m not proud. While my sins are carved in the ether for forever more, I know I’m not the only person who has felt lost, who has lashed out, and who has felt discarded by the LGBTQI community at large. We are defined by how we respond to our despair, by our ability to wipe our wet cheeks and raise our heads, and by our ability to transform into the empathic and nurturing people we know we can be. It’s a transformation I began many years ago and one that will continue as I keep searching for ways to live up to the greats who so inspire my life.
“What I like most about Friere’s work is his insistence that we are the change we seek. We transform and the world transforms around us.”
On many levels, our community has always known we have to be the change we seek, and if transformation has ever been important, it feels especially important now. Our trans siblings are under constant attack, it feels like our hard-won rights could be rolled back any minute and, in many countries, we’re seeing the rise of xenophobic narratives that threaten to drag us back 30 years. Transformation has helped us survive turbulent political times, to thrive in the face of severe opposition and to create safe spaces for ourselves in the world. It’s an important time to be paying attention and to be having expansive and generative conversations with each other.
Social media, for its vast and innumerable flaws, is helping us have those conversations and is a veritable gold mine of activism, representation and empowerment. We are seeing brave demonstrations of identity from all over the world and the voices of a new generation of thought leaders are rising above the collective noise. People are using their highly-politicised-and-policed bodies to make art, queer creatives are commissioning and creating content centring queerness and across our global community, LGBTQI people are standing up to take positions of influence at local and national levels.
“Transformation has helped us survive turbulent political times, to thrive in the face of severe opposition and to create safe spaces for ourselves in the world.”
It’s a dangerous time for many in our community, but there is hope. It looks like the face we see in the mirror. We are the future. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than at UK Black Pride this year. To see thousands of Black people from across the diaspora come together to celebrate and to protest and to know that I played a part in making it happen brought me to tears. Just over a month later, I’m still reflecting on the collective energy of that day and of all the people who have continued to rally around me to say, “Get back up.” Spaces and movements like UK Black Pride (and hopefully Busy Being Black) remind us that there is so much to be gained from our coming together, that we can create the world we deserve to live in together, and that we don’t need mainstream organisations to validate our existence by reluctantly carving out space for us in places that were never designed to accommodate us in the first place. Our continued transformation as individuals and as a community is emboldened by the radical belief that we have and will exist outside of the structures that continue to oppress and diminish us and that with focus and solidarity, we have the power to overturn them.
I’ll end on another passage from Paolo Friere: “The more radical the person is, the more fully they enter into reality so that, knowing it better, they can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider themself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but they do commit themself, within history, to fight at their side.”