In honor of Women’s History Month, Out dedicates its March issue to women and nonbinary femmes. For the first time in our 27 years of publishing, our entire magazine only features and is photographed by, styled by, and written by women and nonbinary femmes. Joining us as guest editor for this edition is the activist, author, and director Janet Mock.
In partnership with Out’s executive editor Raquel Willis, our cover story features Mickalene Thomas’ photographs of the Mothers and Daughters of the Movement: five Black queer and trans women carrying our liberation forward, each of them representative of vital work around race, sexuality, gender, class, and beyond. For the occasion, Mock selected our “Mothers,” Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who rose up at Stonewall and is still fighting, and Barbara Smith, legendary Black lesbian feminist from the ‘60s to today. Joining them are our Daughters — Tourmaline, the artist best known for immortalizing and honoring the icon Marsha P. Johnson; Alicia Garza, the queer woman who coined the term Black Lives Matter; and Charlene Carruthers, who’s literally writing the book on modern, intersectional queer feminism.
Here, our cover stars have a roundtable discussion on what work we need to do immediately, who inspires them, and what’s coming next.
WHO WE FIGHT FOR
Miss Major: My transgender community. My girls — my Black girls, first, and then everybody else.
Barbara Smith: Everyone who’s oppressed all over the globe and anyone who’s being hurt or exploited. I fight
Alicia Garcia: Myself, Black people, Black queer women, Black trans women, everybody who deserves to live with dignity and doesn’t get to do that right now.
Charlene Carruthers: Myself, my ancestors, my niece, my mother, all Black women, queer folks, trans folks, gender non-conforming folks, and disabled folks.
Tourmaline: People in prison, hustling and not making ends meet, in hospitals, people who can’t get out of bed or can’t get out of a home, people living in homeless shelters, and the underdogs. I am the underdog that I fight for.
WHAT PUSHED US INTO ACTIVISM
MM: Losing a couple of very dear friends when I was younger, in New York, back in the late ’60s. They were murdered by someone who knew them and the police didn’t care. They weren’t interested in what the community saw and it never got solved. I decided that the [trans] girls and I had to stick together because we’re all that we have. While working the streets together, we formed bonds because tricks are assholes and we had to protect ourselves from them. So I got the girls to write down license plate numbers and pay attention to what car we saw our friends get in, in case they didn’t come back.
BS: Being born into Jim Crow in 1946, as a little Black baby with a twin, makes it really hard to look at dehumanization, hatefulness, and just outright terrorism and not want to do something about it. My sister and I experienced all of those events that are now so historic and well-known of the Civil Rights Era, in real time. I remember when Emmett Till was murdered because I was in elementary school. The people in my family talked about it in hushed tones with great sadness. All those major events I lived through, and because I came of age at just the right time, I
actually could come into the Civil Rights Movement and try to change things.
AG: I was raised by a single mother who did a lot of work so I could pursue my own dreams, and that meant putting some of hers aside. After everybody was asleep, it was her time to really dream and imagine what her life could be, and I got my spirit from her.
CC: I was 18 years old [when] I got involved in activism. I went to a predominantly white university, and some of the white students decided that they wanted to take away our power as Black, brown, LGBTQ students in the student government. So, we decided to organize. That same year, I went to study politics in South Africa, and it blew my mind.
T: Activism has kind of always been a part of my life and my story. Both of my parents were organizers for different periods of time, and [my] mom recently retired from being a union organizer.
WHAT WE WISH MORE PEOPLE UNDERSTOOD ABOUT THE WORK
MM: We’re not asking for anything that we don’t deserve. If you’re under somebody’s foot all the time, someone needs to come up and move that motherfucker off your neck.
BS: We build on the shoulders and the experiences of all those who fought before, so one of the things to know is that it’s not instantaneous. It’s not easy.
AG: It’s not a spectator sport. I’m all for different approaches, strategies, and theories on how things should go, but I only think those things are valuable in practice and in the testing of them.
CC: This work takes money, resources, and time. Just like any other craft, engaging in movement-building work deserves investment. It deserves being someone who actually takes the time to learn the craft, and to be supported in doing so.
T: It’s a protracted struggle. [And] the work can look different. I think all of the ways that we participate are deeply meaningful, and I think it’s really important that we expand what it means to be a part of this work.
WHAT WE HOPE THE ANCESTORS THINK OF OUR WORK
MM: I hope they wish me well and give me the strength to keep going, and get me over the rough spots. And I hope that the younger community understands that in passing this down, they have to help look out for us as we get older.
BS: I recognize that kind of child down there. I recognize her because she’s working for freedom. Yeah, oh, yeah. I knew people just like that back in 1742, like when we were down on the plantation in Georgia.
AG: I hope the ancestors think, “That bitch is fierce. We did a good job, she’s killing it.” That’s what I hope they think. And I hope with that that they continue to bless me and the work that we do.
CC: I hope that the ancestors are like, “Come here, girl!” I hope that they see themselves in the work that I do. I hope that they nudge me when I’m going in the wrong direction, and I hope that they nudge me when I’m going in the right direction. I just hope that I’m honoring my grandmother’s life, because she’s the one who migrated from Mississippi. I just hope we’re making them proud, and that, when and if we go astray, they let us know, so we can get back on course.
T: I hope that the ancestors think that I’m listening, and that I’m holding a space to be guided in this moment, and that it reflects back that we could be anything that we wanted to be and we still can, and we’ve been put in so many places where that has been just at odds with the truly violent conditions that we’ve had to face, but we can and we ought to be able to be anything that we want.
A MOMENT WHEN WE FELT LIBERATION WAS POSSIBLE
MM: I had moved from New York to San Francisco because my youngest son was born and they had just killed [Harvey Milk] who was running for political office. I noticed how people can get together for a common cause and I thought about how my girls did it in ’69 and we got beaten out of the acknowledgement that we deserved for that. When I saw the community in San Francisco get together and turning over cars after the results of that trial, I realized that if I kept going and didn’t give up, I could get my community together so that we could resist. We are strategic and a tough bunch of bitches. They put us through a lot of unnecessary hardship and hurt.
BS: When I started participating in Pride marches in Boston toward the end of the 1970s, there was a feeling of exhilaration unlike any I had ever experienced, because this was the identity — the secret that had to be kept at risk of one’s life. There are still pandemic transphobic murders and homophobic hate crimes and murders, so it’s not like it’s all been fixed. But there certainly was a difference between the power of the closet in the pre-Stonewall Era and what we were experiencing in the 1970s. It was just like, “Wow, we can walk down the street. We have the signs. Everybody knows what’s going on." And it was very, very exhilarating.
AG: Right after we started Black Lives Matter, it was taking off all over the place, and every time I turned on the TV or got on social media, there were mobilizations everywhere, every day. And I really remember feeling like, “This can really happen. We can really transform what’s happening in this country and it’s happening right now and I just want to be awake for this moment.”
CC: I was participating in the Charlotte Uprising in North Carolina, and there was this moment when we were marching past the jail and we ended up at the police station. We were all together, chanting. It was an out-of-body experience that was deeply collective, and it just felt like I was free in that moment, and that we shared a moment with the people who they had in those cages. It was like our work was about all of us experiencing many moments of freedom, and ultimately, a long-term experience of liberation.
T: I remember going to Atlanta for the United States Social Forum in 2007 to think through what safety meant for a lot of different people, and that felt really beautiful because we were trying to prefigure the world that we wanted to be a part of and make that world by having our interactions model it. Some of the conversations that happened at Transforming Justice, and then Critical Resistance in 2008 were really beautiful. Then after those things, I remember being on set for Happy Birthday, Marsha! on the first day of shooting, and being like, “This is the only thing that I want to do," paint with such a wide brush the stories that feel so meaningful.
THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE IN OUR WORK
MM: Getting the respect not just for me, but for my community. It’s so aggravating that they don’t want to give us the respect that we’ve earned. We’ve been here since the beginning of fucking time.
BS: Misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, at-large, as a system of oppression.
AG: People not believing that we can do a thing. There are always going to be people who are going to hate on your shit or tell you it’s not possible or tell you that you can’t do it. Honestly, when I’m faced with stuff like that, it drives me even harder because I know what’s possible and I know that it takes courage and audaciousness to do anything excellent.
CC: Burnout is real, and the grind of it — going in the midst of a lot of trauma, of literally seeing Black pain and death everywhere.
T: Different levels of ableism that are really easy to be internalized, about what productivity can look like and what making a difference can look like, and just diferent ableist models of what activism should look like.
HOW WE WANT TO BE REMEMBERED
MM: For trying to make it better. Yeah, I just want to be the bitch to try to make it right. [That] works for me.
BS: As somebody who got the work done, who saw that there were things that were really wrong about the world in which we live, who looked around and said, “That’s not right. That’s not right. You can’t treat people that way. That’s not right.”
AG: As somebody who put it all on the line for all of us.
CC: As someone who fiercely fought for and defended all Black women and girls. As someone who was an educator at heart, someone who was deeply invested in the leadership development of our people. Someone who was unapologetically Black, queer, lesbian, feminist, and a Chicagoan.
T: As someone making space for people to really be their most actualized, authentic versions of themselves. As someone who is in service of how people’s wounds can be beautiful, transformative tools for healing and justice, and a person who makes space for that, for all of us to be present, and reflects back the beauty of that.
WHERE WE SEE THE MOVEMENT IN 25 YEARS
MM: More people committed to making positive change and a deeper understanding of what solidarity looks like.
BS: That we would practice both strong self-love for our own particular identities and the communities with which we most closely identify, at the very same time that we find out more and more about what solidarity actually means.
AG: We are a movement of millions and it is governing and learning how to take care of people. We’re taking care of each other and really working together — not just to oppose shit, but to be problem-solvers, solution-drivers, and people who are taking on some of the biggest challenges that we face.
CC: My niece will be in the movement, and I hope that something that I’ve done inspires her, and that she still comes to me and asks for advice. Money bail, criminalization of marijuana or any drugs, and sex work would be decriminalized in 25 years. More Black and brown folks will move in the world with less fear.
T: I’m like, “Is the United States still going to exist in 25 years?” Because if it didn’t, that would mean something different for our movement. What would we have to be taking up then? What resources would we have to be sharing in new and profound ways? Even if the United States — if the state didn’t exist, what would come to take its place? How would we be having to respond to that?
WHAT WE DO TO FEEL JOY
MM: I like to go to movies and stuff like that. They’re a bit loud now, but the seats are real comfy and I enjoy being with good friends. I have wonderful conversations, because nothing beats good conversation, good friends, and an atmosphere of love and acceptance.
BS: I get a lot of joy from being around babies. They were designed to be lovable. I’ve had that wonderful experience throughout my life to be connected to young people. I love movies. I love popular culture.
AG: I laugh a lot. I dance a lot. And I spend time with my peoples. And I try to do that as much as possible.
CC: I cook to feel joy. I spend time with my friends, my partner, my family members. I garden. I read. I write. I do all kinds of stuff.
T: I like looking at something and trying to mess it up a little bit, in a beneficial way. Just, like,
joyful deviance, or hearing the stories of others who were joyfully deviant. It’s a lot about storytelling and making sure that pleasure in this moment is our medicine, because it can be such a great antidote to the austerity measures that our lives are up against.
HOW THE DAUGHTERS FEEL ABOUT THE MOTHERS’ WORK
AG: I am [grateful] to be in relationship to people who came before me, to learn from them, sit at their feet, and be able to recognize how much has changed, and how much they've built for us to be able to bring into the future.
CC: Thank you for the mistakes and the things you did well, because that's stuff that we get to learn from. I really appreciate you for everything they've done for us.
T: Just thank you. I wouldn't be here without it.
HOW WE CAN SUPPORT THE MOTHERS
AG: We need to circle around our people and not just love on them as icons but make sure that they can eat, make sure that they have a roof over their head, make sure they can get around and stay connected to other people, make sure that they have health care.
CC: Both Miss Major and Barbara Smith are people who have invested so much, and we should be making sure that they retire well and have funds and resources, so they can live the rest of their lives with dignity. I think we have a responsibility to contribute, too, because they’re not really retired. They’re just doing other things.
T: It’s really important to offer care in a bunch of different ways. One is kind of a material way: making sure that someone who’s spent her whole life working for other people isn’t having to worry about how to survive in this moment. I think another is a little less material. It’s about making sure that even in our reverence of people, we don’t make them two-dimensional.
THE WOMEN WHO INSPIRE US
MM: Sylvia Rivera. We were friends, and in that, her concern and care for the runaways and the children who were living in the streets really did impact me. She started S.T.A.R., then I started to do the same thing with my girls uptown in Manhattan. Through her, I met Marsha P.
Johnson. The idea of doing something for my specific group of people got into my heart and my head and got me going.
BS: I was very fortunate to know Audre Lorde and to be friends with her from the 1970s until the time of her death. She was older and someone I absolutely looked up to. I knew who she was long before I ever met her because of my immersion in African-American literature. I was teaching in the early ’70s in graduate school and Broadside Press in Detroit published broadsides — like one point on a big piece of paper — and then they also printed these pamphlets that were very affordable with some of the greatest poets of that period, including Audre. Cheryl Clarke is another phenomenal poet and writer, and I'm very pleased to say that her first book, Narratives: Poems in the Tradition of Black Women was one of the first titles that Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press worked on. She had actually self-published that book, but she let us be the distributor for it. Pat Parker’s contributions were also so important in the early days of the Movement.
AG: Mama Harriet Tubman gave us the ability to imagine that which we didn't think was possible and go for it and be like, "Fuck it, I'm going to do it myself. I'm not waiting for nobody because this is what needs to happen right now." Ericka Huggins is still alive, very much. What I learned from her is how to be unapologetically alive in the midst of chaos and trouble. Her story about being in prison and learning meditation and using it as a way to be resilient in the face of really terrible shit is something that moves me.
CC: First, Assata Shakur, who is still living and breathing in exile in Cuba. Second, Marsha P. Johnson, because when I want to channel my bad bitchery, I just think about her saying, “Pay no mind.” And third, Harriet Tubman. Those are the three Black women that I think of when I want to conjure up some movement energy, and think about resisting multiple fronts of violence and oppression.
T: It’s really meaningful to look at the life of Marsha P. Johnson and be grateful for models of Black trans disabled leadership happening throughout time and the beauty of that. From Miss Major I learned the importance of bringing your whole self, whether that's talking about sex work or sex, or saying, "Okay, you want me to be up on this podium? Actually, you can't tokenize me. ”