Reflections on the Loss of Skylar Lee, the Need for Solidarity and the Complexity of Oppressions
by Karma R. Chávez
Last February I attended the Creating Change conference in Denver. Creating Change is put on by the National LGBTQ Taskforce and it is one of the largest meetings of LGBTQ non-profit service providers, activists, and organizers in North America. The Taskforce has had a lot of growing pains over the years as it has worked to distinguish itself from the more mainstream (read: white, middle-class) Human Rights Campaign. It has also contended with poor-people-of-color’s grassroots critiques of the Taskforce as part of the problem of the “non-profit industrial complex”–a term used to critique the nonprofit system for squelching genuine grassroots efforts of the most impacted people by professionalizing and career-tracking activism. The system has also ensured that white people with advanced degrees become leaders of movements.
These tensions were present at last spring’s conference, which was a slick and shiny affair at a nice hotel. During the opening awards ceremony, a group of trans activists disrupted with horns and whistles and charged the stage while chanting “trans lives matter!” It was a chaotic moment, and I was pretty far back in the crowd. It seemed that about 30-40 trans people, many people of color, took the stage and encouraged the crowd to chant with them: “trans lives matter!” I felt quite conflicted.
Without a doubt, trans lives matter. But last February, I had been working to support the efforts of the Young Gifted and Black Coalition here in Madison, and I was keenly aware of the risks of co-opting “Black lives matter” for other identities. The importance of this movement is to center Black lives. Even though many of those who took the stage were people of color, few of them were, as far as I could see, Black. What did this take over say about Black trans lives? (It is important to note that Black activists attempted to address this question by disrupting the mainstage the following day. They emphasized the need to center Black lives, especially Black trans lives in the LGBT movement).
It is too simplistic to simply say that the trans activists from the first night were participating in anti-Blackness; all trans women of color, not just Black trans women, die at horribly disproportionate rates, often in violent murders that go uninvestigated. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that there had to be other chants that could have centered trans lives without displacing Black lives, including Black trans lives.
I was reminded of this uncomfortable dilemma last week when our Korean-American transman comrade, Skylar Lee, took his own life. I didn’t know Skylar well, but he was one of the smartest and sassiest youths I ever encountered. His life’s work was, as far as I can tell, showing how we cannot separate systems of oppression, and that when we do, we erase queer people of color, including those suffering from mental wellness struggles. When we separate or isolate systems of oppression, we use the master’s tool of ‘divide and conquer’ lamented by the great Black lesbian feminist, Audre Lorde. Urging us against ‘divide and conquer’ strategies is precisely what she meant when Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Skylar seemed to understand this better than most. He insisted on the importance of creating spaces for queer Asians within people of color spaces, but he was also an avid supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement–he was a lead organizer for the West High walkout after MPD Officer Matt Kenny killed Tony Robinson, and he regularly showed up at YGB protests with a sign reading “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.” The sign of course is an historical allusion to similar signs from the 1960s Black Power struggles that showed solidarity and the interconnectedness of struggles. I think the reason that Skylar’s death reminded me of the Creating Change incident was because when we lose vibrant leaders like Skylar who see the complexity of how power works, we lose more than just a beautiful young man. We lose part of our capacity to fight deadly oppressions–from white supremacy, to transphobia, to mental illness and more. And we desperately need people with drive and analysis like Skylar’s so that our work can be toward solidarity and liberation, without inadvertently reinforcing systems that divide us.