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For the Women's March to Succeed, People of Color and the LGBTQ Community Must Have Full Seats at the Table

Blair Imani

If we are truly committed to advancing a future that includes everyone we should prioritize the voices of those who have been historically unheard.

Image via Flickr.

This is an opinion piece by Blair Imani, an author and activist living at the intersections of black, muslim, and queer identity. She is the executive director of Equality for HER and civic action and campaigning lead at DoSomething.org.

On January 21, 2017, nearly one year ago, women around the world gathered together to say no to sexism, hate and violence in the largest demonstration in human history. I was an eager participant in the event but I was not always so enthusiastic. It was a long journey before I decided to attend the Women’s March. I wondered what the march meant for people who existed outside of the parameters of white feminism - feminism that is only concerned with white, cisgender, heterosexual, college educated women.

The context of my concern is rooted in historical fact.

Take for example the treatment of Sylvia Rivera, a transgender woman of color who transformed the modern LGBTQ rights movement. In 1973, Sylvia gave a harrowing speech at a women’s liberation rally in New York City. Fighting for the right to be heard, Sylvia literally seized her place on the stage and called out the numerous failures of the women’s rights and gay and lesbian liberation movements to acknowledge and protect transgender individuals and their incarcerated LGBTQ siblings. Sylvia Rivera was maligned the same manner our transgender siblings today face stigmatization. Transgender women are real women. Yet, even today’s women’s movements are shamefully reluctant to address disproportionate violences committed against transgender women of color around the world.

In present day, feminist movements like #MeToo, nearly erased the work of Tarana Burke, a black woman from Queens, NY who created the movement to address sexual violence over a decade before the hashtag gained prominence in the wake of Rose McGowan’s bravery in calling out sexual violence in Hollywood.

"I had seen thoughtful and necessary critiques penned by transgender and black women questioning the intersectionality of an event organized and led entirely by white women."

Conversations about labour protections, violence, and economic justice erase the intersectional oppression that Kimberle Crenshaw first wrote about in her 1989 essay, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex.” Crenshaw’s Theory of Intersectionality was first coined in an essay about the experiences of black women in a legal system and society that neglects the fact that our relationships to systems of oppression and individual identity inform our experiences. Lamentably, individuals who consider themselves as “Intersectional Feminists” are yet unfamiliar with the woman who created the very theory they claim to espouse.


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On that cold winter morning, a day after we inaugurated #45, I beamed with excitement with my pink knitted hat, winter coat, and clear bag (as mandated by event organizers for security). I was a bit nervous about looking ridiculous but as I and my friend Moriah headed toward the National Mall, we were surprised to see that we nearly fit right in. We stood out for a few reasons however, we had neglected to create a clever sign to bring with us (that was on us) and we were two of very few black women in our scope of visibility. My initial skepticism toward the Women’s March, and the skepticism of thousands of diverse women across the country was certainly warranted when one looks at the history of feminist movements at large and the early days of the march.

The Women’s March was born on the night of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. A grandmother living in Hawaii named Teresa Shook posted on Facebook, “I think we should march.” Teresa, like many enraged and disgusted Americans, was appalled that the U.S. had just elected Donald Trump as its 45th President. Before heading to bed on night of November 8, 2016, she invited about 40 friends to her Facebook event for a pro-women march. According to Linda Sarsour, National Co-Chair of the Women’s March and human rights activist, by the time Teresa woke up on November 9 over 10,000 people had indicated they would be attending her march. Bob Bland, a fashion entrepreneur in Brooklyn, New York had a similar idea about a pro-women march. Bob and Teresa met through Facebook and decided to combine the two efforts into one event.

"While organizers continue to grow and evolve, the Women’s March organization continues to reject exclusionary feminism, bring in experienced organizers from different communities together to advance justice for all women, and remains receptive to the feedback and the critiques of other organizers and activists in the movement space."

It was at this point that many people became aware of the rumblings of a pro-woman march in response to the election of Donald Trump. I had seen thoughtful and necessary critiques penned by transgender and black women questioning the intersectionality of an event organized and led entirely by white women. The lack of diversity in the event’s organizers was the tip of the iceberg. The march’s original name – “One Million Woman March” – was a thoughtless erasure of the march of the same name led by black women in 1997. I, like many black women, wondered where I fit into a space that erased the legacy of feminists of color. As activist communities around the country expressed frustration in the form of boycotts and thinkpieces, Vanessa Ruble recognized the lack of diversity and connected co-organizer Bob Bland to a trio of experienced community organizers of color – Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour – who began spearheading planning for the march.

Such was not the case for everyone, but when I saw the faces of these three leaders, I saw myself and I saw my mentors. Since I converted to Islam, Linda Sarsour had been an ally of mine not only as a new Muslim but as queer woman of faith. I had been on a panel before with Carmen Perez following my arrest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in July 2016 and she had been someone I communicated with when I had questions about how to best approach the nuances of organizing. When I learned Tamika Mallory would join the organizing team, I felt relief. Tamika, like Linda and Carmen, was a seasoned activist committed to ethics and justice on the grassroots level and in positions of power.

Having worked together in social justice for years, Tamika, Carmen, and Linda began to leverage their broad networks to bring in brilliant women of color to develop an intersectional policy platform that included all communities. Alicia Garza was brought in to help develop the policy platform, Planned Parenthood’s Alencia Johnson provided insight about how to best approach the intersections of reproductive health and the needs of marginalized communities, and transgender activists Janet Mock and Raquel Willis joined the roster of speakers. Even as Sister Marches deviated from the policy platform, the core team of the Women’s March remained steadfast to the vision of intersectionality and equity.

To avoid erasing the legacy of the “March on Washington,” which is remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, the march organizers sought the guidance of Dr. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. With Dr. Bernice King’s blessing the march became known as Women’s March on Washington. Through meaningful and thoughtful action and an intersectional strategy, the Women’s March became more than a massive demonstration, the Women’s March became a movement.

While organizers continue to grow and evolve, the Women’s March organization continues to reject exclusionary feminism, bring in experienced organizers from different communities together to advance justice for all women, and remains receptive to the feedback and the critiques of other organizers and activists in the movement space.

If we are truly committed to advancing a future that includes everyone we should prioritize the voices of those who have been historically unheard.