By Jenise Justice
I would often laugh at my friend Lillie A. Estes (1956-2019), founder of the Community Justice Network, when she corrected anyone who used the term “activist” to describe her work. She preferred the phrase “community strategist,” saying she was too old to be doing all that marching and protesting like the millennials. What made it so funny is that all our lives we have been activists. However, what Lillie was alluding to was that being an activist takes on many forms depending upon your station in life. Her place at the latter stages of her life was to support the younger activists by strategizing with them and sharing the wisdom of the past. It was Lillie who helped me shape my own view of my activism. However, it was a book by June Jordan (1936-2002) called Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings from the Progressive that helped me to see its magnitude. Jordan’s writings address issues from the end of the twentieth century and the intersections of many forms of injustice, and they celebrate the movement away from single-issue politics to a far-reaching activism. My own involvement in fighting for justice was shaped similarly and I coined it my intersecting activism. This quote defines it philosophically:
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”
Physiologically speaking, my intersecting activism began the day I was born. A black girl’s conditioning meant following a heteronormative life that would include racism, sexism, and classism from the start. Being “bisexual” in how I viewed the world moved the metrics. I believe being born to love more than one gender created an opening for me to see no one’s issue above another. My activism is a moving target, inclusive of all systems of oppression. My earliest recollection of activism was my dad telling me the story of his return home from the Vietnam War and me raising my fist and saying, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.” I was two years old.
My protest took many forms. At the age of five, I mooned the class bully. At 13, I dated a white guy, which was an unspoken taboo. In college, I dropped my African American Studies class because my white supremacist patriarchal black professor said I was too idealistic to be a lawyer. Later in life, I became the first female president of the Prosser-Truth Division of the UNIAACL (Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League) and helped form Africans United at Colorado State University against the criminalization of black people. In addition, I exercised my birthright to love who I wanted in one of the first public same-sex union ceremonies in the heart of the confederacy before Prop 8 went up for a vote.
The point of it all is to say, my intersecting activism takes into account diversity, inclusion, and intersectionality. I must point out three things regarding the concept of intersectionality as I understand it. Kimberlé Crenshaw used the term to reveal how feminist movements and antiracist movements exclude women of color. Secondly, there were women like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde speaking of the need for a new approach to analyzing black women’s experiences shaped by race, gender, social class, and sexuality before Crenshaw. Thirdly, the concept of intersectionality (or as we engage with it today) has moved away from one dimensional thinking allowing for different power dynamics of different identity categories at the same time. Nothing is in a vacuum and this way of thinking has framed my work in LGBTQ+ spaces.
American sociopolitical activism prominent during the 1950s is where my interest peaked in the early 80s because it was led by the civil rights movement and that is the movement I knew the least about. Then came the anti-war movement opposing American involvement in Vietnam and later the women’s and gay rights movements.
The LGBT Movement, as it was called in the 90s, became a place of isolation for me. I saw the interest of the movement being determined by white men (G). Then it trickled down to white women (L), to black men (G) and black women (L). The B was completely silent. I got angry and turned toward women’s issues and the ongoing issues of race and class until my work as a “motivational speaker” brought me face to face with what had been haunting me. I wanted to be heard and there were other women feeling the same way. When the statistics revealed bisexuals were over half of the community, even though the data did not support the African American bisexual women, I felt empowered to raise my voice.
At the urging of a friend, I wrote a book putting another face and voice of bisexuality into the fray. My book, DownLow Sister OnTop: Celebrating the African American Bisexual Woman is also my way of invoking political action—once I realized I could make changes to social conditions regardless of whether groups worked with me or not. The beginning of my book tour was challenging. African-American lesbians and heterosexual women did not support it as I naively hoped. I reached out to several black women who were promoting the #BlackLivesMatter Movement to get feedback, and was told “the fight though relevant was not their fight…bisexuals have the ability to pass so they are not as targeted as lesbians…good luck with your book.”
In heterosexual spaces, I received the cold shoulder, or they secretly wanted to connect with me. I was dropped from some engagements, while others simply ignored me. And, then there were those who would ask why it is necessary to single out the B at all. It was disheartening, but it made me more determined. They say when you do what you love, you will do it for free. My intentions with my writing are simple. I want to give a voice to the voiceless, raise the awareness, and open dialogue.
With clear intentions, I started the Leading Edge Love Movement. It’s another political action to debunk myths through dialogue but, more importantly, it connects the dots with what I believe is one of the roles we play that will transform society. That role is to show others what unconditional love looks like. We are leading-edge lovers. The movement is not limited to bisexuals, but we definitely have a unique position to start from. I theorize that diversity is our natural existence; therefore, we all play a key role in ushering in this new way of existing that celebrates our differences instead of trying to change them.
What is a leading-edge lover? A leading-edge lover is anyone who walks in their truth, respects all beings, and loves their family as much as they can. They are the closest point to source (know a power greater than self), neither straight nor curved (see life as organic not linear), uplift others (avoiding manipulations) and they can get extremely hot (power of influence is infectious).
It’s been five years since I first published DownLow Sister OnTop. I followed it up with an ebook called Ask The Bisexual. Currently, I’m developing a one-person show based on the 13 characters in the book and working on books two and three. I’m doing what I love with intersecting activism as my natural impulse to injustice. It’s pointing me in the direction of living in my truth and trusting however that shows up. When I do that, it’s an inspiration for someone else. I believe we can embrace each intersecting part of who we are as a unique grouping and set undeniably apart, while celebrating the cohesiveness of existence.
I don’t consider myself to be an LGBTQ+ activist, a bi+ activist, or any configuration of activist group, unless the + stands for all groups who have been subjected to colonialism and racism and unless it stands for those social movements that have and continue to work to dismantle those forces. I’m an activist for those who have figured out a way to not allow the past, future, or present to get in the way of engaging with one another in the spirit of love. For me, this is the ultimate awareness that places all groups side by side as human beings. No one cause is above or below the next and, wanting the same thing: freedom. A freedom that comes from within. In the words of civil rights pioneer Vernon Johns, “You see a fight, join it. You see a problem, solve it.”
Jenise Justice Brown is a storyteller, educator, and serial entrepreneur. Her passions include artistic expressions, societal equity, and self-inquiry.