What Feminism Has Taught Me About Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement

I am a Chileno queer Southerner who was brought up by feminists at home and in the movement. I am undocumented, cisgender and identify as male. My family came to Virginia when I was 7 years old. I currently live in Richmond, Virginia, and have been in this state since we first moved to the U.S. Growing up, I lived with the pressure to keep two secrets: one about my status and one about being queer. Like many others, I have lived and worked at the intersection of the LGBTQ movement and the immigrant rights struggle.

Salem Acuña

Salem Acuña

As part of Southerners On New Ground (SONG), I’ve been able to build and work across race in the U.S. South and see how power, privilege and oppression play out in the lives of some of my political family who do not share my experiences or identities. Over the past year, I’ve learned a great deal from my own mistakes and gaps; from people who have been loving enough to challenge me and directly communicate with me when I have acted in ways that have been hurtful, arrogant and frankly, sexist or otherwise oppressive. I also have observed several moments of disrespect from queer cis men of color towards queer women of color in our movements, and I want to contribute some thoughts about this in hopes that those of us who are queer, cis men of color can generally build better practices.

A few concerning trends:

“Outness” Above All Else
SONG has always supported coming out of the shadows, just as we have always supported coming out of the closet. But, we also understand that if we demand “outness” (about being undocumented, queer, trans, a sex worker, a survivor, etc.) as a prerequisite for legitimacy to engage, we leave a lot of key people behind. Acknowledge that no one has a monopoly on truth, and do not assume to know everyone’s story. Unfortunately, I often see a purist, single-issue approach that does actually encourage exclusion, and sometimes, pain. Seeing leadership as only stemming from one’s willingness to be “out” is chauvinist and erases complexity based off of class, race, geography, age, etc.

Loudest Voice Trumps
Living —and in fact— surviving forms of oppression does not give license to step on others or decide who is most oppressed. My work at SONG has taught me to watch for who does the work and never gets credit. We don’t assume the loudest, most critical voices in a room bring the best leadership, and we don’t bend to leadership that does not do its homework on our communities’ histories, or pay attention to who has been working diligently for our liberation long-term.

I have witnessed situations where queer cis men of color (mostly in immigrants rights work, but not limited to) interrupt/disrespect queer women of color, assume bad intent, or make assumptions about women’s immigration status or track record in this work. Some of the women have been in movement much longer than these men, accomplishing a great deal. I am frustrated by the way that we have recently seen many straight and queer men of color take credit for wins without every mentioning the hard work of so many women of color.

Movements are not built only by big proclamations and highly visible actions, they are also made possible by the humble strategists, networkers, conveners and organizers who have not been quick to take credit. Historically, thousands of those “humble strategists” have been women-identified people. In the South, we are particularly sensitive to this because thousands of Black women were so essential to the Civil Rights Movement, and yet are often overlooked in how that story is told. Many untold stories of queer women (cis and trans!) leadership in the LGBTQ sector also come to mind: from leadership in AIDS crises, to the building of basic services/infrastructure for our communities—so many of them have led with what SONG co-founder Mandy Carter calls “being about justice, not ‘just us’.”

Thinking You Know Best
It’s often overstated but listening is such a key factor. Growing up, I learned very quick how to listen to, and take leadership from women. In organizing, I have been surprised to see so many of my male compas charge ahead with individual agendas, even if it is at odds with the greater good. To move forward boldly and strategically, we must recognize the ways in which we ourselves as leaders can hurt our work by not knowing how to listen and work collaboratively. Studying history is also a way to listen.

Oppression Olympics
I recognize being undocumented as a major form of oppression in our current political climate, but not the only one. We are not the first to be oppressed, nor do we have “the corner” on oppression. Often, we don’t even have a clue as to what others have endured. Our destiny as queer men, as people of color, as undocumented people, is tied to that of other brave oppressed people who are willing to fight. Our organizing is not just about identity—it is also about our consciousness, vision, quality of leadership, and wins. Wonderful Laverne Cox says it best: “We can’t end transphobia without ending patriarchy.” We need to take lessons on connecting oppressions from our trans women and queer cis women leadership.

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Feminism has taught me what it means to be aware of how we lead: with strategic and resilient rage, rather than with aimless and self-righteous anger. Patriarchy thrives in our work when we make it about individualism, fundamentalism and domination. It is important to have self- awareness, to know our strengths and our gaps, so when the time comes to take bold risks we are fortified in each other’s power and fabulosity.

I hope this piece sparks dialogue in that spirit.

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Salem Acuña is a Latino queer regional organizer with Southerners On New Ground (SONG), a multi-racial LGBTQ organization committed to racial and economic justice work in the Southeast. As an immigrant originally from Santiago, Chile, Salem is committed to social change and liberation work that is rooted in an international understanding of oppression and history.

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