WHERE: USA – New York
I first encountered the work of Astraea in 2007. I was living in Egypt and met some of the sexuality rights movement-builders from the Arab region when they passed through Cairo. One such pioneer, Rauda Marcos, co-founded Aswat, a Palestinian Lesbian Women’s organization. She told me about Aswat’s work, which is made possible both by members’ determination and funding from Astraea. Aswat members held community clean-up days taking care of their neighborhoods and leading by example. According to Rauda, the first step was to show strength in numbers. Community clean-up days were a simple tactic to be out, proud and present in the community.
When I first read Astraea’s mission, I remember asking myself for the first time, what does it mean for me, Todd Lester, to be an allied community member? What roles can gay men play in supporting LGBTQI organizations that are committed to the leadership of lesbians, queer women and transgender people? How are our struggles interconnected?
History answers some of these questions for me: When the AIDS crisis hit my community in full force in the 1980s, it was nothing less than devastating. But amid this devastation, the lesbian community showed up for their gay brothers in our living rooms as care-givers and on the streets leading ACT UP demonstrations to demand our meds (see footnote 1). In 1995, the Brothers for Sisters campaign emerged in the Bay Area as a way for men to give back to the women’s community who had been the first to step up when HIV ravaged San Francisco’s gay community. This history of showing up women for gay men and, in turn, men for lesbians resonated with the showing up and being present that Rauda was talking about with Aswat’s community service days.
Why is it important for me to show up? When I was in Cairo, I learned about a support network of lesbians and transgender women from diverse backgrounds who would meet in private homes around Cairo. I became close friends with Kholoud, the network’s coordinator, another brave LGBTQI leader in the Arab region. She told me she is often mistaken for a gay man and thus harassed relentlessly. On these occasions, she regains her safety by letting people know she is a woman. And yet in other circumstances, she is thought to be a man and receives positive attention until onlookers realize she is a woman and become aggressive and sometimes violent. There is no way for her to simply be herself without the expectations of others curtailing her freedom to live, work and socialize.
Witnessing the challenges Kholoud faces on a daily basis in her life and work helped me understand the need for allies and highlighted who I am already in community with. Seeing these daily moments of courage by others being who they are and negotiating their identities reminds us all of our complex and shared histories.
I remember growing up in the rural South, in Tennessee, and tactically instinctually learning how to pass as straight in order to stay safe from all the threatening and volatile forces that my young mind sensed around me. Flash forward to today: I’m living in New York City at a time when I feel comfortable presenting and carrying myself in any way I so choose. When I am sharing spaces with people socially or at work we understand and celebrate our uniqueness casually. Our differences are not the first thing we focus on.
But still, what is my role as a gay white man living in the US conditions that usually mean I can walk down the street and not worry about being harassed or experience the ramifications of standing out? For starters, I can remember, stand with and financially support my allied community members in their work all over the world. By doing so, it means I don’t take my own good circumstances for granted. And an active way for me to do that has been to join this team to create the resources for the next phase of Astraea’s important work.
Around the world, gay, lesbian and transgender communities share a history of movement-building. And were it not for the connections we carved out to support one another and work hand-in-hand in the past, we would not be where we are in the present, making strides in LGBTQI justice. Being part of the diverse, informed and strategic community of donors across the economic spectrum that support Astraea is a tangible way for me to show up. As a global funder, Astraea funds organizations in the Middle East working for LGBTQI rights, as well as those in under-resourced communities in the US, including some in the rural South.
Astraea’s mission is based on an enduring commitment to feminism, progressive social change and an end to all forms of exploitation and discrimination based on race, age, sex, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, physical and mental ability, anti-Semitism, and other such factors. Together, we are transforming the social justice landscape for LGBTQI people around the world.
This is why I say that Astraea is a foundation who knows who she is! It is also why, for me, as a gay man, supporting her is a vehicle for me to show up, across the globe, standing in partnership with my friends and allies. I am confident that this is the way forward, and I’m asking other men to stand with Astraea in her work for freedom for us all.
by Todd Lester
Footnote 1: For more on this history, be sure to check out We Were There, a film in progress that just received Astraea funding through the U.S. Annual Fund.
Originally published on Dec. 21 2011, here.