Pride and the Bible Belt
Trymaine Lee: Quinn, why is this place significant? We think about Selma, we think about civil rights but we’re literally standing in the footsteps of some giants in the movement. Why does this place matter to what you’re doing today?
Quentin Bell: I like to jokingly say that it’s the second leg of the civil rights movement. The same exact thing Dr. King did here in Selma in the 60s, we are doing here in Selma here in 2022 but now we are literally walking in the footsteps. We’re going to be going through the same motions, taking the same steps that our ancestors made in the first leg. And this is just our time and I feel like we have more resources, more opportunity now because we’ve already been shown how to do.
Lee: Quentin Bell and I are standing on the banks of the Alabama River, staring up at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Archival Recording: What is the purpose of the march? (UNINTEL)
Archival Recording: We are marching today to dramatize to the nation, dramatize to the world with hundreds and thousands of negro citizens of Alabama but particularly here in the Blytheville (ph) area denied the right to vote. We intend to march to Montgomery to present same grievous to the Governor, George C. Wallace.
Archival Recording: We intend to march to Montgomery, if it takes us a lifetime.
Archival Recording: From Selma?
Archival Recording: From Selma, Alabama. (CROWD VOICES)
Lee: It was here, on Sunday March 7th, 1965, where peaceful black marchers were chased on horseback and beaten by white law enforcement officers and deputized citizens. The images from that day filled America’s television sets and shook up the world. The day would become known as Bloody Sunday, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. Quentin Bell comes here to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he needs inspiration to carry on his own fight, liberation for black LGBTQ people.
Bell: What’s the difference of being counted as three-fifths of a person back then and then having my right stripped away from me because I’m trans or because I’m queer, it’s the same thing. So when talking about civil rights, we’re talking about rights for the people, rights of the people.
Lee: Quinn is the Founder and Executive Director of The Knights and Orchid Society or TKO. TKO is an organization that serves the black queer community in Alabama and across the south. They’re taking care of their people and along the way reclaiming a term, queer, which was once used to demean and belittle, using it to unite and empower black members of the LGBTQ community. They claimed to be the only organization of their kind within a hundred miles and their headquarters is just up the street from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Bell: TKO literally has the only black trans and queer flag, any representation of LGBTQ visibility in the entire city. We got so excited because Walmart literally has one-half, maybe 6-inch kiosks with about 10-LGBTQ pride items up in the store now and that’s a big step for Selma.
Lee: Ten is a big deal.
Bell: Ten is a big deal.
Lee: (MUSIC) Quentin was raised in Selma but there were many years when he wasn’t sure he could make a life here.
Bell: One of the biggest barriers for us and being able to have that smooth transition and have the city that we dream of is the lack of education. People are comfortable being ignorant, people are comfortable not knowing. And then even when people are told or they’re taught, it’s still some sort of reluctancy. There’s no accountability behind it.
Lee: It wasn’t until 2006 when Quentin left Selma at the age of 18 and went to college that he found his people. As he puts it, people living out loud, unapologetically who accepted him as he was. When family obligations brought him back to Selma, it felt in many ways, like a step backwards.
Bell: When I first came back to Selma, and I ran from this city for so long and I remember standing on this bridge and saying, in the middle of night about 12 o’clock one night saying, God why me? Why am I having to come back home at a time when I felt like I hadn’t accomplished enough? And I literally heard why not you? And I got to thinking about I could have been born anywhere in the world and I was literally born in the birthplace of civil rights movement.
Lee: It was a pivotal moment in Quentin’s life, hearing that response to his prayers, why couldn’t someone like him become a leader for black queer and trans folks here? Why not live out loud in his hometown, in a place known for challenging power?
Bell: What we’re hopeful of is that more visibility of black queer, brown queer, trans people being open and living whole. It’ll give an opportunity to the community to be able to ask those questions that they desperately want to ask in a way we can have some real intentional dialogue about what it means to be trans, what it means to be a black trans person.
Lee: And while running an LGBTQ organization in Selma has its difficulties, Quinn says he draws on the power of this city with its rich history of resistance and struggle and focuses on continuing the community work that Dr. King and so many others helped start here decades earlier.
Bell: We’re finding people within the community, we’re finding our resources within the community and bringing them back to our people and we’re giving our folks an opportunity to be able to move from surviving to thriving.
Lee: Surviving, let alone thriving as a queer black person in the south can be a huge challenge, one that many of TKO’s clients are struggling with today. People are dealing with food and housing insecurity, lack of access to health care services and continued attacks on their personhood from politicians.
Archival Recording: — for minors. Last week Alabama became the third state in the nation to pass a measure restricting gender affirming care for transgender and non-binary youth but it’s the first state to actually —
Lee: The Alabama law criminalizes gender affirming surgeries and the use of puberty blockers and hormones for people under 19 years old.
Archival Recording: The law would make providing that care a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison —
Archival Recording: Supporters say it protects children. Opponents argue it does the opposite.
Lee: Last month a judge blocked the ban on blockers and hormones, but the rest of the law still stands. And then, there’s the fear of violence. Violence against trans people has not always been well documented and often goes underreported. According to the human rights campaign, last year was the deadliest year for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States on record.
And for black trans folks who face both transphobia and racism, the dangers are far greater. Between 2015 and 2020, The Washington Post found that more than three-quarters of the trans women who were killed were black. This is part of why Quentin chose to focus on Selma’s black LGBTQ population.
Bell: One of the issues we have in the south is that we can’t separate being black from being trans or I can’t separate being black from being queer. It just happens to be who I am and there’s no space for me to be both within the black community at times and there’s no space for me to show up outside of the black community in anything other than being black.
Lee: The history of this city, of this very spot at the Edmund Pettus Bridge is not lost on Quentin.
Bell: So for us, it’s significant knowing that here we are 50-plus years after the march and you have this organization that smack dab at the intersection of black justice, racial justice and gender justice. And here we are continuing that legacy and fighting for rights for folks who are at the intersections of both of those critical points of history.
Lee: (MUSIC) I’m Trymaine Lee and this is Into America, in a place so steeped in history and protest, a place so pivotal to black liberation. We look at the ongoing fight for civil and human rights through the lens of LGBTQ equality, connecting the ghosts of the past with the struggles of the present, and Pride as resistance in some Alabama.
Bell: Black liberation means the liberation of all black people regardless of gender, regardless of orientation, regardless of spirituality. It just means all black people.
Archival Recording: I see all the fights that are coming up as an extension of what was started in the 60s because it has not come full circle.
Lee: (MUSIC) I spent the better part of two days in Selma with Quentin Bell, walking around historic areas of the city in the summer sun. Things were green, lush and hot, so we sat down outside in the shade just a block from the main road and old downtown with the Edmund Pettus Bridge in sight.
Bell: Both my parents, mother and father, are from a town right outside of Selma called Orrville. Most of my family, maternal and paternal, still live there. So, I grew up in between Selma City limits and in the outskirts of Dallas County.
Lee: Selma is in the Bible Belt and black church culture runs deep here. Quinn is 34 years old now and he said that growing up it was hard on him.
Bell: Growing up in the south here was mostly like you did what the bible tells you or what the preacher told you and then there was really no room to have a conversation about that, if it was something that you didn’t particularly believe holy.
Lee: Quinn would hear sermons in church about how being gay was a sin and that it was a pathway to hell.
Bell: And of course religion, Christianity had it played his role in the church hurt that I experienced, me not wanting to really be a part of the church. And I think it was really based on harsh beliefs around Christianity that made me question, didn’t really leave room for me to question gender itself or even at times didn’t leave room for us to question religion.
Lee: Quentin says his grandmother was a very religious southern woman, all the cousins would get dropped off at her house for the weekend and they had to abide by her rules.
Bell: And I hate it, I absolutely hated going to my grandmother’s house because my grandmother had what she called a blue plate, pink plate system. And that meant all three meals that you received if you were a girl you ate off of a pink plate, if you were a boy you ate off of a blue plate. I specifically remember going to bed a lot of nights hungry because I refused to eat off of a pink plate, and it was just things that were never talked about.
Lee: When you were growing up did you know anyone who was transgender, queer, lesbian, gay, do you know anyone?
Bell: Very few people, like literally there, I almost feel as if Selma, Dallas County in general had a limit on how many people could be out and gay or trans at one time.
Lee: There were so few it felt like there had to be some sort of rule in place.
Bell: There were only two-lesbian, out black women that I knew growing up at the time, only two. I have seen other trans women growing up when I was growing up but I didn’t know that’s what they were called or that’s how they identify. We just knew they were different.
Lee: Quentin was a good student in high school, so much so that he got a Gates Millennium Scholarship for college. He chose to attend Alabama State University, an HBCU in Montgomery. It was just 50 miles down the road but really a world away.
Bell: It was there that I found myself. I was able, I remember maybe the first week on campus after getting moved in, going to the dining hall and seeing these three unapologetically out open black gay feminine guys sitting on the steps of the cafeteria, laughing, showing each other’s their nails and just being, I mean just exhibiting a massive amount of black joy from queer folks that I had never experienced. In that moment, I was just standing there like man if I’m going to hell, it’s got to be pretty fun because these folks are going to apparently. So, it’s going to be —
Lee: So, we’re all going, it’s going to be a party.
Bell: If we should all go, we’re going to have a ball. Hopefully, I’ll be in leadership if we go, so I’ll be the one checking people in.
Lee: I bet you’re (UNINTEL), hear about it straight.
Bell: Right. For me, it was a paramount moment in my life where I had never experience, queer folks showing joy in that way. And that excited me, that let me know that what they’ve told you can’t be true. There is no way that a creator who loved me and built me in their own image can hate me and send me to hell, it just comes back down to what I always say is that how can the creation tell the creator you made a mistake.
That wasn’t a mistake, that black joy was intentional, and I was supposed to see it exactly at that moment in my life. And what it did was it allowed me, it forced me to start living free. I wanted that type of freedom; I wanted that type of joy. And at that point, I was willing to trust myself more than anything.
Lee: Quinn also met his house family in Montgomery which he describes as a group of queer folks living together, support each other, helping each other with food and rent and creating a space for them to just be themselves. Quinn’s house family introduced him to organizing and to advocacy and most importantly, to the idea that being black and queer and joyful weren’t contradictions.
Bell: We had a family picnic at the Vaughn Road Park in Montgomery, and it had been 20, 25 of us out there, doing stuff like playing kickball, grilling, we had freezer cups. It was an amazing time and as I sit back and think now in the same way that those three-gay men inspired me, I can’t even imagine how many queer folks and young queer and trans folks we inspired that day, just being out there doing normal things because we don’t get to live normal lives like everybody else.
Like you say, we’re constantly worried about safety. We’re constantly worried about violence. We’re constantly worried about stigma and discrimination and being harassed that a lot of times we don’t get to focus on the small things and experience joy to that level. So for me to have a group of people who cared about me like my blood family should have and supported me, my chosen family saved my life.
Lee: Quentin was inspired to start working in the LGBTQ health and support space while he was in Montgomery after one of the members of his house family told him he had recently been diagnosed with HIV.
Bell: And I must have cried for like three days because I felt like we had let him down. I felt like, as many of us as it were, we should have been better educated about sexual health than we were. And it also made me understand or realize how many more of us were at risk for becoming newly diagnosed because we didn’t have the education.
Lee: For a slew of structural and social reasons, black people are at higher risk for HIV than other groups. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, although we’re just over 13% of the U.S. population, black people make up 40% of people living with HIV, and that risk goes up for black people living in the south. As Quentin was worrying about his friend and educating himself about HIV, it was also around this time that he started getting serious with a woman named Janine. She had also started working to provide education and services to black queer folks in the south.
Bell: We literally started reaching out to the health departments and talking to them about sexual health and wellness, getting condoms from them to bring to our own events. We had park days when we had open mics. We would always have condoms and bring lubes with folks who have stuff and we were doing this out of our pocket. We started doing this in 2009 to make sure that we didn’t have anybody else around us that close who was newly diagnosed.
Lee: Quinn and Janine were scraping by in Montgomery, putting all of their resources into this work but they were living in this community they come to love and finally felt comfortable in. But then Quentin’s mother got sick and in 2010 they found themselves back in Selma to help take care of her. In Selma, Quentin was starting to come out to friends and family as queer but he hadn’t come out as trans yet, even to himself.
Bell: I remember one of my aunts telling me when I came out the first time as queer, as lesbian, the conversation we had was we accept you. Your orientation is not a problem, just don’t try to be a man and in that moment, it was explicitly pushing off her transphobia unto me. At that time, I didn’t know that I needed to transition. I just thought being a masculine lesbian was as far as I could go on that spectrum.
Lee: Quinn and Janine continued their work in Selma, eventually founding The Knights and Orchid Society in 2012 but Quentin was not totally happy to be back in Selma. He had left his house family, his community and living out in Selma was not the same as it was in Montgomery. Then, Quentin started to turn more to the internet to keep himself immersed in queer culture which is what led him to drag kings.
Bell: And at this time, I didn’t even know that there was such thing as a drag king. I had only ever been introduced to a drag queen which is why I say education and visibility is so important. Because had I known earlier that this thing existed, there would have been an opportunity for me to explore it and research it but because it was kept from me for so long, I didn’t know. Thank god for internet and broadband and Google and places that are so rural like this because it was the only outlet that I had to even see anything different than what was happening in the everyday world.
So, I’m on YouTube and I run across a ball of all things, a ball competition and the category was butch queen realness versus trans man. And the categories compare physical attributes of a person who is a female, assigned female identifies as a woman but it’s very, very masculine by nature. They don’t take any hormones but aside from that they look like men, naturally and then versus they are being compared to people who are assigned female at birth but are taking testosterone and hormones to have a masculine presentation.
Lee: This was Quentin’s first real exposure to trans men, he couldn’t believe it.
Bell: And for the life of me, I thought it was all makeup. I was like what are they using, what kind of spirit glue or rope or hair or like is this Brazilian Remi, what are they doing to get their beards to be this full and like they are pulling them to make sure that I’m like what kind of glue, is that super glue, is it tape, what is it? And at that point, I was like let me go and I’m just googling, I google trans man and I am blown away by the —
Lee: You had never fully understood or grappled with their experience that before and you see that as —
Bell: I had never in my life, I was like are you kidding me. And I think I must have just sat there for like five minutes with my mouth open like I know you’re lying, like you have to be kidding me because the definition says something about is that a person who was assigned female at birth but identifies as a man, I was like you can do that. Like nobody ever told me about this and I just from there it was a Google search.
I began to google every definition, every example. There were like three tests, are you transgender and I was already an academic overachiever and tests were my thing. I was like so clearly if I pass this, needless to say averaged 97% on all three tests. So at that point, I was like yeah I’m probably trans because you know the test told me that I’m definitely trans.
Lee: But Quinn’s realization about who he was came at a precarious time. This was around 2015, he and Janine, now his wife, were still taking care of his mother and struggling to pay off medical bills. Meanwhile TKO was running out of money and Quentin was worried about what would happen to all the folks they helped care for, if it went under. That’s what led him to that moment at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Bell: And it was after deciding I needed to transition and I just could not get a footing, I couldn’t keep my job. I couldn’t have transportation and I remember standing on this bridge about 12, 1 o’clock at night and just thinking to myself, Lord why, why me, like why am I being called back here? Why Selma of all places? Why am I being asked to come home when I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything? And I literally heard a voice that says why not you? Why not you? Why not Selma?
If we can pull this off in Selma, literally create a blueprint where organizations can create resources for folks who are the most marginalized in a place like Selma that has zeroed funding dollars and what my platform, I specifically remember saying after hearing why not you, if you give me a platform I’ll go. If you give me a platform, I’ll go, I won’t complain. I’ll go and I’ll do the work and understanding that my platform was finding my people and my people just happened to be black trans and queer folks.
Lee: When we come back, how the civil rights movement continues to influence Quentin’s fight today (MUSIC).
(MUSIC) After that moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge when Quentin felt God told him that he was exactly where he needed to be, things did begin to turn around. He got his first grant for his organization, TKO, in 2016 and they used that funding to expand their services, hire employees and open a brick-and-mortar center to welcome the community.
A poster outside of TKO’s headquarters lists all of their offerings, healthcare screenings, counseling, transition services, food and agricultural sustainability, small business development and on and on. And Quentin is doing all of this as a black trans man showing his hometown what it means to live unapologetically black and queer.
(MUSIC) There’s one other thing that Quentin does with TKO, a tour of Selma. Back in the day you had the Black Panthers. Well, as he puts it, queer activist, they’re the Black Sheep. So he does a Black Sheep tour of Selma to teach people about the city’s black and queer history.
Bell: There were queer and trans folks at the march as well. I think a lot of times we forget as a people that black trans and black queer folks didn’t just pop up. We’ve always been here.
Lee: One of the stops on this tour is Brown Chapel.
Bell: Brown Chapel is literally the heart of the civil rights movement. A lot of it started here in this community where Dr. King and other organizers literally went door to door. They were immersed in this community.
Lee: The march to Montgomery started right here at Brown Chapel in 1965. And when Quentin says that Dr. King and others were immersed in the community, he’s not just talking about this church community, but where it sits, the George Washington Carver Projects.
Bell: The people that were often times left out of the conversations, when we were talking about politics where the folks that people were from this neighborhood who people thought didn’t want to vote or didn’t know how to vote, didn’t understand, so they came to the community and they made sure people knew how to. They let people know what they were fighting for, why it was important for all of us. And when the community bought into that, that’s how we were able to make the plans for the movement.
That’s why I was successful because it started in the community and not outside of it. I’m more likely to trust your leadership if you’re out in the trenches fighting with me. Dr. King didn’t shy away from any of that. He understood that it was all of us or none of us.
Lee: Some of those people who Dr. King worked with and marched with back in 1965 are still in Selma today.
Lynda Blackmon Lowery: We lined up that day on the playground next to Brown Chapel Church. Brown Chapel Church is sitting in the middle of a project of which I grew up in.
Lee: this is Lynda Blackmon Lowery. She was a foot soldier of the movement.
Lowery: I tell people before my 15th birthday I was jailed nine times, twice in the state prison camp. I went to jail for what I believed in. Now, going to jail and being raised in a segregated society in Selma, Alabama in the 60’s to me was a privilege and honor.
Lee: Mrs. Lowery is now 72-years-old, but she remembers the moment that she decided to join the movement like it was yesterday. She was 13-years-old and Dr. King had come to speak at their church.
Lowery: And he started talking and his voice became mesmerizing, and he was telling our parents about the right to vote and how to get it nonviolently. My spirit heard him say Lynda. Seemed like he called my name so loudly and said Lynda you can get anybody to do anything the steady loving confrontation.
And I remember jumping up saying, oh, yeah, that’s how I’m going to do it. And all these people were standing up to make this change, too. You know, that’s how we are going to do it.
Lee: About a year later after police killed a young black man named Jimmy Lee Jackson in the nearby city of Marion the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee joined with local groups to organize a march from Selma to the state’s capital, Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, several hundred people gathered to make the 50-mile trek to demand voting rights. Mrs. Lowery was there as the group began to walk toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Lowery: I was in the 19th row from the front. When we got on the apex of that bridge all across these four lanes you saw rows and rows of Alabama state troopers in blue.
Lee: At just 14, it’s believed that Mrs. Lowery was the youngest person on the bridge that day.
Lowery: We were told that there would be no march between Salem and Montgomery that day. We had two to three minutes to disperse and go back to our homes or churches.
Archival Recording: It will detrimental you your safety. Disperse. You are ordered to disperse, go home or go to your church. This march will not continue. See that they turn around and disperse.
Lowery: And normally when we marched and we were stopped and they didn’t take us to jail, we would kneel, pray, get up, turn around, go back and regroup. So, we started kneeling and all of a sudden there was these gunshots and then there was this smoke coming up from the ground, burn your nostrils, your mouth, your eyes, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see.
Really confusing. And all of a sudden I felt someone grabbed me directly in the back of my collar trying to pull me backwards from this kneeling position, but I, I was resisting. So this man decided to grab both me in the front of my coat. He grabbed my lapels and he jerked me backwards. Well, as he jerked me backwards his hand came up by my mouth and my mouth was not non-violent and it bit him.
After that, I heard the word nigger twice and he hit me in my forehead. He then pushed me forward. I was able to get up and I started running into this cloud of tear gas.
Lee: Mrs. Lowery doesn’t remember what happened after that.
Lowery: When I woke up I was on a stretcher and they were putting me in the back of a hearse and I jumped up and said, I’m not dead, I’m not going in there.
Lee: Mrs. Lowery ended up with 35 stitches in her head from two different wounds. She has a scar above her right eye from the first seven and a knot in the back of her head from the other 28.
Lowery: It took me 40 plus years to talk about any part of my story. It took me a long time. I like to say the children of Selma in 1965 brought about the 1965 voting rights had given everybody the right to vote. I like to say we, children, put unity back into our communities, our cities. We put unity back into the state of Alabama, and we put unity in a nation.
Lee: The children of Selma as Mrs. Lowery puts it, were able to accomplish great things, but those great things did not include rights specific for LGBTQ people. In the 1960’s, those simply weren’t part of the mainstream discussion around equality. But as Quentin mentioned, that doesn’t mean there weren’t LGBTQ folks in the movement. Perhaps the most well-known, though still not well-known enough, was Bayard Rustin, one of the architects of the civil rights movement.
Rustin was a close friend and advisor to Dr. King who helped organize the Freedom Rides, the march on Washington and the march to Montgomery. Mrs. Lowery actually met him once.
Lowery: This is Mr. Bayard, you know, Rustin. And I looked at him and said, oh, he cute. And I kept on going. I did not know who he was or the importance of who I was meeting. Then when I found out that he was the person that between March 17th and March 21st, organized the entire walk from Selma to Montgomery.
I had a new found respect. Wow! That man did that. Now, that was a wow moment.
Lee: Because you were there so you know how big of a deal he was.
Mrs. Lowery still lives in Selma. She and Quentin don’t know each other well, but she’s familiar with his work. I asked her what progress does Selma still need to make?
Lowry: Selma still has a long way to go on everything. I think there are more young people that are accepting of a community than older people because you still have some older people that say God’s word says it is, but I still say God’s word says love all the way through that. It doesn’t matter to me. You are all God’s children. He didn’t make no mistakes. That’s what I’ve been taught in my 72 years and that’s what I believe.
Lee: So, where do you see the fight for LGBTQ justice and rights in the broader civil rights movement? Do you see that as an extension of the civil rights movement?
Lowery: Yes, I see that as an extension of the civil rights movement. I see all the fights that are coming up, the non-violent fights that are coming up as an extension of what was started in the 60’s because it has not come full circle.
Lee: The current fight for LGBTQ rights is heavily focused on opposing legislation that restricts the rights of queer and trans people in this country like the laws in Alabama and Texas that criminalize gender affirming care for trans youth. And earlier this year, Florida passed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Law” which bans teachers from talking about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.
Alabama has a similar law, in a way attacks on the personhood of trans people by the state government. which disproportionately harms black trans people, echo the attacks against black people by the state during the civil rights movement. Both are aimed at preventing people from enjoying their full rights as citizens.
Back in front of Brown Chapel, I asked Quentin about the idea of black unity in this moment and if that unity ends where gender identity and sexuality begin.
Bell: When you look at social justice work that’s geared at improving systems for black people in general you’re always going to find more LGBTQ folks speaking up for black rights, but we don’t have enough black people who speak up for LGBTQ rights, and there’s no room for the divide. We can’t separate those experiences. It just happens to be who we are. And my whole self just happens to be black. It happens to be trans. It happens to be queer. It happens to be rural.
All of these things are things that will impact us and I think once we understand as black people that we’re fighting for, that we’re both fighting for black liberation in general, then we’ll see that there is no need for the divide. That is where we are in this space and time, is we have to get back to that point where when our ancestors, when Dr. King and the foot soldiers from here in Selma organized, it was under the exception that it was all folks. That’s how we have to move forward. At that time, there was no room for sub groups of different types of people.
Lee: Folks like Quentin say the future of this fight will depend on our collective understanding of this connectedness. Quentin tells me that just a few days before I got there, he was part of a conversation with fellow black activist. Someone said we have to prioritize what issue to focus on, pronouns and gender or police brutality. For Quentin and many other black trans people, it has to be both.
Bell: When I transitioned from female to male, I definitely had a safety. One of my main concerns and the concerns of my wife was my safety because now I’m moving from being seen as a black woman, oftentimes seen as angry, oftentimes stigmatized as being loud, and I’m moving to a space where I’m seen as a black man now, where I’m now I’m worried about coming off as being a threat. I’m worried about my interactions with police.
And on top of all of those things, say I do get arrested or I don’t get arrested and the police ask for my license. Now, I have to prove. There’s another layer I have to add where you as just a black man you’re not necessarily worried about giving your driver’s license to a police officer because your name and your gender marker matches who you are on your license, where the minute I stop and see those blue lights I’m immediately, my anxiety is through the roof because I’m a black man.
But then to also know that when I get stopped there’s still another opportunity for violence to be inflicted upon me when he gets my I.D. and I have to worry about whether or not this officer has been trained in TGNC cultural competency. Is this officer a very white and religious person, will I make it home?
So, there are often times where I don’t get to choose between pronouns and gender and police brutality or other issues that black people “are dealing with or are facing.” I’m having to deal with all of these things and another layer that you don’t even get to think about.
Lee: Quentin takes me to another spot, a place on his tour that’s off the beaten path. It’s about a quarter mile from the famous bridge on the pathway next to the Alabama river. He brings me to a very narrow wooden bridge stretching over a stream before it joins the larger river.
So, tell us about the significance of where we are right now.
Bell: OK. So, where we are right now is across the bridge. The water that we’re actually walking over is where the slave ships used to dock when they would come in.
Lee: Right here where we’re standing now?
Bell: Right where we’re standing. They would literally, the ship would literally dock here and the slaves would be forced to trek from here. The tunnel was actually still open here. We go through the tunnel and then make their way up to the St. James Hotel. And the hotel is where a lot of confederate generals and high-class white people would come to “celebrate.”
Lee: There are birds in nearby trees and the stream trickles by slowly.
Bell: This place has always been a sense of calming for me being able to sit here and look out on the bridge and being able to come back to places where I know some of our direct descendants are. I oftentimes feel protected when I’m here in places like this because I know that my people have passed directly through this and I’m able to walk in those same footsteps.
Lee: Are you fueled in some way or pushed by that spirit?
Bell: I am very much tied to and connected. I think a pray that I continually have is that I’m allowed to stay humble, but then I’m able to find my people. And in the same way that our folks were brought here and forced to create new lives, we want to make sure that our folks are still being able to live out that legacy, understanding that when it comes down to, we’re survivors.
Lee: The spirit of survival is central to the work of Quentin’s Knights and Orchid Society. Down here on the banks of the river, he tells me about one of TKO’s employees whose story reminds him what’s at stake.
Bell: We just started a youth program last year. The president of that youth program, her name is Zuriel Hooks. She’s a black trans woman. And Zuriel has been a client of ours for two, almost three years. This year she was able to be hired on part-time and at the time that she came to us she had literally called every other LGBTQ organization in the state, and they all said that they didn’t have resources for her because she was a black trans woman.
And when we got to her, we literally, the first thing we did was told her, now you can breathe, like it’s OK. We got you. We have you. And she literally told us that had she not found us that day and had a conversation with me and our community engagement director that day that she don’t think she would have made it another day.
So, when I say we are literally in the business of saving lives, we mean that as seriously as possible. We have been able to help black trans women who have been receiving their medication hormones via black market drugs. We’ve been able to transition at least three black trans women this year alone to being able to have routine medical care from a licensed physician, where they’re not taking the risk and getting street drugs and not really understanding what’s in them or having the care to be able to monitor their health and getting labs and being able to get blood work done.
So, the program and the work that we get to do every day, we’re literally in the business of saving lives and I don’t think there’s anything else I would rather be doing.
Lee: The civil rights movement and the fight for queer rights are full of heavy painful moments like those children beaten on Bloody Sunday or the people Quentin hasn’t been able to help. But let’s not forget, this is June. This is pride. There is joy here, too.
What does pride mean in Selma, Alabama?
Bell: I think for me pride is it’s a form of resistance. I think the best way I can explain it is in the same way as our ancestors who were enslaved here, they found ways in spite of everything that was illegal and in spite of everything that was wrong, to get free to freedom. They still found ways to celebrate the joy it was to be black, the joy it was to be together in community with folks.
And for us, pride is no different. It started out as an act of resistance because we get tired of always having to be on edge about if we’re saved or if we’re free from violence or free from harm . So, for me pride is the time where I smile everywhere. I’m actively letting everybody know who I am, where I’m from, and how I show up in the world because I am in every sense of the term, I am proud to be a black trans man living and thriving in the south
And I feel like this is a month where I’m in a position to pay it forward to so many people like me, whether that’s through being visible or if it’s through being on the ground doing the actual work that the community needs, that direct service work. So, pride for me is just a time to be resistant and find joy in spite of.
Lee: Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @IntoAmericaPod or you can tweet me @TrymaineLee. That’s @TrymaineLee, my full name. And if you want to write us, our e-mail is IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com. That was IntoAmerica@NBCUNI.com.
Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angel, Allison Bailley, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. Production help this week from Bryson Barnes, Stephanie Cargill, Daniel Heaton, Russ Mick and Olivia Richard. I’m Trymaine Lee. Happy Pride and we’ll see you next Thursday.