- Writers Retreat
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“This is the scariest shit that I have ever done in my life. Forget about jail, prison, robberies, this, scares me… All of this shit is from being homeless and my past, and I’ve never talked about this part of my life before,” said Jay Toole before beginning to read Friday, August 12th, at the Queers For Economic Justice (QEJ) Shelter Stories community reading. Jay is the director of the Shelter Project at QEJ, spent decades on the streets of NYC beginning at age 13 as a stone butch in the early 1960s, and was one of the participants in this summer’s writing intensive that I have been facilitating with adult queers living or involved with the New York City shelter system.
Traditionally most of my writing facilitation has been with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender, Queer youth experiencing homelessness, but in the late spring I approached QEJ—a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation—with the idea of facilitating workshops with them and was thrilled and honored when they agreed. Queer youth homelessness is an epidemic with 40% of homeless youth identifying as LGBTQ, and it’s incredibly pervasive in adult queer communities as well, yet we have no research or statistics, and QEJ is the only organization doing work explicitly focused on adult queer homelessness. This summer we’ve been gathering on Wednesday nights and folks have put to the page stories of communities, loves, losses, pasts future and so much more. The storytellers who participated in the workshops are literally some of the bravest and talented writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
The premise behind my workshops is the idea that everyone has a story to tell, and that storytelling is social justice work. When I say this, I mean that in order to truly understand an issue like homelessness, you must hear from the people who are living that reality. Additionally, it can be personally transformative to tell our stories including those of trauma and survival. These are stories that we’ve often been told should be kept secret, but bringing them into the light can be nothing short of life saving. In my workshops there is also a strong emphasis on unlearning what we’ve been taught about who is and isn’t a writer, and whose stories are worth telling. Some of the writers started the summer very comfortable with the writing process, and for others this was the first time they had ever explored expressing themselves through written words. Despite their feelings when they started the workshop, by the last session each participant had a notebook full of stories that they were prepared to share with the community at the public reading and celebration.
On Friday night activists, artists and community members filled QEJ eager to support individuals whose stories have systemically been silenced. The room grew silent as legendary author and QEJ acting executive director Amber Hollibaugh spoke about the organization, this inaugural step into creative work, and the plans for future expansion. Then, the readers took the stage captivating all of us with their bravery, strength, and beautifully powerful words. The five readers brought us into their hearts and lives showcasing their experiences with everything from violent assault and the death of those close to them, to the freedom that came with immigrating to the States to flee family homophobia. You can watch the participants read their work here. You can find out more about QEJ, or donate to the organization, here.
(PHOTO FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: Cleo, Dinick, Jay Toole, Gykyira, Sassafras Lowrey)