An open letter from our Executive Director, Molly Rose Quinn
Dear Memphians — LGBTQ+, Allied, and those who are neither:
I have thought a great deal about how to make a statement in response to the news about County Commissioner and candidate for Memphis City Mayor Tami Sawyer’s tweets and her response. My value system — as a person in this field and as a Memphian — is simple: to tell the truth. So that’s what this statement contains.
Bias, as it pertains to nonprofit work and election season, is vital. So I’m not going to gloss over something many of you already know: the school that Tami Sawyer’s tweet refers to is St. Mary’s, the school that we both attended. Six years my senior, Tami Sawyer made the morning announcements in chapel each day while I listened. We both attended a school where I faced isolation and depression based on the values of my peers, including homophobia and gender rigidity, that left me flummoxed, and alone. We both attended a school that has always been afflicted with bouts of bullying, classism, racism, and homophobia. Fifteen years after all that, Tami and I have both argued with our school to be a more welcoming place for women of color and LGBTQ+ girls. In 2016, my journey back home from New York began with a trip I took to canvass for Tami’s first election.
None of this is meant to excuse, or explain, but simply to tell the truth.
When I was fourteen, one of my St. Mary’s classmates died by suicide. It was an event that deeply colored my young life and my experience of Memphis, cementing my ambition to leave our city after high school and to not return. When my classmate died, a donation, in her memory, was made to the fund that helped purchase the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center, later renamed OUTMemphis. Her photograph appears on the wall of our main room amongst the other benefactors of this organization. On the days when I feel unwilling or unprepared to fulfill my job’s duties, I remember her photograph and remember that perhaps I was always supposed to come back to Memphis and to do this job.
LGBTQ+ rights and experiences are still considered a laughing matter to some and, in the South, to many. Even amongst those who consider our issues worthy or valid, we are not always taken quite so seriously.
I will admit that I struggled this weekend to not feel hurt by the version of Tami Sawyer that typed out the tweet and, before then, took part in the incident it references. Because of my personal relationship with her, it is my opinion that Tami Sawyer is not a bigot and does not wish violence upon our community. However, her public response thus far has not confirmed that for all of you or for our city. I also see that that person — the teenage self and then the 2014 self — simply did not care enough about our community, about the inherent violence in bullying and in job loss.
Individuals and institutions much smarter than I am do the hard work of advocacy: the endorsement of candidates and the pursuit of justice through lobbying and through holding elected officials accountable. I urge you all to read the words of the Tennessee Equality Project’s statement, released earlier this morning. This advocacy is not — at present — the scope of services of OUTMemphis. While it is imperative that OUTMemphis works to hold our leaders accountable, it is also not useful or generative for the Community Center to tell you how to think or act or vote. What is useful is for me to remind you that we are here to listen, to answer questions about gender, sexual identity, about employment, about the intersections of race and sexual orientation and gender identity, and about bullying, and schools, about grief, and doubt, and anger.
It is also important — and useful — for me to remind you of the following:
Homophobia is deeply dangerous. Every day, young people walk through the doors of 892 South Cooper who have found themselves homeless because of homophobia. Simple things, like being rejected by family or friends or losing a job can mean a night on the street, or in your car, or on the couch of an acquaintance. Within the first seven days of becoming homeless, an LGBTQ+ person under the age of 24 becomes significantly more likely to be sexually assaulted, to be exposed to HIV, to be kidnapped, a victim of sex trafficking, to be victimized by police and criminalization, to become a drug user and to be exposed to lethal street drugs, to be the victim of a violent crime, or to be murdered. Which means the simple act of homophobia — that is to say, discomfort with someone who is gay or trans or queer — can become life-threatening and life-altering within seven nights, often less. Those risks are even higher if you are black. Higher still if you are trans, even higher if you are trans and black. The highest risk of each of these factors, of course, is for LGBTQ+ women of color who live in the South.
I hope that all of our elected officials and all of our candidates are as aware of these statistics as I am. To me, they are not statistics, they are the complicated, fantastic, funny, and creative young people who come through my office and ask me how my day is going, who sit and joke around on our back porch, their laughter coming through the windows behind my work desk.
For those who do not lose their housing, many are faced with homophobia at school and church. LGBTQ+ youth are 2 to 7 times more likely to die by suicide as a result of that climate. When I speak to parents and teachers about their LGBTQ+ kids, I remind them, always, that school is life for young people. So while I don’t yet know how I feel about the events that happened in a classroom at St. Mary’s twenty years ago, events occuring just a few yards away from where I sat, age 11, I can tell you this: I condemn in the strongest possible terms the faculty, staff, and parents who blithely stood by when confronted by a deeply troubling and deeply teachable event occurring within their walls.
The climate for kids — gay or allied — around LGBTQ+ acceptance in schools is vital. While OUTMemphis does lots of work, it is my opinion that the work we do to increase LGBTQ+ resources and curricula in K-12 schools is the most important thing that we do. I find this so important for one simple reason: It is my belief that, done right, an LGBTQ+ affirming school environment can be a foolproof prevention from all the other factors that threaten the health and safety of LGBTQ+ people.
For years, my team has worked against and sometimes alongside our public and elected officials who have sought to impede, take credit for, ignore, or quash some of the most vital and life-threatening issues facing LGBTQ+ people today. As a community center, our first role is to sustain a gathering place for all dialogues. Secondly, my role is to use that gathering place to consistently deliver services that make up for the profound gaps in services that should be provided from the institutions of American life — including, at times, the family unit. What OUTMemphis is not tasked with, however, is the litigation of whose interpersonal homophobia is bigger, worse, longer, or more toxic than someone else’s. So in the pursuit of truth-telling, I cannot craft a “stance” on these events. What I can tell you is that this city, my personal history with it, and my current, contemporary work, often breaks my heart. Since I have taken this job, I have seen and heard things that have rocked me to my core. The truth is, Tami’s tweet was one of those things. But, it was just one of many.
Mid-Southerners with disabilities are also close to my heart today — because the disability community has always been linked to the LGBTQ+ community. All bodies and minds are good, are righteous, are deserving of health, respect, pleasure, safety, and joy.
Many of my colleagues have reminded me, over the past 48 hours, that I speak for the LGBTQ+ community. While I take responsibility for that implication, I also know that OUTMemphis speaks “for” the community as in “for the advancement of our worth,” not, as some imply, “on behalf of.” If you would like to know what LGBTQ+ people think about this election season, I urge you to ask them: they are your neighbors, family members, and friends. If you want to know what our politicians and candidates think about LGBTQ+ people, I urge you to ask them just the same.
The Center is open from 2pm – 9pm, Monday through Friday, and I encourage you all this week to come by and share your thoughts or questions with our staff — eight individuals who commit their working hours to this dialogue. What you will find at OUTMemphis, with consistency, is fellowship.
With gratitude for your time,
892 S. Cooper
Memphis, TN 38104