From Queer Spy to Community Organizer: Fighting for Justice in Many Forms

From Queer Spy to Community Organizer: Fighting for Justice in Many Forms

Before joining the staff of Carolina Jews for Justice as one of our new statewide community organizers, Cole Parke spent five years working as the LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher at Political Research Associates, a Boston-based think tank dedicated to researching, exposing, and interrupting the Right Wing. Of the many insights gained during their tenure at PRA, one lesson that repeated itself over and over again was this: it's all connected. The Christian Right's attack on LGBTQ people and reproductive justice is fundamentally linked to the antisemitism, anti-Black racism, and Islamophobia fueled by White Nationalists. During a recent presentation at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC, Cole discussed these connections and the imperative for greater unity across the many struggles for justice. What follows is an adaptation of their remarks from April 5, 2019.

People used to call me a “queer spy,” which should tell you right off the bat that I wasn’t very good at my job. Generally speaking, spies are supposed to be secretive, so telling people that you’re a spy all but eliminates any chance of stealthiness. Nonetheless, for five years, I worked at a place called Political Research Associates, where my official job title is “LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher.”

PRA is a social justice think tank that researches the Right Wing. The purpose of my work there wasn’t to simply study up on the myriad reasons why the world is an absolute trash can fire or to ensure that my therapist and I had a regular supply of new material to work with; PRA’s mission is to understand and analyze the Right in order to provide organizers and activists on the Left with information and analysis that supports the development of effective strategies for resistance, intervention, and movement building.

My work primarily entailed tracking the work of Christian fundamentalists who, despite the fact that marriage equality did not bring about the apocalypse, remain unrelentingly convinced that LGBTQ people are out to destroy the world.

As you might imagine, the subject matter could be depressing, exhausting, and deeply demoralizing. It also demanded a constant interrogation of my own beliefs and values — not because I ever questioned whether or not queer and trans people are fabulous, abortion should always be accessible without barriers or shame, capitalism is harmful and antithetical to the beloved community we are called to live into, and white supremacy is a disease. If anything, immersing myself in the rhetoric and ideologies of the Right only served to strengthen my commitment to radical liberation of every kind.

The thing that was regularly challenged is my belief that we all hold a piece of the divine. This is one of the things that drew me to Carolina Jews for Justice, where I now work as one of two statewide community organizers.

CJJ’s work is guided by four core principles, the first of which is B’tzelem Elohim (In the image of God) — the idea that all human beings are created in the divine image and as such should be treated with dignity and respect regardless of physical, philosophical, political, or cultural characteristics which make them different from ourselves.

In a room like this, that might not be hard to believe. Look around at one another — even if you don’t know anyone here, it’s pretty easy to believe that the folks around you are pretty great, right?

Trying to hold the people I used to research in that same gaze proved to be much harder. When I try to see God’s image in those who are responsible for coordinating national campaigns against the right for trans people to use a public bathroom, or the Alt Right media makers who mock and mobilize violence against women, or the political leaders who shamelessly promote Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and antisemitism … I admittedly struggle.

The challenge is two fold — I find that it can feel impossible to love the people whom I see as opponents to justice and equality, but I also know that I can’t hate them. I’m unable to hate them — or perhaps more accurately, I’m unwilling to hate them — because I know that once I demonize someone else, I’ve dehumanized both of us. I’m also unable to hate them because I know that we aren’t actually very different from one another.

As part of my work I used to occasionally go undercover at a right-wing Christian conferences. In the course of my “infiltration” work, I once found myself face to face with a woman named Candi Cushman. Candi works for Focus on the Family, a powerful right-wing Christian organization based in Colorado Springs. One of her roles there is to coordinate a project called Day of Dialogue, which takes place every year on the day prior to the National Day of Silence. Unlike the Day of Silence, when young people in schools across the country demonstrate solidarity with their LGBTQ peers by remaining silent throughout the school day, on the Day of Dialogue, Focus on the Family equips students with the tools to minister to their classmates who “suffer from same-sex attraction” and “transgenderism.”

From my perspective, this sort of ministry is a form of spiritual violence, and it feeds into the myth -- the lie — that LGBTQ people are somehow unworthy, unacceptable, undesirable, and less divine than they truly are. It’s the kind of lie that fills me with rage, because it’s the kind of lie that has convinced too many young LGBTQ people to end their lives prematurely. And yet here I was, sitting next to the woman in charge of propagating that very message.

So I took a deep breath, smiled at Candi, and said, “Are you by any chance related to the Robert Cushman lineage?” Indeed, she was, and she was delighted to learn that I was too.

You see, my father’s name is Robert Cushman Parke, named for our ancestor, a man who helped fund the Mayflower voyage. He and his son were two of the earliest white settlers to colonize this land. They were part of the first wave of Europeans to journey across the Atlantic, initiating an ongoing era of violence, genocide, theft, enslavement, and untold horrors.

Candi wanted to know, “Are you as proud of our heritage as I am?”

No, Candi — I wouldn’t say that I’m exactly proud of our heritage. (But in that moment we needed to discuss her use of the word “transgenderism.”)

In one sense, it’s funny to realize that some distant cousin of mine is working toward the antithesis of my life, essentially standing in opposition to my humanity as a queer and trans person. But it’s also profoundly unsettling, because I can’t simply write her off as “the other.” She is, in truth, my family. And family or not, Candi (like all of us) was created in the image of God — she contains a spark of the divine.

As if that wasn’t hard enough to wrap my head around, I’m also challenged (in a good way!) by another of the values that I share with CJJ: V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha (Love your neighbor as yourself).

Love and hate are often framed in contrast to one another, so I think that it’s useful to examine both.

One of the things that distinguishes PRA from the far more famous Right Wing watchdog, the Southern Poverty Law Center, is that PRA refuses to use the “hate frame” in our work. While I deeply respect and appreciate the work of SPLC, and have often found their “Hate Map” to be a useful point of reference, I believe that the designation of “hate groups” has actually done a disservice to the broader movement toward justice and liberation.

When we conceptualize “hate” as a thing that’s isolated to particular groups and individuals who are guilty of ugly prejudices and heinous violence, we erase hate’s systemic and structural forms and the way that it exists inside all of us. The ideology of white supremacy, for example, is in the air we breathe, and it permeates everything; consequently, even if we were to eliminate all of the people affiliated with White Nationalist hate groups, racism would still exist.

What that means is that resisting hate necessitates work that is both internal and external. It’s important to rise up and speak out against White Nationalists and other extremist manifestations of oppressive ideologies, but it’s equally important to do the work of identifying, interrupting, and dismantling the oppressive ideologies that exist in our families, in our workplaces, in our congregations, in our communities, and within our own minds.

In addition to resisting hate, we need to practice love, and that begins by learning how to love ourselves. Assimilation is one of the things that often stands in our way.

My friend Dara Silverman once pointed out to me that when people who are accustomed to moving through the world with relative ease and privilege come up against some sort of oppression, they will often lean into whatever sources of power are still accessible to them.

This dynamic of leaning toward power is fueled by fear, and it’s part of what feeds the pattern of assimilation by marginalized groups into long standing hierarchical structures. My freckled (Irish) skin, for example, wasn’t always seen as white. Similarly, gay and lesbian people didn’t always have access to marriage and military service. Increased access might in some cases look and feel like a victory, but it also represents a reassertion of the status quo, which is generally invested in upholding white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism.

But here’s the good news in all of this: we don’t have to play their games! When we subvert the status quo — when we refuse to assimilate and instead love ourselves and one another more than the false sense of safety that power tries to tempt us with, we win. Whether resistance is the intent or not, those of us who already live outside the status quo (as queer and trans people, as people of color, as Jews, as Muslims, as people with disabilities…) we function as huge threats to the maintenance of the Right’s formula for domination. That’s why we’re targeted by the Right, and that’s also why we hold so much potential as leaders in the struggle for liberation.

The struggle for liberation is central to Tikkun Olam (Repair the world), CJJ’s third core principle.

Understanding what’s broken in the world is essential to figuring out how to fix it. So what is it that keeps us from love, and what stops us from seeing the divine in one another?

The late Jean Hardisty, who founded PRA in 1981, coined the phrase “mobilizing resentment” in her efforts to explain the mechanizations of the Right. She was a keen observer of this age-old strategy, in which the Right “mobilizes resentment” toward strategically selected (and ever-changing) scapegoats.

In one way or another, most all of us have had the experience of being scapegoated. Whether we’ve been targeted because of our race, sexuality, gender, religion, class status, size, or some other characteristic or identity, scapegoats of all varieties are our comrades, and our survival depends on us figuring out how to be in solidarity with one another.

Intersectionality is key to the work of allyship and solidarity. Generally speaking, intersectionality means understanding and respecting that we all navigate a myriad of different lived experiences and identities that affect our ability to access rights and opportunities. Beyond that, intersectionality insists that no one should have to prioritize one element of who they are at the expense of another, equally important element of who they are.

It’s both super simple and super complicated. The simple part is that it’s undeniably real — not all Jewish people are white; not all queer people are wealthy; not all Duke students care about basketball… we all hold a myriad of identities! (Some of which can feel contradictory!)

The complicated part is that the myth of scarcity often dominates our thinking, and so our equally important, equally valid diverse identities, experiences, and issues are often in competition with one another. The Right has closely tracked these tensions, and successfully manipulates our own conceptual aspirations to weaken our movements, effectively taking advantage of internal conflicts and rifts to further advance an agenda that does deep, deep damage to all of us.

Case in point: gay and lesbian people may have gained some more rights in recent years, but HB2 here in North Carolina was a perfect example of how the Right is so skillful at strategically pivoting toward new and different scapegoats in their ongoing campaign of mobilizing resentment based on who they anticipate mainstream America is still willing to view as disposable.

So while the Left attempts to work at the intersections of racial justice, LGBTQ justice, gender justice, economic justice, etc., the Right is working at the intersections of white supremacy, capitalism, and Christian hegemony.

These are central pillars of the Right and key ingredients to the rise of authoritarianism. They work in concert to uphold and expand the supremacy of some over others, namely White people, men, heterosexual and cisgender people, Christians, able-bodied people, wealthy people, etc. The Right’s intersectionality is so powerful that it’s often successful in mobilizing people against their own self interests; for example, when poor and working class white people are convinced to support the erosion of the Affordable Care Act by painting its benefactors as undeserving, exploitative, lazy, and “illegal.”

The Right is actively working to pit us against one another, but we have to resist their divide and conquer tactics that ultimately only serve to weaken the Left.

Which brings us to CJJ’s final guiding principle, Kehillah (Community).

Even though I’m no longer spending my days totally immersed in the Right, I’m still very aware that the world is a mess. One of the things that keeps me from sinking into total despair, though, is the fact that the journey toward justice is never walked alone.

One of the people who trained me in the theory and practice of nonviolence was Rev. Phil Lawson, a minister in the United Methodist Church and a long time civil rights leader and activist. One of the many things he taught me is that freedom is not the opposite of slavery, because freedom experienced in isolation isn’t true liberation. Pastor Phil insisted that the opposite of slavery is community.

I’m deeply invested in the work of building beloved community, and I want to admit that I’m not immune to feelings of overwhelming isolation and loneliness. I doubt that any of us are.

I think that one of the things that feeds isolation and keeps us from community is shame.

Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work, where she studies vulnerability, courage, empathy, and shame. In 2012 she have a TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability,” which quickly became one of the most popular TED talks in the world with over 39 million views. It’s no secret that I have a total researcher crush on her.

Brown calls shame “the most powerful, master emotion.” ... “It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.” She says that “Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive.” Guilt is what we feel when we think we’ve done something wrong. Shame comes from the feeling that we are wrong — that we are innately bad and unworthy.

Brown says, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable” … it “fuels disengagement,” and “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

So rather than face the ways in which we are complicit in the violence of our society, we choose to blame others or disengage. Rather than risk the challenges of intersectionality, we cut off whole parts of ourselves and whole segments of our community. Rather than seek out the image of God in our enemies, we label them as haters and unfriend them on Facebook. Rather than learn to love ourselves and one another, we intellectualize the heartbreak that permeates everything around us and try to pretend like it doesn’t hurt.

Which is part of why I don’t work at a think tank anymore. Because it hurts. It hurts a lot.

But I firmly believe that we can heal, we can change, and we can be free. As we journey in that direction, I’ll conclude with some advice from Dean Spade: “Let’s be gentle with ourselves and one another, and fierce against oppression.”