Saturday, May 17, 2008

Joan Gibbs

This first appeared

As an LGBTQ movement, we often think of multi-issue organizing and coalition building as perpetual desire, always forestalled to a future we're trying to get to...someday. The life of warrior Joan Gibbs, a black lesbian writer, editor, publisher, lawyer and activist, is a testament how PRESENT the boundary-breaking, interconnected work that we need is already alive in our community. Our understanding of our movement as broad, powerful, and nuanced depends on who we centralize as examples of what LGBTQ revolutionary organizing is.

I think we should start by remembering the name Joan Gibbs.

Joan Gibbs was born in Harlem, raised in North Carolina and has been fighting for racial justice since the 1960s when she was a high school student. The scene for the struggle for racial justice that Gibbs continues to fiercely inhabit has multiple scales. She fights on the scale of the nation to transform the current climate of immigration in the United States, and working with the Jericho movement to demand that all US political prisoners get free...right now.

Right now, Joan Gibbs is a radical lawyer, shifting the story of the
law towards the hope that it will break into someplace liveable for
all of us.
Right now, Joan Gibbs is the general counsel for the Center for Law
and Social Justice Center at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn New York
and she is the project director of their Immigration Center.
Right now Joan Gibbs fights the letters that lockdown and exile the landless

Letter by letter.

None of us should be surprised by this.

All of us should find it natural, if not inevitable that Joan Gibbs
would be breathing life into misused sentences, opening space for
communities of purpose and vision.
We should remember that Joan Gibbs has been doing this all along. For
example, Joan Gibbs was one of the dreamers that dreamt up the first
conference for Third World Lesbian Writers. Joan Gibbs was part of the
Salsa Soul Sisters crew that revolutionized the New York City scene
with t-shirts, pins, and beautiful bold black and latina lesbian
visibility. Most important, we should remember that Joan Gibbs was
part of the Azalea collective, a group of self-declared "third world
lesbians" who created a literary magazine run based on shared power,
with rotating roles and a hands-off non-editing editorial style. And
we would certainly remember how Joan Gibbs co-compiled the
ground-breaking Top Ranking a collection of essays about racism and
classism in the lesbian community. Of course!

But maybe you didn't know any of that. I certainly didn't know who
Joan Gibbs was until less than a year ago AFTER I took it upon myself
to search archives, basements, offices and ebay for any published
trace of the diverse and powerful movement that lesbians of color
created in the 1980's.

What does it mean, that the name Joan Gibbs isn't remembered and
restated daily within conversations about lesbian herstories in the
United States? If Joan Gibbs was our central heroine we would be much
more likely to remember the interconnected flows of sexuality and
migration. We would remember that our struggle as queer folks is not
limited to the terms of citizenship. It is about how love moves
everywhere, and how the law denies it.

As an editor Gibbs refused to confine the words of other lesbians
within the confines of her own writing style. So it is no surprise
that she continues to fight against the ways the increasingly
draconian laws enforced by the Department of Homeland Security seek to
constrain the lives of people struggling to survive on the margins of
US society.
If we are a movement that claims to be inclusive that seeks to address
multiple oppressions through a fierce history of fighting back, then
Joan Gibbs is the perfect emblem of how queer politics, and especially
a queer creative ethic, must push on the language and the law at once.
Finding a way to honor the struggles, needs and rights of all the
people, especially immigrants in a post-911 state is a poetic act. How
do we honor the inherent contribution of everyone in our society when
the law would name so many of us "illegal"?

Joan Gibbs emphasizes the poetics of queer politics, an aesthetic that
lives also in the work of cross-cutting organizations that recognize
the links between migration, sexuality, class and state violence.
Southerners On New Ground (, Queers for
Economic Justice (, the Audre Lorde Project ( and the
Sylvia Rivera Law Project are all organizations that are doing the
work that Joan Gibb's life exemplifies.
But the name "Joan Gibbs" is not ringing from the rooftops. It will
have to be enough for now that her name echoes of the walls and limits
of this post in excess, reminding us that there are warriors still
among use who are living the change we need.

Joan Gibbs is a warrior because her life is a lesson in how movement
looks, and where freedom lives. Our creative attention to structures
of captivity is more necessary now than ever.

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