Centering Desire in Our Work

The following is an excerpt of the speech given by Kristen Petroshius when accepting the LGBTQ Advocate of the Year Award at the Outreach Banquet this past fall.

When I think about GSAFE’s work over the last three years, I start from a place of deep desire and longing. Close your eyes for a moment and think back to that first crush, that first kiss, that first moment you realized how important it was for you to come out, to take a risk, to live your dreams, to make the impossible possible. Feel that energy.

Suzanne Pharr, a middle-aged white lesbian “handywoman” and multi-issue community organizer, talks about the politics of desire and the ways we build our movements as follows:

“What would it mean if we began our base-building and organizing from a place of people’s longing and desire? It is a place where many of us share common dreams: to have self-determination for our lives and bodies; to have integration of mind, body, and spirit; to be recognized for our whole selves and identities; to be respected and considered persons of worth.”

My work at GSAFE has been about building off desire to create a place where everyone can feel at home as our full selves—where we can be LGBTQ and Black, immigrant and trans*. It has been about building a place where we are not asked to leave a part of ourselves at the door in order to belong. Given that we as a people are incredibly diverse, this asks all of us to be constantly open, reflective, learning, and growing. And while we must do the work, it has not been easy.

Fear is in some ways the counterpart to desire. In the beginning of my time at GSAFE, I shared a vision of a multiracial, trans-inclusive LGBTQ and racial justice–centered GSAFE. That’s a lot, right? I had a lot of anxiety about trying to lead us through a process to get there, especially with few models of success. What if I gave everything I had to offer and failed? Would it be a reflection that transformation was impossible? Would all my efforts as an ally be pointless if, in the end, white people or groups really couldn’t change?

In moments like this, I think about my own family, who very rarely has places that actually feel like they’re for us. I wonder what a GSAFE would look like where we can be ourselves; a GSA where my child can be at home; a fundraising event where my wife can express her big, full self. We are not “there” yet, and we have made incredible progress in the work.

That brings me back to desire. Unfortunately, it’s very rare to find LGBTQ spaces where we can all be at home as our full selves. We live very segregated lives and organizations and movements. We are used to cutting off or ignoring parts of ourselves, whether out of safety, to make things easier, or simply out of habit. This is deeply painful.

All of this means we need to remember our desire—our desire for love, our longing to be whole, our vision for a home where we can all bring our full selves. And we have to do the work. We can say it’s hard, we don’t know how, we’ve tried it before, we just don’t do that. And yet you still have to try. GSAFE has much work to still dig into, and we are a living reality that change is possible, even if you were an all-white organization. Remember that desire you feel within yourself. Recognize your fear. And move forward through it.

I have to end with my favorite poet and writer, Audre Lorde, discussing the power of the erotic. Audre Lorde reminds us:

“The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honor and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.

“It is never easy to demand the most from ourselves, from our lives, from our work. To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society. But giving in to the fear of feeling and working to capacity is a luxury only the unintentional can afford, and the unintentional are those who do not wish to guide their own destinies.”

Do you want to guide your destiny?