Beth Zemsky's Gala Legacy Award Acceptance Speech
I am honored to receive this award and recognition. And at the same time it is a bit odd and awkward because this recognition is of me and my work, when as an activist and an organizer, I think of movement work in the context of us. It is our work, our accomplishments, our losses, our joys, our dreams, our movement for justice.
Having said this, I am really happy to be here.
Honestly, I never imagined that I would be here. When I started doing LGBTQ activism in 1980, it never occurred to me that I could have a career as a professional lesbian that spanned three decades. I also never imagined that this work would ever be celebrated by anyone; certainly not at a big swanky event at the International Market Square in which I got to wear a sparkly dress and heels.
The theme for this evening is Audre Lorde’s quote:
“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Another thing that Audre Lorde said that has also been important it to me is that it not our words that are dangerous, but our silences. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, we knew this. We knew that Silence = Death. And we knew that no one was going to care about our lives, and in fact no one did, until we fought to claim a space for ourselves by taking care of each other, by creating a community, and by building a movement to affirm our multiple identities and build power to change the conditions of our lives.
You know, the thing about getting a legacy award is that I get to reflect back on some lessons from the past that might point our way to the future.
One thing I know about movements is that they move. We need to remember that as much as we win access to the Rights everyone has, this does not make us like everyone else. Nor do I think this should ever be our goal. As soon as we try just to be like everyone else, we lose access to one of the most powerful gifts we as a community have to share with the world.
As LGBTQ people we know, as evidenced by the choices we’ve made for our lives, the transformational power of love. For any of us who’ve gone through the process of coming out, we potentially risked everything we had – homes, jobs, relationships, our safety etc. —in order to live a life filled with passion, desire, and authentic connection. In fact, we have members of our communities right now who are part of Black Lives Matter in N Minneapolis who are outside putting their lives on the line. We know how powerful it is to really believe that we deserve and can live a life centered in dignity, loving connection and desire.
That’s our gift. As LGBTQ people and as a movement. Imagine what it would be like if we were able to have all of our politics centered in the transformational power of love, rather than fear and hatred.
Times are critical. We are in this moment when the forces of fear, hate and polarization have louder and louder voices. They aren't necessarily growing in power. They are just getting more frantic and shrill and then more brazen in their violence.
Our challenge in the face of all of this is how do we continue to love and support each other. How do we move our movement to center a commitment to build a world in which we never have to leave any of ourselves behind - where all of who we are (including our magnificent gender, racial, religious and sexual diversities are embraced), and where all of who we love, and all the ways we love are affirmed and celebrated.
How can I talk about love rather than anger in response to all that is happening in the world right now and on the streets of our cities?
I can do this because this love I am talking about is not a noun. It is a verb. This love calls us to expand our sense of connection, to dream of new possibilities, and to take risks to bring the things we dream into reality. This love calls us to love our racialized and colonialized bodies into wholeness and to reach across divides to touch each other with all the passion and desire we feel. This love also calls us into accountability to live up to our deepest held values and commitments to each other. Ultimately, to paraphrase my friend and colleague Mandy Carter, this love calls us to out of a place where justice is just about us into a place of connection and action towards justice for all… including justice for trans people, for Black folks, for the Syrians and all the refugees and immigrants seeking a safe place to call home, and for those among us who experience oppression every day.
I am really proud of my accomplishments—the things I’ve had a hand in creating, the workshops I’ve facilitated, the actions I’ve organized, the classes I’ve taught, and the relationships with the people and the organizations I’ve supported and mentored. But what I’m most proud of is that I’ve been able to do my activism from this place of love.
That’s the movement I’ve tried to be a part of. And this is the movement I want us to continue to become.
Thank you for this honor and recognition. I look forward to our ongoing connection and work together. In love.