Zeam Porter’s Keynote Speech for 2015 Youth Summit
Now don’t take what I am about to say as a warning but rather as insight.
“I am angry. I feel hurt and frustrated. It feels like no one is listening to me and if I’m honest, I’m scared. What if the words don’t come to me? What if they do and they’re not good enough or are misunderstood? My frustration stems from the fact that I am in this situation and am not quite sure how I got myself here or how I am going to get out of it. Or at least make it better. I am angry. I am hurt. And I am deeply frustrated.”
What I just did was allow myself, as well as you all, to peek into my sixth grade mind after being sent out of class yet again. Knowing that I would have to explain why I disrupted class to the behavioral officer, the guidance counselor and my parents, caused my stomach to form knots, my heart and head to pound, and for me to ball up my fist until my knuckles turned white. I was bullied and harassed in English class for not following the unwritten gender codes, for my lacking to adhere to the gender binary and for not conforming to the heteronormativity that plagued my middle school. In other words, I was harassed for being gay, in my bully’s words, “For being a dyke.” But this was not the only source of my frustration.
I was tired of coming to a class and reading boring books written by and for white people, by and for the cisgendered folks, by and for the people who identify as heterosexual. It was beyond frustrating to already be systematically ignored and then have to deal with harassment. That day I disrupted class because whether I knew it or not I wanted to disrupt the system, the torment, the injustice I couldn’t call out but could definitely feel. For that I was removed. But I just wasn’t physically removed from that space; by removing me, my teacher who saw and heard the harassment didn’t have to see the queerphobia taking place in her room. I wasn’t just sent out. I was shut out, forced out and silenced.
It is often said that youth are the energy of the movement. But we are so much more. We not only are affected by the systemic racial, economic, and gender oppression; we are in the center of where it is beaten into our skulls that the oppression we face is okay. That the oppression we face is valid. Our teachers, or parents, and many adults, try and minimize the feelings caused by the injustices of the world by categorizing our hurt as teen angst, by wrapping our hurt with a pretty bow in order to devalue our stories so that they may live everyday with themselves without taking responsibility.
As youth we are in a unique position because we not only face or feel (oppression) — we are being taught it. It is almost as though we have a front row seat to a movie that explicitly maps out the systematic silencing of our voices. Yet we are told we are too young to act, too young to create our own films. We are told to just consume the hatred screened and to shut up.
They not only do this to the LGBTQIA students, they do this to all students. We know students of color (especially the Black students) are disproportionately criminalized, we see them punishing students whose first language is not English. We see them taking these students and strategically removing their tongue. We know students are put on different tracts of ability based on gender, race, and economic status.
Tracking not just what we learn but also our very bodies, we see them turn schools into prisons because they assume that is where we will end up. We see in the way that they structure schools to be ableists, not only in the physical sense but also the mental. Where is the accessibility for ALL students who breathe, walk, and learn differently? Where are the ramps and elevators? Why are the steps so steep both the physically and academically?
We are endlessly told that our teachers are culturally sensitive. We don’t want sensitivity; we want celebration and liberation! We feel these things with great intensity because at the end of the day, that is what education does. The best programs claim to create critical thinkers, but as soon as you become critical of the education system, you have gone too far.
For a long time, even after I was given permission to use the language that expressed how I was feeling, I felt too shameful to claim it or use it. The adults in my life invalidated me when I wanted to take action in schools even after they claimed to understand that pain. I know that many of you have felt the same way.
I know many of you could share your own stories.
Shame is taught in institutions. These institutions are often places where one goes for answers. And the answer we receive is to remain shamed, silent, and accepting. If shame isn’t taught in the home, one is still bombarded by messages outside of the home, which means that one still feels that shame.
After being removed from spaces time and time again, I even attached shame to my very identities. Shame poisoned my blackness, my trans identity, as well as my overall queer identity. I was stuck in the mindset that the injustices I had faced were because of me, because of my own doing. Allowing myself to keep my oppression on an individual level meant I had given myself up. Reclaiming my identities, reclaiming myself, was possible through self care and direct action against the systemic oppression I faced and still do face today.
It is easier to remain ashamed because that is how we have been made to feel. Our collective shame stops us from fighting against the systems of oppression that cloud our education. But even after all of this, we as youth are powerful. Youth have power. We empower ourselves! Through starting our own social justice groups, decentering whiteness in our schools’ gsas and student governments, and most importantly educating ourselves to gain our voices back — we become that energy adults can’t ignore.
I want to give credit to the adult allies within these infested institutions that encourage us to dispel that shame, to claim your voice, and to take action. I want to thank the organizations that make it a key part of their mission to help youth empower themselves. I also want to thank you all for being here and taking the steps to not be silenced. Because I know it is not an “if” you are going to take action, but “when” and “how.” The “how” might look differently. The “when” might look differently. But the passion won’t. I know and you know that the passion is not only there, but it is growing and thriving every day. Let it grow; let it fuel your purpose.