Volunteer-ship & Queer Resistance

As a White, gender non-conforming, queer femme, who identifies as a person of size,
who has varying ability statuses, and who has lived on the poverty spectrum most of
my life, I know that there is no such thing as a single-issue movement.
I moved to Western Massachusetts less than seven months ago, and since then I
have been struggling to figure out where I can find a community where I feel like I
belong. It is important to me that the people in my community value the same things
I do, but also that we challenge each other in ways where we can better our
individual selves, our values, and the movements that we believe in. The community
I seek must look at, acknowledge, and work at the intersections of various identities.
In the past, I found this community, this movement, this home, at a local LGBT
community center. So a few months after I moved here, I started looking for
community centers that worked with LGBT young people. What I found was
unsettling. Rather than finding community centers, places where people can create
community, I found “helping” agencies. The centers I found in Western
Massachusetts placed staff in a hierarchical structure, told the young people what
was best for them, and only looked at the most negative aspects of the young
people’s lives. To take this framework for non-profits serving LGBT youth a step
further, these organizations were predominantly single-issue services (how to come
out, how to understand your identity, etc.) that primarily served White LGBT young
people. I struggled to find the type of community I sought, at the agencies and youth
centers that I was visiting and learning more about. They also weren’t open to
community investment or volunteer-ship, making any involvement on my part
difficult.
I continued my research, and eventually someone suggested for me to look at Out
Now in Springfield, MA as a potential organization for me get to know. This piqued
my interest, as I was under the impression that the area of Western Massachusetts
that I call home was one of the most diverse locations in the country when it comes
to LGBT identities. But I was confused when I realized that I would have to travel up
to 45 minutes to find an organization serving the issues I am interested in. I
immediately looked at their website. At first I encountered a typical organization
website: mission, vision, programs and events. But once I landed on the “Who We
Are” section and I read the staff member bios, I instantly knew that I wanted to be a
part of this community.
Meeting with Out Now in person was a whirlwind experience. Initially I was bit
intimidated by the group dynamics. Folks talked about all kinds of things and
externally processed my presence (“I like your style”, “I like your hair”). I was
received in a very welcoming way, but it was little distracting, as I thought I was
coming to get to know the work the organization does and, hopefully I could fit into
the work they do with young queer people. However, we spent approximately
twenty minutes on just chatting and giggling and spending time together. It
definitely was not a culture I was used to. Furthermore, once we got down to the
“interview questions” and then debrief of the overall conversation, it was not clear
to me who the “leader” of the group was. They all seemed to share responsibility
and accountability in assessing who I am. What was even more unsettling was that
after I answered every question, the group discussed my answers and debriefed
with me how they felt about the politics of the topic. It slowly became clear to me
that this was not a traditional interview. The interview was less about them
assessing me, and more about them getting to know me, and how I might fit into this
community.
As the “interview” came to a close, the Out Now staff talked about building
relationships with people as a function of their organization. They told me that they
organize people by getting to know them and inviting them as interests and
partnerships develop. This framework was so foreign to me. I was used to people
coming in from the outside with something they wanted, meeting with the
organization, and asking for what they want. Eventually, the organization would
decide if they can meet those needs. Of course, along the way there is a negotiation
of expectations on both sides, with regards to what the volunteer will give to the
organization as a way of “repayment” to hosting them as a volunteer.
However, anyone that has been working in the non-profit world for longer than a
month knows that this is not how it usually plays out. Usually, when taking on a new
volunteer, it’s more strenuous for the organization than it is helpful. Consequently, I
made sure to communicate in the meeting that my interests with the organization
were open to the needs of the organization. In doing so, I was hoping to
communicate to the Out Now staff that I was not expecting them to automatically
accept me as a volunteer. So after leaving my first meeting with Out Now, I had no
idea what they were thinking. I reflected back on my first interactions with the Out
Now staff, and I played their dialogue out over and over again. Eventually I came to
realize, that this was not only their way of seeing if they had the capacity to
support me as a volunteer, but also, if I was just as invested in them and the
work they they do, as they would have to be invested in me. Mutual investment:
another concept unknown to me and my experiences in the non-profit sector.
I left that meeting feeling exhilarated and energized. I was ready to do whatever it
took to get involved with this organization and the amazing people doing the
intersectional work that they described to me. Along the way, I am realizing that Out
Now is so much more than a queer youth organization. They really examine all of
the issues that affect queer youth, which, as anyone who has a “Queer” (capital “Q”)
framework of the movement, knows that marriage equality and the fight for “equal
rights” is not an issue that wholly affects queer young people. When I heard the Out
Now staff rally behind the statement “the marriage fight is just not for us,” I almost
jumped out of my seat. Finally! An LGBT organization that is not obsessed with the
single issue of sexuality, sex-object choice and biology, and coming out. Finally!
Someone who looks at queers as whole people with issues detrimental to everyday
life.
The more and more I get to know Out Now and the staff, the more time and effort I
want to invest in the brand of movement they have defined for their organization. I
love how they unapologetically insert themselves and the needs of queer youth into
every space they are in, from labor organizing to sex work, from reproductive health
to prison industrial complex, from poverty and economic justice to police brutality
and racial justice, and so much more! They give a voice to the voiceless in all the
spaces where queer people, and especially queer young people, are silenced and
made invisible. They don’t just provide services to a group of people and then take
home a paycheck at the end of their week, they invest their hearts, minds, and souls
into the work and into this intersectional framework they have so carefully crafted.

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