Black, Queer, and Trans in the Magical Southwest
Lazarus Letcher has been yelling the name “Tony McDade” since May 27, just two days after the murder of George Floyd. Screams fell on deaf ears initially, but as the voices began to amplify, “Tony” began to be heard. On June 11, Lazarus posted a story via Autostraddle from their perspective as a trans-masculine person fighting to be heard.
“I’ve been Black for 28 years and I see people always talking about police brutality in relation to Black cis men, but I know it’s happening to my trans community,” they said via phone to Queerport from their home on Tiwa Pueblo land (also known as Albuquerque, New Mexico). “It was a just a whisper compared to the roar of response that George Floyd got. It was really devastating.”
This year, reports estimate at least 23 (known) transgender people murdered in the United States. Just in the last few weeks, a number of trans women from our home state and neighboring Texas and Arkansas were murdered. Along with Pride being “canceled” due to a global pandemic that no one seems to care about, legislation in early June passed undermining the Affordable Care Act and the legalities surrounding trans and gender non-conforming people receiving healthcare benefits. Days later, the Supreme Court ruled on laws to protect LGBTQ folx at their jobs.
“It’s such a strange time of devastating news all the time. Being a trans person, being a Black trans person — we’ve gotta celebrate those little victories when we get them,” said Laz.
But they know these “little victories” are a historic tactic to shift conversations and pull away from the bigger picture.
“Celebrate the victories, but don’t become complacent. Minneapolis voted to defund their police department and people are still protesting every day. We know that this works. We don’t have to become placated by the morsels that they give us, we deserve a whole god damn meal and we’re going to get it.”
While Laz has clocked many hours of field time on the front line of protests and working in advocacy, when they’re enjoying some “downtime” (whatever that means for a full-time artist who looks at their art, activism, and academic work as their life’s work), it’s usually creating music…and even then there’s still a message.
“My music is very political. I’ll lure you in with a nice viola line and then suddenly I’m explaining to you about how cops used to be slave patrollers, and it’s like, gotcha!”
That’s how I first heard of Laz. In 2016, I was living in Albuquerque with my partner and planned to attend ABQ Zine Fest. One of the vendors there was Laz and as soon as I saw them, I felt an instant connection. Of course, I had to listen to their music! There was just something mesmerizing and suddenly real that I hadn’t experienced before — a trans person just giving me their all though music. This was the year I finally came into my own identity as a queer non-binary person. Having Laz’s music helped foster that feeling of importance and self-worth that I didn’t have when I was in my hometown.
Along with being a musician, Laz also works in academia and is studying for their PhD. They said it’s through the intertwining of both the creative and academic parts of their life that they’re able to effectively communicate and break down barriers to help friends and family members understand the trans narrative.
“I’m not working my tail off getting all this knowledge to then just spread it to someone with letters after their name,” they said, upon commenting about the world of academia. They explained that they’re taught to "use the biggest words possible and only get published in academic press.” In their terms, it’s a big circle jerk.
And for someone who studies queer and Black liberation, Laz says it's important to be out there visibly advocating. Over the last two months, they said it's been beautiful seeing BLM protests happening in Albuquerque.
“We are a small and mighty group. ... There's such a strong Black activism base here,” said Laz. "There’s strong Black history in New Mexico. There was a city called Blackdom established by runaway slaves in eastern New Mexico in the 1800s — most of our students had no idea.”
Nor did I. A quick Google search and low and behold, the headline — Welcome to Blackdom: The Ghost Town That Was New Mexico’s First Black Settlement. The story goes on to explain the small settlement created in the early 1900s about 20 miles south of Roswell. The community was founded by homesteader Francis Marion Boyer, who was fleeing threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The community remained in existence until the late 1920s, a short run for what would be the state’s first community of Black peoples.
To note, New Mexico’s current population of people who identify as Black (according to a 2019 American Community Survey) makes up just 1.8 percent of the total population in the state. That’s roughly about 38,000 people. In Shreveport, Louisiana (our homebase), the same survey (though in 2018) says that those who identify as Black make up 58.6 percent of our population. That’s about 106,200 people, and that’s just in ONE of our cities.
To put it blatantly — seeing a Black person in Laz’s city or in New Mexico period is a celebration. Like those who came before them, Laz says that’s why they teach their students about the experiences of Black folx coming to New Mexico.
“In the Black imaginary, the southwest was seen as this place of refuge from the south. Instead of going north, head west,” they said.
Like those who came before them, that’s exactly what Laz did when leaving their midwest safety net. While Laz was attending St. Olaf College in Minnesota for music, they went on a national tour including the southwest. What the fuck is this place? This is magical.
“I was in the process of applying to grad schools and I just happened to take a look at UNM (University of New Mexico). I fell in love with the coursework available, came while on tour, and then lived there six months afterward,” they said.
This much-needed change was exactly was Laz wanted and has said before that Albuquerque saved their life. Though their struggle with their identity had long been an issue, the idea of creating a new storyline in a new place was exciting for them. In a community surrounded by 98 percent white people, they needed something different. And while in their early twenties, they found themselves (and even had supportive parents along the way!), their personal journey consisted of a lot of turmoil.
“My attempts to pray the gay away are a big part of my story,” they said.
Laz explained that they longed for that sense of community and found it within a Jesus camp at a young age. They attended four times a year, every season. At the time, Exodus International was gaining a lot of mainstream attention and Laz said they’d watch interview after interview, hoping that something would change.
“I kept hearing ‘You can be gay as long as you’re just celibate forever. Who needs joy and companionship?’ That’s sad for a 12-year-old to think."
They said they remember their pastor stating that he loved his dog with a different love than his wife and that that’s the kind of love homosexuals are feeling for each other.
“He equated queerness to bestiality. That was the message."
Laz said at one point they even wanted to be a youth pastor, but once high school began and their queerness was becoming more visible (Laz first came out as a lesbian), they said they turned to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Because of the outlets that were available, even into their mid-twenties, Laz was unable to find spaces that affirmed their identity without the culture of drinking.
Now, two and half years sober, Laz is a firm advocator for accessibility to all when it comes to queer spaces.
“I frame it as an accessibility issue. It’s not just about people like me who are in recovery that don’t want to go to a bar. A lot of people have PTSD around alcohol. Where the hell are trans and queer youth suppose to go when all they have are bars that they can’t go into until they’re 21?”
Even though Laz has had their own personal struggles with their identity, these days the 28-year-old creative and activist is thriving. They currently work as a sex educator for Self Serve, a sexuality resource center.
“The best part is when younger trans people come in to get gender expression gear. It makes my heart so happy, especially young trans masc dudes buying their first packer. They realize I’m trans and then we’re best friends forever. I love talking to parents who are getting into sex ed stuff with their kids or have trans kids themselves."
Another amazing opportunity Laz had in 2019 was working with QORDS, Queer Oriented Radical Days of Summer. The summer camp is based out of North Carolina and is for queer youth ages 12-18.
“That makes my heart so fucking happy, to lead a band of 12-year-old trans boys. I have campers who came out when they were four and their parents affirm their identity. We’re kind of the last generation of trans people that didn’t have this language growing up. We had trashy daytime Jerry Springer with a trans reveal, and having a 12-year-old explain to me about being on the ace spectrum and how they came out when they were trans at four, it’s incredible."
That experience, for Laz, was a full-circle moment. Being able to volunteer at a camp for trans and gender-nonconforming people when they had spent so much time at a camp the complete opposite is a chapter in their lives they’ll never forget — and hopefully will experience more of in the future.
Derick Stevens-Jones is a co-creator of Queerport. You can usually find them at their vintage shop or out and about documenting Shreveport's queer history. Follow on IG: @derickjonesLA