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Darnell Moore Fashions the Future He Wants to See

As a young man, writer Darnell Moore found himself through literature, but sadly not in it. In the books he was assigned to read in grade school, high school, and college—many of which are considered canonical works of American literature—Moore says he found little to no representation of black, LGBTQ+ people.

Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, he would go to libraries in order to find representation in books by black novelist James Baldwin and, later, in the works of poets including Audre Lorde and June Jordan. “Audre Lorde’s Zami, for instance, is a remarkable, memoir-esque book, and it saved my life,” says Moore. “It’s about a black lesbian that grew up [here] in New York City. These are the books that helped me come into myself.”

With his new memoir, No Ashes in the Fire (Nation Books), Moore says he hopes to have a similar impact on readers in need of “words that help them to live.” In it, he shares some of the most painful moments of his upbringing, including the time some neighborhood boys tried to set him on fire when he was 14 years old.

Sarah Deragon

Darnell Moore

Moore found delving into the difficult truths of his upbringing to be a freeing process. “These are the traces of my life as I remember it,” he says, “and I honor them—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.” There’s no doubt these experiences shaped his commitment to activism, including work with the Black Lives Matter Global Network. In 2014, Moore organized the Freedom Rides that brought about 500 people from all around the country to Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown by local police.

Speaking about the impetus behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Moore says that “it was a community, a collective, a whole range of people. Trans folk, queer-identified folk, young folk, older folk, formerly incarcerated people, all in this group who wanted a better future, a liberated future, and who put themselves on the front line.”

In many ways, Moore’s autobiographical writing doubles as social commentary on the nature of acceptance, both of oneself and of others around us. Take, for example, Moore’s decision not to use the phrase “coming out” in reference to sharing your sexuality with loved ones. “I always felt like that term demanded that people who are identified as different, not straight, have this work that we have to do,” he says. Revealing this aspect of your life is what Moore says you do “when you care for people, when you love them.” It’s about letting them into those spaces—so he takes a different approach. “I don’t say ‘coming out.’ I say ‘inviting in.’”

Amir Ashour on Fighting for LGBTQ+ Rights in Iraq

Growing up gay in Iraq—a country notorious for the persecution of its LGBTQ+ citizens—human rights activist Amir Ashour knew fear from an early age. It came to him in many forms.

“I was facing the fear of losing my family and the people that I care about,” he says, “the fear of being ridiculed, of being threatened.” And while each of these prospects haunted him, one scenario loomed the largest. “For me,” Ashour says, “the fear of losing myself was much greater than the fear of losing other people, or of being bullied.”

This meant he had to make a pivotal decision: continue living in denial to maintain his personal relationships, or come out and risk losing them all. “The choice was very easy,” he says. “If I’m not really being who I am,” he asks, “how real are these relationships?” In the end, it was another set of anxieties that ultimately motivated him to speak his truth: the fear of invisibility, of having to lie for the rest of his life, of having to be afraid every time he held someone’s hand.

The decision had its consequences. “I have friends and extended family members who no longer want to be in touch with me,” he says. “But I also have immediate family members and close friends, who, despite all the difficulties they face because of me, still support me one hundred percent.”

Between a government that criminalizes all “extra-marital” sexual relations—which, de facto, includes same-sex relationships—and a growing ISIS presence, Ashour was in a frightening situation, one in which he had no one to turn to for help. Then it hit him: why wait for someone else to come to the rescue? So, in 2015, he decided to found IraQueer, the first and only LGBTQ+ rights organization focused on helping those in the Iraq/Kurdistan region.

“The fear of losing myself was much greater than the fear of losing other people, or of being bullied.”

His life as an activist didn’t kick off with much fanfare. On the contrary, it began in isolation: a young man, staring at a computer screen, wondering if there was anybody else in the region willing to help. He vividly remembers the first person he contacted. “I knew him through YouTube,” he says. It was someone who’d commented on one of Ashour’s videos. Upon receiving a positive reply to this, his very first outreach, Ashour felt emboldened to start reaching out to more people.

Kyle Dorosz

Amir Ashour

IraQueer was on its way to growing from a party of one into a network of several hundred, working to help refugees seek asylum and making guides on security and sexual health for the LGBTQ+ community available for free on their site—but as its standing grew, so did Ashour’s sense that he was in danger. He decided he would leave Iraq and go underground for a while. “When I left, I didn’t really think that I wasn’t going to be able to go back,” he says. But after a few months of traveling, he learned he was no longer allowed to return to his homeland.

“It’s not a career, it’s not a professional choice that we’ve made. It’s either we do this, or we don’t exist. And none of us is okay with not existing.”

His life was instantly thrown into disarray. “I went from someone who was volunteering with seven projects to someone who didn’t have the right to join a gym,” he says. He was temporarily forced to pivot away from his life as an active community participant. “That was the main difficult thing that I had to deal with,” he says, sounding a bit crestfallen.

Undeterred, he made his way to New York, where he’s currently juggling his work with IraQueer with the pursuit of a Master’s degree in Human Rights at Columbia University. “When I first started IraQueer three years ago,” he says, “I thought it was going to be an online platform where people could simply have access to information related to being LGBTQ+, in their local language. Today, we’re the leading voice for LGBTQ+ rights in Iraq.” Iraqueer is currently working on a host of projects, from providing asylum-seekers with the vital information they need to working to bring global attention to the human rights violations being enacted against the LBGTQ+ citizens in the region. Naturally, Ashour does not look at IraQueer merely as a job. “For us, this is a personal fight,” he says. “It’s not a career, it’s not a professional choice that we’ve made. It’s either we do this, or we don’t exist. And none of us is okay with not existing.”

Kyle Dorosz

Amir Ashour

These days, for the safety of all involved, Ashour communicates with his colleagues through encrypted apps and programs. And while he does get to speak with close friends and relatives on a daily basis, they have received their share of hateful messages and threats as a direct result of associating with him. “Luckily they are all very strong people with very strong backgrounds who can stand for who they are,” he says.

That speaks to something central to Ashour’s belief system: that people should feel empowered to be their true selves, free of shame. It brings to mind an experience he had right around the time he was starting IraQueer, when he was giving a training in Basra in the southeastern corner of Iraq. One of the trainees in attendance was a fifty-year-old woman—a widow, a grandmother—who asked him to explain what queer means. So, he did. Afterward, as the group strolled along the Gulf en route to dinner, she walked up and told him she thought she was queer.

He answered her with a one-word reply: “Okay.” “She said, ‘What do you mean, okay?’” Ashour says. “‘Okay, you’re queer!,’” he told her. “’You know yourself.’” They walked on for a few seconds in silence before she looked at him and said, “Now I know why it didn’t work out with my husband.”

For Ashour, seeing this woman find herself in real time brought it all home. “That a-ha moment that took her more than five decades to realize,” he says, “was everything I wished my career would achieve. To give resources to people, share some knowledge that can help them understand who they are. That basically keeps me going every single day.”

Angelica Ross Is Here to Make History

Angelica Ross knows how to command a room. Not by force, but by projecting the kind of confidence and ease you just don’t see in most people. It’s a graceful, more subtle, brand of star power all too uncommon in the modern era of social media-driven celebrity.

Fittingly, Ross will soon become a familiar face as a series regular in Ryan Murphy’s upcoming FX show, Pose—a show all about folks who made their own space when they weren’t being given any, then set about commanding it. New York City in the ’80s is the backdrop for the series, which tells the story of the transgender people and people of color who created—and thrived in—the underground world of ball culture, drag, and voguing.

Documentarian Jennie Livingston’s seminal work, Paris is Burning, serves as a time capsule for this influential moment in LGBTQ+ history. “These felt like people who were so familiar to me, but I didn’t know any of them,” says Ross, of seeing the film for the first time, “and yet some of them felt like my grandmothers, my sisters.” The balls Livingston depicted were celebrations of expression, with extravagant costumes, and what Ross describes as “space for fantasy.” During the day, attendees often lived on the fringes, but when they entered the ball they were offered a chance to take center stage, to strut on self-made runways, and to do it all unapologetically.

Kyle Dorosz

Angelica Ross

Ross feels blessed to be able to tell these stories, but those sentiments are underpinned by a sense of responsibility, too. They’re “stories that have been whitewashed over history,” she says. “Stories have been retold with white characters at the forefront, when it was trans people, and people of color, who threw that first heel at Stonewall.”

Ross’s activism wasn’t born under the spotlight of her new role, either. She founded her own nonprofit, TransTech Social Enterprises, back in 2014 after experiencing firsthand the difficulties of finding and keeping work as a trans person. Teaching herself digital skills such as coding allowed Ross to create her own opportunities and to transition at her own pace, away from workplace scrutiny. “It didn’t matter what I looked like or what I sounded like,” she says, “as long as I could do the work.”

With TransTech, Ross is now able to provide a resource for the trans community to develop their own skills. But everything from the nonprofit work to her job in front of the camera comes back to one central purpose: to help trans people rediscover their value.

Nadine Davis & Tia Simon-Campbell Found a Way

“My identity slaps me in the face every day,” says Tia Simon-Campbell, a sentiment echoed by her partner, Nadine Davis. The duo explains that life as queer, black, British women requires navigating the world more carefully than most—even in a progressive city like their home base of London. “Coming into spaces where I don’t feel particularly comfortable makes me assess which part of my identity I need to maybe monitor or be more aware of,” says Davis.

They often find themselves feeling othered in moments that most would consider completely commonplace: getting a drink at bar, going out dancing at a club. Entering spaces as a queer person or a person of color—or both, in their case—instantly makes them acutely aware of their otherness.

Jacqueline Dimilia

Nadine Davis & Tia Simon-Campbell

BBZ is the duo’s response. The all-inclusive, roaming nightlife event series geared towards the city’s queer, trans, intersexed, people of color (QTIPOC). “We felt it was near impossible to just be yourself in the queer spaces that already existed in London,” says Simon-Campbell. Those designated destinations, she says, felt very exclusive to gay men—specifically, gay white men. “The spectrum was not a spectrum.”

Jacqueline Dimilia

Nadine Davis & Tia Simon-Campbell

Sexual orientation and gender identity aren’t the only elements at play here, Davis continues. There’s also Form 696. Created by the London Metropolitan Police, the risk assessment form requires that all information—from the addresses of the promoters down to the style of music that’ll be played—be provided 14 days in advance of the event. The form was a covert means of policing. “Basically, if you play any kind of urban music in the U.K., whether it be grime, bashment, dancehall, it’ll be flagged, and the police will be alerted,” Davis elaborates, “and your event might not happen, just because they assume that it’s a congregation of mostly black British people. And they assume there’ll be trouble.”

Trouble is not what you’ll find on the dancefloor at a BBZ night. Simon-Campbell and Davis describe the vibe to up-tempo euphoria for people who simply needed a safe space to sweat out pent-up tensions. “The comments we get afterwards,” says Davis, “are just bliss for about a week straight.”

Dr. Ranj Singh Is Specializing in a Different Kind of Self-Diagnosis

Dr. Ranj Singh nearly left behind his career in medicine before it even started. “I did a year and I was ready to quit,” he says, “because it didn’t feel like I was doing what I was supposed to do.” It was upon entering the field of pediatrics that he finally felt he had found his purpose. “Working with kids really gives me that sense of having done something useful with my life,” he says. “If that means that I get to help people make their lives slightly better in some way, then you know what? I’m really proud to do it.”

While Singh is now happy to be a Renaissance man—pediatrician, TV presenter, columnist, children’s book author—he is perhaps most visibly moved by his role as charity campaigner, working to promote the work of a number of LGBTQ+ and health-focused charities. He finds the goal that drives him most fervently to be “helping young people and kids be happy and proud of who they are and feel like they can be who they are, whoever that might be—and whoever they might later decide to be.”

Sarah Deragon

Dr. Ranj Singh

When he thinks back on his own journey of self-discovery, his first experience with Pride in London jumps out as a pivotal moment. “I was asked to be on one of the floats with some people that I work with on screen,” he says, “and I didn’t know what to expect.” He approached the day with a mix of excitement and trepidation—but when he found himself floating down the streets of London, standing tall, any anxiety he’d had soon washed away. “You get this overwhelming sense of acceptance,” he says, “which, if you’ve been striving and fighting for that feeling for 30-odd years of your life… is so powerful.” He recalls being overcome with joy. “I remember just gushing with happiness,” he says. “I was just proud.”

“I think it’s important for people from ethnic communities to stand up, to not necessarily come out, but to stand up and be visible”

This moment of acceptance was all the more resonant due to the fact that Singh had felt isolated for most of his life up to that point, having not come out till the age of 30. “I never knew any gay people growing up at all,” he says. “I never had any gay Asian role models.” This all serves to further explain why he takes his emerging status as role model so seriously. “I think it’s important for people from ethnic communities to stand up, to not necessarily come out, but to stand up and be visible and show yourself to the young me that was growing up, who’s thinking, ‘Gosh, there’s nobody else in the world like me.’ I’ve got to be a certain way and actually tell them, ‘You don’t have to be anything. You just have to be yourself.’”