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Posts tagged as “LGBTQ”

Reflections: The Podcast

In September, we introduced Reflections, a series of occasional pieces that feature 9th Street Journal reporters writing about lessons they’ve learned — about themselves and about journalism — as they’ve worked on articles for the site. Grace Abels and Lilly Clark wrote the first two stories.

Now comes the Reflections podcast, available on Spotify and Apple, in which our reporters further explore how they’re learning and growing. In this first episode, Grace continues to offer insights about how her interview with Satana Deberry, Durham’s District Attorney, propelled her to think in new ways about issues of identity, especially her own. In the coming weeks, Lilly will more deeply examine how journalists cover the courts – and whether they sometimes do more harm than good. And as other reporters write their Reflections, we’ll follow those up with podcasts from them too.

Reflections is funded by a generous grant from The Purpose Project.

PHOTO ABOVE: Grace Abels, by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

Reflections: My rainbow epiphany and Durham’s DA

Editor’s note: Reflections is a feature that encourages student journalists to explore how they have learned and grown from the stories they have written for The 9th Street Journal. It is funded by a grant from The Purpose Project.

June was my first Pride Month since I came out as queer. 

In the year after I shared my secret with my parents on a futon in a Columbus, Ohio Airbnb, I had tried my best to fully embrace my new identity. I’m talking a homemade flag, a rainbow Apple Watch band, and some funky laptop stickers (I’m really into the branding, I guess). 

While I had celebrated Pride Month before, somehow being “out” gave this June more meaning. I was feeling, well, proud. So while writing for The 9th Street Journal this summer, I went to my editor and proposed a Pride Month story.

My editor, Bill Adair, suggested profiling Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry, a black queer woman who was elected in 2018 on a platform of criminal justice reform. She was “out” as a queer woman, but in the many profiles written about her she had not publically discussed her sexuality in any detail. We decided to ask if she would do an interview. 

To our surprise, she agreed.

All of a sudden, we kicked into high gear. I had a story to write. The end of June was fast approaching, and we had to get it done not just for The 9th Street Journal, but also to meet a print deadline for our partner, Indy Week. 

As I began my research, I felt some anxiety. I know I may sound all gay and confident, but that’s not entirely true. 

I was beginning to feel a bit like a fraud. 

A bit of background about me: I’m bisexual. This is something I have known about myself for quite some time, but it is a truth I only began to publicly embrace about a year ago. 

To be clear, my delay in embracing my sexuality is no fault of my upbringing. I grew up in the accepting community of Durham, and my parents were Subaru-driving, NPR-listening, reusable-sandwich-bag liberals. Nor was it the fault of my peers. In fact, at the arts high school I attended, being queer might have earned me some social capital. So I knew that whenever I came out, I would be met with open and loving arms. 

But for years, I kept it to myself. It wasn’t because I wasn’t attracted to women around me, I just never got around to the critical part of actually dating one. (Upon reflection, maybe not telling anyone was part of the reason I could never get a date…) And to this day, I still have not been in a relationship with a woman. So for years, nagged by deep insecurity, I told myself that even though I knew I was bisexual, until I dated a women I didn’t really “count” as gay. 

I hadn’t suffered the weight of discrimination like many of my loved ones, and while I couldn’t choose who I was attracted to, I could choose who knew. Many people in my life happily assumed I was straight, and I just chose not to correct them. 

Because I hadn’t dated a woman yet, it felt wrong to say I belonged in the queer community. It felt wrong to take up space. I felt like I hadn’t earned it. 

In the past few years, through conversations with my queer friends, I have come to understand that this thinking was harmful and denied me part of my identity. There is no one way to be authentically queer, and while I can never claim to relate to the wide range of queer experiences, I have full right to claim my own story. 

So over the course of 2020, after my friends inspired my rainbow epiphany, I worked tirelessly to unravel much of this shameful thinking. I bought a pride flag on Amazon, claimed my queer identity, and — the big one — told my parents. I was certain I had overcome my previous backward thinking and was on the path to gay enlightenment.  

But as I began my research on Deberry, the doubt began to bubble back up. I was preparing to write a story about a queer woman who had faced true discrimination. Who in the world was I to act like I could relate? Did I even have the right to tell her or any other queer stories? Did I even count as a queer woman? 

Was I right before? Was I a big fat fraud?

My anxiety grew and by the morning of the interview, I was a wreck. Not only was I grappling with my own imposter syndrome, but I was also about to sit across from one of the most powerful people in Durham and ask probing personal questions. After unraveling all my worries to my mom across the breakfast table, she reminded me of something. 

“Grace, if you are this anxious about the interview, imagine how she feels? You are about to ask her a bunch of personal questions about her sexuality.” 

My mother had a point. (They often do.) But despite her reassurance, it was hard to believe that a woman like Deberry ever got nervous about anything

Still, that morning I went to the courthouse, rode the elevator up to the eighth floor, and did the interview. Deberry could no doubt tell I was nervous but treated me with kindness and patience. I shared a little about myself, but I mostly listened to her story. I returned to the office and spent the next two days writing the story that Indy Week would headline “Her Best Self – For Pride Month, Durham DA Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all, and her inspiration.”

People who read the story didn’t know it, but they were reading a story about me, too. 

I think, deep down, I originally wanted to write a Pride Month story to smother those deep feelings of inauthenticity. Perhaps, I thought, if I published a story in the paper for all the city to read, I could assert my queerness enough to “count.” If I openly celebrated the LGBTQ community, I could finally claim it as my community. 

But that’s not quite what happened. It wasn’t seeing my byline on the page that really helped me to grow. It was Deberry herself and learning about how she defines her own queerness. 

“For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. ‘For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.’” 

This phrase has stuck with me. It reminds me that being queer colors the way I see the world, affects what I value, and defines how I love myself. Deberry’s words emboldened me to share myself honestly — enough even to write a whole story telling you about it. 

I have wholeheartedly embraced Deberry’s perspective, and I hope those who read my story did too. Because the truth remains: no matter who I will love, I will dance through life seeing the world through my rainbow-colored glasses. 

Photo above: Grace Abels by Josie Vonk – The 9th Street Journal

For Pride Month, Deberry discusses life as a queer woman, justice for all and her inspiration

On the eighth floor of the Durham courthouse, a beige tower that is home to the county’s criminal justice system, you will find the office of District Attorney Satana Deberry. With colorful pillows and local art on every wall, her office seems out of place in the drab building. But Deberry, a black queer woman, hasn’t been a typical prosecutor. 

She oversees a system that often entangles people that look just like her. But she is the one running it – and trying to change it. 

Studies have found that LGBTQ people, like people of color, are disproportionately harmed by our justice system. Deberry, elected in 2018 on a mandate of criminal justice reform, has brought a unique understanding of the LGBTQ community to the DA’s office.

In an interview for Pride Month, she spoke with The 9th Street Journal about her life as a queer woman and her feelings about representation and justice.

We all have idols that shape us. In a framed photo tucked in the corner of her office, Deberry memorializes hers: Barbara Jordan.

Jordan, a “towering figure” in the 1970s, was one of the first black women to serve in the Texas State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives. She, like Deberry, was unafraid to challenge the status quo.

During President Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearing, Jordan famously declared: “If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that 18th-century Constitution should be abandoned to a 20th-century paper shredder.”

While she never publicly revealed her sexuality, Jordan lived with a partner for 20 years until she died in 1996.

“I wanted to be Barbara Jordan,” said Deberry. “Barbara Jordan was the first black woman that I saw that I knew.” 

Building a Life

With Barbara Jordan in mind, young Deberry chased excellence in school. She decided good grades would be her path out of Hamlet, N.C. – a town of 6,000 between Charlotte and Fayetteville. It worked. Her determination and focus on academics carried her all the way to Princeton and through law school at Duke University. To this day, she still doesn’t “see light blue.”

She was always focused on her studies, so it wasn’t until her mid to late 20s, after graduating from law school, that Deberry began to understand her own sexuality. “It started to occur to me that I had to build a life. And how was I going to build that life?” 

She realized there was only one option. “It was never a case that I wasn’t going to be out. Because that’s just not who I am,” she said.

The core values of openness and transparency that she brings to her office stem from her own disposition. “I’m always trying to be my best self. And so, I don’t really think of being myself as being brave. I mean, that’s what we’re all doing.” 

When she came out, her parents were not surprised. “We already knew that,” they told her matter-of-factly, “so you should probably tell us something new.” 

Her parents were supportive, but for her mother, queer life was associated with tragedy. Deberry’s aunt, who today would likely identify as trans, lived a dangerous life and was ultimately killed. “I think for my parents, especially for my mother, that was the only kind of life you could have as a queer person . . . on the edges of society.”

Deberry worked for a few years as a criminal lawyer before taking jobs at various non-profit groups like Self-Help and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Then from 2013 to 2018, she served as the head of N.C. Housing Coalition – all while raising three daughters as a single mother. 

In 2018, she was elected the county’s chief prosecutor by promising bold reform. Rejecting the hard-line approach of many district attorneys, she vowed to put less emphasis on non-violent crime and said she would address racial bias in the system. 

Black women account for a tiny share of the nation’s DAs. In 2014, 79%  percent of elected prosecutors were white men, and only 1% were women of color. 

Talking to Deberry, who sports hoop earrings and blue Adidas tennis shoes, it becomes clear that she has not made it to the eighth floor in spite of her intersecting identities, but rather because of them. “Because I come at this from a cultural position of traditionally being powerless, I feel like I understand what’s at stake in a different way,” she said. 

DAs wield tremendous power in deciding which criminal cases get prosecuted. Unlike many prosecutors, her identity as a black, queer woman overlaps with many of those likely to be involved in our imbalanced criminal justice system. 

She says she brings her unique perspective to her work. “There are just experiences in my life, certainly as a queer person, that inform the decisions I make and the policies that we implement here.” 

‘The worst day of their lives’

During her time as DA, she has limited the use of cash bail, has scaled back prosecution of school-based offenses, and has focused on prosecuting violent crimes rather than low-level drug possession charges. She says these policies work to reduce the jail population and keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system. 

She also recognizes the way the system harms LGBTQ people. 

According to the most recent National Inmate Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are three-times as likely to be incarcerated, and a third of all women in prison identify as queer. Studies show transgender people are more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives. This rate is even higher for LGBTQ youth, who make up 20% of the juvenile justice system

LGBTQ people also are disproportionately victims of violent crime. The Williams Institute found they were four-times as likely to experience violent victimization, including rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault.

Deberry knows the statistics – and the challenges they reflect. “The dirty little secret of the criminal justice system is that not only are all the defendants poor black and brown people, but all the victims are as well,” she said. “So being poor, being black, being brown, being LGBTQ, all of those things put you in a situation in this country of just having access to fewer resources.”

To combat these disparities, her office uses a broader definition of domestic violence than the state government, to include same-sex dating couples. Her office also recognizes people by their chosen gender identity, a respect not common in the criminal justice system. And their special victims unit, which focuses on sexual assault, now handles cases in which someone is targeted due to race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender presentation. “If that is part of the crime, we talk about it,” Deberry said. 

She wants to bring humanity to a system that can be insensitive and biased.

“The way that the system acts is to reduce people to the worst day of their lives” said Deberry, “and there’s so much focus on that particular act that we don’t spend a lot of time focused on the person.” 

If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy

For Deberry, her choice of the word queer reflects her belief that sexuality and identity are about more than who you love. “For me, queer is about culture, and about a worldview.” 

As Deberry has gotten older (she is now 52), she has noticed that her queerness has ruffled fewer feathers. “It’s been interesting to me how little it comes up in this role,” she said. Most people just don’t know or don’t ask – she is not sure which. 

“I think that the real stick in the system is that I’m a black woman. I think that is what really pisses people off.”  

But to Deberry, her work is all part of a larger goal. “When you’re growing up in a black family, there’s a saying, ‘If Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.’ And really the truth of the world is that if, black women, black queer women, and black trans women are safe, then everybody is safe.”

She is working to create that world for her three daughters –  two are 16 and one is 19 – who predominantly communicate in TikToks and GIFs. They, too, have offered Deberry a window into the evolving queer community. 

“For my kids’ friends, they just try on a lot more things. They have friends who are pan, and friends who are trans, and friends who are nonbinary. They have friends who have already transitioned genders,” said Deberry “In that sense, I think those kids are brave.”

The life she has led was not one that many people could have envisioned when she was first coming out, she said.  But today, “you get to be anybody as a queer woman.”

This is what pride means for her:

“Representation matters. And, you know, you hear people say, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ I don’t necessarily believe that, but I do know that somewhere out there, seeing me is meaningful to somebody – just like seeing Barbara Jordan was meaningful to me. And so that’s really what pride means for me. That you get to see the full range of who you get to possibly be.”

At top, photo of Satana Deberry by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal