When Organizations Devolve: The Whitewashing of The Reformation Project

I have been relatively silent about The Reformation Project for nearly two years.

As a cisgender and straight woman I could not see a way to share what happened that didn’t potentially harm an organization serving a community I cared about. I didn’t want to be the “cishet attacking a gay leader” and I didn’t want to be the “angry Brown woman losing control.” I saw no benefit to speaking my piece before because of my (hyper)awareness of the complicated nature of power and privilege at play in my experience with/of TRP.

Today I am going to speak the truth plainly because I am overcome with grief. My silence did not shield others from harm so today I’m choosing to speak so that others can protect themselves should they choose to. The state of the organization (and my time with it) will be one of my life’s greatest heartbreaks.

Being fired wasn’t the great heartbreak, though it was a devastating betrayal. I navigated my departure with a complete absence of support from my former co-workers — all of whom would go on to quit a year later. I didn’t just feel abandoned and erased, I was abandoned and erased.

For the majority of its existence, The Reformation Project was not only an organization working for the full affirmation of LGBTQ+ people but one that uniquely did so in a way that centered anti-racism and focused on an intersectional approach. I was the heart of advocating and initiating that approach. I, and a number of others, educated and managed up to an Executive Director who, lacking the experience in anti-racist and intersectional spaces, couldn’t have hoped to know how to create such an approachIn partnership with others, namely Myles Markham, I crafted materials, designed trainings, and held hundreds of one on one calls with those in the process of learning. I cried and struggled and carried the pain of working with many White people that said and did racist things (intentionally or not) because I felt a personal responsibility to move them forward.

Folks of Color established a trust that did not previously exist with TRP because I fought to make us trustworthy. When they had doubts about their safety and how they would be received, I was the one that assured them we were for them. Even when I was erased, the fruit of my work remained. I could have comfort in knowing I had made an impact in the movement for intersectional justice and queer liberation.

Yesterday I learned that The Reformation Project is throwing this all out. TRP has doubled down on its commitment to toxic purity culture, dismissed the value of community organizing for change (labeling it “adversarial” which is a very white respectability view of organizing), and created a false dichotomy between activist/academic understandings of justice and a Christian concept of diversity and inclusion. This worldview is a dangerous one rooted in White Christian Supremacy. This change was made explicit by the Executive Director and is evident in the complete scrubbing of any reference to racial justice, decolonization, intersectionality, white supremacy, or anti-racism on the TRP website.

It’s important for people to hear that you don’t have to become a Christian and then erase other identities or do away with other ways of learning about who we are and how to engage the world. The entire premise of TRP is predicated upon wrestling with the concept of two seemingly competing ideas, being LGBTQ+ and being Christian, both are immutable, and neither is subservient to the other. The same remains true for where and how we garner our knowledge about pursuing justice. What we have to learn from activists, organizers, and academics always has an important role in informing how we do justice — it is their ‘adversarial’ work, more so than that of the church, that created the movements for justice we have so deeply benefited from. LGBTQ+ people and People of Color are living in a dangerous political and social climate. Now is not the time to disparage or do away with the knowledge and tools afforded to us by elders and ancestors in the movement.

This behavior is cowardly. It is a regressive move and will do nothing to serve the third of LGBTQ+ population that are People of Color. It will become what it once was and what so many peer organizations are — an organization strictly working for the full affirmation of gay white men. This takes a movement for justice and hammers it into another tool of white supremacy in the church.

This is what I feared would happen when I wrote to the Executive Director and Board when I left almost two years ago:

“I remain committed to this work and am immensely proud of all that, as you yourself noted, I introduced and worked tirelessly to make a part of TRP’s culture: a commitment to those living on the margin of the margins, a fully intersectional model for LGBTQ inclusion, and a particular commitment to racial justice and the creation of programs that are economically just and accessible. I feel compelled to share a final concern that while you and the organization remain committed to these ideals, TRP may find itself stalled in a place where this is reflected in intellectual knowledge and programmatic content, but not lived out in our internal organizational practices. The way in which I carry myself, communicate, and handle conflict is a direct result of being a woman of color from an urban context, a lower-income background, and a background that includes experience with verbal and physical violence. I have worked incredibly hard to learn how to assimilate to dominant professional culture, code-switch as appropriate, and to unlearn many of the negative messages I was taught early on — evidenced, for example, by your acknowledgement that you have complete trust in how I represent TRP to our partners and the way I have taken the lead on handling conflict with the public on TRP’s behalf. If TRP continues to strive to include and represent people from similar backgrounds to mine but does not have the appropriate mechanisms in place, internally and structurally, to address such cultural differences I see, at least at a staff level, a cycle of welcoming and then rejecting the very people we claim to be committed to. While TRP has a mission I believe in deeply and is doing work that is sorely needed and not being done elsewhere, this inconsistency in living out our values needs to be named, and hopefully addressed. It’s worth noting I have seen some progress, but there is a significant need for growth.”

I saw this coming.

The part that grieves me is the support it has received. TRP didn’t skip a beat when I was pushed out but it also didn’t skip a beat when the entire staff quit in protest. It just had its annual conference and boasted record numbers. A one-man organization doesn’t make that happen without the labor of people that have decided that everything listed above was okay. That the disposal of these people and these values were an acceptable loss.

The part that grieves me is how many of those people I taught. How many I listened to, walked with, and counseled to what I thought was a deeper understanding and commitment to a form of justice that refuses to leave people behind. TRP is one of the only affirming Christian places. It is now a place that in word and deed will lead to the tokenization, oppression, and death of Queer and Trans People of Color.

To have not prevented this feels like my greatest professional failure and it is going to take me a long time to process that. What had I been doing for all those years? To what end? I celebrated your awakenings. How did you fall back asleep?

*Originally published on Medium