Jay Toole by Reina Gossett
I met Jay in June 2005 down in the village. It was the day of the Audre Lorde Project’s first ever Trans Day of Action. Looking around this room I think I met a lot of you there too. That year, like every year hundreds and hundreds of trans and gender non conforming people of color filled the streets to let everyone know who we are, that we are not disposable, and in fact we are powerful enough to change the world.
That next summer I started working with Queers For Economic Justice, an organization that Jay helped to found and is the longest serving staff member at. Every week, at least once a week Jay would go out to Bushwick, East New York, up to Washington Heights or the Bronx to visit city shelters that were pushed out of Manhattan as a statement about just how much this city cares about the homeless.
Jay would visit these shelters for that very reason. As a way to build community power, Jay started support groups for people that most New Yorkers don’t think twice about: homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and gender non conforming people.
Since then I’ve had many life changing moments because of Jay Toole but I want to share one that happened during that summer
On my birthday in 2006 Jay and I went to Bushwick to visit a shelter and try and start a shelter support group. For those us who have ever lived or visited a homeless shelter we know how demeaning this spaces can be, police and shelter guards going through your processions and talking to you in dehumanizing ways, and that’s on the better end of the scale. One this particular day as we went through metal detectors and told the security guard that we were there with QUEERS FOR ECONOMIC JUSTICE, the guard said nothing other than just laugh in our face.
I’ll never forget how Jay calmly turned to the laughing guard who by that point had drawn enough attention to us and simply said: “its ok, you can laugh we’re not here for you.”
Jay’s sense of self in that moment inspired me to do the work I do and in the words of Marsha P Johnson “To Pay It No Mind.” Jay pushed me to know exactly who I am, who my people are and who i am definitely not here for.
Living in a world where racism, transphobia, poverty, ableism, and homophobia dictate not only our communities ability to get jobs, get out of prison or detention centers, get into housing, or get on welfare its sometimes easy to forget that oppression can change the way someone feels about themselves. Transphobia can inspire shame, poverty can create self-hate, they certainly have for me. Jay awed and inspired me that afternoon when I witnessed her, someone who has had to navigate a life time of violence and fight constantly not just for her own survival but for the her friends, loved ones and community, know how valuable she was and let others know who she was here for.
We in this building know who jay is here for and who she’s here to build with. jay is here for people who have disabilities, who have HIV or AIDS. Jay is here for homeless people, people living on the street or in homeless shelters. jay is here for queer people of color, trans and gender non conforming people navigating the prison industrial complex, for elders and LGBTQ youth of color. jay is here for the smokers in front of the building. For people in recovery or sobriety; for any of us who had questions about what it was like for a13 year old butch to be living and running the streets of the village in the 60s with the mafia; or living in Washington Square Park during the Stonewall Riots; or what it was like to be incarcerated in the Women’s House of Detention with Angela Davis and have Sylvia Rivera march outside chanting “Free Our Sisters! Free Ourselves!”
Because Jay has been here so much for us its perfect that today we now can be here to name our building and our movement in honor of Jay Toole.