Photos Courtesy of Kenyon Farrow
Kenyon Farrow is a writer, community organizer, activist and motivational speaker; he advocates for numerous social issues such as HIV/AIDS, homophobia and black empowerment. Farrow is the former Executive Director of Queers for Economic Justice, a group that fights for the rights of the low income working class LGBT community. Farrow has worked alongside several LGBT groups such as the National Gay & Lesbian Task force and The New York State Black Gay Network. He has been a guest speaker and panelist at conferences across the United States. In 2011 he was named one of BET’s “Modern Black Heroes” and in 2010 he was named as one of the Advocate magazine’s “Forty Under 40 LGBT leaders.” PrideIndex caught up with Farrow, he talked about his activism, writings and what he would say to President Obama.
PRIDEINDEX (PI): Tell us about yourself, your background and how did you become an activist.
KENYON FARROW (KF): I am originally from Cleveland Ohio that’s where I am born and raised me and I have grown up pretty poor in the housing projects of Cleveland. I have 2 sisters. How I became an activist? It was not a clear path one of the things I come from my mothers side of the family is that they are very politically active they were AME ministers it goes back into slavery. In fact all of the men and some of the women on my mother’s side of the family were e ministers and several of my great uncles were involved in desegregation work in the south. My Uncle Fred was in the in many of the MLK photographs taken in marches in the south. I got honest that way through my mother was as very politically active and astute she was a member of the Cleveland Black Panther Party, and went on to do some community organizing in the housing project that I grew up in so as a kid and even on my dad’s side of the family they were politically engaged. So conversations at family functions and dinners were a lot about politics. So some of the activism I got through that. When I was in undergrad I went to school at Western Ohio University. I was a theater major then moved to New York in 1999 to work as a actor in NYC I did a lot of stage work and classical work and I think I got here a month before Amadou Diallo was killed in the Bronx by police officers in any case I think the longer I was in New York the less that my theater work felt not relevant to me to the things that I saw were going on. The mass gentrification of New York City and displacement of folks, the massive prison placement and drug war and how men of color were being stopped and frisked before anyone made a call at that. So I made a decision to stop acting and start writing about those things I’ve always known that I was a good writer and I knew I wanted to write more and to become more active in community organizing so I got on early with an organization called FIERCE they were just getting started in 2001. And I then the rest is sort of history.
PI: I get it you started off as an actor and became an activist by happenstance, is that fair to say?
KF: Yeah that is fair. I was always politically engaged and I was reading James Baldwin. Things of that and even my heroes as a kid were people that had a sense of progressive politics I admired Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Bob Marley so I had that kind of that kind of spirit so I ended of acting on that kind of activism spirit.
PI: Talk about your role with Queers for Economic Justice?
KF: I started with QEJ in 2005 I got a call from a from an intern there about working with the queers in the homeless shelters of New York City to help them with a workshop on resume writing and how to fill out a job application an d kind of working with them. I had heard of them before they were fairly new they had been around a couple of years at that point. SO I went did that workshop and was amazed at number of 20-25 LGBT folks from shelter system in NYC but they were very attentive really smart both they pretty homeless poor and really struggling. I guess one of things I struggled with wasn’t a lot of mainstream LGBT organizations that were not talking about these kinds of people or were interested in helping at all or interested in organizing. And so that’s what I realized that I had come from I did not live in a homeless shelter but I come from poor working class folk so that was kind of my entry. I did some work with QEJ I did some work with Beyond Marriage that was released in 2006 I later joined the board. 2008 I left the board and became a staff member and 2010 was an Executive Director. But I still work with QEJ they are like family.
PI: I have seen your writing in various publications, are you still a writer and motivational speaker?
KF: I would not say motivational speaker. Laughs I don’t think that I am that optimistic. But one of the things I think people want to hear you talk about your ideas I have toured the country at conferences and universities keynoting at a range of schools from Ivy League to Public, community colleges and at community spaces that are not academic spaces as well. One of the jokes that went on in my family was that I was going to grow up to be an AME minister. Like the other men in the family and they’d laugh and I did not think that it was funny but my family would say today that that’s what you are doi8ng today, you’re just not doing the religious part.
PI: Being from a family of ministers and people of the cloth, how come you did not explore that avenue of work?
KF: Well I did actual. I did not explore it but I actually thought about and on a number of occasions thought about going to seminar. I was going to a more progressive one and one that was not exactly Christian, more Unitarian denomination, when I was 12 or so when I was young but I just could not do it (Laughs) I did not think that it was more of my path. I have done some community organizing and faith based work around homophobia and the black community and wrote about them as well. As well but it not where my center is.
PI: Can you share with us your coming out story?
KF: Sure My coming story is uneventful. I am very lucky in some respects that I have a family that did not care and still doesn’t and not in that way that we normally hear about that you can sort of be gay and everybody whispers gay or that way as long as we do not have to know that you have a partner or partners or have sex or anything like that. My family is not like that all. In fact when I grew up in the 80’s in the projects there were a lot of gay men of color, lesbians and transgender and what we called back then drag queens. And my family knew several of them one of the gay men in my community was my Uncle Roger was one of my mother and aunts best friends he would sometime s come over in boy drag with a wig and sometimes he would come over in full on drag. And nobody tried to hide it so I always knew what gay so when I finally came out when I was around 18-19, and was telling folks that I am gay but I finally had a I am gay talk with my mom when I was 21. But it was no questions that my family already knew and they were just waiting on me to tell them. I know that it is an unusually narrative from black families that we hear but that’s never been my issue I’ve never had a problem. My family has met partners of mine and they go to family events with me to South Carolina to see my mother and we go down there and we sleep in the same bed there is no drama about anything. I guess I am pretty lucky
PI: Let’s switch gears and discuss South End Press and your book.
KF: South End in Press is a radical publisher based in Boston they publish books by radical folks and will be publishing a book I co-editing with Jared Section he is the chair of African American studies at the University of California at Irvine 15-56 and the book is called “Stand Up The Shifting Policies of Racial Uplift” and the book is going to be a collection of essays we will each have a piece and we are collecting of works from other activist and scholars and it’s going to look at this resurgence of racial uplift politics in the black community and what it means. A lot of us think about Bill Cosby’s rants about poor black people that kind of surfaced about 4 years ago and were going to kind of look at President Obama who has kind of been guilty of chastising black people for their lack of morality and their picking yourself up by your boot straps as opposed to more questions about structured racism and poverty to that circumscribe the black experience. So the book will be taking on those issues and will be coming out in early 2013.
PI: Your statement about the president just lead to a question, If you could have a conversation with him tomorrow, if he were to call you to the White House and say to you I want to have a conversation with you tomorrow and want to know what’s on your mind, what would you tell him?
KF: (WOW) I guess I would have a question for him. I would ask him about his decision to not at all talk about massive imprisonment as a major issue in the lives of the American people and especially black people in a myriad of ways beyond the number of black people who are currently locked up in the US Prisons and jails and that in of itself is a huge problem but all of the kinds of broader impacts that massive imprisonment causes. I would argue is related to a lot of homophobia in the black community and now there is public health evidence that massive imprisonment is one of the main is one of the main drivers of the AIDS epidemics among black people in the US and not just because of sex in prison but because of locking up so many people from zip code one neighborhood drastically changes the kind of social and sexual dynamics event to the extent that people who are using protection most to the time when they don’t the likely hood of when they are going to run into someone who is HIV positive is stronger. And their relationships are going to be disrupted by prison somebody is going to get locked up. I think that major failure of the Obama presidency is the lack of nerve to really deal with massive imprisonment in the US society and really take it on as something that really need s to be radically undermined.
PI: So I am President Obama and I had a very insightful conversation with you Mr. Farrow and I am going to grant you three wishes three things that we can implement that you can implement being my LGBT liaison. What three things would you change right away if he gave you the power to do so?
KF: Probably. (LAUGHS) I would say some basic things such as universal healthcare for people It would be hard for me to simply frame this around some narrow gay politics because I think there are so many questions beyond same sex marriage that impact LGBT folks that will impact them to have a better quality of life. So I would say universal healthcare, universal coverage for people, I would also say a plan to radically undermine the prison industrial complex and to come up with a completely new structure of society that did not rely on prisons and jail to deal with our mostly other kind of social problems that have to do with poverty and racism. I would also figure out some way to end homelessness.
PI: Have you ever considered running for political office?
KF: oh No (laughs) I am too, I like operating outside of that system. I think that I am too radical to be in any political office the way it is constructed now. I do not like the democrats no more than I do the republicans and I do not think it is a system that I would benefit or the people who I like and care about would benefit from. And also I am too scandalous (LAUGHS) I don’t have enough shame to not run for public office.
PI: Let’s just say hypothetically you were running for office.
KF: You’ve just shot down the notion of what I said. (Laughs)
PI: (Laughs) If you were running, hypothetically speaking if you were running for office, would you be more of a Booker T. Washington type of leader , or would you be a WEB Dubois type of leader ?
KF: If those two were my only choices then I would have to say I am like a WEB Dubois type of leader.
PI: I’ve had a chance to look at some of your writing they are everywhere, they are insightful, they are educational and very entertaining, and how come I have not seen you on the news as either one of the correspondents or one of the contributors. We’re talking about the electronic media, you are knowledgeable, you are intelligent, and you know the issues. I’ve only seen you in print.
KF: That’s a good question. (Laughs) That’s something that I have thought about as well; I have done a few things but the think that has made me kind of angry is in the last couple of weeks when the North Carolina amendment one had happened and right behind it when President Barack Obama made this announcement about same sex marriage I wrote about it. I wrote a piece about those things, it was very interesting that when watch those shows that talked about those issues everything from CNN to you know Mellissa Harris Parry and Chris Hayes on MSNBC and all the range of like these television shows. And I have been writing about same sex marriage consistently for the last 8 years and publishing them for the last 8 years and I don’t think you cannot goggle my name or you cannot even Google about race and the African American community, gay marriage or same sex marriage and not probably have me to come up on the first page. I know or I think there are a couple of things happening I think one is that it is just flat out racism and homophobia, there are very actual few black and queer people who get called on those shows anyway and the other issue is I am in that loop it’s really kind of a good old boy network, a lot of those folk are like the black Academic public intellectuals in the same circles. And I don’t roll like those circles. I have met some them and done a few panels with some of them at academic conferences and shared my contributions but there is something nefarious about why I have never been asked.
PI: So do you believe that you have not been asked because you are more conservative and less liberal. Many of those outlets that you mentioned are more liberal slanted. Well that’s not to say that I ever expect to see you on Fox News with Juan Williams.
KF: (Laughs) No I am not doing that. I don’t think that I am more conservative, I believe that I am even more far to the left of some of those liberals you see all the time, I am not conservative by no means but I am not going to tow a party line on someone’s television show just to be someone’s television shows to sell more books.
PI: What is the biggest misconception about you or your work?
KF: (LAUGHS) That’s a good question! I think the biggest misconception about me is that People think that I am much more serious that I am. I am really kind of goofy and crack jokes and act a fool. And my friends will tell you that I do. But because of the kind of stuff I write about are such serious issues I do think that the way in which people read me as. People are afraid to approach me; I have heard that number of times. But I must be clear that if we were to get into a conversation about politics I am not going to back away from my opinion. Sometimes that is too intense for some people. SO back to the question I think that people think that I am too angry all the time and too serious (LAUGHS)
PI: We’re conducting a casting for the role of you in the movie of story of your life, as of today right now that would play the present day you?
KF: OMG –Who would, let me think. I would want Yasiin (formerly known as Mos Def) should play me in a movie about my life. Yasiin is an incredible actor and of the people working in Hollywood today he would like get me politically. And that would be the most important thing than getting someone who looked like me or who had all of my mannerism. The one thing I hate is being misrepresented and I would not want it to be is a Hollywood version of me sugar coated story about me in service of something else. I would rather die anonymous if that were the case.
PI: What is the one message that would like for our readers to take away from you and the things that you do?
KF: The one thing that I say to people a lot is it is important to be curious and never accept whatever it is that people tell you and to question the assumptions that people have all the time. And to always be intellectually curious, I read and would advise people to read about stuff and learn, be critically engagement and thinking and be willing to change when you find out that stuff is not a certain way.
To learn more about Kenyon Farrow and about his upcoming engagements visit KenyonFarrow.com.