InspiHERed By spotlights phenomenal women in the Black queer community—everyone from artists to activists. Each week ELIXHER features someone whose personal journey and individual craft inspire us to dream bigger, laugh harder, and love deeper. This week Ashley Young, a 24-year-old feminist writer, talks about her passion for poetry and sexual liberation for women.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
ASHLEY: My name is Ashley Young. I’m 24 years old and I identify as a queer poly femme dyke. My hometown is Silver Spring, MD (about 20 minutes outside of Washington, DC). I have been living and working in New York City since I graduated from college in 2009. I currently work as the education program assistant at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and as a freelance writer. I also travel throughout the U.S. teaching workshops with my partner in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer (LGBTQ) and poly community on sexuality, polyamory and relationships.
ELIXHER: When did you begin pursuing writing as a passion?
ASHLEY: I started pursuing writing as a passion when I was 13. I wrote in journals constantly and started reading and writing poetry at a very young age. I took my writing really seriously as a young person. I ran the open mic night at my high school, competed in slams throughout the DC area and participated in lots of writing workshops, including Duke Young Writer’s Summer Camp. It was there where I really learned what it looked like to develop writing as a craft and meet other young writers who were as passionate about poetry as I was.
ELIXHER: What drew you to the craft?
ASHLEY: I have always loved to write. I remember my mother giving me my first notebook when I was 5 and just learning how to write my name. I copied down every word I saw and soon started copying books. Once my mom caught me copying the first few pages of The Color Purple and freaked out. I used to copy lots of poetry and essays, just so I could learn how to write well and I started to love what I was reading. When I learned how to write, I wrote short stories and poems and read them out loud to my stuffed animals. So writing has been a passion for as long as I can remember.
ELIXHER: What topics do you tend to write about and why?
ASHLEY: I write a lot about my childhood and growing up in a multi-generational household with women who live with mental illnesses. I find that this is some of the hardest yet most transformative writing because I am learning to heal by telling my own story. It’s also a bit scary because I feel like I’m telling family secrets. Even so, I think it’s important that women, especially Black women, start talking about how mental illness affects children and families in our communities. In college, I had a quote on my wall: You are only as sick as your silence. I still believe that and it encourages me when I am hesitant to write about painful memories.
Recently, I have been working on a creative non-fiction piece called “Family Therapy” about my relationship with mother who has lived with bi-polar disorder since I was a child. I had the opportunity to workshop the piece as a non-fiction fellow at the Lambda Literary Foundation Writer’s Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices this past summer. It was amazing to be able to share my work because I think there are many misconceptions about mental illness. I tell my story to dismiss those myths and to connect with others who share a similar past. I hope to write a full-length memoir one day but for now the work has been coming out in short non-fiction essays and I am learning not to rush the process.
ELIXHER: You blog about your journey through sexuality, polyamory and womanhood. You’re also a sex positive teacher. How has exploring these topics so openly been liberating and what advice do you have for other women undertaking this journey?
ASHLEY: In writing about my journey through sexuality, I’ve learned to love and accept my queerness and not to feel shame for my desires. I’ve also learned to embrace my plus-sized body as a sexual object of my own design. I think women are often taught to find something dissatisfactory about their bodies and their desires are often put on the back burner. My involvement in the sex positive kink, leather and polyamorous communities have granted me a lot of room to explore and to write. My partner and I are polyamorous, meaning we engage in sexual/emotional relationships outside of our own. I write about how we sustain our long term relationship while pursuing others as a couple and as individuals, mostly because people don’t think that those types of relationships are possible. I write to document the journey but also to encourage women to create sexual freedom as a rite of passage.
My advice to women on a similar journey: Learn what you want and learn how to communicate what you want to others. When you learn to communicate what you want, you can start to create the beautiful, juicy relationships you’ve always desired. I would also advice women to find the communities that encourage and support their sexual explorations so they can embark on the journey without shame or criticism.
ELIXHER: Tell us about BrownGirlLove.com. What inspired you to create it?
ASHLEY: The term Brown Girl Love was coined by my partner. I was re-twisting her locs one day and she tweeted: Sitting between my lovers legs as she does my hair #browngirllove. I took the phrase and created an online forum that publishes the new work of women of color each month. The project is inspired by the love between my partner and I because not only is she my lover, she also my best friend and my sister-girl. Brown Girl Love is about cultivating the love the lies underneath the everyday struggles that women of color face. The work featured on the site documents each contributor’s dealings with life, love, the female body and more. My goal was to create a platform for women to share their stories and to publish work from an often unrepresented population.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
ASHLEY: Well, obviously love inspires me. My partner is always saying how much she is dying for her to be my muse and honestly, she is. I think sustainable love between two Black women is a wonderful, sacred thing, so I write a lot about how we got where we are as a couple. I am also inspired by involvement in the Black community and by the Black youth I work with. At the Schomburg, I work in a Black studies program and to witness young people’s difficulty with defining their racial identity inspires me to write about my ongoing struggle in defining myself as a Black queer woman. The queer community really inspires me too because I love how queers create their own identity as fluid and transformational.
ELIXHER: Describe yourself in three words.
ASHLEY: Fearless. Fat. Femme. (I like descriptive alliteration!)
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest misconception people have of you?
ASHLEY: This is a hard question. I always fear that people think I am too young to do the things I am doing. This is mostly from my own insecurities but I think there is a lot to learn from young people. Our passion and creativity is what births new ideas and possibilities in a very cynical world.
ELIXHER: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had to face and how did you overcome it?
ASHLEY: My biggest challenge has been getting out of my own way. By that, I mean trying not to convince myself that my work is not important or that no one will understand what I am saying or where I am coming from. That’s when the fearlessness kicks in. I’ve learned to do the things I am scared of because I know all my fears are completely made up. So I read a lot of my personal work on stage to build courage and to allow my community to continue to support me despite my own beliefs. Writing the truth can be really confronting but when I get outside of my own head and start connecting with others, I learn that my work is not just about me. It’s about creating stories I can share with the world.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
ASHLEY: Our sense of collected individualism and family is really what makes me proud to be in the Black queer community. I think Black queers have to create life on their own terms because we were never really handed on a script on how to be queer or Black, particularly at the same time. I love the sense of family Black queers create and the safe spaces we nurture in order for us to continue to live and thrive in the margins.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the Black queer community?
ASHLEY: I would like to see more acceptance throughout the community and more spaces for us to teach each other, particularly when it comes to safe sex practices and healthy relationships. As far as acceptance, I am particularly thinking about trans acceptance in women’s spaces and sexuality across cultural divides. We all may identify as queer but queerness means different things to different people. If we created more spaces where people felt safe enough to talk openly about the issues in the community, we can teach each other and mentor Black folks who are just starting to define what queer means for them.
ELIXHER: What’s next for Ashley?
ASHLEY: Well, I am working a few pieces for publications in anthologies so hopefully I will be seeing my name in print soon! I have also started writing erotica under “Indigo” and I hope to continue to write smut in magazines and small collections. My plan is that you see me on more stages throughout New York City and more pages in your queer memoirs.