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 we caught up with JeShawna Wholley, a 23-year-old community organizer and advocate.
ELIXHER: Tell us a little about yourself.
JESHAWNA: Although I was born in North Carolina and spent most of my pre-adolescent years in Connecticut, I claim Maryland as my hometown. Currently, I am working at the Martin Luther King Center on their digital archive project. We are currently digitizing all of the images and documents from the King era. It is truly a historical project. The goal is to have an interactive website up and running by his birthday.
ELIXHER: You do organizing and programming on college campuses. When and how did that work begin?
JESHAWNA: It began when I became president of Afrekete, Spelman’s only organization that fosters the LGBT community. I wanted Afrekete to be a catalyst of political action and social change on Spelman’s campus.
During fall of 2009, Morehouse College implemented an “Appropriate Attire” policy. The part of the policy that I found to be most offensive was the banning of women’s clothing, or what they called “fringe wear” on campus. Any man caught in violation was escorted off of campus. This attack on gender non-conforming, trans and cross-dressing people resulted in a direct rebuttal from Afrekete and SafeSpace (Morehouse’s GSA). We collaborated on the first drag show to be hosted in the Atlanta University Center.
The show, entitled “The Appropriate Attire Policy,” was a politically infused showcase of queer identity and self expression. It allowed us to make a space for ourselves, affirm our identities and educate the masses about queer culture and social ideologies. Even further, because there was such an outstanding turn-out, the drag show as well as Pride week is now something that Afrekete does every year. Just like that, this blatant statement about queer identity has become a part of Spelman’s culture. There is still work to be done, but at least we are moving in the right direction.
ELIXHER: How do you help students take back their power?
JESHAWNA: I help students take back their power in three main ways: by helping them create safe spaces, find their voice and finally by giving them a platform. If it was not for the sanctity of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and Afrekete, I would not be who I am today. Being queer (by any definition of the word) in any space can be overwhelming. The temptation to shrink, hide, and conform is all too great. It is easy to lose yourself in the mist of it all. Safe, affirming, spaces allow you the agency to be your authentic you. This is the foundation of empowerment. Power of self cannot foster in an environment that is not conducive to self. When I go to campuses, I am sure to push this point.
ELIXHER: What was your experience like as an out lesbian at a historically black college?
JESHAWNA: Honestly, my experience was very insular on campus. I didn’t really put myself out there at first. I was never in the closet; I just wasn’t interested in the social aspects of the campus. Most of the events were very heteronormative, and simply not for me. So, I was sure to stay in spaces that were affirming to who I was holistically.
ELIXHER: Who or what inspires you?
JESHAWNA: Wow! I am constantly in a state of inspiration. I am blessed to have such a beautiful community of phenomenal women, men and gender non-conforming people that keep me in their graces at all times. But what inspires me most is to see people operating in their purpose. There is something magical that happens when you are in the presence of someone in touch with their truth. It is so easy to lose yourself in a world that is constantly telling you that everything about you is wrong. Being in the midst of purpose-driven individuals is both affirming and comforting. It pushes me to continue on this path that I believe to be designed by God.
ELIXHER: Fill in the blanks: Every time I [blank], it makes me [blank]. It must be because [blank].
JESHAWNA: Every time I am told that I can’t, it makes me push harder. It must be because I am resilient.
ELIXHER: What’s one message that you have for college students?
JESHAWNA: Live your life! It is okay. It is okay to live this life that you were destined to live. Nothing is certain, and that is okay too. It is okay not to have all of the answers. It is okay to change your mind. It is okay to be different. It is okay to say no. It is okay to try. It is okay to fail. It is okay. Live your life! You only have one and now is the perfect time to start living it your way.
ELIXHER: What makes you proud to be a part of the Black queer community?
JESHAWNA: We are a resilient people. I have never been around so much wisdom, culture, openness, ancestry, earth, creation, creativity, honesty, color and depth until I was introduced to the community that is Black and queer – especially here in Atlanta.
ELIXHER: What changes would you like to see in the community?
JESHAWNA: I would like to see more unity in the community. There are major gaps between the L…B…T…and Q. I think at times, we get so wrapped up in protecting the sanctuary of our own, that we forget to open ourselves up to others. Granted, there is much healing to be done and I understand that there is no better place to heal than within the safety of those who are like you and share your same experiences. However, we must learn to see ourselves in the faces, histories, herstories, experiences, struggles and lives of others as well. Only then will this community ever truly be liberated.
ELIXHER: What’s next for JeShawna?
JESHAWNA: I have applied for a 6-month working fellowship with the National Black Justice Coalition. If everything works out the way it should, I will be moving to DC in January. Other than that, I am still traveling to different campuses to show my documentary The Shadow Behind the Rainbow, and conduct workshops on campus inclusion.
For booking, contact JeShawna at firstname.lastname@example.org.