“And yet, being a problem is a strange experience, peculiar even for one who has never been anything else…” — W.E.B. Du Bois
At one time in my life I would have said “the only thing more peculiar than being a problem in the world is to know you’re a problem within your world” — meaning that it’s one thing to be a problem to the larger world around you, but entirely different to know you’re a problem within the community that surrounds you (i.e. family). History and life both taught me that I was a problem. People of my complexion with roots too tangled to be unearthed are a problem. People of my complexion and the same sex who demand respect are a problem. People of my complexion, sex and sexuality are THE problem.
Before high school, I never knew black homosexuals existed in history. I thought the entire Civil Rights Movement was a “No-Homo Zone” because I was raised to believe that the black community, being rooted in the sacred, did not and would not accept homosexuals because we were an abomination in the eyes of God and the community. However, a few years after I got comfortable with being an abomination I had the single most mind-altering experience of my life: I met and interned for Rep. John Lewis.
Getting ready for the internship, I had the worst anxiety of my life. I was unsure of how my presence would be received by The Congressman, his staff and Capitol Hill in general. I stressed over how they would perceive me once I walked in with my men’s suit, button-down shirt and tie and said, “Hi, my name is Janae (or Jae) Henderson.”
My relief came in two different ways: first from one of my fellow interns and our internship coordinator, who said in so many words to not worry about it and just be myself in all my glorious queerness because Rep. Lewis’ office was well aware of the fact that I was an LGBT-identified individual. The second form of relief came from when I first met Rep. Lewis and he went through the entire office delivering hellos and good-mornings to every staffer in the office and he then introduced himself to me and the other new interns. I knew at that moment that my anxieties about my appearance were ridiculous and this internship would be like nothing I had ever experienced.
So now to the BIG question: What did I learn? What will I take away from my D.C. experience?
Being in the office of Rep. Lewis really opened my eyes to a part of the Civil Rights Movement that I had never been exposed to in my history books, and that was that leaders like Rep. Lewis — then young John R. Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — who then fought discrimination based on race or class were also willing to take a stand and fight discrimination based on gender and sexuality. This development in thinking was astounding to me because coming from a largely southern Baptist family, I never felt that I quite belonged once my queerness was apparent. I believed in my heart after a while that I was a disgrace — an abomination — and so the black struggle, rooted in a religion that made me an outcast, was completely separate from the queer struggle because no one with roots in the black southern Baptist family would fight for an abomination. This way of thinking made me feel that I was either black or gay and when aligning myself with minority struggles I had to choose where my loyalty lay. I felt that if I were going to be a gay activist, I had to accept that the black community would not be there to support me. Rep. Lewis, however, proved to me that all the misconceptions I had, all the histories that I had been taught, were only misleading me into believing that I was not included in the struggle for civil rights and equality fought by the black community. He told me that he believed he fought too long and too hard against discrimination based on race to not oppose discrimination based on gender or sexuality.
At that moment, in my last 20 minutes in his office, suddenly it all made sense. He may never know how this short statement truly impacted my life. I was suddenly something more than an abomination. Within a split second, I abruptly became a complete human being.
If I could do it all over again, I would not have done anything differently. I sacrificed monetary gains and took a financial hit in going into this internship, but I gained so much more than money could have afforded me. I would recommend anyone who has the opportunity to take a congressional internship to definitely do so, even if you think you are not interested in politics — because you never know how it may change your life, and money doesn’t always buy happiness or give you the kind of self-fulfillment I received from this internship.
This is my final blog post for Berkeley In the World, and I want to thank you all for taking the opportunity to read about my experience. If you would like to contact me from this point forward, I will be at email@example.com. Follow your dreams; money and happiness will follow you.
- “I will scribe my name on the world’s canvas.” — Jae Henderson