Sunday, August 15, 2010

Missing Candice Boyce

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On August 2, New York lost one of its unsung heros, African American lesbian Candice Boyce, a driving force for social justice, early founder of the LGBT community, and mainstay of the Center. I remember her as an intelligent, generous, and extraordinarily committed activist, words I don't always put in the same sentence.

I met her in '94 or '95 at a moment when I was thoroughly sick of activism and activists. I'd worked my heart out, and in a couple of devastating moments watched everything go up in the smoke of personal conflict. The egos and power plays and struggles for turf had become more important than the goal.

Candice got involved as an elder stateswoman, and tried to make peace. She embraced all of us, even me, a little pipsqueak of a white dyke, not too long out of Kentucky. She laid one kind hand on my shoulder, and it was enough to help me keep it together through an extremely ugly meeting.

Like many New Yorkers, her respect for diversity began at home. Born in 1943 at Harlem hospital, her maternal grandmother was from Barbados. Her paternal grandmother was Native American. As she became an activist, she fought for social justice for everyone: women, African Americans, and the LGBT community. Her most important work was for lesbians of color.

She was one of the co-founders of Salsa Soul Sisters, Third World Wimmin, Inc., eventually becoming the director. She has said that at the time of the group's founding in 1974, "there was no other place for women of color to go and sit down and talk about what it means to be a black lesbian in America."

Originally created as the Black Lesbian Caucus of the New York City Gay Activists Alliance, Salsa Soul founders (Betty "Achebe" Jean Powell, the Reverend Dolores Jackson, Harriet Austin, Sonia Bailey, Luvenia Pinson, Maua Flowers, and Candice) aimed to help and inspire "third world gay women," and "share in the strengthening and productivity of the whole gay community."

To a large extent they were successful in their mission. They offered safe spaces for embattled lesbians of color, created The Jemima Writers Collective, and in the 70's and 80's published Azalea: A Magazine by Third World Lesbians and Salsa Soul Gayzette. Their contributors included Michelle Cliff, Sapphire, and yes, Audre Lorde.

Candice was a steadying force as Salsa Soul Sisters evolved into African Ancestral Lesbians United for Societal Change, which is still going strong as the oldest black lesbian organization in the United States.

I can't imagine it was smooth sailing. Nurturing groups is hard, thankless work. You have to manage the complexities of individuals, and layered on top of them the weight of differing classes, cultures, ethnicities, plus the egos that grow along with your organization.

And as the world changes, goals do, too. In this case, realism trumped utopia. The extraordinary ambition of Salsa Soul to embrace all "Third World Wimmin" was sharpened to focus on African American lesbians. Even then, they could have failed. Organizing for social justice is extremely tough. Only the rare people like Candice make it possible.

You have to believe you have a mission, and you have to be persistent. And by all accounts, Candice would sometimes beat a dead horse. But without that stubbornness, where would we be? It was fueled by a keen sense of purpose. She herself wrote, “I am an activist, I am a warrior, but above all I am compassionate. I have given my self to the struggle for black lesbian & lesbians of all colors and oppression everywhere."

I can almost see a few readers sneering. "Doesn't think much of herself, does she?" But dedicated activists have to have an almost evangelical zeal or they frankly wouldn't bother. And the facts bore her out. She was a fighter and protector. She was compassionate. Her work benefited us all.

In this increasingly now-driven society, when few of us persevere without a clear victory in sight, preferably by next Tuesday, Candice Boyce kept her nose to the grindstone. I suspect she didn't think too much about the tickertape parades at the end. What she had in her sights were lesbians, especially black lesbians, and the social and economic battles they were still fighting.

I thought about her when I ran across this phrase from the Pirkei Avot, an ancient Jewish text that has a lot to say about activism and social justice, a lot to say about Candice: "you are not obligated to complete the work; neither are you permitted to desist from it." That will be worth keeping in mind the next time I'm tempted to turn my back on the community, and take up basket weaving.

Candice Boyce is survived by Linda Rice, her partner since 1997, and wife since 2007, as well as tons of loving family and friends. If you want to honor her memory, it's simple. Get up off your ass. Engage. Be kind.

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