The Education of Daunasia Yancey

She’s young, black, female, gay—and ready for her mug shot. Meet the new face of Boston’s civil rights movement.

By S. I. Rosenbaum | Boston Magazine | February 2015

Daunasia Yancey wore a red felt flower in her hair and a megaphone over one shoulder. She’d just led a focus group on making schools safer for transgender students at the Beacon Hill headquarters of the Boston Alliance for Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Youth (BAGLY). Now she was bolting down takeout fried rice and crab rangoons, checking her phone messages as she ate standing up in the center’s lounge. It was almost time.

Outside, families with children gathered on the Common for the city’s annual Christmas tree–lighting ceremony. Protesters with homemade signs were heading toward the Common, too. In between them: a line of police, determined to keep the two apart. The day before—Wednesday, December 3—a grand jury in New York had declined to indict a police officer for choking and killing Eric Garner, a black man being arrested for selling loose cigarettes. Across the country, people were taking to the streets demanding justice. In New York. In Oakland. In St. Louis. In Boston.

Yancey’s phone rang. “I’m walking down,” she said into it. “I’ll be there.”

One more bite. She wrapped a bright pink scarf around her neck, refreshed her lipstick, and headed into the cold.

Yancey has been an activist since she was 13 years old, when she fought to found a gay-straight alliance at her Newton middle school. She grew up in the post-Ellen era; gay marriage was sanctioned by law by the time she was in high school. Her political training came through local LGBT youth organizations, not from clergy fired in the kiln of the civil rights movement or seared by Boston’s busing crisis. She is heir to a protest culture that owes as much to feminism, ACT UP, and “Silence = Death” as to Martin Luther King Jr.

Now, at 22, she’s establishing herself as a leader in the growing movement against police brutality and racism. As an organizer in Boston’s chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM), a national activist network, she led hundreds of people down Newbury Street in October. In November, after a grand jury decided not to indict the white police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, to death in Ferguson, Missouri, she helped muster a march of more than a thousand people that poured through Boston’s streets, from Dudley Square to Mass. Ave. Fifty-one protesters were arrested that night.

When I first interviewed Yancey, I kept asking her when she’d switched from gay rights work to civil rights work, until I realized that question didn’t make sense: For Yancey, making schools safer for LGBT teens is of a piece with marching against police brutality. All of her work, she says, is toward the same goal: making a space for people like her to thrive in safety.

“I’m black and gay,” she said, “all the time.”

The first weeks of December would see near-constant protests in cities across the country—young people spilling over barricades, blocking highways, holding “die-ins” as they lay on the ground and chanted Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” But now, on this cold December afternoon, Yancey was almost giddy, fueled by adrenaline, talking fast as she jetted down the hill to Park Street. “You can see to your right, protesters with signs,” she joked, putting on a fake tour guide’s voice, as we passed the unlit tree, guarded by metal barriers and swarms of cops. “Are you writing this all down? You’re a terrible reporter.” Then she laughed. She’d been giving a lot of interviews lately, she said. “A reporter finally asked me if I was scared. How can you ask me that?”

Of course she was scared of the cops. But what did that matter? Protesters were beginning to gather around the entrance to the Boylston Street T station, and Yancey made her way toward them. She understood the risk she was taking. “I’m ready for that mug shot,” she said.

***

Yancey remembers taking a bath when she was little and sinking into the water, letting go of breathing, trying to drown.

Her mother died when Yancey was four, and her mother’s aunt, Janene Yancey, became her legal guardian, raising her in the South End amid a large extended family. Today, Janene remembers Daunasia as a prodigy who was reading by three and watching CNN instead of cartoons. “My miracle child,” she calls her. But Daunasia remembers it differently: “I was like Harry Potter in that room under the stairs. I grew up feeling my family thought I was very smart, very capable. But I didn’t feel held. I didn’t feel loved.”

In first grade, as head of the public speaking group, she was asked to recite King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to her class. Mostly Yancey remembers struggling to pronounce one word in that speech: “oasis.” The civil rights movement was two generations distant, not something to which she had a direct connection.

As for Boston’s own troubled racial history, Yancey’s life would be directly shaped by it: Starting in second grade, she attended Newton schools through the METCO program, Boston’s imperfect attempt at desegregation. In white, liberal Newton, she stood out for her race as much as her smarts. Sometimes, she says, her teachers indulged her assertiveness, “let me run wild.” Other times, people told her she was too loud, too aggressive—“too black,” she says.

Certainly, she was willing to face down ­authority. In seventh grade, Yancey refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance as a way to protest the Iraq war—her first act of civil disobedience. Her assistant principal offered nondisruptive alternatives: Why couldn’t she stand up but not say the words? Couldn’t she just leave the room? Yancey rejected these compromises: “I wasn’t going to do any of it. I wasn’t being defiant for defiance’s sake. Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance was honoring the Pledge of Allegiance, and I wasn’t going to do that.” At last, they dropped the issue.

It was around the same time that Yancey began to research gay history. That summer, she spent every day in the library. She Googled Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. She read about the birth of the modern gay rights movement at Stonewall in New York City in 1969, when gay men and transgender women—many of them black and Latino—­spontaneously rioted against a series of brutal police raids on a gay bar. She read about the fight against AIDS in the 1980s, when early activists held die-ins on Wall Street to bring attention to the ignored plague. She read black lesbian authors such as Audre Lorde. “This was before I identified as anything,” she says. “But I wanted to be like these women, these amazon fighters. That’s how I viewed lesbians: ‘You are all the women I want to be.’”

The gay rights movement, born out of riots and radicalism, was maturing into the mainstream all around her. Just one year earlier, Massachusetts had become the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Yancey was fascinated by the radical history that had brought it there: “The strength of standing up to a society that says you don’t matter—I thought all of that was amazing.”

After Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the young man’s body lay in the street for four hours. The next evening, a crowd gathered to hold a candle-light vigil. The police department brought out their dogs.

That was the start of the movement. Four months later, Yancey and her compatriots from Black Lives Matter huddled in the ­December cold, as activists from an outfit called We Are the Ones Boston led a stationary protest. It had been going on for about half an hour, and a thousand people—all ages, all races—were merely milling about, straining to hear the speakers.

***

We Are the Ones hadn’t brought megaphones with them. Yancey rolled her eyes, impatient. On the other side of the ­Common, hundreds of people had gathered for the tree-lighting ceremony. The idea had been to disrupt the ceremony—to shake people out of their comfortable lives, to convey a state of emergency. Here in Boston, the ACLU ­released a report in October stating that black people were stopped and frisked by police at a much higher rate than whites. Across the country, cops were killing black people without so much as a trial. Yancey wanted to move. Why were they all standing around here? “This is a pep rally,” her friend Seneca Joyner muttered dismissively.

“Daunasia,” said BLM member Chantel Aaron, “if you lead, people will follow you.”

“I’m committed to not leading,” Yancey joked. But her patience soon ran out. We Are the Ones may have planned to turn the rally into a march (they declined to comment for this story), but they wouldn’t get the chance: Yancey and her BLM crew sliced through the crowd to the far side of the rally—the side closest to the tree. Yancey brought the megaphone to her mouth.

WHAT DO WE WANT? JUSTICE! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!

WHAT DO WE WANT? JUSTICE! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!

She started up the sidewalk.

And the crowd—the crowd turned. The crowd followed her. The whole mass of people shivering in the cold and dark unspooled, and became a movement. Yancey walked fast, and her friends entreated her to slow down, not to lose the crowd. She stepped off the pavement and so did they. She’d stolen the protest. A thousand people in her wake were now walking up Tremont Street, following Yancey toward the unlit tree, chanting.

***

At 13, Yancey told her family she was gay. In retaliation, they told her the secrets they’d kept from her: that her mother had been a sex worker; that she, Daunasia, had been born addicted to heroin; that she’d tested positive for HIV as an infant until her mother’s antibodies faded from her blood. She was lucky to be alive, they told her; how could she turn her back on God now? “My aunt had all these discussions with me about how grateful I should be to Jesus,” Yancey recalls.

After that, Yancey’s home life became ­increasingly hostile—especially after she was sexually assaulted by a friend of the family. Later, she heard the DA declined to press charges. Yancey didn’t feel grateful—she felt angry and abandoned, as if water were rising to drown her.

Yancey found salvation in activism. In eighth grade, she fought the school’s administration to establish a gay-straight alliance—her principal thought 13-year-olds were too young to have gay pride. She volunteered at Boston Gay and Lesbian Adolescent Social Services, then at BAGLY. Activism was a form of self-care, she says. Every time she reassured a gay kid that he or she was important, she was taking a stand for herself. “All of the ways in which society or my family or newspapers or magazines or whatever tell me that I am not worth being alive, or not worth feeling good, or not worth taking care of myself, or being taken care of, being loved—in acting against that, I am telling myself that those things are untrue,” she says.

At BAGLY, Yancey blossomed as a leader. She coordinated volunteers, gave presentations, led meetings, spoke on panels. At 17, she sat on BAGLY’s board of directors, and became the supervisor of the organization’s health education team and cochair of its youth leadership committee. BAGLY offered her real power—an antidote to her frustration.

Yet she was one of only a few people of color at BAGLY. And after Yancey went through a nasty breakup with a white partner at 18, their mutual friends at BAGLY—all white—started a subtle campaign against her. Harassment escalated. Volunteers she supervised stopped complying with her directions. Others complained they didn’t feel “safe” around her. “I saw her targeted as a loudmouth, pushy, aggressive—all those things women are not allowed to be,” recalls Jessica Flaherty, BAGLY’s director of programs. “Too strong of a woman, too opinionated—all of those kinds of things. I understood it to be racist, sexist, and misogynistic.”

Eventually, Yancey broke down. “I had proven myself so many times,” she says. “It was like, ‘There is no more, I cannot do any better. I cannot do any more. You want me to no longer be alive. There is nothing I can do, other than die, that will please you.’” She checked herself into McLean Hospital for 13 days.

For Flaherty, the incident was “a defining moment in BAGLY’s organizational history,” she says. “We let people know we were standing by [Yancey].” Five volunteers got the message, she says, and left the organization.

Yancey returned to BAGLY, but she was shaken. “I was tearing myself apart,” she says. “What they wanted me to be was not black, not a woman, not smart, not in a leadership position. Not doing any of the things that keep me alive.”

***

Yancey led the protesters up Tremont Street, then took a hard left onto the ­Common. Chanting, they swarmed past Park Street ­Station, up and over benches, heading straight for the tree-lighting ceremony. The police flanked them, but the metal fences set up in concentric circles around the tree were the real barriers. The light from news crew cameras caught the flower in Yancey’s hair. A reporter approached to ask a question. “Now is not the time,” Yancey said.

The marchers enveloped the tree-lighting revelers. A thousand voices chanted: BLACK LIVES MATTER. BLACK LIVES MATTER. They sang: BACK UP, BACK UP, WE WANT FREEDOM, FREEDOM.

People there for the holiday event turned to look—curious or disgusted or thrilled. But mostly, they were indifferent. It was clear that the tree lighting would continue; nothing would be disrupted, nothing would be shut down. The protesters kept chanting. The loudspeakers started playing holiday music, drowning them out.

Then a white protester hoisted himself up on the base of a lamppost and shouted, “Let’s take the State House!” and the march started moving again—a continent of bodies and signs drifting uphill toward the marble steps and the golden dome.

Yancey stood still as the crowd moved around her.

***

In the days following Michael Brown’s death on August 9, 2014, Yancey stayed up every night, watching the protests on Twitter. The images made her weep. Community and local activists in Ferguson were blasted by sound cannons, gas cannisters, and wooden bullets, menaced by armored vehicles, rifles, and dogs. It was a form of police intimidation not seen in America’s streets since the 1960s.

The emerging Ferguson movement comprised local community activists, as well as ordinary citizens who’d never protested before. Now, seasoned activists from around the country were flocking to Ferguson, bringing their knowledge and their numbers. Among those were people who’d signed on with Black Lives Matter—a young network formed by three queer black women in the days after Trayvon Martin’s death.

Trained by LGBT elders, BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors says she and her collaborators came with “a different set of politics.” Cullors sees “clear connections” between Ferguson and the early gay movement: “I think that’s a key piece in this conversation. There’s a level of being unapologetic of how we are in the world, as black queer people in particular…If we don’t stand clear and unashamed, and don’t make demands of the system and we don’t shut it down, we’re not going to change what keeps killing us.”

The involvement of BLM was significant. Where the old civil rights movement had disowned gay organizers like Bayard Rustin, the planner of the March on Washington, now the movement born in Ferguson would count queer people among its most visible assets.

“I don’t want to be a part of a group, a ­moment, that’s only symbolic for black men,” says Tef Poe, a.k.a. Kareem Jackson, a rapper who became one of the movement’s leaders in Ferguson. “I don’t want to be a part of a moment that’s only symbolic for heterosexual black men. I don’t want to be a part of a ­moment that’s only symbolic for black people. I want to be a part of a moment that’s symbolic for oppressed people, period.”

BLM put out the word online that they were organizing rides to Ferguson. Yancey recognized one of the contact names: Darnell Moore. She had recently spent a weekend at Moore’s place in New York. Surrounded by brilliant black people, authors, dancers, most of them queer, that weekend had been like heaven. “And they just loved on me,” she says. “It was so beautiful.” She still had Moore’s number in her phone.

That was how she wound up in Ferguson, only 21 days after Michael Brown’s death.

In Ferguson, Yancey and her group ­attended an NAACP protest in a park where speaker after speaker preached to the choir in the language of the old civil rights movement. At the same time, young local activists pleaded from the sidelines for them to go straight to the heart of the matter—the Ferguson police department. “The park didn’t kill Mike Brown!” one BLM member shouted. “The police killed Mike Brown! We need to be at the police station!”

After a discussion, Yancey and her group chose to follow the young locals to the ­police station. They passed little kids kneeling silently on the sidewalk with their hands up, protesting. A woman with a megaphone taught them chants and urged them to face off against the police officers standing in a line in the street. “Let ’em know!” she shouted. Yancey had been to protests before—permitted LGBT marches in DC and elsewhere. But this was raw and different. “Nothing looked like what Ferguson looked like,” she said.

As soon as she got back to Boston, she got to work. Cullors was impressed with Yancey’s drive: “She didn’t just go on the ride, she made it real clear she was going back home to organize her community.” She helped lead the Newbury Street march in October, with a few hundred protesters in attendance.

A second march in November—starting in Dudley Square—drew at least 1,500 demonstrators. They marched to the South Bay House of Correction, where inmates stood at the windows and spelled out “MIKE BROWN” in tape.

Yancey was facing down a line of cops when her friend Chantel Aaron found her. “Hey,” she said. “Your grandma and your aunt are here. They’re marching.”

***

Now a month later, the crowd of Boston protesters and Yancey had come to a stop at the foot of the shallow steps leading to the State House gate, where police formed a line. Yancey thought, If we’re going to do this, might as well go as far as possible. She and Joyner cut their way to the front and mounted the steps to stand in front of the gate. Joyner was yelling, unleashing her anger and her extensive, salty vocabulary. Yancey had her hand on her friend’s back, supporting her in her rage.

Suddenly the gate opened. A uniformed arm reached out. It grabbed Joyner. It pulled her inside. She was gone.

No, Yancey thought. That’s my friend.

She threw her body against the gate and the police on the other side. “PUSH!” she screamed at the crowd at her back, and the crowd obeyed, swarming up the steps. The pressure of a thousand bodies leaned in on the gate. The police shoved back against it. Voices were yelling and the gate yielded. Yancey saw an opening, and dove for the cops’ knees, trying to squirm through them like a little kid, and then she was on the ground. Her glasses fell off, and the crowd pushed behind her, and a police boot collided with her side. Now she was crawling, like a soldier, on her stomach, to where Joyner was prone—face-down, 110 pounds, with a handful of officers holding her down—screaming in a high-pitched voice that terrified Yancey, “Get off me! Get off me!”

Yancey reached her friend and put a hand on her body. “I’m here,” she said. “You’re okay.” She and Joyner lay there together. And they breathed.

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PHOTO: Shawn G. Henry