Kirsten Harris-Talley is an organizing phenom in Seattle, a one-time city council member, a queer Black woman, an abolitionist, a candidate for state representative, a Scorpio rising, an Aries moon, and a Gemini/Taurus cusp sun.
After leading in the primaries, Harris-Talley will be running in November to represent Washington’s 37th District, a Seattle district historically populated by Black and Indigenous peoples and people of color. She has worked within and alongside people-powered movements for twenty years — experience which underpins her political agenda. Her career in reproductive justice led to midwifery and doula access for pregnant people in prisons. She has offered a commitment to funding these services, in addition to expanding reproductive healthcare coverage for undocumented immigrants and trans people. As a grassroots activist, she has fought for paths towards abolition. Her campaign platform envisions an end to state investment in private detention centers and the elimination of bail and solitary confinement.
For this Q & A, I told Kirsten I was interested in queering notions of political leadership — what can a “serious” political figure talk about and value publicly? Here she discusses the importance of culturally queer touchstones in her life: astrology, ancestry, vulnerability, community, crushes and femme joy.
I named that some people might call this content “trivial,” that there are demands on Black and brown women to sterilize their femmehood and to perform a white-washed, “masculine” dispassion as “proof” that they are fit for leadership. To this, she said, “On the other side of liberation, we should all be able to be more joyous in our lives. That’s how we know that we get there.”
Anis Gisele: Pronouns?
Kirsten Harris-Talley: She/her!
A: “Queer” is a political identity and an active verb. bell hooks has called “queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent … a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
This question is a two parter: what has your queerness given you, and how do you feel like you’re queering our notions of leadership?
K: I don’t know that I have ever verbally proclaimed my queerness as much in my life as I have campaigning. Political campaigning is bizarre. It’s the hardest, longest, most complicated job interview, as well it should be. You’re asking folks to trust you. So for me, understanding my queerness, it’s an interesting exercise to be announcing it so often and have folks asking me to prove it in some way. It’s an interesting query. (Laughs) I didn’t mean to make a pun.
A: I appreciate it!
K: And because “queer” is such an all-inclusive umbrella term, some folks just wanna identify what I mean by it.
I think queerness has always been about reinventing for yourself that which will not invite and hold you dear. And almost every bit of beauty in the world that all of us embrace, queer minds and bodies and spirits built those things.
For me, my queerness, I’m attracted to folks all along a gender spectrum — that’s actually infinite. And I think we’re all coming back to that — and I say “back to that” because there isn’t an indigenous culture that didn’t understand what we’re relearning for ourselves.
It’s interesting in this moment to still have some folks say, “I don’t do politics,” and for most of them what they’re saying is, “I’m scared of conflict, I’m scared of what it is to be out of concert with things,” and the intersection of queerness with any other identity, you’re always, I’m always in conflict in some way with things, just having a critical lens at all.
A: Definitely. My queerness helps me live in what I’m afraid of. I wasn’t positive you identify as femme, but I’m hearing you do? (K nods)
May I ask about your root? Which is either your first queer crush or the first time you saw an external embodiment of your queerness?
K: I don’t think I had a full pulse on it but … Grace Jones.
A: (Author’s note: Loud smack here. Honestly can’t remember if I slapped myself or clapped.)
K: I was born in ’79, grew up in the 80’s, right, and cable was new. Our mother is white, our father is Black, and we were Black kids growing up in deep poverty in rural Missouri. One of our favorite shows was Pee-wee Herman’s Playhouse, and I remember Grace Jones on there with this fabulous hat and this dance and the way she, like, stood. I remember thinking, “This is a woman, but they’re handsome and okay with that,” and I remember being compelled by that and not understanding it totally but knowing I was very interested. (Laughs)
K: It was unlike anything I would’ve experienced in my everyday life too.
A: I feel like a root, often, is about seeing a woman — and in your case definitely a Black woman — who does not give a fuck about the male gaze.
K: She didn’t care about any gaze, right?
A: For sure. If your sun were a character from The L Word, who would that be?
K: Who was Pam Grier’s character?
A: KIT! Kit sun?
K: I’m very high energy as a cusp. My cusp is the cusp of energy. I can go go go go go. You got your earth and your air thing.
Being a Taurus Gemini, I’m like, “Thank you very — oh, squirrel!” And Kit had that energy.
A: She did. She really did. Do you feel your Scorpio rising?
K: Scorpio energy, I feel like, is culturally what it is to be a Black femme.
A: Say more?
K: Truth tellers. How much that is the role of Black femmes in our culture.
K: The hard thing about being a truth teller is when you can so clearly see the truth and name it and find there are some folks who either want to ignore it or actively try to undermine it. That’s what’s so startling about the blatant context of politics in the United States now. I say “blatant context” because nothing happening under the current president is new for our community. It’s just the blatancy of what’s happening that’s new for a lot of people. We talk about misinformation more than information now. It’s an interesting time for truth tellers.
Many of the things around Scorpio I had to learn how to be, and I learned it mostly through Black queer folks and Black femmes particularly. Being vulnerable emotionally is not easy for Black femmes. We’re not allowed to have that, and Scorpios can be very transparent about the emotional life. That’s something I’ve had to nurture over time and build safety for myself to do readily.
A: Does an Aries moon resonate with you, the fire, spontaneity?
K: It does. I’ve been involved with the local police abolition work since 2012, acutely with the consent decree and the Block the Bunker campaign. [Former] Mayor [Ed] Murray had a lot of power during the start of police contract negotiations. Community came together, and we shelved the most expensive police precinct that was going to be built in the history of North America. The strategy and sophistication of that campaign — it was constantly having folks be like, “Oh, I know what they’re [the cop-aganda’s] doing, I’m gonna do this now.” It was us being able to (snaps) flip on a dime and respond in that moment. That spontaneity is the only way forward because the folks crafting what we’re living in now are doing it very deliberately and we have to move quickly.
That campaign was asking the core questions that we should have had answers to as a community: “Why are we spending this money? Why are we spending it this way? Who’s responsible? Who’s accountable? How did this happen?” There weren’t answers that satisfied people, and we kept asking until finally he got a poll that said he wasn’t gonna win on it.
A: Okay, your childhood is a TV series. What would the first scene in the pilot episode be?
K: (Laughs) Oh, wow. My people are from the East coast. My mother is from Ohio. My father’s from Baltimore. So really plainspoken people, they speak their minds. Debate was welcomed and healthy. I jive with a lot of people who are overlapping talkers. I can also literally carry five conversations at once.
K: (Laughs) There would definitely have to be some scene at the dinner table and everyone’s there and five things are happening and a conversation starts and ends then gets picked up and there’s maybe a squabble and everyone makes up and laughs. Missouri is called the Show Me State. Folks are really plain about whatever they think.
But no food fights. That’s one thing culturally in my family — we find food fights very disrespectful on so many levels. I remember, in shows, that was a big thing in the 80’s — people would break out into food fights. I was always like, “That’s … (lowers voice) not right.”
A: (Laughs) Sneaker queer, stiletto queer or combat boot queer?
K: … Yes.
K: I have a lot of shoes. I have a lot of moods to invite footwear. I like all those moments, all of them.
A: That’s what the people want to know. Outfit that feels like second skin to you?
K: Right now I’ve been living in these great burgundy joggers with really deep pockets and usually a really cozy goldenrod or yellow shirt. I’ve been wearing a lot of my protest shirts, of course, lately, going to lots of marches.
A: Would you describe a protest shirt?
K: Yeah! Leona and Luis own The Station in Beacon Hill. She made these amazing shirts that say, “Stop Fucking Killng Us,” and I was like, “I need that shirt.” I think it’s pretty clear!
My other one, I really adore, it’s like, “NAH,” then it’s like, “Rosa Parks.” I love thinking, like, [the white bus driver] came up, and they were like, “Ma’am (laughs), you’re gonna have to move to the back of the bus,” and she’s just like, “NAH. I’m not, and also, we’ve already organized, and you don’t even know what’s happening tomorrow.”
A: Yes! Okay, Ijeoma Oluo says, “White supremacy requires a lack of imagination, that you don’t ask where else we can go.” Imagination exercise: When we abolish prisons, what would you propose we do with the land the prisons were on?
K: Give them right back to indigenous people and let them imagine with other folks of color what to build there instead. I mean, where else could you start but to do that, to literally free the land back to the people who were the original stewards of that land to start anew collectively with others?
A: Yes. You said in a Crosscut interview, “I don’t think you can be in a position where you’re representing the people and not actually be with the people.” How did you learn to share power?
K: Oh, that’s a beautiful question. I really learned it from my mom and the elders in my life. Growing up where I grew up, in a rural community, we have close proximity to elders, and I really listened to their stories, and all their stories were about collectiveness, and where we lived was about collectiveness, like you can’t be in rural Missouri and have your cows get past the fence and not call every neighbor to come help you get them back. My godmother — Hazel Mae Free was her name — we spent our summers on our farm where she and Mr. Free, our godfather, taught me so much about that. They were stewards of their land, and it was a huge dream of theirs to own their own land and farm their own land. She grew up as the daughter of sharecroppers and had to quit school to pick crops as a child. We grew up poor poor poor poor poor. Everyone worked collectively to make sure everyone had what they needed — it’s the only way. And it stuck. It stuck.
A: What everyday practices or everyday magic connects you to your ancestors?
K: I have always been a collector of beautiful objects, and I have a lot of objects from the elders who are no longer with me in my life. My grandma Mary lived in segregated Baltimore, and she raised her four boys under what I can’t even imagine — what it was to raise four Black boys in segregated Baltimore during the height of the civil rights movement, you know? Her birth stone was a garnet, so I have a lot of garnets around, things that remind me of her.
A: This has been really lovely, thank you, Kirsten. I’m wondering if we can end with a look forward. Who is a youth activist, artist or cultural worker you find exciting?
K: Wow. I really love Jerrell Rell Be Free‘s work. I love that every bit of activism right now has been integrated in the arts. Folks try to neutralize the impact of the arts and pretend that it’s something that’s saccharine and just about pleasure, and so much of the arts is actually about struggle and truth-telling and recording these stories that can’t be told in any other way. Jerrell’s someone who’s on the front end of this work at places like WA-BLOC and speaking truth that we can hear it in a way that we wouldn’t hear it before.
This entire interview was a delight. Thank you Anis!
She’s going to be my rep! I’m even more excited now! What a great interview. Thanks, Anis and Kirsten!
I really enjoyed reading this, especially the part about truth-telling. Thank you!
Going to second Carmen—this entire interview was a delight.Thank you! The question set up was fun and also highlighted how everything is connected to the personal and community.