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.
daunasia yancey

Photograph by Shawn G. Henry

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.




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