Ashton P. Woods leads a life devoted to his communities, and he’s not going anywhere. From co-founding Black Lives Matter: Houston to his work in the LGBTQ community, Woods is nothing short of a powerhouse.
As we stood in the June sun against Houston’s brand new Pride Wall at Jenni’s Noodle House, a man turned to face the wall, shoes sporting the word ‘EQUALITY’, and raised a fist in the air. It was the penultimate portrait of solidarity, advocacy, and a life battling adversity. But more than that it was one Black life that matters – one that spends his life making sure everyone realizes that every Black life matters.
That man was Ashton P. Woods.
Woods is without a doubt the most unapologetic and outspoken activist in the City of Houston. His work has led to the founding of Black Lives Matter: Houston, the appointment of the city’s first LGBT advisory board, and so much more. His writing has put a magnifying glass over bypassed racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and transphobia. He has a knack for finding the truth, calling it out, and battling against the injustices of marginalized people. Reading his triumphant work, some might say that this is because Woods gives zero fucks. But in truth, quite the opposite is true.
Ashton P. Woods does give a fuck. Many of them. And it’s because of this care for his communities that he has dedicated his life to studying, advocating, and fighting for LGBTQ people, Black people, and people living with HIV/AIDS.
Leading off our Pride Edition, Ashton P. Woods talked to About Magazine about his work, the still-existent and sometimes internalized racism and homophobia in Houston (and beyond), as well as about himself.
You take on such a myriad of work in the Black and LGBTQ communities (and especially where those communities intersect). Was there a galvanizing moment in your life that put you on this path?
I helped to found one of the very first gay-straight alliances at a high school in my hometown of New Orleans, LA.
Can you tell us a bit about that experience and how it was received?
My experience was mixed in nature. The day that we came up with the idea to start the “Student Alliance for Equality”, or S.A.F.E, I had no idea that it would change my life in the way that it did. We later wrote a script and recorded a commercial to be played during morning announcements to introduce ourselves to the student body. The big moment came for a fellow founder to say his lines and he just froze! Before I could stop myself, I found myself taking his lines and it went something like this (paraphrasing):
“Hi, my name is Ashton Woods, and this is the Student Alliance for Equality. If you are gay, lesbian, or bisexual, come and join us at the S.A.F.E club; we are family.” Keep in mind that my actions, my words during this recording, facilitated my coming out to a student body of close to two thousand plus students. After all of this took place, it was well received for the most partl and on the flip side, there were teachers, students, and parents who came out against us. My locker had been broken into a couple of times and at home my relationship with [my] family deteriorated. I found myself homeless at 15-years-old after it was all said and done, but I kept fighting.
The Black Lives Matter movement is of the highest importance, but so many people are flippant to it. Having co-founded BLM: Houston, what are some of the greatest accomplishments of the movement and yourself here in the city?
To be honest, I and BLMHOU have been behind the successful passage of statewide bills such as the Sandra Bland Act, working to stop anti-Black, anti-POC, anti-LGBT, anti-Trans legislation, influencing electoral candidates for the benefit of the Black community and a host of other achievements.
Nationally, I have been a part of many actions, including, but not limited to, the disruption of then Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at Netroots Nation in 2015 and the subsequent adoption of a social justice platform by Democratic Presidential candidates. LOL [sic]. It would take a lot more paper to go into detail, but I have done a lot individually, through BLMHOU, and a few other orgs.
How do you respond to the ignorance and blatant racism opposes BLM?
I don’t anymore, as my work, our work, speaks for itself. It’s about teaching Black people that Black lives matter in a society that loves to empower whiteness in ways that have yet to be addressed. It’s about helping to provide access to fairness and [the] needs of my community which is plagued by everything from racist state-sanctioned police violence to institutional and government sanctioned racist policy and law. Access to information is a privilege and information teaches you who to be mad at when something affects you. Access to healthcare, education, and a good quality of life is what we stand for in this movement. We don’t have the time to fight the ideas in people’s heads; it’s about touching those who need help until we can’t help anymore.
As a writer, you are known for calling out truths about people and toxic situations around the city (and beyond). The importance of your writing is boundless, especially when it comes to tackling racism and anti-LGBTQ people. Do you ever feel concerned with how those people will respond or that they may act out against you?
I usually process the risks of what I may be writing about, and who will be affected around me. Truth and fairness are the biggest part of my personal code to do no harm. After being held at knife point while I was homeless kid, raped, called names, etc., I generally don’t fear those who may retaliate against me for exposing them. My communities and people that I ally with are important and I will do what others won’t do and say what others won’t say to put an end to toxic situations.
“Don’t come with all of that white guilt expecting cookies for showing up. It’s not about you! It is about you using your privilege to open doors or to put yourself between Black bodies to prevent harm coming our way. Be willing to live up to being an accomplice instead of an ally.”
You have also addressed the past issues within Pride Houston, Inc. in your blog, from Teresa Carpenter’s resignation to Frankie Quijano’s expulsion. Are you hopeful for the path that Pride Houston seems to be on now?
I am hopeful; and while I will never fully feel comfortable with it, some good steps have been taken. Pride is very whitewashed and exclusionary of Trans folks. To be specific, Trans people who look like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are left out and ignored. It became a white man’s gay Pride and not the type of Pride that honors both binary and non-binary folks of all races. With it’s current direction a few things need to happen:
- Stop inviting the police, as it triggers Black and Non-Black POC.
- Bring Trans people to the forefront. Without them, there would have been no Stonewall riot
- Address racism in the LGBT community.
- Be more open and transparent by changing how they select their grand marshals. Note that there have only been TWO Black grand marshals.
- ETC, LOL [sic].
A large deal of your work and writing is on the topic of being HIV/AIDS, which even still is a crisis in the community that isn’t being addressed properly. Can you share some of the work you have done/are doing to advocate and make effective change for people living with HIV?
I recently served as the criminal justice co-chair for Houston’s HIV 2020 plan, which serves to address how PLHIV (People Living with HIV) are treated and how HIV prevention is conducted in prisons. Much of my work is not local when it comes to HIV activism. I speak at events and I take part in planning events and even campaigns to reduce stigma and end HIV criminalization.
What would you say about the (very tired) stigma still associated with HIV? What can the community be doing to become better advocates for better healthcare in that arena?
First, I would say that there are many folks who carry a great deal of integrity in the HIV prevention and treatment field. However, there are those in Houston who work in that field and are only worried about a paycheck and meeting their quota. Organizations have begun moving towards a community-based platform which endangers the privacy and safety of LGBT folks who got care without that one straight person staring at Trans people in disgust or judging one for being gay.
One of the biggest issues for me is PrEP – they market it and talk about safe sex, but the sex positivity is absent. Making spaces where it is okay to talk about the fact that most of us like to fuck and play sexually and addressing the judgmental looks from outreach specialists when it takes place [sic]. The outreach in Black and Brown communities are seriously lacking and HIV among straight heterosexual people must be addressed, as well. Remember, HIV is not the gay man’s disease and it can affect anyone directly or indirectly.
I want to ask this next question in the hopes that if someone truly ignorant is reading this, it may help guide them in the right direction:
What can non-Black people be doing better to advocate for true equality for Black people and other people of color?
The first step is to listen to Black folks with lived experience, not your one Black friend, Carlton, who thinks like Ben Carson.
The second step is to stop calling yourself an ally. You don’t get to determine yourself to be an ally when you don’t or won’t ever know what it’s like to be Black. Just like with any other marginalized group, we decide who our allies are.
Third: don’t come with all of that white guilt expecting cookies for showing up. It’s not about you! It is about you using your privilege to open doors or to put yourself between Black bodies to prevent harm coming our way. Be willing to live up to being an accomplice instead of an ally.
Fourth: your feelings on race or any other issue of marginalization don’t matter when it is a discussion centering Black, Brown or other folks’ marginalization. When you are in spaces, listen. When you are asked to leave spaces, leave.
Finally, I charge white people to go beyond this point. Pay Black people. Pay them for their time and expense to come and talk to you. One minute spent on you is one minute less to do community work.
Read this blog post and don’t take it personal.
You’re working on your PhD, right? Can you tell us a little more about that?
I got an honorary doctorate from a local seminary and I am currently working on my Bachelor of Science in Sociology at the University of Houston Downtown and headed to law school after. To know the law is to protect oneself from oppression and false interpretation of said laws. Right now, I am fundraising for tuition and expenses for the upcoming fall and spring semesters. (Donate using this high highlighted link).
You recently made a very public statement about the blatant erasure of Black people from OutSmart Magazine’s Pride Edition. With all the queer people of color who have made amazing strides this year (and every year), isn’t it just a little tired that this is still a conversation we’re having to have with “Houston’s LGBT Magazine” (their words)? I mean, Houston is literally the most diverse city in the nation, and we’re still seeing a whitewashed cover.
In all honesty, the latest cover honoring Pride Month, as well as the content within, erases the contribution of Black and Brown people historically and presently. When I saw all of those white faces and ONE Black person plus ONE Brown person it was not a surprise.
NOT A SURPRISE AT ALL!
There are instances where we see Black folks peppered on select pages here and there in OutSmart’s publication, usually to the back in pictures of event from the previous month. The FACT is that there has never really been a true representation of Blackness within OutSmart Magazine (save for a couple of great writers and contributors). While I have been interviewed, wrote for and even seen friends featured in OutSmart, it seems that Black History Month is the most optimal time for one to see multiple Black folks featured. They are problematic because they run it just like any other publication that is run by white people. #OutSmartSoWhite
What would you tell a Young Ashton if you could give him an advice from the future?
Be more patient with yourself, always follow your gut, and you will always be the bad guy to someone, even if what you do is for the greater good.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future? Anything in particular you’d like us to be on the lookout for?
My lips are sealed, to be an activist is to be constantly monitored and sabotaged. I keep my cards close and I don’t make moves until its time. Love you, though.
How can Houstonians support your advocacies, get involved, volunteer, and donate?
The first thing that I would do if I were NON-Black is seek out SURJ training and go to events that address specific issues. As far as volunteers, we announce on an as-needed basis as BLMHOU is currently on a team format for safety and continuity.
Follow BLMHOU on Facebook for updates on future events and volunteer opportunities.