The Covenant of Mutual Self-Determination

“We believe that Black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.” — Point 1, 10 Point Program of the Black Panther Party

“Feminism is…a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.” — bell hooks, Feminism is For Everybody.

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The pen wouldn’t budge. I looked up — it was tied directly by a string to another pen , which was being used by someone else across the large wooden table. 

I glanced at them. African descent, brightly colored clothing with an African print, long braids, writing with purpose. Me: european descent, dressed plainly, somber and pensive. I smiled and released my pen as soon as I understood the very literal connection we were sharing, and they smiled back.

We were sitting at a participation table during the opening of the Brooklyn Museum’s Queer retrospective: Nobody Promised You Tomorrow. The activity was to write small notes and hang them on the board for others to see — names of loved ones, messages of hope and gratitude, connection. 

The whole event had, for me, the feeling of a memorial. As we watched Tourmaline’s incredible “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” project across the wall, the friend I came with started tearing up. On screen, the police brutalized Marsha and her friends, forcing them to channel their joy and creativity into protest and violence. My friend looked up and said, wiping her eyes, “these are our people.” Literally, as many of the actors were our friends — but also figuratively. This film is a snapshot of the complex beauty and tragedy of the lives of so many of our loved ones. 

As I sat waiting at the activity table, I thought about how in a just world each person would have the right and ability to self-determine their own life. If we could go back and remove the burdens of violence, social rejection, police profiling, hunger and homelessness from Marsha’s life, if we could replace those things with unconditional love and acceptance, with food, shelter, good healthcare, safety, and the resources needed to be herself…what would have come of it?

In the United States, these supports — food, shelter, safety, and financial resources — are disproportionately available to white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled people. The ability to thrive in the U.S., or as Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes it, the distribution of life chances, is heavily skewed toward those who fit that mold. Disproportionate poverty, instability, criminalization and death are predictable outcomes for all others.

This is colonial architecture. We live in a rotting structure built 400 years ago to shelter european settlers. Its foundation is on land stolen from Indigenous people, and the labor that produced its wealth was done by enslaved Africans. Its future was ensured by long-term government-sanctioned efforts to prevent African-americans, Indigenous people, immigrants and other marginalized groups from exercising sovereignty and political power. It is continually made stronger through the suppression of women, as well as the marginalization of people with disabilities and queer and gender non-conforming people. It thrives only through the domination and exploitation of others.

I believe that self-determination is the natural enemy of oppression. I didn’t invent that idea — it comes from the organizing traditions of Black Liberation, Women’s Liberation, Gay and Trans Liberation, the American Indian Movement, Labor organizing, Mental Patients Liberation Movement, and social movements from across the world. The Black Panthers said it in their Ten Point Program. Marx and Engles said it in their Manifesto. Reproductive advocates say it when they speak of freedom of choice. Transgender people I represented as an attorney said it to me every day when they decided on what name they would go by, what clothes they would wear, and how they would use their bodies. Self-determination is even enshrined by the United Nations as a fundamental human right.

However, the idea of “self-determination” in U.S. society carries a lot of baggage. It is commonly associated with the “myth of meritocracy,” or the belief that if one individual works hard enough, by one’s own efforts they can overcome any barriers or setbacks. This is often used to justify grossly uneven distributions of wealth. Along those same lines, self-determination can be used to justify systems like free-market capitalism, which prioritizes competition as the means to fairness. In this system, exploitation of others is totally permissible when it leads to better profit margins. As the organization Liberation In A Generation says, “racism is profitable.” The United States has been a 400-year experiment in this methodology, and the result is the present day status-quo.

This version of self-determination ignores the deep interconnection of all human beings. If you’re watching The Good Place, like I was, you may be familiar with the ethical question poised by T.M. Scanlon, “what do we owe each other?” I would argue, everything. Without our communities, our ancestors, the world that has come before, all the resources that have taught us and fed us and sheltered us and held us up and built up whatever forms of wealth we do have, we would not be who we are and where we are in the present moment. In our current american society, our success and our freedom are often measured by our ability to dominate others and control resources for our own purposes. But in a different system, gratitude for what we are given must play a role. Care for those around us plays a role. As we exert control over our lives, we do it in such a way that honors our communities, honors our ancestors, honors the Earth. 

While reflecting on this topic, I learned about something called “Self-Determination Theory.” I’m going to borrow from it, repurpose it and queer it up a little to say that human beings need three things: a sense of control over their own lives, a sense of being good at things and valued, and a sense of being connected to and part of a community. That sounds a lot like self determination, mutual respect, and mutual obligation. 

The westernized idea of “self-determination” is transformed when it is infused with a sense of mutual respect and obligation.  Environmental science professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass: “Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity. Each person, human or no, is bound to every other in a reciprocal relationship. Just as all beings have a duty to me, I have a duty to them. If an animal gives its life to feed me, I am in turn bound to support its life. If I receive a stream’s gift of pure water, then I am responsible for returning a gift in kind. An integral part of a human’s education is to know those duties and how to perform them.” 

This includes accountability for past harms. Those of us who are descended from european settlers and have profited generationally from colonization and institutional racism, for example, must think about our obligation to those who have been harmed in our making. Everything we take, everything we extract, is a cost paid by another, and by the Earth. Today, conversations about exposing the truths and making reparations for slavery, and about the responsibilities of descendants of colonizers give us new opportunities to organize and redistribute wealth. Only when we acknowledge and address harm can we truly talk about mutuality.  

A covenant is an agreement. In a Biblical sense, it is an agreement made between the Creator and the people. In a legal sense, it is sometimes used to describe agreements made between people in a community. In the past, such legal covenants have been used to enforce negative values — such as exclusion and bigotry. 

I propose a different kind of covenant: an agreement to prioritize equally the values of self-determination and mutual respect. An agreement to build a world where the self-development of all people is held in mutual priority by the members of its society. When we commit to lifting up our neighbors as we lift ourselves, we must be accountable to one another. We must reckon with history, we must remedy exploitation, we must address disparities. We must respect Indigenous, personal and community sovereignty. We must ask each individual what is needed for their own self-determination, as we ask, not take, what is needed to realize our own. 

One thing I always admired about Marsha P. Johnson, as well as many of her contemporary activists like Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Storme DeLarverie, and elders I have come to know like Tanya Walker and Jay Toole, was how they demanded respect and practiced self-determination as gender non-conforming people, while never forgetting those who were left behind. From S.T.A.R. House, where Marsha and Sylvia hustled to provide food and shelter for homeless youth in the early 70’s, to Miss Major’s work to support justice-involved transgender and gender-variant people in San Francisco and Oakland, to Jay Toole’s Shelter project, where she drove shelter to shelter to hold support groups for homeless LGBTQ people, to Lorena Borjas, who embodied mutual aid itself by personally providing transgender people with the emotional support, food, shelter, metrocards, documents, translations, lawyers, health providers, and other means necessary to self-determine their gender and their lives. There are countless models of mutual support and self-determination within our communities and beyond.  

That evening at the Brooklyn Museum, I waited as the person across from me finished writing. As they placed down their pen, I gently pulled back on the cord and wrote my one-line message of hope:

“a covenant of mutual self-determination.”


NOTE: In the time of the coronavirus COVID-19, which entails state-enforced social isolation and engenders fear and anxiety between us, many of our community leaders are exploring what these changes mean for our futures.  Lorena Borjas created a mutual fund to support trans women during the coronavirus pandemic, only days before she lost her own life to the virus. Where have our practices failed us, including even such fundamental concepts as capitalism itself? And what priorities, practices or values will help us build a more resilient and just world? To start, please consider this article by Cara Page and Eesha Pandit. And this one from National Innovation Services. A brilliant committee of trans people of color has even provided a blueprint to guide us. 

This piece was also cross-posted on

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