By Ashley Altadonna
Photo credit: T Katz Photos
Cameron Overton wears a lot of different hats. Not only is this young, Black, queer, trans man a social worker focused on substance abuse and trauma services, he is also the worship pastor for Milwaukee’s Zao MKE Church. Originally from the Minneapolis area, Overton says made his way to Milwaukee to do, in his words, “Jesus-y work.”
Q: How did you get involved with Zao MKE Church?
A: Zao was created from scratch. My spouse Jonah, Zao’s lead pastor, came to Milwaukee from Chicago knowing almost no one and started a community that has grown and grown and grown. I was doing ministry at another church in Milwaukee. Not all the people were affirming throughout my time there. They were tricky waters to navigate. Eventually, there was a split in the church. Most of the people who left weren’t affirming, but a huge chunk of the queer community left as well. It’s hard when churches don’t take a firm stance, because when you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.
I was ready to radically step out into who I was without any barriers, questions, or doubts and Zao allowed me to do that. The first event I went to at Zao I remember being asked to write my name and pronouns. It was the first time I ever wrote “he/him/his” and there were no questions about that. I was me. I couldn’t go back to a space that wasn’t like that ever again.
Q: How are you doing with everything going on?
A: I am exhausted! As a Black person, I think about racial inequality every day. Recently, it feels as though it’s every moment. It’s like, “What the next hashtag I’m gonna hear today?” or “What’s the latest thing my racist cousin said?” And so I’m exhausted. I really care about doing those things that will bring systematic change. There’s an African American civil rights song called, “Ella’s Song: We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest,” which is how I feel. But at the same time that’s really toxic because I need to rest to be able to do all the work that I want to do. It feels like you’re never doing enough, you know?
Q: Have the recent protests felt different to you?
A: I do think there is something different in this moment, and I’m not sure why. For some reason, people are differently outraged than they have been before. That speaks to the beautiful radical organizing that has been happening for 400 years. We’re also at a point where media is so important. The more that we’re out here, the more people are seeing, the more they can’t actually ignore it, even though they try.
George Floyd is not the first, and George Floyd will not be the last. Every day this stuff happens. Four years ago here in Milwaukee when we had Sylville Smith gunned down by police, and right before that, we had Dontre Hamilton. It felt then like that could have been this moment, but then it all got calmed. I don’t know what it is about this moment, but it’s here and we need to take it for what it is and run with it because I think some real change is already happening. Minneapolis Common Council voted to abolish the police. Others and I have been talking about abolition work – abolishing the police, abolishing prisons - for a long time, and we’re starting to see some of that, which is something I never thought I’d see.
Q: How has your work at Zao shaped the way you see this moment?
A: At Zao, the three core-values we say every Sunday is that we are Jesus-rooted, justice-centered, and radically inclusive. What that means for me personally as a Christian is that I follow a Jesus who was a brown-skinned, peasant radical, who came to gather the outcasts. Jesus gathered all the people who were marginalized and cast aside. Where we get into the justice piece is that Jesus spoke to the powers that be and said, “My way is a new way.”
So, in this moment we center Black Lives. We center LGBTQ folks. We center women. Those are the things I think Jesus would have stood for because he was such a justice radical. That’s why at Zao, we are radically inclusive. The thing I would hope folks hear about Zao is that you don’t have to leave anything at the door. You are fully welcomed and affirmed here. We want to know who you are and affirm that God loves that exact piece of you.
Q: How do you think your trans and queer identity is coloring this moment for you as well?
A: It’s always hard to be a person of intersections. It is hard to be queer and trans anywhere. It’s also hard to be Black anywhere. When you put those two things together it’s just difficult. As we’re doing this really important movement work for Black Lives, there’s a lot of queer-phobia and transphobia that ends up coming out in the Black community. I personally believe so much of that is rooted in white supremacy that has soaked into the culture. If we look back to Africa, queer and trans people were all over the place. I think that it’s something the Black community absolutely needs to continue to have conversations about, and how we are better together.
When we’re yelling, “Black lives matter!” some people don’t actually mean all Black lives matter. We’re seeing this here in Milwaukee with some of the discussions between different groups of organizers. We’re seeing this on a national scale as well. So many cities having the same conversation we’re having here in Milwaukee. When you say, “Black lives matter,” that includes trans and queer Black lives. Part of my role is to continue to yell that all Black lives matter – the queer ones, the trans ones, all of them. It’s difficult to navigate sometimes because you don’t want to detract from the message, but at the same time, this is liberation.
We can’t all be free until we’re all free. That’s the liberation that we’re working towards, and I think we all have room to grow in that. I know I have room to grow and figure out who is being harmed, and how my ways are contributing to that. I hope that’s really the discussion that can continue.
Q: Do you feel like your transition changed the way you feel about your Blackness?
A: It hasn’t changed the way I feel about my Blackness because I’m always Black, but it absolutely changed the way my Blackness plays out. Pre-transition I was perceived as a Black woman, whom I think are the most overlooked people in society. I was cultured to not take up space or be too loud, otherwise, you’re being the “angry Black woman.” Post-transition, I’m fully myself and say things like, “Listen to Black women!”, but then I wonder, “Where are the voices of Black trans men, who were cultured to be quiet and now don’t have a voice?” It’s something I find intriguing and something that the trans community should really have a discussion about.
Q: Did you have concerns about being seen as a Black man versus being seen as a Black woman?
A: It was odd to go from being seen as a Black woman where I was sometimes overly sexualized, which led me to dress or act in certain ways, to now being seen correctly as a Black man where I am feared in a way I was not necessarily feared before. Because I’m kind, one of the things I often do is open doors for people. This one time I was in a parking garage with a white woman, and I opened the door for her, and she would not go through it. I recognized how fearful she was and so I quickly went right to my car. That was something I didn’t experience before transitioning. I went from being one of the most overlooked persons to the most feared. Those are some of the things I think Black trans men can speak to.
Q: What are some things that trans people could be doing to support Black people, and vice versa?
A: I think there needs to be a movement of centering those who are being harmed within our own community. That’s the work I think all of us in the trans community need to do. We need to not center whiteness and figure out how to uproot the anti-Black racism we all suffer from. That includes myself as well because of all the systems that have told me I’m not worthy. It’s going back and asking, who were the people who were really pushing for trans liberation? They were women of color. So, finding who we are and pushing towards things that are going to bring us liberation.
On the flipside for the Black community, we need to similarly root out that white supremacy that has told us that we’re not good enough so that we can actually see that when trans people are being harmed, that means Black trans people are being harmed. It’s something that happens within the Black community. We saw a Black trans woman (Iyanna Dior) being beaten up by a group of Black men because of transphobia. Those are the things we need to say. “What got us here? Let’s get rid of that so that we can all be free together.”
This goes for any community that doesn’t believe trans people exist - we exist. We’re here. We’re in your families, your churches, and your grocery stores. We’re in your bathrooms! The sooner we can accept that and think about why that makes some of us uncomfortable, the sooner we’ll be able to be better together.
Q: What impact do you think abolition or defunding of police would have for the Black and trans communities?
A: I believe we are at a complete power imbalance when it comes to American policing. Policing in America looks nothing like any other policing system around the globe. It was founded in slave catching. When anything is founded in slavery or racism, we have to scrap it and do something different. It’s like a wound. If we don’t cut it open, pull out the infection and let it heal, any sort of reform we do is just putting a band-aid on top of the infection. This is why I think we need to abolish not only the police but the jails and the prisons as well.
I don't know how many folks have watched the documentary 13th, but it shows how slavery has changed and looked differently throughout our history. We went from being slaves to the Jim Crow era, where we didn't have specific rights. Since they couldn't enslave us, they tried tripping us up on different laws, putting us in jail and making us work on the plantation anyways. That's what's happening now where families are still being torn apart, and Black men are working for these big corporations who get to invest in private and public prisons while getting their labor completed for ten cents an hour. That's slavery, and we need to abolish that system.
So, for trans folks not only is that system slavery, but there is also a specific type of violence that happens to trans folks by the police. For a black trans man like Tony McDade, if the police hadn't just murdered him, he would be brought into a system that is slavery as a Black person, and because of transphobia and queerphobia, he would be in an institution that is also unsafe for his wellbeing. So, we absolutely need to defund the police and put that money into education and services that could actually deescalate things, but we need to go further and get rid of these systems that have been oppressing people.
Q: What have been the inspiring moments you have seen in this movement?
A: I have been blown away by so many people coming together to have these discussions. Zao has opened up our building to be a depot to distribute medical supplies, food, water, and anything that people need to be able to continue doing the work of justice. Every day volunteers are coming in and saying, "I want to be a part of this!" People are donating and stepping up to help. It's really cool to see all the organizations that are coming together, saying we're going to do something different now.
And this is happening globally! I think what that says is that anti-Black racism in the United States affects the whole world, and right now the whole world is standing in solidarity asking the United States to get its crap together. It's a huge inspiration that people across the globe are saying it is time to do something different. It's also been amazing to see so many individuals starting to say Black lives matter. Something is stirring in our ethos that is beautiful, and I hope it doesn't ever get tamped down.