At the Intersection

Black, queer and disabled, Buffy Jamison has learned self-love after years of struggle. Now the LGBTQ leader is helping others do the same.

Buffy Jamison of Des Moines is co-founder and co-chair of the Iowa Queer Communities of Color Coalition.

Writer: Rachel Vogel-Quinn
Photographer: Janae Gray

Buffy Jamison first thought about committing suicide at 8 years old. The thoughts came back again at 12, and then again at 19.

“It was just because of how overwhelmed I was all the time,” Jamison says, “because of how I was being treated.”

Born female in Des Moines, Jamison, 30, identifies as Black, disabled, pansexual and nonbinary. A co-founder and co-chair of the Iowa Queer Communities of Color Coalition (IQCCC), Jamison earned a master’s degree in higher education with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion from the University of Denver. Jamison, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” has a fierce passion for social justice and education, especially for students from marginalized communities.

“I want to go through the world trying to make things better,” Jamison says, “and do so by causing the least amount of harm that I possibly can.”

Jamison has autism, and started feeling isolated from peers in preschool. At the time, the youth would rock back and forth as a form of stimming, a set of repetitive movements that’s common in people with the disorder. In first grade, the verbal abuse started. It got worse through elementary and middle school.

“Education was always a double-edged sword for me,” Jamison says.

“Smart” was one of the only positive descriptors Jamison heard from teachers and classmates growing up. Academics became an escape from isolation. After graduating from Roosevelt High School, Jamison enrolled at DMACC, studying social justice.

That journey continued when Jamison transferred to Iowa State University and joined the NCORE-ISCORE Project, a yearlong developmental program centered on issues of race and ethnicity. There, Jamison first heard the term “intersectionality,” which describes the interactions of race, class and gender in the lives of individuals and groups.

“Oh, my gosh, this is it,” Jamison recalls thinking at the time. “This is the word that describes my entire life. This is everything that I have been missing up until now from my education.”

Now Jamison uses intersectionality as a lens to see the world.

“Buffy has always challenged me to think more critically about life and social justice than any other peers I have been in class with,” says Viki Eagle, a classmate from the University of Denver. Jamison is “super brilliant and [thinks] deeply about everything from all angles before speaking.”

Back in Iowa after graduate school, Jamison started noticing how queer people of color often felt left out—and even unsafe—in spaces meant for LGBTQ individuals. And in Black communities, they faced homophobia and discrimination.

During a conversation with friends at Smokey Row, the idea for IQCCC was born. The group organized a statewide survey and identified four main topics of concern for queer people of color: isolation, safety, health care and employment.

Although the pandemic slowed the group’s launch, IQCCC is focusing on awareness and direct service in 2021. In partnership with the Des Moines Pride Center, the organization plans to start a pantry to hand out safe-sex kits and other supplies.

“I’ve learned more and more about the sheer lack of resources that really exists out there for this demographic,” Jamison says.

Last October, Jamison was awarded the LGBTQIA Leadership Award from the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame. As recently as two years ago, they were terrified of public speaking. But during the acceptance speech, Jamison spoke confidently from the podium. It was a mark of how much they had grown since earlier days of anxiety.

“I’m most proud of being resilient enough to still be here,” Jamison says, “still thriving and still finding ways to laugh and to be happy in myself and my body.”

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