Darnell Moore, who was nearly burned alive by teenage boys, explains how patriarchy dehumanizes men

Darnell Moore, who was nearly burned alive by teenage boys, explains how patriarchy dehumanizes men
Image: ERIK Carter
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When Darnell Moore was 14 years old, three boys from his neighborhood, people he once thought of as friends, cornered him and doused him in gasoline. Then they lit a match, and tried to set him on fire because he’s gay. Wind blew out the match, and Moore escaped.

Today, Moore, age 42, is an award-winning writer and activist, and a leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement. He’s the author of No Ashes in the Fire, a memoir in which he traces his life from his childhood in Camden, New Jersey, to his search for intimacy in the gay neighborhoods of Philadelphia, and, finally, to social-justice movements in Newark, New Jersey, Brooklyn, New York, and Ferguson, Missouri, where he could fight for those who, like him, have survived on society’s edges.

Moore is the head of strategy and programs at Breakthrough US, a global human rights organization working to end violence against women and girls, and the host of a Mic video series, The Movement. New Jersey senator Cory Booker appointed Moore as chair of the inaugural LGBTQ Concerns Advisory Commission to the city of Newark.

For Quartz’s How We’ll Win project, examining the fight for gender equality, Moore spoke with us about how he talks to other men about feminism, the theory that guides his work on gender equality, and the importance of loving your softness.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I thought about workplace gender inequality as a kid. I didn’t use that language then or have a sense of the systemic nature of gender inequality, but I was confounded when I discovered my mom’s pay stub during my childhood.The amount of money she earned seemed to0 low a number for the amount of hours she worked as a stock person at a nearby department store. I was shocked and could not shake the confusion.

One of the most important lessons I’ve been reflecting on has been the very common ways that men—myself included—often miss the ways we are complicit in everyday forms of sexism, misogyny, and rape culture. It’s easy to call out and demean the “monsters.” It’s harder to name the ways we commit monstrous acts by way of our silences or the many ways we reinforce inequity. If I care about gender inequality, and the ways it impacted my mother, for example, I must then ensure I advocate and do what I can to ensure girls and women aren’t disenfranchised.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

I used to identify as a feminist, but now I’ll sooner identify as pro-feminist. I don’t stand outside of the arc of feminist critique. I want to be very clear about that. Black feminists, black lesbian feminists, in particular, have shaped my politics and ways of being.

3. What do you do on a day-to-day basis to advance gender equality?

In my vocational life, I am the head of strategy and programs, US, at Breakthrough US, an intersectional feminist organization that seeks to end gender-based violence impacting girls and women. But I try my best to practice what I preach every day, in every facet of my life. I am committed to a practice of self-reflection and correction. I am part of communities of accountability.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

We are our biggest threat. We hinder ourselves when we refuse to examine the extent to which we participate in our dehumanization. Patriarchy, for example, not only impacts girls and women and femmes, it makes boys and men less human because of the ways it predetermines who we are and how we ought to express ourselves in the world. It squeezes us into identities and ways of being that short circuit our potential to be free.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what’s your biggest inhibition to doing so?

I do. And I try not to use language that can distract us from the heart of the matter. It’s easy to talk to the choir, the people who get it, but it’s not so easy with people who are not part of circles that may not be up on the most current progressive, social justice, feminist lingo. With that in mind, I try to use stories. I am writer. Narrative can often do what theory attempts to do—change hearts by connecting with others at the level of the emotions. I also try my best to practice self-reflection; that is, I don’t preach to men as if I, too, am not also part of the collective problem.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

My biggest anxiety is the reality that there exists a category, a cage, that I am expected to interpret as a doorway. I am not trying to be a better man. I am trying to be a better human.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?

I don’t expect or deserve praise for the work I do in solidarity with girls and women and femmes. I should be doing this work. It’s the work of those who benefit from patriarchal power to undo such power. And that work should be attended to without want for praise.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

I’d repeat a quote by the black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you.” And that the work of ending the violence impacting girls and women is our work.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?

There are so many things, but I’d be better at acknowledging that workplace pay parity was real. I’d push back and ensure that my colleagues who were women received equitable pay.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

To be me. To love my softness. To love my difference. To love…and not be afraid of it. I’d say the same to others.