n cramped college apartments sitting knee-to-knee; in fruit juice stained on picnic blankets; in aluminum foil wrapped dishes and shared sloppy seconds, there exists a queer potential wanting to be realized within the setting of potlucks.

Queer food culture has always existed in history yet simultaneously has never been explicitly defined. There is no distinct food identity inherent within queerness in the way that you categorize a bowl of ramen to be Japanese or the way that you know Cuban food is distinct from Vietnamese. Queerness is not defined by what is on the table, but rather who is at the table. It relies on the motions and sayings embedded with tenderness. For each dish, someone sifted through pyramids of fruit for the ripest mango or the reddest tomato, and in a kitchen somewhere, the aroma of spices burns through the air. Plates fill, exchange, pass by, repeat. There is always that cheap bottle of wine or the chips-and-dip platter, but even that simplicity took effort, time, and care.

Potlucks operate through the sharing of resources, time, and community. These intimate moments of queer relationality hint at what a future could look like: a future founded on the values of collectivity. In these practices rooted in collaboration and self-sustenance, there is an underlying principle within queer potlucks that subverts patterns of state-dependent systems of resource allocation. They lend ways to reshape the gendered norms intrinsically tied with labor and food provision. The collaborative ecosystem of potlucks represents a system of self-sustenance, moving away from reliance on external agencies such as state and industry and rather moving towards a world in which queer food can be a placemaking practice that establishes the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, I explore the idea of potluck-style community meals as a site where we can begin to envision, understand, and create a queer food identity that has the potential to shape what futures of placemaking, pleasure, and resilience look like.    

The History of the Potluck

The practice of potlucks picked up traction throughout the Great Depression of the early 1900’s. Framed by socioeconomic hardship and lack of economic opportunity, potlucks were a cheap and easy way for families, religious gatherings, and other groups to depend on as a way to share resources to meet their collective needs.

Queerness began to transform the practice of potlucking in the mid-1900s as lesbians began to adopt it as a tradition of their own. As queer people left their Midwestern towns or European war zones and migrated to cities across the nation in order to find each other, gay and lesbian establishments emerged within the social scene. However, queer bars were often targeted by police and were dominated by gay men thus leaving a gap to be filled for non-men within the LGBTQ+ community [2]. Queer women — subject to not only homophobia but also sexism, sexual harassment and violence, and lower pay wages — needed to turn to alternative forms of community building amongst each other: potlucks.

The Daughters of Bilitis, one of the first known U.S.-based lesbian organizations to be established in the twentieth century, started Gab ‘n Java [3]: lesbians coming together and sharing conversations over coffee and cake. As queer communities grew more complex, so did the dinner table, expanding beyond coffee and cake to include lentil stews and tofu bakes. These dishes later became stereotyped within lesbian food culture, developing into a signifier of radical queer femme politics. Plant-based lifestyles that were more affordable than meat-based diets went hand-in-hand with the socioeconomic hardship rampant within the queer community. Thus, queer food culture not only developed out of affordability and class, but also through a everyday political practice that reevaluated social power and violence through the production and sharing of food.

Another documented instance of the queer potluck existed for gay men who lived in the surburban-rural margins of Massachusetts in the 90’s. The emergence of this social form cultivated a lifestyle that existed outside of urban cityscapes and centered within the home that still successfully eradicated the need for closeted anonymity amongst one another. The historical emergence of queer potlucks embodied a shift in contextual necessity: while Depression era potlucks emerged in response to economic hardship, queer potlucks emerged in response to both economic inequity and homophobic and patriarchal violence.

Potlucks serve as a space for sharing modes of survival and building relationships. They sustain the essential economic backbone of the individual against capitalism but also prioritize the survival of an identity for a community that seeks acceptance in some way (if not within the wider society, then at least amongst each other). They also offer a space for practicing the fundamentals of what Audre Lorde writes as the erotic [4]: a profound resource of knowledge and pleasure that provides power in the sharing of joy, in the sharing of a deep pursuit, and in the building of bridges between people.

A Place and Time

Placemaking as defined by the Project for Public Spaces is the “collective reimagining and reinvention of public spaces as the heart of every community.”[6] If we begin to view potlucks as a placemaking practice, the simple act of creating and sharing a meal together broadens its potential beyond public spaces and reimagines the act as a form of intimacy.

The frameworks of queer space and time [1] reshape the built environments that typically construct normative ways of living: the nuclear family, cisgenderness, longevity in life, 9-5 schedules, and other ideologies and institutions that limit the queer futures many of us imagine. Acting in collectivity rather than competition produces new structures of social gathering and togetherness rather than perpetuating binary social formations that are embedded within the built environments we live in, move through, and interact with: the home, the kitchen, the workplace, the public-private binary, etc.

Marxist-feminist understandings of social reproduction theory link the reproduction of labor power intrinsically with the production of economic goods. It provides a framework for understanding the social formations that essentially shape how labor upholds capitalist economies. The implications of reproductive labor manifest in these gendered understandings of space: the delegation of women’s work to the private sphere (household chores, the kitchen) and the delegation of men’s work to the public (landscape work, the dominant male presence in the architecture profession).

Regarding spheres of  labor, who gets to do what and why maintains the gender binary within society and it also justifies male domination in the way that men’s labor is often seen as more valuable. The public-private binary thus also justifies the norm that a women’s role belongs to the private sphere in service to the processes of intimate food production, from preparation to the table setting. This presents a stark difference from the labor division of potlucks in which each individual, regardless of their identity, equally contributes to the potluck. This ultimately disrupts the function of  gender as well as public-private binaries that so often define the labor behind food production.In this way, potlucks develop and alternative placemaking practice.

The social architecture of potlucks involves the malleability of location, the bodies that exist within its borders, and the hands that mold and mend the food. This marks a deep deviation from the typical sit-down and don’t-play-with-your-food family dinners that come to mind when we think of the normalized ways we share food and community.

Cisheteropatriarchal structures, places, and practices of food sharing often contribute to the harm that LGBTQ+ individuals face. These are the meals that alienate LGBTQ+ youth from their family’s dinner table. These are the dining halls and restaurants that turn away LGBTQ+ patrons. Shared meals within the family household are typically the quintessential form of family-bonding upholding the prioritization of the nuclear family model as superior to any other form of collectivity. Potlucks — as an alternative to the nuclear family dinner — consider social formations that allow us to rethink how bonds around family, food, and home can form  without relying on relations tied to biology and blood.

Through the potluck, we can view providing for one another as not simply a matter of just sharing resources but also showing a deep virtue of care.

It is imperative that we view the potluck as a site of knowledge production that erodes normative binaries and dominant cultures, models alternative ways of living that subvert state systems, and points the way to a queer utopia [5] founded on the principles of community. From here, we can build economies of care. We reach towards greater horizons that move us closer to one another: knee to knee, hand to hand, body to body in a kitchen somewhere sharing the warmth of food, nourishment, and home.

Lynn Huynh studies Women's & Gender Studies and Advertising/Design at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a student activist for gender equity and survivors, a 2019 Mellon Undergraduate Fellow, and a research intern at the Institute of Urban Policy Research & Analysis. Passionate about socio-spatial justice, human-centered design, and community organizing/activism, her academic studies, creative work, and professional aspirations are grounded in the ultimate goal to provide accessibility, empowerment and education to marginalized communities. Follow her on Instagram @lynnfromtx and on Twitter @lynnfromtx.

Works Cited

  1. Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. NYU Press, 2005. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/book/10698.
  2. Kim, Michelle. “How the Potluck Became an Essential Tool for Queer Community Building.” them. https://www.them.us/story/queer-potlucks. Accessed 28 November 2019.
  3. Lindenmeyer, Antje. “‘Lesbian Appetites’: Food, Sexuality and Community in Feminist Autobiography.” Sexualities, vol. 9, no. 4, Oct. 2006, pp. 469–485, doi:10.1177/1363460706068045.
  4. Lorde, Audre. Zami, A New Spelling Of My Name. Trumansburg, N.Y. : Crossing Press, 1983, c1982.
  5. Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. NYU Press, 2009. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qg4nr.
  6. “What Is Placemaking?” Project for Public Spaces, 2007, https://www.pps.org/article/what-is-placemaking. Accessed 28 November 2019.