Creativity To Resistance And Back Again: Making Safe Spaces for Black Queer and Trans Women
Every day, because of misogyny, racism, transphobia, and homophobia, queer and trans Black women feel the sting of rejection to the point that many of us have become numb to it. Instead of succumbing to an existence that takes up less space, we have become louder and prouder in our fight: not only for ourselves, but for other queer folks and people of color. One of the ways Black queer and trans women have responded is by expressing ourselves creatively. We have done this throughout history using mediums such as literature, art, music, poetry, fashion, and film to explore themes of social justice. Whether a safe space was formed inadvertently from this creative expression, or whether it was intentional, it is clear that these spaces are imperative to protecting our humanity.
Because many queer spaces are consistently occupied by white and cis people, being involved in these homogenized spaces is challenging, to say the least. To combat this discomfort, we are faced with two choices — either find “our people,” and stay in a circle of familiarity within the larger gathering, or mingle with the majority and feel the pressure of having to put on a facade or put up a protective wall. Both of these options, while they may be the safest under the circumstances, cultivate feelings of repression and inferiority.
Being gay does not in and of itself make someone privy to understanding the experiences of other marginalized groups. White members of the LGBTQ community who don’t understand this simply cannot empathize and often mistakenly attempt to compare all oppressions to each other. Black women, in particular, so often find ourselves having to defend who we are. But when it comes to the ignorance of another marginalized community, defending ourselves can be exhausting. Writer Ashleigh Shackelford expresses this sentiment best when she says “...it wasn’t worth educating these particular white queer folks because it was labor that came at the cost of my mental health.” Marginalization is multifaceted and complex, therefore white LGBTQ communities are rarely equipped to handle matters of race. We need unique spaces for those at multiple identity intersections because spaces that are not explicitly attentive to Black queer and trans women can be an assault on our emotional well-being.
This lack of attention can also be witnessed in Black cishet spaces. Sharing the background of being Black in a world controlled by white supremacy isn’t enough to foster a collective connection when discussions of race don’t simultaneously address gender, sexual orientation, and other intersections. With such limitations, Black queer and trans women’s identities are invalidated and we are forced to censor who we are. There is a common misconception in parts of the Black community that queerness must take a back seat in order for the “real” work to be done or, what’s worse, that queerness is not part of the fight at all. Couple that with misogynoir and there are many barriers that can prevent Black queer and trans women from fully integrating into Black spaces.
While no space can guarantee complete safety, more often than not, in any place that is not specifically created by and for Black queer and trans women, we are faced with the uncertainty of whether there will be a threat of violence against our physical bodies or to our emotional constitutions. Because of this, for many decades, Black queer and trans women have been establishing other avenues of expression, often as a form of resistance. Creative culture is one of those avenues. We have used our creative platforms to put ourselves on the front lines for LGBTQ rights, as well as Black resistance efforts. For instance, Marsha P. Johnson used the notoriety she had as a performance artist to bring awareness to and fight relentlessly for her community.
Black creative culture is not only a platform we can use to catalyze movements, it provides communities that feel accepting and affirming. It is in the artistic niche that being different is normal, celebrated, and held in high regard. Being aligned with artists of any format allows us the freedom to explore what being ourselves really means. These creative outlets foster a sense of belonging that inspire us to live more unapologetically.
People from all over the African diaspora have held onto what we could of our creative cultures, much of these gifts having grown out of adversity. Black queer and trans women artists were and are integral parts of this narrative. The community in Brooklyn is an excellent example of this. Here, there are several Black queer and trans women making artistic safe spaces as a form of resistance. For instance, having relocated from the west coast, Shannon Matesky of “Queer Abstract”, a monthly show featuring queer artists of color, calls herself a culture-keeper. She explains how she integrated her background in social justice and community-building into the party culture of New York City.
In an interview for the podcast, “Femme Collectively,” she says, “...I’m serving a people and I also am a part of a people… What space do I want to be in? ...I became a holder of space...because I was going into spaces that weren’t necessarily held for me or for my people…” In Matesky’s own created space, LGBTQ dancers, poets, performance artists, and singers showcase their art in the midst of others like themselves. Not only does this gathering celebrate their artistry, and is in and of itself political, the content of much of the artists’ material evidences social consciousness as well.
The popular collective Bklyn Boihood is arguably the innovator of the Black queer and trans community space in Brooklyn. It was created to uplift masculine-of-center QWOC and organizes events like “Joy. A Day Party in Brooklyn” and roundtable discussions and workshops focusing on positive Black masculinity. Bklyn Boihood partners with other QTPOC groups to arrange events that are open to the entire community. “We struggle to find space where we are wholly accepted. Can you think of places off hand that allow women and/or queer folks space to feel actually, truly, safe?” says Ryann Holmes, one of the collective’s founders.
Visual art and music take center stage when it comes to the creative scene in New York. Curators like See Santana of “The Grind - Planet X”, which features women of color and queer women artists, and queer art communities like the “Art Hoe Collective” are doing all they can to highlight queer artists of color. In the realm of music, the parties orchestrated for QTPOC in Brooklyn are unprecedented. Black and Brown queer and trans DJ’s organize functions where we can dance and listen to a world of music -- house, reggae, soca, Latin, soul and Afrobeats -- all while standing in solidarity with each other.
For example, DJ Adair co-created “Haute Sauce”, a nightlife collective. Last summer, they collaborated with the queer, femme and non-binary Black and East-Asian artist group BUFU (By Us For US) for a two month long series of events for queer and trans women of color. The infamous Juliana Huxtable established the “Shock Value” party for the queer community in New York. Ash Smith, aka DJ Elosi, created “Truuu”, a QTPOC and gender-nonconforming party that doubles as a fundraiser for the “Third Wave Fund”, which is an organization that supports young women and queer trans youth of color.
These musical spaces are so important because without them, collective community-building would not be so joyous. Ivette Alé of Azucar, a QTPOC dance party in New York, says of this phenomenon, “Radical queer party spaces have always been integral in the survival strategies of queer community. It is where we congregate, organize, release, collectively heal, share art, explore self-expression, witness each other’s lives.”
Mediums like film have emerged as other ways for Black queer and trans women to express themselves and exist in venues that have historically shunned them. Reina Gossett, a trans filmmaker based in New York, has been making films regarding trans activism since 2009. Chanelle Aponte Pearson is gaining recognition for her groundbreaking QWOC series, “195 Lewis,” named after a street in Brooklyn. It is films like these that bring our community together for mutual admiration, collaboration, and discussion of subjects that matter to us.
Even fashion plays its part in creating visibility and space for queer and trans women of color. No one knows that better than Anita Dolce Vita, owner of DapperQ and Hi Femme, NY-based websites that celebrate queer fashion. The general public views style as binary but in the queer and trans community, there are no such limits. Whether it is manifested in a fashion show or a panel on transgressive fashion, Black queer and trans women know that how we dress is political and can create community with like-minded people. It sets us apart because many cishet people are expected to stay in line with heteronormative appearances, while we are not bound by those expectations. But sometimes it is only in safe spaces that we feel liberated enough to live our truths when it comes to identity expression and presentation.
Sometimes a Black queer or trans woman can make a space that is not specifically for women like themselves and it nonetheless becomes a safe space. For example, radio host Shay “Marie” G., hosts a monthly poetry night in the Bronx that she describes as “radically inclusive.” She invites artists of any race, gender, and orientation to share their work because she believes that many people desperately need this kind of outlet for their art. Because the doors are open to everyone, those unwelcomed elsewhere are attracted to this space. It creates an environment where Black queer and trans women feel welcomed and embraced. For them, this is what a safe space is.
If it wasn’t for safe spaces, I would not have been privy to much of the art that was created by women like me. As a writer, I especially appreciate exposure to authors like Audre Lorde, who have made it possible for me to even consider using my passion for words to express my politics as well as my hopes and dreams. It wasn’t until I immersed myself in writing communities filled with other Black queer and trans women that I had the opportunity to explore queer Black feminist authors in depth. These experiences have been invaluable and the takeaways give me strength every day. This community full of aspiring writers and established authors, like Jacqueline Woodson, Janet Mock, and Naomi Jackson, inspire me to keep seeking spaces where our work is celebrated.
Sometimes activism is simply living, breathing, and existing in a world that says we shouldn’t. The fact that we as Black queer and trans women are here, asserting ourselves and declaring our presence, is rebellion. Activism can be designing spaces to express our creativity and specifically uplift other Black queer and trans women, while exhibiting themes of resistance and liberation. But justice also requires us to find moments of peace and clarity that can only be found in the company of each other. This comforting place acts as a form of self-care and healing. As Audre Lorde put it, self-preservation is political warfare.
Black queer and trans women must continue to invent safe spaces. Without these safe spaces, we will deteriorate under the burden of projected inferiority because it is impossible for us to thrive in environments where we are the minority. When we create our own spaces, the world opens up to us and becomes more vast with possibilities. In these spaces, there is ample room to rejuvenate, revitalize, and encourage each other through our shared experiences. Even when we encounter places that may not have been made specifically for us, Black queer and trans women must use our inherent creativity and persistence to carve out territory where we are respected and valued.
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