Todd Lanier Lester
Todd Lanier Lester is an artist, writer, and cultural producer. He lives and works in São Paulo, where he is developing Lanchonete.org, a project focused on daily life in the city center, with a group of fellow artists and city dwellers.
Would you say that ‘the urban’—yes, cities as well as urban encounters…but also the space and right(s) to live in, work in, and share the contemporary city—is an important source or reference for your work? Or, more broadly, can you discuss the role of or right to the city as an influence on or basis for your practice/writing/art/activism? For example, in São Paulo, we’ve named one of the Lanchonete.org projects, ‘Cidade Queer’ (or Queer City) almost as a provocation/occasion … to both admit that we don’t define ‘queer’ or imagine that it means only one thing, AND to openly ask what a queer urban future might look/feel like? Jose Esteban Muñoz begins his book, “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity” (2009), with these words: “Queerness is an aspiration toward the future. To be queer is to imagine better possible futures.” We begin our thoughts about queerness with this frame.
Ella Boureau is an NYC-based writer, editor, events curator, and is currently the Awards Coordinator for the Lambda Literary Foundation.
I am going to bet that you are the child of immigrants. If my assumption is correct, dearest second-generation child, I am also betting that you have at some point declared the United States a culture-less wasteland and returned to the “Motherland” in search of your roots. Those of you who are not children of immigrants looked on, patiently awaiting the inevitable reabsorption into the North American Amoeba, since the journey “home” will have been at best disappointing, at worst heart-breaking, though we may be wiser for the elimination of a fantasy.
Having already made my pilgrimage, I can say with assurance that the journey to a parent’s country is not a simple one; what it reveals is a ghost life by which we are forever marked. The world’s borders being more permeable today, it is not so much that we will not be assimilated into the countries of our birth, but that we cannot be assimilated. The ghost life will not leave us, even if we choose to leave it. It is always a WhatsApp, an email, an iMessage away. Ryanair has announced plans for $10 transatlantic flights, which will cause the aunties much joy and strike a more complicated response — panic, elation, guilt — in the hearts of the second generation, as we will have weaker excuses to give about why we do not visit. Us, with our blue passports and lunch-special flights back to the place that is not home, but which will not let us be home anywhere else.
Every time I set my sights on the shores of France — that country so deeply embedded in my memory — I am invariably looking for a lost version of myself. A parallel Ella, who grew up alongside me, but whose tongue is different from mine, who thinks and feels differently, in every physical way my doppelgänger but whose mind is a total mystery. I have gone in search of her before and failed to find her. In my most rational mind of course I know she cannot exist. This other Ella is not real. And yet, I cannot tell you why it is that I have been grieving her absence my entire life.
I cannot tell you why as an eighteen-year-old newly cast into the dripping maw of New York City, I felt this grief gnawing at me so keenly that I cried for three days without stopping. I don’t mean that I was wandering weepily red-eyed for three days like some sullen zombie. I mean that for three full days and nights I was pinned to the ground by the sheer force of a wall that contained all the salt and heat of the Mediterranean Sea. Water was driven from my tear ducts by the metric ton. Mackerel, small fishing vessels and the ferryboats that shuttle families between Algiers and Marseille flooded out of me and washed up on the floor. Like the story of a girl who cried so much her tears nearly drowned her, once I started it seemed I would never stop. But again, like in the fables, after three days the squall passed and I began to dry out.
The poet Michelle Tea writes: “start by deciding you are not crazy and work from there” and I think that is very sensible. If I am not crazy, then I am mourning a second self, a sibling with ancestral knowledge whose presence I can only verify through absence. I need Her to tell the story of my flesh. I am one of three people in the world who know the beginning: In a stone house on the Delaware Canal, two people created a third flesh together: my mother The American, and my father The Foreigner. Each was haunted by the Foreigner’s country of origin. A country that I also belong to by rule of law, but not by body. Not in the back of the throat where my voice is pitched, not in the hiss of my tongue as it hits my teeth too early, as my French counterpart would never hiss. I will press up against the boundaries of these secrets and feel their shape blindly but I will never break through. The whip of fate, having long ago cracked and marked the boundary of my one life, will whizz and crack again before I can ever find out more. In these moments, freshly stung, I retreat. I feel failure and am ashamed.
Then there are times I see a glimpse of Her in a cousin or an aunt: a soft glint in the eye, a roundness in the smile, the teeth sticking out a bit. Involuntarily I raise my hand to my own lips and feel the teeth whose outward jut I have just recognized and know they are Hers as well. In these times, I lay in my bed at night very still, reluctant to admit that I am still waiting for Her to whisper to me in the darkness: what the silence means, or the lying, or laughter, tears or denial. Why it was that while my aunts and uncles and cousins’ lives were spinning around one another, and She with them, I was a thousand miles away sitting in the crotch of a tree dreaming of Her.
Thiago Carrapatoso is a journalist and specialist in communication, arts, and technology. He works in helping to create a methodology for using heritage education against gentrification in São Paulo.
At the moment I started working at the center of São Paulo, in 2005, I understood better the inequality and discrepancies of a third world city that was constructed based on privatized wishes and demands. São Paulo is extremely segregated, and it is easy for its residents to isolate themselves for their entire lives in the reality of their original neighborhoods, without knowing the rest of the city because of the vicious routine of leaving home, getting in a car, going to work, getting in a car again, parking in a shopping center, getting back in the car, and going back to one’s private life.
São Paulo, as you may know, is the most populous city of Brazil, of Latin America, of all the Americas, of the Southern Hemisphere, and of the Western Hemisphere. “São Paulo, the fastest growing city in the world,” as the U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs proudly presented the city in a promotional video of the 1940s. This “fast growing” city only forgot to consider the human life living here. Its main goal was to bring big international companies to the country and sell the most of what could be sold to them. The government was (still is?) an intermediary for these companies to make their big projects happen, like Uber for taxis or AirBnB for rooms. The residents were (are?) voiceless, creating an urbanism constructed by greed and not by the residents’ demands.
Using the provocation of the question, I would like to ask you to focus on the affirmation by Muñoz: “Queerness is an aspiration toward the future. To be queer is to imagine better possible futures.” Considering São Paulo’s urbanistic reality, the “better possible futures” could only come from a bottom-up initiative. Since 2011, I’ve helped found a movement called BaixoCentro. Our goal was to bring civil society to the streets as a way to engage citizens in the urbanism discussions that were violently happening in the center of the city. At that time, I edited a video called “I S2 SP” trying to explain everything that was happening. The movement organized three festivals, produced more than 700 activities, raised more than US $30,000 through crowdfunding, and was a starting point for the creation of several different collectives that question the urbanistic process in/of the city.
This experience made me believe that queerness inside the urban environment necessarily needs to acknowledge and encourage emergent movements and discussions that are outside of the hegemonic, rationalistic, top-down perspective of how a city needs to be managed. It needs to consider the social housing movements so present here in São Paulo; the cultural flourishing and activism; it needs to go against private interests; it needs to preserve socioeconomic diversity; it needs to protect and retell the history of vulnerable communities; and it needs to consider public space as real public space, not a privileged place for the hegemonic class.
Considering all this, the BaixoCentro movement contacted the Rede Paulista de Educação Patrimonial, or REPEP (Paulista Network for Heritage Education), to organize the first collaborative inventory of the communities around the Minhocão, a 3.5 km viaduct that crosses the heart of the city and that was responsible for the devaluation of the properties nearby. Our goal is to use heritage laws to preserve the social use of the territory and to protect the immaterial culture that has emerged there since the 1970s, when the Minhocão was built. For this purpose, we defined five communities that were easily mapped in our first investigations of the region: poorer workers/residents of the center; LGBT+ community; newcomers/immigrants; cultural workers; and homeless people.
Another goal is to map the cultural references of the communities and to understand what the Minhocão created, instead of what it destroyed, as is usually the approach taken by researchers and activists. In this instance, together with the cycle of activities as a part of the Queer City project, we organized a walk guided by the actor Paulo Goya to discuss the LGBT+ post-war history in the area. Goya, as an habitué of bars and libraries of the region at that time, described how the LGBT+ community, mainly wealthy or intellectual gays, migrated from the Praça Dom José Gaspar (where the Galeria Metrópole and most bars were), passing through Praça da República (where mostly prostitutes, transvestites, and poor gays were hanging out), to finally reach the Largo do Arouche, an historical gathering place for the LGBT+ community from all places in the city, including the peripheries.
Although we are discussing sexuality in this case, it is important to go back to the Muñoz quote: “To be queer is to imagine better possible futures.” Protecting the social use of a territory such as Largo do Arouche is a way to guarantee that use for decades and to protest the fierce gentrification process that is happening in the area, with the help of the government, of course. Protecting the social use of the territory is also intended to guarantee the right of a specific community—in this case, the LBGT+ community, but it could be African and Latin-American immigrants, for example—a safe place for gathering and expressing themselves. This is a future that we look for. This would be a better possible future for this concrete jungle.
Jude Dibia is the author of Walking with Shadows, Unbridled and Blackbird. His writings explore the realities of gay Africans living in the continent and the challenges and abuse they face daily.
On the opposite side of Nobelvägen, next to a very old church building, sits this massive, phallic structure. This is not too far from where I live in Malmö, Sweden, and pass it almost every day. When I first moved to Malmö, I was struck by its uncanny resemblance to a giant erect penis. I once asked an older local about this structure and for what purpose it was built, but the old man had no idea what it was originally meant to signify—he only knew that it had always been there, since he was a child.
I always smile when I think of the ‘Phallus’ of Nobelvägen. I have named it so. However, it is refreshing to live in a place that does not discriminate against different sexualities. It is refreshing and important to me especially as a writer, because my creativity no longer is limited and cannot be silenced.
I mentioned this once to a new friend I made in Sweden, about my creativity running free and unquenchable, and he did not understand what I meant or how the new space I now occupied had the power to do this. It is simple really: writing freely about queer lives in many countries basically is not feasible and is very dangerous for many who choose not to be anonymous. The societies they live in cage their freedom to express themselves in certain ways—to write, sing, perform, or even create art that embraces queerness. I have not faced these restrictions in Sweden. I am able to attend concerts, poetry recitations, and theatre by openly queer artists and the city provides safe platforms for these.
The places I have lived in in the past have always influenced my art. It is impossible to escape your environment, especially as a creative person. In my books and short stories, I have always drawn from what is real and what can be imagined within the spaces I have occupied and places I have visited. It gives my work the brush of authenticity it requires.
Below is an excerpt from a work-in-progress. This short piece shows a portion of Lagos through the eyes of one of the characters:
Dakota had always felt that Victoria Island was like a confused man, not quite sure what personality was right for him; a man who struggled with his advancing age, wondering if it was still proper to wear jeans and loafers or dress up in smart business attire. This was the only way she was able to make sense of this tug-of-war that seemed to characterize the Island district—lush residential homes and refurbished business outfits pulled at each other for space. It almost always ended with horrific road jams and traffic and it was much worse when it rained. The floods always made her recall the words from a book they had read at the book club some time ago, aptly titled A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. It read: “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” This was exactly how she felt when it rained on Victoria Island; everything merges into one.
Now that I live in Sweden, whenever I read through that section of the novel I am writing, it brings back in sharp colour Victoria Island—the beauty as well as the chaos of the place. I can write of Lagos thus because I feel a certain ownership of the place, an entitlement, so to speak, based on my relationship with the place and the inescapable fact that Lagos is the city of my birth.
I don’t feel the same connection to Sweden yet. I still view myself as an outsider and so, the lenses I use to see and appreciate my new environment are coloured differently. However, my view is not limited, and I am able to write and be radical with my ideas and literature. Malmö provides me ample space and inspiration.
Zvonimir Dobrovic is the founder and artistic director of Domino, the biggest independent art NGO in Croatia.
Re-layering the Onion
When I founded a queer performance festival in Croatia in 2003, I called it simply Queer Zagreb. Since then a few other festivals around the world with a similar name formula have appeared, Queer + name of the city it takes place in, one of which I also founded – Queer New York. The idea behind it was a city can be queer completely, and that we as queers are not confined only to basements or dungeons (unless voluntarily, of course) or certain areas or “villages” but that a whole city can truly be ours.
It would be good also to clarify the definition of queerness. I like to use it as anything outside of the norm, often regardless of sexuality and gender issues, and that broadens the usual reading of the word. It also depends on the premise; in that sense queerness differs geographically, just as those norms do in different topographies. This is where, to me, queerness is artistically, socially and philosophically interesting and relevant today.
When we talk about urban spaces and queers, a lot has been said and written, and yes, it is easy to understand the narrative behind it. In a generalized, and perhaps already outdated view, queers gravitate towards urban areas still as they provide opportunities of autonomy, expressiveness, anonymity, freedom of identity, etc. Perhaps that was our desired future, and that is our present now. This means that yes, for my work as a curator, I spend most of my time in cities all over the world in search of artistic projects and artists who are responding to their local realities in a way that is specific and universal enough to be “translated” and experienced by audiences who do not necessarily share those realities. From those artists, I learn in ways I could not otherwise. From audiences experiencing their work we all learn, whether we are artists or curators.
However, when I think about those many urban spaces and queer lives there, and the autonomy, expressiveness, anonymity, freedom of identity those urbanities provide, I often find myself thinking whether it is all genuine or if we are just being provided with more masks than ever before to hide, not to become invisible in a classic sense, but to be somehow un-real. Are we peeling the onion of our presence in the world today and accepting ourselves and digging deep into ourselves, or are we just adding more layers to hide the heart? I remember a conversation with Annie Sprinkle, a thoughtful and daring artist from San Francisco, about this awhile ago when I stayed for a few days at her home. She said something that stayed with me: Emotions are queer today. In the arts we have explored the body in all directions and positions — the aesthetics of pain, the need to shock, the physicality of performance — that it seems today even like “an easy way out”. Or perhaps for a younger, emerging artists as an “easy way in”. But emotions . . . That is the future of “queer” I would like to explore more; this is what I am looking for now, not only as a curator looking for another concept to (re)package, but as a queer person today.
Maybe there is a festival in the works on this topic that I will curate soon. Maybe it is just a series of conversations to be had with artists I encounter, but perhaps it is just a notion that whatever we experience in cities “of queer interest” goes beyond the surface of body images, lightweight entertainment and even kooky underground scenery and reactionism to it, which has also become a (defensive) identity in itself in the end. The future of urban living for queers perhaps lies in the idea that we are not satisfied with what is offered for us to gobble up in a buffet setting mostly as (queer) consumers.
Eric Gitari is a lawyer with Nairobi-based National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) Kenya.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, the famed green city under the sun, is a beautiful mosaic where everything happens. When she was a young city, Wambui Otieno and other Mau Mau freedom fighters would sneak into the city’s River road, which was under colonial rule, to repair their guns and buy supplies before disappearing off into the forests. It was in River Road that I’d meet my first LGBT legal aid clients when I was working at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) as an associate lawyer in 2010.
After the constitution passed in 2011, Nairobi’s streets saw a demonstration waving rainbow flags with slogans such as “mashoga wanahaki” (gays have rights), and “my body my business;” most foot soldiers in these protests came from the group formed in the open Central Park meeting of 2010. We marched to City Hall demanding accountability from city police who were systematically harassing effeminate gay men in the streets at night.
Increasingly, Nairobi has grown to become a vibrant, tolerant metropolis that functions as a technology, trade, migration, and cultural powerhouse of Eastern and Central Africa. As a political-cultural center, Nairobi’s City Hall hosted a cocktail party to launch Kenya’s first Gay and Lesbian Awards in 2012. This has been consistent with IDAHOBIT 2013 being hosted at the same public political venue. Many LGBT demonsrations, picnics, and meetings still continue to take place in Nairobi’s green spaces and forests such as the Arboretum and Karura.
In the 90s, gay men used to cruise along Nairobi’s Kenyatta Avenue by donning a white handkerchief on their trousers. Today, people cruise in the open at Central Park, cyber cafes, gay bars, social sites, matatus, Hilton corner, and other places we discover every day.
The City’s cosmopolitan culture is multi-layered with all of the multiracial, ethnic, religious and other diversities a world-class city would have. With her British colonial culture of capitalism, Nairobi, being the only African city with two UN agency headquarters, and many aspects of strategic positioning in trade and infrastructure, is a self-styled ‘New York’ of Eastern Africa. Like any other city, Nairobi is saturated with a majority youth population that represents a chance for what Nairobians call ‘live and let live’. Such tolerant social attitudes, respect for the market economy, an expanded constitutional democracy, independent courts, a vibrant, ever-evolving social justice movement with multiplicity of queer actors included, and other factors make Nairobi a work station I would not trade for another.
Today, whether protesters are occupying parliament with live pigs, wearing miniskirts in the streets to protest “my dress my choice,” or the Unga revolution demonstrations against high food prices, there will be a rainbow flag or a queer person representing and exercising their right and duty as a concerned citizen. The State routinely invites LGBT leaders and other stakeholders for meetings in Nairobi to discuss inclusive public health programming and access to justice.
In our legal aid centre in Nairobi, we have hung a huge rainbow flag visible from the main road; it brings in many clients and curious folks, but no one has ever attacked us for it. Queer artists such as AFRA and The Nest openly exhibit queer art; reputed art spaces such as the Kuona Trust and the GoDown Art Centre in Nairobi do too. Donors and INGOs working on LGBT issues operate freely in Nairobi like other domestic NGOs. LGBT refugees from eastern Africa currently have communes within Nairobi whose government grants asylum to them and aids in processing their resettlement to Europe and North America. We have noted that many regional and international LGBT conferences, including regional strategies that led to the adoption of the African Commission Resolution Against Violence on Grounds of real or perceived Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2014, come to Nairobi for her warmth, world class hospitality, and “open for business” approach.
We work within a Nairobi judiciary that is respected for liberal jurisprudence on rights and fearless checking of state power. The Constitutional Court in Nairobi in 2015 ordered the state to register our organization (NGLHRC) and further stated that sexual orientation is protected in the Constitution from discrimination. Our Nairobi LGBT constituency magnets links with other LGBT groups in regional towns easing movement coordination and civic education/other programs. The police are bitter sweet but they always offer us security during all IDAHOBIT meetings, Gay and Lesbian Awards and the demos we held at the Nigeria and Ugandan High Commissions in Nairobi in 2014 (they we had to flee police arrest at the Ugandan one). Nairobi’s spirit offers one a chance to be brave, it allows authenticity, it allows creativity in one’s search of dreams, such as in our application of the law towards justice. It throws you to the world, a greater universe of infinite possibilities than anywhere else in our African region.
Her cosmopolitan culture allows anonymity, giving many queer people space to be ‘out’ in the streets and bars but closeted in the village. Her fast pace capitalistic rush offers no time for idle scrutiny on gay folks. In Nairobi, so long as you are paying your bills, obeying the law and minding your business with reasonable discretion, LGBT folks can thrive as equal citizens of the global world. And her youth driven social fabric population will keep evolving the norms and intersecting her to the greater world where all are equal-be they white, black, gay, straight, Kikuyu, Luo, Maasai, muslim, refugee or otherwise. This is a brief queer bio of the home of our liberation, Nairobi, the city under the sun.
Mahmoud Khaled's (b. 1982) work, spanning video, photography, sculpture, installation, sound and text, explores what is real and what is hidden, disguised or staged.
For me cites are those stages with all the complicated dynamics where we perform our “un” real sexual, political, and professional selves, and where every single aspect of our identities gets problematized as a question in relation to the space we are sharing with other bodies in the city. The more things get complicated, the more exciting and inspiring the city is for me and my work.
I always dream of an inclusive, open, and specially designed city, one that honors our desires and dreams, and meets all of our needs equally. This is the utopia that I sometimes fantasize about in my head, but I am not really sure if the term “Queer City” is generating this image of that city I dream of, desire and sometimes struggle and fight for! The term has an exclusive connotation and sort of promises to define something that is very rebellious against any of acts that might define or characterize it. The beauty of Queerness for me is that it makes us wonder about and question everything else around it once it appears, no matter the time or place. Queerness immediately destabilizes all the normalized structures around it, so I wonder why we need to normalize this great magical effect of Queerness by imagining an established city for it.
I experienced living and working in different cities in past years, in the western and the non western context, and I realized recently that I never felt excited in the cities that have so-called gay neighborhoods — these “gay villages” or “gay ghettos.” I also became less and less comfortable in gay bars where the act of cruising got reduced to a certain attitude, taste, and norm. Something about theses places always reminds me of René Magritte’s series of landscape and seascape paintings “La Belle captive (The Beautiful Captive),” which he produced between 1931 and 1967. I view these paintings with the idea that it is kind of beautiful and nice to be there but there is always a strong sense of captivity portrayed in them that I cannot ignore or avoid.
I consider many of my favorite cities very gay although they don’t have an established or known “gay” or “queer” scene in a classical sense. All one normally wants from a “gay ghetto” is pretty much embedded in the city naturally. Technology also makes me feel that the “Queer Utopia” is going to be in the “No Place,” which is virtual space, and of course, this is something we are already starting to experience right now, so if I will think of a queer city I will defiantly think of it in relation to the technological evolution are experiencing right now.
The only thing that brings me back to reality — or lets say materiality and physicality of the space (because I think that the virtual space is already a crucial part of our reality right now) — is when I think about this imagined utopia or the future of the queer space in the field of law and justice. How can “we” think of our future from the justice perspective? For me this is the biggest question that makes the current moment we are living in is as problematized and complicated as it is.
Maya Mikdashi received her PhD from Columbia University's Department of Anthropology. She is Co-Director of the documentary film About Baghdad. Maya is currently a Mellon Postdoctural Fellow at Rutgers University. She is Co-Founder and Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine.
The conditions of possibility for queer life and queer cities are never singular. Instead, these conditions of possibility are radically different for gender conforming and gender nonconforming people, and for cis men and women. They are also different for racialized displaced persons and refugees, and for racialized migrant labor forces. Moreover, as cities are historically specific and situated sites that are irreducible to each other (e.g. Beirut is not Istanbul is not Mumbai is not Paris), we must resist the desire to think singularly about “queer life” or “queer cities.” We do not have the same pasts so why would we have the same futures? What, and whom, does the term “queer future,” a future oriented towards a better life, imagine as its subject? Who and what are the conditions and practices of life that mark a city “queer?”
Between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon was locked in a civil war that was punctuated by military invasions and occupations. The South of Lebanon, one fourth of the country’s land mass, was occupied by the Israeli state until 2000. Since then, there has been another war and intermittent bombing raids by Israel, a series of political assassinations and terrorist attacks, and a war in Syria that is also fought by Lebanese, sometimes within Lebanese territory. When the Lebanese civil war ended so did public conversation about it. Back then, downtown Beirut was still filled with rabid dogs who, it was rumored, liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes and veined with cracks and craters, and the city still stunk of garbage (a smell that is once again pervasive given the state’s criminal neglect of trash collection and processing), and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. In fact, bullet holes and barbed wire were much more common than buildings with more than four floors. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As downtown Beirut was remodeled into a vistor’s brochure, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction, and the induction, not to remember.
Today, Beirut is is highly securitized, exorbitantly expensive, and buttressed by garbage. It is a masculinist, heternormative, sectarian, and economically polarized and segregated space, where access to public space has been commoditized and rationed. The spectre of past civil wars and fears of new ones are everywhere and nowhere. It is a capital city with more than two million residents in a country of approximately four million citizens and over six million residents, a full two million of whom are war refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. It is a city where tens of thousands of migrant and domestic laborers live, often in conditions of structural servitude and slavery. In Beirut, a majority of residents do not have access to 24-hour electricity or reliable potable water, neither public nor private, but Beirut is also currently one of the most stable capital cities in the Arab world (a sign of the degree of political instability in the region, not of the political or economic health of Lebanon). Beirut is “cosmopolitan,” certainly more so than neighboring Arab capitals, or so the story goes.
Beirut is a popular tourist and research destination, though most confine themselves to two or three areas of the city. It is not uncommon to see “queer” acts, gestures, bars, or graffiti there. Is it the two men holding hands, the two others cruising each other in a Hamra bar, or the six-year-old refugee carrying roses through that bar that makes Beirut “queer”? This child, in this bar, is one of thousands that circulate through the city daily, selling whatever they can not because they hope for or are oriented towards a “better” future, but merely to survive in a present where war has displaced almost two million people to Lebanon, and where Israeli occupation and colonization, coupled with Lebanese xenophobia, nationalism, and classism, has kept hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps. Laws and policies ensure that Syrian and Palestinian refugees remain in an inferior position to Lebanese citizens economically, socially, and politically. Both Syrian and Palestinian refugees are hyper-visible and securitized through gendered and sexed discourses on terrorism, religious extremism, and Islam (and increasingly, discourses on homophobia as a mark of intolerance and thus inferiority). Importantly, these discourses also reproduce Beirut’s exceptionality in the Arab world (i.e. not Muslim-majority, liberal, secular), its cosmopolitanism.
This child in a bar is not alone — he and others like him are ubiquitous parts of nightlife in Beirut — they are literally part of the sociopolitical space of desire — for bodies, for history, for a sense of futurity. When he leaves this bar he will sleep under a nearby bridge that has been exploded and shelled and rebuilt so many times it appears as an intricate mosaic of concrete and metal patchwork. The bridge is not a melancholic object for him as it is for me, signifying a past that cannot be expressed or mourned but that continues to animate and irritate the present. It is simply his shelter.
We should interrogate our desire to speak of queer futures, or of queer cities, and our inclination to anchor that queerness in a recognizable sexual practice. Who is the body or masses of bodies that makes a city queer, that uses the city in queer ways? Who is the subject of a queer future? What subjects does a queer future, or the conceptualization and fantasy of such a future, require to not have a future?
Karol Radziszewski is a multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker, and curator. His archive-based methodology crosses multiple cultural, historical, religious, social, and gender references.
I travel a lot, and each visited city is, of course, different, with its own specific vibes. Usually these cities are big, as they are mainly capitals of their countries, and in such places I very often hear from my queer friends a phrase that comes back repeatedly: “Oh, darling, what you see here is just a bubble, we are happily living in the bubble”. Similarly, Warsaw is a sort of a bubble too, hardly comparable with any other Polish city.
I have traced stories of the presence of non-heteronormative discourses in Warsaw and its (in)visibility for some time now (and, more generally, I have examined the issue of queer history in Central and Eastern Europe over the last decade through Dik Fagazine and the Queer Archives Institute. Within one of the projects, I led a live talk show with the participation of Ryszard “Rysia” Czubak (a bohemian, free spirit, and a truly queer character) and Wojciech Skrodzki (a prominent art critic in his time, who has recently come out publicly as gay at the age of 77). Their stories and experiences build a map of Warsaw’s invisible queer (or more often homosexual) life in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I would like to quote some excerpts from this conversation, as it is interesting to see how different their perspectives are, even given the historical context.
Just before the meeting, Wojciech said that he used to stumble upon Ryszard many times, but that he was afraid of him.
Wojciech Skrodzki He used to attend all the exhibition openings. Also the ones that I held or that I attended. And when Ryszard appeared it became stressful: how not to say hello, pretending that we didn’t know each other, that we didn’t see each other, with some crazy manoeuvres to avoid one another.
Karol Radziszewski Why?
WS For fear of exposure.
Ryszard Czubak Well, humanity is as old as the hills. There is nothing worse than when a man is ashamed of his own self. Especially when there are no reasons to feel ashamed. Quite the contrary. I am like this—in my case, because I definitely can speak about myself openly—through my life, through my presence over many years, I underlined that I’m here, that I look the way I look, because I look like that and I want to look like that. And it’s not artificial; it’s very natural.
WS I wanted to say that in comparison with Rysia, my life is a total disaster and probably this is my perception of my life; but just as an excuse for me, I can say that those times were different, not good for that.
KR Somehow you went into that city together. However, as you say, it was somehow hidden. I wanted to touch upon this invisible city, upon what these places looked like. Most of them don’t even exist anymore. It’s even difficult to assume a form about which we could speak. We use the word “queer” now, meaning: non-heteronormative, not typical, not heterosexual, but each of these definitions has some limitations. I wanted to propose to try and create such a map of Warsaw. Of the places that were special for you, but that aren’t obvious. I remember that you, Wojciech, mentioned the bathhouse “Pod Messalka”, as a strange place that became engraved in your memory.
WS I went there in the 1970s. It was an amazing—most of all its scenery. That underground space—in my memories, quite large—with focal lights on the ceiling, but at the same time completely dark inside, some pools in which you could dive, with cold water, with warm water, and so on. But basically naked guys everywhere. And it had that special atmosphere. Every Wednesday from 9 a.m. till noon, the bathhouse was only for gays. Of course, it wasn’t official; it was just by word of mouth. You just knew those things.
KR I recall that you said that there were those hours when straight people were afraid to go there. But when I spoke to Rysia, he wasn’t so sure. Right? You remember it differently? Did you visit that bathhouse at all?
RC Well, my attendance in that place, my “tenure” there took place at the end of the 1960s. And in the 70s. Every time. Until they closed it, at the end of the 80s.
KR There is a shop there now, a luxurious fashion shop. Some of those tiles have been preserved. It’s a very strange place. They have even kept the pool.
RC It’s good that you went to see it. As there were no official places of this kind—no such clubs—so the bathhouse served as a vanity fair. During ablutions of naked bodies people talked: Who with whom? For how much? In which position? One lady to another lady. I can say one more thing about Messalka as a little joke, but the joke will contain nothing but bare truth, pun intended. Straight gentlemen would go there, and looking at gays playing with one another, they would become gay themselves. I would say: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
* * *
KR You said that there were other bathhouses at Chmielna Street, right?
WS Yes, but it’s a very particular matter. There was a bathhouse there, maybe some traces still remain.
RC It’s been completely demolished. Now there’s a hotel in its place, and the Goethe-Institut is located there as well. But no traces of the past remain.
* * *
WS The Three Crosses Square was the main meeting point, and at the same time, the place where the full dimension of agony was imposed on gays through humiliation. You just felt deeply humiliated there. Right now, it’s a blessing that we have gay clubs with darkrooms, but back then everything was prohibited, so if you got acquainted with someone—because we used this grammatical structure then: “to get acquainted”, not “get to know someone”—so when you got acquainted with someone, you had a problem [of] what to do next. Of course, the dialogue would look like this: “Do you have a place to go to?” “No”. “Me neither”. “So what do we do?” Usually, in this kind of situation, you went here or there…roaming around portals, bushes, some appalling public toilets, etc. It was the rock bottom of humiliation, caused by the system that pushed it all down to that kind of level. There were no clubs. There were some gay sites, hidden “underground”, but people could only get acquainted there. But there were no such places as today, with those main clubs of ours, with darkrooms and so on, where everything, so to say, is OK until the end.
Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, activist, and leader within the LGBTQ community.
The City Within the City Existing in a City
My name is Michael Roberson and I am a member of the international sound art collective, Ultra-red, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, as well as the Scholar in Residence for The Center for Race, Religion and Economic Democracy (C-REED). I am based in New York City and engaged in a long-term project, Vogue’ology, with a collective of house/ball members, but even more special for me is working with and learning from my colleague/soul mate in this work, the brilliant Robert Sember.
Our aim is to build political literacy and organizing capacity within the House and Ballroom scene, which in so many significant, historic ways, is a multi-generational kinship and creative collective formed in the 1920s by black trans-women; by the late 1960s, it had morphed into a space by and for a predominantly LGBTQ African American and Latinx community in New York City. We are currently planning to establish the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School, which will bring the Ballroom community into solidarity with allied movements and communities around issues ranging from mass incarceration and gentrification to violence against transgender persons of color.
Numerous historians trace the history of Ballroom to the notorious drag ball culture of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. Harlem became a mecca for blacks between roughly 1919 and 1935 as millions fled the U.S. south during the Great Migration for better lives in the north. Cultural movements such as the Harlem Renaissance transformed upper Manhattan, not only through innovations in black literature, music, and politics but also through its scandalous nightlife. The Harlem drag balls—initially organized by white gay men, but featuring multiracial audiences and participants—were usually held at venues such as the Rockland Palace on 155th street and the Elks Lodge on 139th. The annual pageants were a who’s who of Harlem’s black literary elite: Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent were all frequent attendees. Moreover, white photographers and socialites such as the infamous Carl Van Vechten were also in attendance. In many ways, these drag balls created a safe haven for the black queer population in Harlem, specifically from homophobia in Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.’s large and hugely influential Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The Harlem drag balls that morphed into house balls in the late 1960s and early 1970s can be seen as a black queer city existing within Harlem, which existed in the city of New York. Because of its status in multiple marginalities and its roots in multiple waves of the Great Migration the black queer city — drag ball — created a freedom movement that has grown into a global phenomenon called “house/ball or ballroom.” Ballroom is a black-trans-womanist theological discourse, a radical pedagogy, and a political/philosophical performative hermeneutics, even though it has been eradicated from and largely ignored by historians of black freedom movements and liberation discourses. How could this be when it originated in Harlem with the echoes of historical giants like Dubois, Garvey, Malcolm X, Bayard Rustin, A. Phillip Randolph, Ella Baker, Billie Holiday, and James Baldwin?
The City, for me, serves as both the nexus and an apparatus in a long-term commitment to the Ballroom Community. In other ways, “ballroom as a city” and/or “a black/Latinx queer urban space arising from and out of that historical black city called ‘Harlem’” has placed itself in dialogue with, and at times, as a critique of, academic institutions (i.e. political, theological, aesthetic/philosophical), art and museum spaces, community organizing groups, with itself as a black/Latinx LGBT Ballroom community (i.e. local, national, international), and with both public health, community-based organizations, government funders, and the Black Church. This work and project is both intersectional and interdisciplinary in a multi-dimensional way. To borrow from philosopher Michel Foucault, The Ballroom Freedom School is an epistemological rupture, organized in the rupture of traditional knowledge production. It takes serious as analysis, and praxis, the ethos of a people who have been systematically pushed to the margins. The voices of black LGBT people have been silenced both in the history of black struggle, as well as in this moment of #BlackLivesMatter, a movement founded by three women, two of whom identify as black and queer. We have something to say about what it means to be human, to struggle for freedom in the face of terror and catastrophe, and to be on intimate terms with death.
Sarah Schulman's most recent books are the novel THE COSMOPOLITANS, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 best novels of 2016, and CONFLICT IS NOT ABUSE: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and The Duty of Repair. She is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island.
Obviously, great cities are in terrible trouble as gentrification homogenizes their souls. However, there are still some core experiences of difference that make a place like New York City a center for the production of new ideas. After all, it is the mix that signifies urbanity, the irrefutable knowledge that people are different, which is built into real city living. In some places people wake up in privatized houses, they walk through their front doors and step into cars, and then drive to work and park.
This twice-a-day seminal experience is one of isolation and repetition. But waking up in an apartment building means recognizing your neighbors’ realities: who was fired, who is sick, who is in love, who can’t control their drug use, whose kid has finally gotten a job. By the time you get outside, there is already the knowledge that other people are real. Then, we walk through the neighborhood, see which businesses have been driven out, what new chains are devouring territory, which brave independent entrepreneurs are trying something new, waving, avoiding, chatting, making amends. Jump on the subway, where the knowledge that people suffer, have contradictions and need support is always present. And finally, get to work. This is an experience of recognizing difference. Of having to think about other people, notice them, and maybe even talk. This engagement is the source of great inspiration.
I have written so many books about the people in my building, my neighborhood, on the subway, on the street. They embody my life and my pages. So, when I imagine a future for myself and for my city, they are inseparable. My city is part of my heart, not something to drive through on the way. And New Yorkers love to talk to each other. We practice recognition. Recently, I have come to understand, profoundly, the difference between provincial cities and really urban ones: the range of communities.
In NYC, if you burn out on one queer, black, arts community, there are actually several other queer, black arts communities to connect with, and all the other larger communities that also include queer and black. There isn’t one clique controlling experimental film. There are many. While of course, being on the outs with those in power can be awful—just the worst—the machine is just too big to stay stagnant. And while some people are afraid of speaking back to power, plenty are not. When I see what kind of group bullying goes on in smaller places, where queers and artists act like In The Heat Of The Night, or those realist horror films where all the “best” citizens are secretly in the Klan and there is no escape, well, in NYC, there is always an escape. And what that means is that we have the freedom to change. Despite gentrification, there are still subcultures, substructures, undergrounds—some of which desperately want to be recognized, and others which absolutely don’t. There are hundreds of dance scenes, multiple ethnicities of Chinese, everything you could ever want to eat, more musicians than there are places to hear them, the greatest actors in the country, and beauty at your fingertips. There is the petty and there is the very deep.
“Queer” is a category in flux, and urban queer is on a huge continuum. We have the banal, the spoiled, the exploitative, the boring. We have the expansive, the inquisitive, the creative, the open hearted. We have the consumer, and the producer. We have the new abject object, the new queer: the undocumented, trans*, HIV positive, the queers whom the police shoot to kill. We have those of us who are not in families, and therefore not the ideal consumer, the community-based queers, who share a public space, and the privatized queers who put their citizenship first. Right now, everything “queer” that has a place of honor is somehow rooted in the family. Just this year in media: Transparent, Fun Home, The Argonauts, even Carol—who, in the book, was somewhat repulsed by her child, but in the film became a mother, giving that famous plea for tolerance speech that is required by the tolerant.
But what about the rest of us? Where are we? Looking around, I see queer in the leadership of Black Lives Matter and the new Black Student Movement. I see queer inside Palestine Solidarity. I see a place for queers who have an agenda bigger than their queer selves. And for the rest, I see an invitation into the status quo. And some of us are inside each room. And some of us don’t have a room as the city struggles to find homes for its own children. There is a building on 57th Street in which every apartment is a floor through and costs 100 million dollars. Real estate is like a security box for some of the globe’s elite. It’s a safe place to put your money. East New York was offered graduated income housing, but it’s not a graduated income neighborhood. We need 500,000 housing units to save our soul. At least we know the terms of the goal. We need to be rescued and to save ourselves. The homogenized lose consciousness, and don’t understand the fight. But it only takes a critical mass to make the change. A new society is literally being built on top of the old. All extant housing stock is already claimed; now, they are constructing towers without public aspects: no hospitals, no schools, a heliport on a building’s roof. And yet, my over-crowded classroom has 16 nationalities. My job is to open their hearts.
Niki Singleton is a Canadian drawer, painter, and found material sculptor based in Brooklyn.
What happens when our basic human right to give food to each other is hijacked and made illegal by authorities? In April 2015, a Texas chef, Joan Cheever, who has been giving to those in need for more than 10 years, was fined $2,000. Cheever fought the fine in Municipal Court on June 23 by arguing that under the 1999 Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, she has a right to serve food to the homeless because she considers it a free exercise of her religion. Prior to Joan Cheever, in November 2014, a 90-year-old man in Florida was arrested for providing food to the homeless and faced 60 days jail time and a $500 fine.
To date, 71 cities in the U.S. have outlawed feeding the homeless, and the trend is rising quickly. In 2013 and 2014, 21 cities successfully criminalized giving to the homeless. Governments are battling activists by claiming that feeding the homeless perpetuates homelessness and interferes with business, which is not substantiated by statistics showing a decrease in homelessness. What kind of a world are we creating when we allow our social policing to bypass our good nature?
I first published this comic on The Mantle, an online political journal based in New York City on June 22, 2015. Since then, Cheever’s fine was dismissed by the San Antonio court after the case gained significant local and national attention. The city looked into how other municipalities dealt with charitable feeding and held a round table to which Cheever and city officials were invited. A formidable force, Cheever held her ground through months of discussion and an unsatisfactory new ordinance, until December 2015 when San Antonio passed new regulations that allowed good Samaritans to feed the homeless without disruption from the police. Cheever told the San Antonio Current, “It’s a victory for the charitable feeding community, and I think it’s a victory for the city too.”