Profane and Sacred: A Review of lil BLK


Photography by Yanique Hall. Poster design by Mohammed Fayaz.

In the spirit of the Black Arts Movement reimagined in the era of Black Lives Matter, lil BLK, a solo performance by Nic Kay which premiered last weekend at Links Hall in Chicago, creates itself within the confines of the traditional dance and studio art worlds without responding to them.

Drawing from sources like praise dance, vogue chants, performance art, house DJaying and spoken word, the forty minute piece is at times an autobiographical account of the artist’s growing up queer, Black and gender-nonconforming in the Bronx, at others a frenetic, meditative, and cathartic ritual, the worship of body, ancestry and survival.

The stage at Links Hall is essentially a white box theater, with folding chairs along two of its walls. On Sunday night it was packed with a larger number of queer, Black and Brown folk than tend to patronize a gallery or modern dance venue in an entire season. An industrial fan, a microphone, a few exposed lightbulbs and a hanging clothes rack with sheer white costumes were the only set props as the audience entered to a hard house track.

Opening with a chopped and screwed vogue beat sampling LaWanda Page from RuPaul’s dance classic Supermodel (“Once upon a time…there was a little Black girl…”), the piece begins light, and with a clear chronology. Kay cat-crawls onto the stage, their arched back shadowed on the white wall behind them, in booty shorts and knee pads. With a blaring voiceover of 3 year-old Payton Jackson reading Countee Cullen’s “Hey Black Child,” Kay acts out the poem with literal, wheeling motions.

After creating a lopsided get lite soundscape in real time with a voice looper, and giving the crowd a tutorial on how to win a family barbecue dance contest, the piece takes a turn from the deliberate to the testimonial.

In the style of a bedtime prayer, Kay tells the story of their early attractions and first loves. Asking the ceiling, “Why does everything that makes me feel whole take me further away from my family, further away from you?” Kay begins a slow, beseeching dance sequence to Donnie McClurkin’s Great Is Your Mercy. The moment is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent time in a modern Black church, but is offset by Kay’s sheer top, booty shorts and exposed belly. The sexual and spiritual performance is not confused, but trying to hold the contradictions of religion and desire, of queer love that is rooted in a community that rejects it.

The dance is epic, and painful because you know the mercy for which the gospel singer gives praise has yet to be bestowed on the dancer. The movements become a yearning prayer in themselves.

A runway beat drops, and Kay changes outfits center stage, getting nude and holding poses. In the style of a vogue commentator, they begin a repetitive chant,

A body, a body, a body…

confronting the audience with their naked form and multifold gender. Their words turn from their own form to that of the theater:

Black body, white walls, white smiles…

Instantly, you imagine how differently these lines might have fallen on previous nights when the crowd was full of funders and grant writers. Yet even as Kay bluntly addresses white consumption of their art, the lines are clearly not written for white audience members. Acknowledging the contradiction of making Black art in a white hall, Kay speaks to the comodification and alienation inherent to the Black experience of capitalism. In confronting whiteness, they speak distinctly to Black audience members.

For a few minutes, the piece loses itself in some of its own tech and drama, but picks up again as Kay reenacts a club night. Standing directly in front of the large floor fan, under dark red lighting, the mood is more basement punk show than dance piece. Kay is bare-chested, with a white rag on their head. They sing along word for word with George Kranz’s Din Daa Daa, a cornerstone track for both bboy’s and voguers. When the last trill of the vocals end, Kay drops the mic and begins to run in rhythmic circles around the entire stage. Giving you Garnett and Grace Jones at the same time, the artist transforms themselves impossibly into a new species of dancer.

What could be trite or redundant is riveting. Kay goes into a trance and the audience follows. This is where their work is its most imaginative, and the observer feels like she is witnessing a genuinely new kind of performance.

After telling the story of their night out to a departed friend somewhere off stage, Kay lipsyncs the ending runs of Patti Labelle’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, in the perfect style of a drag queen singing for coins. The reference is not lost, and movingly executed.

In the closing number, Kay reads off a smiling, shouted affirmation for little Black girls (“You are the shit!”) and as the final house song builds, begins a last chant:

I know the rainbow’s been rough
I know the rainbow’s been tough
Hey little Black girl
Hey little Black girl

Somewhere in the middle, Kay goes over to the voice looper and presses a button which distorts their voice to a Kanye-style autotune. At first the choice seems ironic, and a few audience members even laugh. But as the chant progresses, the sharp notes become harsh, and Kay full-body dips, throwing their head back onto the floor, straining their voice into the mic:

Goodbye Black people
Say goodbye Black people
Say goodbye…

Genocide, police violence, and the disappearance of Black communities, voices, and bodies are suddenly ugly in the room. You can feel Black life being choked out around you, as Kay chokes on their own words. When the lights come up, the audience is moved and devastated.

Aspects of the piece criticized by the Chicago Tribune as “didactic” and “not hard to read” show a commitment on the artist’s part to accessibility–a concept still synonymous in the Eurocentric (and ableist) art world with laziness. Kay expertly draws on the most recognizable elements of Black, queer performance, doing them justice, honoring each of them with reverence, while effortlessly presenting them in unrecognizable reincarnations. This is no small feat, and demonstrates a creative expertise that is both genre bending and builds off a clear lineage of Black, trans artistry from the street to the stage. This was unmistakable to audience members versed in these traditions.

Ironically, what is purposely geared towards Black, queer and gender non-conforming viewers is hard to read for the canonical art world. What is accessible to those of us who are usually locked out is esoteric to the critics, who instead of comprehending their own lack of tools, call a young artist unsophisticated.

To be unmoved by Kay’s work is to fail to understand not only its relevance to current events, but the power, significance and breath it provides a swelling push for Black, trans and queer freedom.

Radical Gentry: The Role of Black, Brown, Queer Activism In Displacement

We cannot protest what we are also facilitating.

We cannot protest what we are also facilitating.

I’m Black. I’m queer. I’m from a wealthy family. I’m formally educated. I did not grow up in the city in which I currently live.

I work for a nonprofit organization that provides health services to trans and queer young people experiencing homelessness. I live in a neighborhood where most of my neighbors are of a different racial and economic background than I am.

I consider myself an activist. I’m involved in movements for prison and police abolition, for trans and queer resistance, for Black, Brown, immigrant and indigenous power. This makes it particularly difficult for me to acknowledge the fact that I am gentrifying my city. As was recently discussed in a piece for the Guardian, parts of my identity and the communities I belong to can obscure my impact on the displacing of other people.

All over the country—in New York, DC, Oakland—there are activists, artists and scholars who belong to many of the exact same demographics as myself. We are young, radical, politically engaged, and changing the faces of our cities by forcing out longtime residents—those from the exact populations for which we claim to advocate in our professional and political lives.

It is shocking how rarely we talk about this. I believe that in future eras, this will be one of the greatest contradictions for which our current efforts are criticized.

At conferences and rallies, in collectives and on panels, we debate and decry structural oppression and state violence. We write essays and create art. We do some important and empowering work. We are expert at recognizing almost every form of violence, with the exception of the economic violence we inflict on our neighborhoods and cities daily. We are largely silent in calling out our own radical, queer communities for creating the very conditions against which all our work is ostensibly fighting.

As activists and artists, as queer and trans people, as people of color, we live our lives in search of space. We are on constant lookout for support, for affirmation, affinity, the freedom to live fully, some semblance of safety. Yet in our quest for safety, we are disregarding the safety of the communities onto which we are descending, the people we are removing as we carve out space for ourselves. Our personal and political histories of struggle do not excuse this.

We are dismantling poor and working, Black, Brown and immigrant communities, and we are hiding behind our rhetoric and resumes. We are posturing as revolutionaries as we gentrify, perpetrating economic violence on those already absorbing the most violence of any populations in our society.

As people of multiple oppressions resisting unjust systems, it is more comfortable to focus on the ways in which we are impacted than in the ways we are implicated. We believe solidarity means we must highlight our commonalities, underline the oppressions we share rather than the privileges that stratify.

But this is false.

Real solidarity means finding common ground with other queers and people of color, while holding ourselves accountable for the ways in which we are contributing to the displacement of our comrades in struggle.

For queer people of color who are also activists, this is a unique charge. For the displacement we engage isn’t just about changing the material conditions of our neighborhoods, but equally about altering the faces of struggles that have existed long before our arrival in our current cities, taking over the leadership of movements we never founded. And as folks representing a complicated mixture of privileges and oppressions, we are often the unintentional bridge between the privileged and the oppressed—the link creating access between poor and working communities and those with the means to force them from their homes.

The realization has to be this: We as Black, Brown, queer activists play crucial and necessary roles in facilitating the cycles of gentrification that reverberate throughout our cities. This means we are in a unique position to begin movements for its resistance, and to support the longstanding struggles against it led by those we have become complicit in displacing.

Here are some values I believe our movements must take on in order to do so:

Asking where our work is most needed—A friend of mine was recently fired from an educator position at a synagogue in their hometown for having their students question the legitimacy and violence of the Israeli nation state. As people with both oppressed and privileged identities, we must think creatively about where our labor is most useful and needed. The answer may not require us to move into whole new cities and spaces with the goal of “helping” oppressed people, but instead to commit to fighting systems of oppression by struggling with the oppressors in the communities that raised us. If we represent educational and economic privilege, perhaps it is those communities who need our activism more than poor and working ones.

Supporting existing campaigns and struggles—Academic, artistic and activist gentrification is creating new projects, collectives and campaigns in our cities, without asking what projects, collectives and campaigns are already being fought for. Instead of building new movements in cities we are not from, we need to commit to learning about and supporting the struggles that are already taking place. When we see a gap, we need to create new spaces that are in communication with and directly connected to established ones, enhancing community struggles rather than replacing them.

Centering true leaders—If we have the privilege to be mobile, are new to our cities, our neighborhoods, and the struggles they represent, we should not be the faces and voices of them. We must support existing campaigns and movements by using our privilege to center the voices, bodies and leadership of those who have been fighting them for the longest. We must end approaches to activism which are about generating brands and building careers for privileged activists. Real solidarity means humility, sharing our struggles, and consistently deferring to the authority and leadership of local, Black, Brown, poor and working activists.

Holding institutions accountable—If we are to meaningfully challenge gentrification and displacement, our alliances as activist-intellectuals with the academy have to end once and for all. We need to hold academic institutions accountable for profiting off Black, Brown and Indigenous genius while policing Black and Brown communities within and around them, and investing their endowments in their murder. Radical movements need to boycott institutions that displace oppressed people by refusing to host conferences, panels and events within them. When we find ourselves coerced into participating in these institutions as students or faculty, we need to speak up about the violence they are continuously perpetrating on oppressed neighborhoods, and build movements for direct resistance on the inside.

Ending the stigma of Black and Brown spaces—As Black and Brown people, we have the capacity to perpetrate racist values, and as queer people, we are capable of transphobia and homophobia. Especially when moving into communities with which we are not familiar, our desire for safety doesn’t justify labeling Black and Brown neighborhoods as sexist, transphobic or homophobic. For in everyone of these spaces, there are women, trans and queer people with their own demands and needs, different from our own. We need to call for an end to “feminist” and “queer” projects—art shows, dance parties, concerts, businesses—that infiltrate and desecrate Black and Brown spaces. Gentrification always does violence to women, trans and queer people, and so is never feminist, never about queer power.

Supporting grassroots—over nonprofit—resistance—We need to stop focusing on nonprofit work as the primary site of revolutionary change. It is not, and never will be. Nonprofits institutionalize the demands of militant movements, burnout activists with bureaucratic minutia, and limit the scope of oppressed communities in their fight for justice. Moreover, the paid positions at these organizations are regularly taken up by activists with educational and economic privilege, granting them the capital to push out other queers and people of color in the name of activism. We need to disinvest from the nonprofit industrial complex, and reinvest into oppressed communities, which means supporting the radical projects Black, Brown, poor and working people have already begun in their own neighborhoods.

Knowing our role—As queer people of color with educational and economic privilege, we are oppressed people who simultaneously share ties with communities of great power. Our largest role in the gentrification process is often inviting those communities into spaces where they are not welcome. Our oppressed identities can be seen as a form of legitimacy for white, wealthy, cis and straight people, justification for their moving into poor, Black, Brown, queer and trans spaces. Even when we ourselves are openly welcomed into certain neighborhoods, we need to be cognizant of who we are bringing with us, and under what pretenses. This means stepping back from spaces in which we are not welcome, and having real conversations with partners, family and friends about when they are not welcome.

Ultimately, capitalism is what drives gentrification, just as it drives militarism, colonialism, and all past and current forms of displacement. Resistance must take on bigger forms than mere personal choices, and structural change requires direct action. But if we as the communities claiming to advocate for oppressed people everywhere only theorize change as we damage the cities and neighborhoods around us, our movements undo themselves. If we cannot as displaced people halt the behaviors that displace others, revolutionary solidarity is not possible.

For our movements to grow in the ways which are most threatening, and for the most radical voices to be centered, we need to start recognizing when the best position for us to take is on the sidelines, just as we should recognize when the best way for us to support a community is by leaving it alone.

Special thanks to Mayadet Patitucci Cruz

An Open Letter from a Black Man to His White Family in a Moment of Violence

The name of the movement is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume you take issue with the statement.

The name of the movement is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume you take issue with this statement.

To the white people I share home with,

I’ve gotten degrees. I’ve been published. I’ve spoken at academic gatherings. I’ve taught classes and workshops. I’ve built up a resume. I’ve gained employment in the acceptable fields of social justice. For years, you told me these were the things I needed to do in order to be listened to.

I’ve participated in direct action. I’ve been arrested. I’ve survived nearly three decades in a country that hates me. I’ve predicted the formation of movements, the swell of riots, months and even years before their occurrences. I don’t know what else I need to do to be legitimized, be validated, to be worthy of being heard and taken seriously.

I am exhausted from trying to get you on board with a movement–one that mirrors those from previous eras you claim to revere, and that has reignited calls for social transformation once heralded by the writers, speakers, musicians and artists you claim to hold dearest. I wonder if you understand what any of the struggles which have occurred during your lifetime were ever actually about.

I am not naive nor arrogant enough to believe my imploring can achieve in this moment what centuries of Black imploring has not been able to. I am not foolish enough to believe this letter will be the letter that changes your minds. I write because I need to speak, because I am in pain. I write because I cannot bear any more condescension, more indifference. I write to tell you I am not going to.

The cry of this moment is Black Lives Matter. If you are not involved, I assume this is a statement you take issue with.

When we say Black Lives Matter, we mean Black people are the experts in their own lives, their own history, their own struggles. We mean your opinions are not necessary, and that debating you is a waste of our valuable energy, mental health and time. We mean you do not get to speak on issues with which you have no experience, which you have not studied nor researched, but on which you feel entitled enough to award yourself authority. We mean you must be quiet and listen to Black people.

You can no longer hide behind your idealism. The very existence of this moment proves your ideals to be misled and hollow.

If legislation alone could save us, the 13th Amendment, Special Field Order No. 15, and Brown vs. Board would have saved us. If electoral politics alone could save us, then the innumerable Black justices and representatives elected in the last half century would have saved us. If white saviors could save us, we would have been saved a million times over. But we are here and we are dying, and you are watching from the sidelines.

You call me an anarchist. You say you fear chaos. If you knew what it means to be Black, what is happening in your towns and cities daily, you’d know that chaos and bloodshed are already here. They are visited on women, on people of color, on poor people, workers, on immigrants, on trans people, on queer people, and they are done so constantly. Chaos is our bed, our sheets, our water, our front steps, our sidewalks. The systems you insist we trust to address it, the leaders you elected, are its source. Your fear of movement, and your denial of this reality, is what allows it to continue.

This is the last time I will say this to you:

Black people are dying. Every day, Black trans women are dying. Black children are dying. Black mothers and sisters are dying. Maybe I have to die for you to understand what this means.

If the demands of our movement are unclear to you, that is your fault. We have stated them concretely and concisely, over and over again–not just at this moment, but at every time in history Black people have fought for their lives. Don’t pretend that because the sources you read don’t report it, the information is unavailable. Don’t act as though your selective hearing is the result of our lack of organizing. Don’t tell the leaders who have penned the most passionate pleas for justice in US history they need to be more articulate.

And when the police come for me, don’t cry. When I am murdered by a supremacist in the street, don’t mourn me. If I am put in a cage for speaking out, don’t call it a travesty. Because it is happening, has been happening unceasingly for the last five centuries, and you have done nothing to stop it.

Do not feign shock at the inevitable. It disrespects me, and the memory of every Black person your system has purposefully killed.

When I tell you my needs, talk of my pain, my anger, all my stories, it is a privilege and blessing you haven’t earned. It is a profound form of vulnerability I engage not because you deserve it, but because I as a Black person choose to share it with you. I do so for the sole reason that I do not wish to lose you from my life, do not want the most core parts of my existence to be hidden from you. But when you refuse to look, they remain invisible. When you resist seeing, you deprive yourself of authentic entrance into who I truly am, and what I truly need from you.

And your denial cannot protect you, just as my silence cannot protect me.

This movement is happening without you, despite you. But real transformation is not possible unless you listen deeply, sincerely, even when it is painful, and take brave action at your own risk to fight for the things the Black community is demanding of you.

When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.

A son, brother, nephew and grandson of Black, queer liberation

Guest Post – The Real Barriers to Care: What We Truly Need to Combat HIV

Cassie Warren is a health educator, activist and youth worker dedicated to radical access to affirming health services, especially for trans and queer young people. She works at the Broadway Youth Center in Chicago–a community space for trans and queer youth experiencing homelessness.

Last month, Cassie was invited by UNICEF to speak on a panel about PrEP, a new pill that prevents the acquiring of HIV. They took the opportunity to address publicly not merely the barriers that keep trans and queer young people–particularly those of color–from getting on PrEP, but the structures of US healthcare that purposefully deny effective and affirming care for oppressed people at large. Here is what they had to say:

Young, trans and queer activists reminding us what really stands in the way of healthcare.

Young, trans and queer activists reminding us what really stands in the way of healthcare.

Today, I will be speaking from my current experience and relationships with young people. I help young folks navigate the American healthcare system, and provide supportive services and resources to primarily Black, trans and queer young people experiencing homelessness in Chicago, at a community space called the Broadway Youth Center.

I hope that I can contribute to this convening by illuminating the policy changes that could remove some of the barriers in writing PrEP prescriptions for young people, and the demands we should be making of our healthcare system when it comes to creating a landscape where PrEP is accessible to all young folks.

The successes I share with you today are largely due to the frameworks we use and our model of care.

We provide integrated social and medical services in a center that only serves young people. We believe there should be multiple points of access to these services. A young person may come to our space to get a hot meal, a state ID voucher, or to get some sleep, and they may stay or come back for community meeting, an HIV test, or our GED program. We believe young people are the experts in their own lives and position ourselves as resources or as advocates for the resources they tell us they need.

We think there should be as few barriers as possible to accessing health care, that your documentation status doesn’t matter, that young people know what’s best for themselves, and that all gender expressions are valid, important, deserving of celebration. We utilize harm reduction, strengths-based, and transformative justice approaches to all our work.

Because of the context and setting in which we provide our services, we are able to make them accessible to the folks most likely to be turned away or banned from other social and health services. Yet, we still experience structural barriers that keep us from getting PrEP to the folks interested in starting. Three concrete policies whose support could remove some of these barriers and benefit young people are:

  1. People under 18 need to be actively included in trails that are fortifying PrEP access nationally and internationally.
  2. The creation of medication assistance programs for young people who are on their parent’s health insurance, but don’t want to use it because of the physical, emotional, or economic risks tied to depending on their biological families.
  3. Same day initiation of PrEP, or getting folks who express interest on the pill as soon as possible.

However, while these policy changes would put us in a place to provide a prescription for young people, successful PrEP access and use is not just about writing a prescription. It is about creating real paths to affirming healthcare for the young people most at risk of acquiring new HIV infections: Young, Black, trans and queer people, a significant number of whom are homeless.

I’d like to talk about the things that are integral to address when we are working together to support youth in accessing and taking PrEP successfully.

The young people I’m speaking of face significant barriers to basic resources on a daily basis, even outside of the barriers inherent within the US healthcare system. A lack of stable housing means a lack of storage, lack of security for your belongings, and a constant preoccupation with and hyper awareness of your surroundings. It means stress and anxiety stemming from not knowing where your next meal might come from, to constant surveillance and harassment by police. It often means you don’t have regular access to personal documentation, like an ID, social security card or birth certificate.

When I hear folks in healthcare concerned about young people adhering to the regiment of a medication like PrEP, I don’t often hear them talking about the structural oppressions that make adherence difficult to impossible: Lack of safe storage; the bureaucracy around Medicaid that makes it so easy to lose care; being denied services based on gender markers, or a new name that doesn’t match medical records; not having state ID, a social security number, or other documentation; lack of bus fare to pick up or refill prescriptions; the criminalization of survival crimes and/or quality of life crimes; limited access to a consistent phone number or email; the lack of youth-only spaces.

Within the US healthcare system there are mountainous barriers for Black, Brown, trans and queer young people–costs, required ID, not to mention care often is not gender-affirming, and rarely gives youth the ability to consent to their own healthcare. There is inherent harm and trauma in the medical system, especially for the young people at highest risk for acquiring HIV.

In the US, people without access to health insurance have learned to receive their care at hospitals and ERs. A study conducted by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago found that young, Black, trans and queer people report hospitals as the second most harmful institutions in which they experience violence, second only to the criminal justice system.

And really, there is no difference.

When many of these young people attempt to access services at hospitals, they are regularly arrested or institutionalized. I’m going to say that again, because I want to make sure this point is clear:

The populations at highest risk for HIV are poor, young, Black, trans and queer folks, and often, when they attempt to seek services from public outlets, they are arrested or institutionalized.

The US healthcare system is one that often takes away our ability to have options and control over our own health, a place where many people feel shamed for their lifestyle choices, and where power dynamics are rarely in the favor of young people, people of color, trans and queer people. But PrEP should challenge all of these things.

PrEP and shame do not go together. PrEP is a new option we can offer young people. PrEP gives power and control to the receptive partner.

Often, because of the heirarchical structures valued by our healthcare system, the inherent abilities of young people are erased. But if we take the time to see their strengths, to recognize and defy those structural barriers, we are able to figure out how to meet folks where they are, and return some of their power to them. We cannot talk about successful uptake of PrEP and young people without being strengths-based, without being sex-positive, without being youth-centered, and without giving youth the ability to identify and address all their health needs.

The challenges surrounding offering PrEP to young people should not be seen as threats, but instead as opportunities. For they shine light on the inadequacies of our healthcare system, and bring into sharp focus the barriers we need to address and remove.

We have a highly effective, safe pill we can take to prevent HIV. But PrEP only works when we are given real access to it.

If trans folks are the most vulnerable population, and we don’t have trans competent doctors, we create barriers to access. If we arrest or institutionalize poor, Black young people for attempting to seek the care they need, we create barriers to access. And without access to take it, PrEP cannot work.

If we want young people to take PrEP, to get engaged in primary care, then we have to provide gender affirming services. We have to get rid of security guards and police in our healthcare clinics. We need to affirm young people’s consensual pleasures. We need more youth-only healthcare spaces, and insurance companies need to survive on something other than capitalism.

Last week at the exact same time that marriage equality passed in the United States, a vibrant, courageous, young trans person I work with was killed. This is crucial to note, because the successful advancement of policy does not equal the distribution of resources that are affirming, safe and accessible to all, especially those at the intersections of multiple oppressed and policed identities.

Ending HIV is bigger than policy, bigger than the healthcare system alone. It is about ending prisons and detention centers as the primary places people receive housing and healthcare. It is about centering trans leadership across movements and communities. It is about a commitment to strong social services, including public education, child care, and reproductive freedom. It is about the decriminalization of street economies, of sex work, of homelessness. It is about ending all forms of violence that treat Black, trans and queer communities as undeserving of love, of respect, of care.

There is a clear, continued pattern, a pattern in which healthcare policy and practices uplift folks who are already privileged to have access to more resources that lower their risk, and provide them more support. At the last several PrEP summits I’ve attended, researchers talk about the outstanding number of people lining up for PrEP, but say that they are rarely the folks most at risk for acquiring HIV.

The time to recognize the barriers and challenges facing young, Black, trans and queer youth and respond in ways that are supportive, humanizing, and focused on their voices, is now.

PrEP can help all of us get to zero, or it can merely help certain communities with access get to zero. It can ramp up care for the communities that have always been most impacted by the HIV virus, or it can further widen the gap in racial, economic, and gender disparities that continue to fuel the HIV epidemic.

Now is the time to decide to be on the right side or wrong side of justice. PrEP works, but only when we actively dismantle the barriers to young folks’ access to it.

Who Represents Us?: On Popular Culture and Social Justice

This was never the face of our movement.

This was never the face of our movement.

One of my least favorite situations to find myself in is at a party, a bar, or a club, cornered into a conversation about a pop song, a music video, a TV series, and its radical implications for social movements.

I dread these conversations.

I hate their jargony language and circular theory. I detest their pretense of inclusivity, when they regularly shun those without the vocabulary and training to participate in them. But what I really can’t stand is the immense power they place on corporate representations of our communities, over the actual people building movements, the people in the room, the people having the conversation.

How did so many straight, cis, light skinned, skinny, corporate-backed figures and the innocuous art generated (by teams of outside writers, producers and directors) under their names become the avatars for the revolutionary actions being taken by trans, queer, immigrant, Black and Brown feminist movements on the ground? Who has the power to build, and who benefits from, these peculiar connections?

My unwavering position in these conversations is this: Not only is pop culture at best a mere reflection of the hard work we, our neighbors, our family and friends are doing in real time, it is a reflection that is used intentionally to distract our activism and placate its demands.

We exist in an era where much of our activism’s values and perspectives are rooted in academia. We know this is not an accident. We know that for the last four decades, the state and private sector have worked tirelessly to gut labor, infiltrate radical political parties, and sate the transformational demands made by students, feminists, civil rights activists and oppressed communities everywhere through the specters of corporatized higher learning, and the nonprofit industrial complex. We know that, up until very recently, our community movements and their hard earned victories had been largely replaced by academic institutions and privately-funded non-government organizations.

The history of austerity and appropriation that got us here is beyond our control. What we are responsible for, however, is recognizing the values that come to us not only from outside of our community movements, but which were introduced purposefully to confuse our goals, and weaken the strength of our collective organizing.

In a moment like the present, when new and inspirational movements are springing up around the globe, we are in a unique position to return to the values of our communities, hijacked for so long by the academy and private sector, and rethink some of the skewed teachings we’ve been laboring under. Cultural critique is one of these values I believe is worth revisiting.

A core belief undergirding cultural critique as it is laid out by the academy is that the interrogation of media—often mainstream media—will reveal larger and more poignant truths about the social positions of the communities represented therein. While I don’t believe this basic premise is untrue, I think the degree to which it dominates conversation, theory and practice in many activist circles is detrimental. It not only limits our scope to the unending analysis of corporate media, but diverts our attention away from the violence, turmoil and resistance happening all around us in our own communities.

We can see how prioritizing this kind of interrogation can derail movement building in immediate and obvious ways—case in point, generating debate over the VMAs while austerity measures reach new extremes, and more Black women die in police custody. But there are still deeper ways this type of critique throws us off the path of genuine and ongoing movements for justice.

The most toxic effect of this approach is the false sense it creates that corporate-generated icons are actual representations of who we are. Instead of looking to our elders, our youth, our sisters, and each other to better understand the political realities we are navigating, we turn to mainstream media as the best barometer for the true state of our communities and movements.

This is incredibly beneficial for wealthy corporations and media conglomerates. It means they can quell dissent, influence opinion, evade accountability for reparations, all while not merely maintaining their wealth, but growing it on the backs of the struggles meant to challenge them. It means that we confuse projections of ourselves in mainstream media with our own personal empowerment, and are left hopeful for concrete political and economic shifts that aren’t coming. Our political energies become focused on the ways we are represented by giant companies, not the powers, rights and resources we lack in our daily lives. And when the very corporations denying us those rights produce a TV show about trans people, or give a Black actress a prestigious award, we are tricked into believing we are being honored, respected, listened to. We are tricked into thinking this is the mark of our movement’s success.

When we demand representation, inclusion, what are we asking for? Do we want to see more people that look like us on TV, or do we want our voices to be heard by a state that is working harder than ever to censor and discredit them? Were Grammys, Oscars or primetime television slots ever what our movements set out in search of? And how are we actually benefiting from their supposed achievement?

Of course mainstream representations of our communities have real impacts on the ways we are treated and understood. Of course having trans actors, Black women heroes, and queer love depicted on primetime television changes the visibility of those identities in ways that may make many of our lives easier. But those shifts come from our own communities first. Media are always working to catch up with the resistance oppressed people engage out of necessity. We need to stop crediting corporations for selling our own images back to us, stop looking to the mirror for answers to the questions of our safety, sovereignty and strength—especially when the forces behind that mirror are working so hard to deny us racial, political and economic justice, all while fetishizing fictitious versions of our lives.

We have got to stop kidding ourselves that Viacom and Time Warner are in the business of empowering Black women, celebrating diverse bodies, or fomenting social transformation of any kind. They are in the business of mass marketing, which means they will produce whatever is popular, whatever captivates the widest audience—and in a time like the present, that means addressing the issues that have been roiling beneath the surface of our communities for so long, the ones that organizers have forced into a national light through direct action.

No corporation is so foolish as to produce any media dangerous enough to provide the tools to its own undoing. When the social tide turns, so will the ways we are represented, and the allegiances of the conglomerates who take on that representation.

Using our struggles as a provocative backdrop is not the same as participating in them. Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are not the leaders whose courageous actions have provided the ongoing battles of our people with new energy, new vision, and new direction. Alicia Garza, Jennicet Gutierrez, and the women, Black, Brown, poor, working, trans and queer members of our own immediate communities are.

Art, media and culture are important. They have the capability to sustain, unite, resist, educate, renew, and provide the outlets for imagining brilliant new futures for ourselves and our people. But we have got to start drawing the distinction between the art, media and culture that we create for ourselves, and those which are produced for our consumption by the parties who actively oppress us. We have got to recognize the difference between the voices and visions of our own communities, and the gimmicks that fool us into reinvesting into old systems, the very ones who ingeniously absorb and profit off the powerful cultural forms originally created to fight against them.

We might love a figment of popular culture, might connect to it deeply. It might very well be empowering, nurturing, even healing for us to see ourselves represented in media in ways that challenge the hateful depictions we are regularly forced to confront and absorb. But this doesn’t mean that media is for us. It doesn’t mean its goal is anything more than profit. The same networks that show us as heroes on a sitcom will paint us as villains on the news a few hours later. We are not doing each other or our movements any favors by entrenching ourselves in complex critiques that strengthen our allegiances to the corporate bodies that have to be dismantled for us to be free.

Ultimately, the question is what are we willing to leave behind as we move in the direction of liberation? Though we may find comfort in popular culture, what comforts do we need to let go of if our movements are to achieve their deepest goals?

Pop culture may provide real healing from the harsh world we are currently navigating. How do we learn to find that healing within ourselves and each other, from our own communities and their radical traditions of resistance, and not in the vestiges and byproducts of the systems that are trying to kill us?

Happening Now–#BlackOutPride Action Disrupts Chicago Pride Parade

Happening Now: Members of the Black queer community of Chicago are disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade. Here is their public statement:

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march's true history of resistance.

Members of the Black queer Chicago community blocked the Pride Parade for 17 minutes in honor of the march’s true history of resistance.

On this day in 1969, Sylvia Rivera, a Boricua trans woman, threw the bottle that sparked the infamous Stonewall Riot. A year later, she and Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman, co-organized the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in New York City to commemorate the queer upheaval against police violence, which toured the lower east side, ending strategically in front of the New York Women’s House of Detention.

By 1973, only three years after the first march in honor of Stonewall, organization of Pride events around the country were taken over largely by wealthy cisgender gays and lesbians, looking to transform the march that began in New York from political protest to an opportunity for mainstream visibility. That same year—coinciding with homosexuality being removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s list of Mental Disorders and Conditions—trans and gender non-conforming people saw themselves banned from parades and gatherings around the nation.

The birth of the Gay and Lesbian movement began with the banishing of those members of the queer community still unable to assimilate—the very same people whose direct actions in Compton’s Cafeteria, Cooper’s Donuts and Stonewall had sparked the movement.

We recount this history to remind ourselves not only that the root of our movement as queer people is the militant resistance of state violence in all its forms, but also that the Pride Parade as a tradition is built on the intentional silencing of the members of our community most impacted by that same violence—trans people, women, people with disabilities and mental illness, Black and Brown folk, indigenous people, immigrants, sex workers and street youth.

Today in Chicago, specifically in the Lakeview Neighborhood, young trans and queer people from around the city in search of a safe and affirming space find themselves constantly surveilled by police and local neighborhood watch organizations, profiled by business owners and wealthy residents. Blogs like Crime in Boystown vilify youth for engaging in survival trades, while organizations like the Center on Halsted invite police into their space to arrest, harass and surveil them.

Queer youth experiencing homelessness, and the plight of trans and queer communities of color, is not merely an issue of transphobia and homophobia in Black and Brown communities; It is equally about classism, racism, and gentrification. It is about the draconian measures of austerity that push our people onto the street, refuse us reentrance into real estate and the job market, and the police and prison systems which work together to ensure we stay locked out. Young, Black, Brown, Native, trans, poor, working, immigrant and disabled people are suffering because every system of governance in this country is geared to destroy us.

Today, Black trans and queer people and our allies are purposefully disrupting the Chicago Pride Parade.

We do so to honor our trans, queer, Black, Brown and Native ancestors. We do so because our people are dying at the hands of police, military and state-funded militias around the globe. We do so because we refuse to be tokenized by the same corporations that sponsor state violence, refuse a living wage and profit off our poverty. We do so because young queer people need a better outlet to celebrate themselves than a mire of consumption and sexual violence.

We are blocking the intersection of Addison and Halsted in the heart of Boystown, blocks away from the Center on Halsted, Whole Foods, Wrigley Field and the Addison CPD station. It is an intersection not just of major Chicago streets, but of corporate greed, private exploitation of queer communities, hyper policing, and ground zero for violence perpetrated against trans and queer young people by the city of Chicago.

We are inspired by Boston activists who recently protested the Pride Parade in their city. Acknowledging that we are only a small faction of the Black queer community in Chicago, and an even smaller faction of our Black queer family worldwide, we would like to present our goals in staging this action, and our suggestions for the future demands of our movement in Chicago and beyond:

  • End Stop and Frisk—We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and demand the permanent abolition of the racist police state. The queer community must call for an immediate end to racist policies that make trans and queer people of color into the targets of deadly state violence!
  • End the Policing of Trans and Queer Youth—It’s time young trans and queer people—especially those that are Black, Brown, undocumented and experiencing homelessness—be recognized as the leaders they are. We demand an end to the criminalizing of youth in our community for doing what they need to do to survive!
  • Reopen Schools and Mental Health Clinics—We demand the Emanuel administration be held accountable for the violence it continues to perpetrate against Black, Brown and working communities in the city of Chicago. Reopen all closed schools and mental health clinics—provide real resources to Black, Brown, disabled, mentally ill, homeless, queer and youth communities!
  • Trauma Center on the South Side—Until there is a real redistribution of resources in our city, we need support in dealing with the inevitable violence that is the result of poverty. We reject the Obama Presidential Library and call for a trauma center on the South Side now!
  • No New Police, No New Jails—As Black queers we stand in solidarity with all communities targeted by state violence, especially queer immigrant and undocumented communities. We support the abolition of detention centers, prisons and psych words. End deportations, raids and racist profiling! Stop funding police and jails, and provide our communities with real social services!
  • Demilitarize Around the Globe–We recognize that we are caught in a global economy driven at its core by militarism. The growing violence we face in our neighborhoods is the same violence faced by our people in Palestine, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere US colonialism profits off our blood. Demilitarize the police, divest from weapons manufacturers and prisons, and hands off our 1st Amendment rights!
  • End Corporate Exploitation of Our Community—We are tired of corporations using opportunities like Pride to market to us while they continue to thrive off our poverty. We stand in solidarity with the Fight for 15, and demand a living wage and the right to unionize for all poor and working people! We also demand that the largest Lakeview nonprofits—the Howard Brown Health Center and the Center on Halsted—provide the same to their entry level employees and other youth workers at the Broadway Youth Center, the Brown Elephant, and the Crib!
  • No More Wage Theft—In the Lakeview neighborhood, Taco Bell, Target and other chains regularly hire young trans and queer people to meet corporate quotas, then fire them within weeks, often without properly paying them. We demand justice in the form of jobs, fair wages, full benefits and the right to unionize!
  • Trans and Queer Shelters Now—Spaces like the Crib and the Broadway Youth Center provide important shelter for homeless youth, but they are not enough! Until there is an end to poverty and homelessness in our communities, we demand funding for existing services and investment in new ones, like Project Fierce!

We are vocally rejecting Pride as a desecration of our history of resistance. We call not for its transformation, but reinvestment in our own communities and legacies of struggle.

We cannot celebrate the passage of gay marriage, and predict that the next round of new laws will be about limiting the rights granted by marriage, especially for undocumented, trans, poor and working people. In order for us to be free, reproductive self-determination, citizenship, and relevant health care cannot be tethered to the approval of our relationships by a settler state. As our Black and Native ancestors have long understood, the state will not respect the myriad ways we find to love, grow, support and protect each other from its violence–no matter what papers we possess. It is our own consent, not the false consent of our oppressors, we seek as we move forward.

We do not wish to assimilate, because we cannot trust a social order so comfortable with inequity, so dependent on violence to maintain its own imbalance. Instead, we demand the shifts in power and resources that, though they may be small steps, represent movement in the direction of our own systems, our own spaces, our own visions for liberation.

Black Power. Trans Power. Queer Power. Undocumented Power. Street Youth Power. Sex Worker Power.

All Power to Our People!


Vogue Is Not For You: Deciding Whom We Give Our Art To

When visibility reveals itself to be exploitation, we don't have to condone it.

When visibility reveals itself to be apolitical exploitation, we don’t have to condone it.

I began voguing as a sixteen year old high school student.

Still struggling with what it meant to be gay and Black, learning of the ballroom scene both relieved me and ignited within me whole new passions. It had never occurred to me that I could be openly queer without sacrificing my Blackness. It had never occurred to me that whole communities, whole traditions, whole histories existed that were Black, queer, Brown, femme, trans, poor, working all at once. My original interest in vogue, therefore, grew from the deep desire to be all parts of myself authentically and simultaneously.

Learning to vogue was learning that the embodied knowledge of my multiple oppressed identities had always informed one another. Once I understood this within my own body, I learned to see it in my family, my community and the larger social structures that governed my life.

At least once a week, someone sends me an article or video of voguing appearing on a European runway, in an upscale art gallery, or a new music video by a pop artist, and asks me what I think. The inquiry always revolves around the ethical use of vogue: Were the dancers named and given credit? Did the artist properly compensate the voguers she worked with? Who is in the audience consuming the dance form? Ultimately, the question is, can voguing be appropriately appropriated?

My answer is always the same: No, it can’t. Appropriation is always a form of coercion, and that coercion is born out of white supremacy. Here is what I mean:

There is a deep history of white supremacy in the ballroom scene. Much of it was controversially documented in the cult classic Paris Is Burning. The film’s thesis is ultimately that trans/queer people of color are doomed to their own depraved outsiderness, and while their yearning for acceptance by the mainstream is futile, it is, at least, flashy. While the movie itself is a white supremacist document (and its conclusions about the ballroom scene tainted by its white cis director), its very existence uncovers something real: There is a real issue of our community finding its value in its consumption by other, more privileged communities.

Vogue is blowing up in new ways in European dance studios, in suburban recreational centers, in movies and music videos. As has long been the case, voguers often don’t see themselves as successful, don’t feel they can be taken seriously as dancers until they are able to teach, perform or be featured on one of these platforms. The internalized message is clear: Voguing at a ball is the starting point, but voguing for the elite is the mark of success.

This mentality results in the disinvestment in poor and working queer communities for the sake of teaching vogue in spaces that never created or shaped it, but that are fascinated by it, and have the resources to consume it. Instead of expert voguers taking pride in passing on their knowledge to the young oppressed people most in need of it, new generations of our community are abandoned for the notoriety of white, wealthy, straight, cis patronage. Opportunities for mentorship, empowerment and intergenerational solidarity are lost, and the alternative only serves to further make the plight of our communities invisible—obscuring homelessness, poverty, state violence and police brutality behind the glossy sheen of commercial spectacle.

And yes, even when artists of color appropriate our art form, white supremacy is still at play. Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Lopez, Estelle, Janelle Monae, Lil Mama, and FKA Twigs have as much to do with our exploitation as Madonna, Lady Gaga and Jennie Livingston. For philosophy aside, our cultural cameos in these (corporate) artists’ work have done nothing—do nothing—to illuminate our histories of struggle, nor to combat the structures that generate our need for resistance in the first place. Cis people, straight people, wealthy people, even those who share some of our other oppressed identities, still desecrate our art and our community when they objectify our aesthetic, without taking on accountability for the ways they benefit from the violence we face at the hands of the systems that are cutting their checks.

Because there is such a long and well-documented history of the appropriation of vogue, it is one I do my best to take a hard line in discontinuing. I will not teach voguing to professional dancers, to companies who want to use it to make choreography. I will not teach it in white spaces, in wealthy spaces, in spaces that are not queer-controlled and affirming. My conviction for taking this stance is this:

Voguing belongs to queer people of color—specifically trans, poor, working, sex-working, homeless and young queer people of color. We created it, we need to be the ones dancing it, and we need to be the ones protecting it. In a society that is constantly limiting our access to housing, education, land and resources of all types, it is laughable that the privileged find such discomfort in our limiting their access to our bodies, traditions and genius. Anyone who objects to being told they can’t vogue needs to first ask themselves how they are impacted by the systems that result in the daily deaths of queer people of color, and what they are doing to combat our institutional disenfranchisement.

I currently work at a drop-in center for homeless trans and queer youth. Voguing is part of our everyday routine. Every day I watch young queer people use it to resolve disputes, lift their spirits when they’re feeling defeated, affirm their bodies, build their confidence and shape themselves as artists, teachers and leaders in their community. There is nothing more powerful to witness, and no better use of the form I can think of.

I am blessed to be able to co-teach voguing workshops at this same drop-in center. The guidelines that ground the philosophy and values of our workshops, and which we try our hardest to incorporate into every new session, are these:

We have knowledge – Our lived experiences as Black, Brown, poor, working, homeless, immigrant, sex-working, trans and queer people have taught us skills, given us knowledge that no one else can claim, no matter how much they study or read about us.

We have the right to share our knowledge with each other – Our wisdom is real and valid, and we are the deserving recipients of each other’s learned knowledge. The truths we posses don’t become valuable when those from outside our community take an interest in them. They are valuable because they come from us!

Our needs change – The conditions we need to share our knowledge—like the conditions we need to live full lives—change as we change. Our learning space, our communities and our movements need the flexibility to change as we do. We are the ones who will determine when, where and how those changes occur.

We are experts – We are the voices that need to be heard, and we are the ones most in need of hearing them. No one understands queerness, transness, homelessness more deeply than we do. No one is better prepared to teach us how to survive than we are. No one can come up with a more vivid vision for the future of our community than we can.

Our history is now – We are agents of change! We are the shapers of our community’s future! This realization teaches us to build our communities on trust, generosity and affirmation, and to act with the knowledge that future generations of our people depend on us!

The point of all this is that voguing is a tool we created, not merely for expression, but for organizing, empowering, surviving the daily violence of a white supremacist society. This tool will never mean the same thing, can never serve the same purpose for those who do not share our same need for survival.

The benign belief that crossing boundaries always promotes diversity, that sharing space and culture results in sharing privileges and resources, needs to be finally debunked. For this same soft rhetoric is destroying Black and Brown communities, forcing people out onto the street and filling up prisons. The truth is that when the powerful cross boarders, the flow tends to be unilateral. When the wealthy lay hands on our culture, the outcome is our displacement, not our inclusion. The endpoint is the depoliticizing of our most sacred sources of resistance, which only benefits those who seek to quell our demands for change.

The best way to support our community, to show us love, is to give us room to affirm ourselves and each other, and to share our wisdom with those who really need it. It is to fight alongside us the systems that deny us our basic rights and resources—heterosexism, transphobia, prisons, policing, gentrification—not robbing us further in the name of visibility and tolerance.

Special thanks to NIC Kay.