On the necessity and defiance of queer people of color Dec 8, 2016

by Imana Gunawan

For a lot of queer black people, living is surviving. House of Dinah shows the ways five black Queens are taught or have been taught to own their survival story and speak truth to it. As a queer, non-black person of color, it was an honor to be let in to the sacred space.

A smattering of thoughts during and after House of Dinah

Tough love is necessary. Silence is golden. Don’t let anyone see you cry.

Like it or not, these rules were established for survival.

Family is complicated. Chosen families are maybe even more so. Often queer people of color are kicked out of homes or lose whole support systems after coming out. I wonder if elders in conventional white families are revered as much as they are in chosen QPOC families. Is there almost a personal responsibility to pass on the torch within conventional white families? To ensure that the next generation carries on?

Conventional families rely on personal bonds. Chosen QPOC families rely just as much on personal ties as they do on bonds based on the very political fight for freedom.

When you’re not straight/white/cis, the personal is often forced to be political.

Queer culture is rooted in necessity and defiance.

What do we talk about when we talk about ‘soul’?

In watching a lot of arts performances, I constantly search for a word to describe when someone speaks/dances/sings/performs with such truth—the hurtful kind of truth—so hurtful that it becomes past the point of imitation, satire, or comedy. How do you describe when a performer expresses that truth with such rawness that you, the audience, also feel it in your bones? How do you describe that kind of depth and honesty? How do you describe the ways you can sense when someone performs like something—everything—is at stake?

Sometimes I try to describe that kind of performance with with the word “soul.” Like, “that was s ‘soulful’ performance,” or “they performed with such soul.” Often that word feels inadequate.

Without a doubt, House of Dinah was chock full of these soulful expressions of truth. In this case, this truth is based on harm that many queer people of color (specifically black queer people) have faced throughout history. It’s the you’ve-been-physically-violated kind of truth. It’s the your-family-disowned-you-because-you’re-queer kind of truth. It’s the queer-white-folks-still-fetishize-you kind of truth. It’s the staying-in-the-closet-can-be-an-act-of-survival kind of truth. It’s the you-were-beaten-up-because-you’re-black-or-gay-or-maybe-both kind of truth. It’s the you-were-forced-to-sit-in-the-back-of-the-bus kind of truth. It’s a truth that expresses violence not just enacted by people, but by a whole culture that asserts that queer people of color are less than human. It’s a culture that forces people to give up parts of themselves to survive.

You can’t make fun, imitate, or satirize these truths, because they are based on pure hurt. Sometimes I wonder if performers of color, especially black performers, just have no choice but to perform like something is at stake because for them, something is actually at stake. If they don’t tell these stories themselves, on their own terms, there’s a good chance no one will.

History have shown us time and again that black people turn shit into gold. You don’t have to be black to realize that the black arts history is rich. Think Dinah Washington or Nina Simone or Billie Holiday, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, Beyonce and Solange, Kendrick and J.Cole. And that’s just music. Think hip hop and ball culture, think black and latino queer folks making whole dance traditions like vogue and waacking/punking because they were shut out of mainstream/white LGBTQ spaces. The list goes on.

I hope more queer youth of color can see this show. I hope they get to see people that look like them onstage.

I still can’t get over vogueing performed to music of Dinah Washington. A dance form created by black and latino folks performed to music of a black gay icon. In a show about black Queens. If this isn’t apt I don’t know what is.

How nice to have bore witness to a show about queer black folks by mostly queer black folks and actually for queer black folks. How nice not to have to cater to white audiences. How wonderful it is not have to explain for other people’s sake.

Sometimes I forget how important listening to elders is.

How many younger white folks in the audience caught the reference to “Mississippi Goddamn”? I wonder if they know why Nina Simone wrote it. I wonder if they realize that her lyrics is still applicable today.

I walked out of On the Boards hoping to a God that none of the artists who witnessed Dinah would dare appropriate vogueing.

Nina once said,

Picket lines

School boy cots

They try to say it's a communist plot

All I want is equality

For my sister my brother my people and me

Mother Tamika once said,

They call Dinah Washington the Queen of the Blues, but nothing about her music was blue.

“Who are ‘they’?”

“What do they know about colors, Queens?”

“Yet they’re calling people names.”

James Baldwin once said, “Your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on.” I hope queer youth of color everywhere can remember that.

Imana Gunawan drawing by Tessa Hulls