Flag Wars and Gayborhoods

Imagine a utopia. Queer paradise. A place where you were constantly surrounded by pleasant, like-minded people that all get along. A place where you never had to worry about discrimination or prejudice. Life is just easy-going without any unnecessary negative experiences. Theoretically that’s what a gayborhood, or a neighborhood with a large number of LGBTQ+ residents, is supposed to be. And while there are plenty of benefits to living in a place filled with people like you, there also comes some strong negative impacts.

In George Chauncey’s Gay New York he discusses the queer communities in the late 1800s that were established in different parts of New York. Contrary to popular belief, prior to World War II gay men were able to congregate and share their identities and were not forced to live solitary lives. These are the first gay neighborhoods in the United States that we know of, granted they consisted primarily of cis gay men so they are fairly different from the ones we see in large cities today. These queer oases facilitated the creation of a very strong gay culture and gave members of the queer community outlets to showcase talents, socialize with people that had similar identities, and form romantic relationships with one another. They also served as a sort of barrier to the policing of queerness by creating a safe space.

Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras’ 2003 documentary Flag Wars depicts a more modern version of gay neighborhoods. It follows the conflict in a Columbus, Ohio neighborhood between the gay and African American communities as a large white, LGBTQ+ population begins moving in and gentrifying the neighborhood. Throughout the film the queer population uses civil law to speed up the process of removing the African American community. This includes having parts of the neighborhood declared historic to create restricted housing codes, fighting the presence of low-income housing, and continually making code enforcement complaints. The displacement of these people is treated with such nonchalance. At one point in the documentary, while attending a neighborhood meeting a member of the queer community states, “If you can’t take care of your house then don’t live there.” If only it was that easy. I understand the want to have a clean, beautiful neighborhood but most of these people simply do not have the money to allocate funds to the upkeep of their homes. The woman they were following in particular had a disease and was living off a $500 per month disability check. It is important to remember that people sharing one or both of these identities are all in need of safe spaces and that it is always better to be allied than at each other’s throats.

This is not an isolated incident. Gay neighborhoods typically begin in low-income neighborhoods that are then revamped and given higher taxes, pushing the existing population out of their homes. An influx of LGBTQ+ peoples is now seen as a early marker of gentrification to come.

In addition to gentrification, gay neighborhoods are often not always inclusive to all members of the queer community. Since these neighborhoods are usually of higher income, residents tend to be white and wealthy. There is usually a higher concentration of gay men than women since research shows that lesbians are less likely to live in close proximity to one another. And of course there are populations that are unwanted as in any community, such as prostitutes and those with “strange” kinks, which are pushed out either because of the gentrification or because of harassment by other residents.

I am not saying that gayborhoods are the worst places in the world. I am sure there are some people that have really benefited by living surrounded by others similar to them, especially in the past, knowing they will be safe where they sleep and not hated solely because of their sexual orientation. But it is important to recognize and change the faults of our queer community rather than pretend they don’t exist.

Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color

Society itself has come a long way with the representation of queer peoples in the everyday culture, but there are still a few gaps. Last year, the Lambda Literary Foundation recognized these missing narratives and created Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. Their mission is to “nurture, celebrate, and preserve diversity within the queer poetry community.” They celebrate the multiple voices and experiences within the community, while keeping the content specific enough that it can be a safe space. They emphasize that this journal is not a place for any type of prejudice, oppressive language, or fetishization of the lives of queer people of color. It invites the reader to contact them if they ever feel discriminated against by the language used. Along with the literary journal, this past summer they also put on a reading series where some of the Nepantla poets visited various US cities to share some of their poetry aloud.

In Joseph Epstein’s Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity, he makes it very clear that he is not a fan of the queer community. He throws around words such as cursed and appalling, as well as claims there is nothing that would make him sadder than if one of his son’s came out to be gay. He states, “If I has the power to do so I would wish homosexuality off the face of the earth, I would do so because I think that it bring infinitely more pain than pleasure to those who are forced to live with it.” I selected three poems from the first two issues of Nepantla that I see as responses to the previous statement.

Danez Smith’s On Grace speaks on the beauty of the black, male body. He uses metaphor to compare their physique to religious concepts, such as gospels and miracles,
and their sex to Danez Smithworship. He loves both his blackness and his queerness to the point where he calls out God’s name. Considering that to religious peoples God is perfect and all that is good, the comparisons used in this poem make it pretty clear that Smith does not believe queerness causes widespread pain and anguish, but that it is beautiful and something to be praised.

Mariah L. Richardson’s Butter Cream is more abstract when it comes to describing the love of queerness. In this poem she is speaking on one specific partner, rather than a group of people. In the first stanza she describes her as “soft cake / butter sweet / and light,” and what is more pleasurable than cake? I would argue nothing. She uses various beautiful, intricate language to emphasize the pleasantness of their surroundings, which can also be read as the pleasantness of their intimacy. “Bouquets of / myrrh sandalwood / wafts and billows”, “faux ming vase / bursting of cattails / and pussy willow / tease in the corner”, “the big, big bed / royal purple / gold sheets / satin raw silk /  gregorian chants / whisper lusty devotions”. The most obvious depiction of pleasure is in the last stanzs: “I hear the color red.” Their sex is so wonderful that it is making the impossible Danez Smithpossible. Once again, I do not see any form of pain.

The third poem I selected is by far the simplest of the three. Nashon Cook’s Imagine explains what an orgasm feels like for him. While this does not comment on queerness specifically, given the nature of the literary journal we know that he is a member of the queer community. Once again there are references to churches and preachers as to show the purity of intimacy. The feelings he describes in this poem most definitely can be seen as powerful, but none painful.

Many of the pieces we have covered in this class are fairly old and clinical; while I do think it is important to know the history and theory, there is a need for more contemporary representations of queerness, especially regarding QPOC. In the 16th century when the Spanish were colonizing Aztec land, the indigenous people described their experience and culture as nepantla, a state of in between. In between two identities, two cultures. In between the person you are and the person you wish to be. Nepantla celebrates the in between, and I think we should too.

Pariah

Dee Rees’ 2011 award winning film Pariah   starring Adepero Oduye, Charles Parnell, and Kim Wayans   is about a young black girl accepting her lesbian identity. When the movie begins, Alike (Oduye) is shy and uncertain, but she slowly learns and comes to embrace all of herself.

Alike is a junior in high school whose only friend is the openly lesbian drop-out Laura (Pernell Walker). They hang out in lesbian clubs, in which Laura frequently pressures Alike to find a girl to have her first sexual experience with. Neither of Alike’s parents know about her sexuality, though her mother Audrey (Kim Wayans) has her     suspicions. Disapproving, Audrey forces Alike to wear more feminine clothes and spend less time with Laura. She pushes Alike to befriend Bina (Aasha Davis), a much more feminine girl from church.

Though their relationship starts out rocky, Alike and Bina grow to like each other. Their indifference becomes deep discussion about music and sharing their love for writing, while Laura slowly fades out of the picture. One night after a concert, they end up kissing. Because she has not had any previous experience, Alike is reluctant. But eventually she opens up and it is assumed that they sleep together. The next morning, Alike tries to discuss their relationship but Bina responds by saying they don’t have one. She says she’s not actually gay, just “doing her thing” and urges Alike not to tell anyone. Alike leaves abruptly and, once she gets home, cries her eyes out.

Alike wakes up to her parent fighting. Her mother is screaming about Alike being a dyke while her father Arthur (Charles Parnell) is consistently denying it. Eventually Alike gets involved and finally comes out to her parents. Her mother attacks her, the punches only stopping when Arthur pulls her off. Alike flees to Laura’s house.

Some time later Alike’s father finally comes to visit. He urges her to come home, saying that things will be different. Alike doesn’t acknowledge his statements, instead telling him that she got accepted into an early college program for writing. Alike leaves for California, unable to reconnect with her mother. The film ends with one of Alike’s poems.

Heartbreak opens onto the sunrise
For even breaking is opening
And I am broken
I’m open
Broken to the new light without pushing in
Open to the possibilities within, pushing out
See the love shine in through my cracks?
See the light shine out through me?
I  am broken
I am open
I am broken open
See the love light shining through me
Shining through my cracks
Through the gaps
My spirit takes journey
My spirit takes flight
Could not have risen otherwise
And I am not running
I’m choosing
Running is not a choice from the breaking
Breaking is freeing
Broken is freedom
I am not broken
I’m free.
This storyline definitely has parallels to the narratives of many LGBTQ+ community members, regardless of race, gender, or class. The trauma of being abandoned and seen as a freak by the people closest to you is not something new.
Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity is prevalent throughout this film. Butler argues that gender is not something we have, but something that we continually act out. In the beginning of the film, we see Alike on the way home from the club. While she is still on the bus, she slips out of her baggy clothes and into something more fitted and feminine. Audrey buys and makes Alike wear girly clothing, despite her daughter’s protests. During the scene where Alike comes out to her parents, Audrey tells her husband that Alike is turning into a man. This is what really emphasized the performance of gender. It is not her daughters gender identity or even sex that determines whether or not she is a girl, but how she is acting. And baggy clothes are not something that girls wear. Audrey’s motivations for buying Alike the clothing are so that she will become a “true woman”, and true women are always heterosexual. Of course, Monique Wittig would say that Alike never was and never will be a woman, and somehow I think her mother would agree.