Black Joy

The category is: joyful queer stories | Black Joy – October 21, 2022

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Some of the Black architects of our civil rights movement were part of the LGBTQ+ community, but their legacies, sexualities and gender identities are barely footnotes in our history books.

For me, two ancestors come to mind who deserved more roses while alive: Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray. Bayard was an OG civil rights activist who was the genius – and the gay man – behind the infamous 1963 March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his “I Have A Dream” speech. Pauli was knucking and bucking for race and gender equality as a lawyer, scholar and priest. Pauli’s 700-page documentation of state sanctioned discrimination across the country was nicknamed the “Bible of civil rights law” and became the blueprint that helped the NAACP’s legal team desegregate the nation.

While LGBTQ+ Pride Month in June celebrates visibility and reminds folks that pride is a protest by commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots, October was designated as LGBTQ+ History Month back in 1994 to honor those who have paved - and are paving - a better path for today’s LGBTQ+ community. Just like the rest of American history, there are many Black LGBTQ+ legends whose activism was hushed and shoved to the shadows due to their sexualities, gender identities and race.

Erasure is violence. History is healing when acknowledged properly.

So we’re highlighting Black queer legacies and amplifying the work of Black creatives who are archiving the stories that will spread joy to future generations. But before that, I want to give the mic to two members who recently joined our growing Black Joy family at Reckon. You’ve already interacted with their work. Those Black Joy playlists y’all been jamming to at the end of the newsletter? That’s thanks to Daric Cottingham, a nonbinary culture and entertainment journalist who lives in Los Angeles but proudly shows off their southern roots in their work. MacKenzie Foy, a queer storyteller and archivist out of Baltimore, has been building up our social media presence. Daric and MacKenzie opened up to me about what LGBTQ+ history month means to them:

Daric: Being Black, nonbinary, and queer is something I’m proud of because the forepersons’ shoulders I stand on fought for me to live as out loud and free as I desire to. Iconic activists I try to honor daily, like Marsh P. Johnson, advocated for unhoused LGBTQIA+ youth, those affected by H.I.V. and AIDS, and gay and transgender rights. That communal aspect between Black LGBTQIA+ folks is what I hold near and dear to my heart and take with me every day in my life and work. Lending a hand, raising my voice, and guiding the next generation of Black queer youth so they can be themselves fully in any space they occupy without fear of racism and homophobia/transphobia. Our history emphasizes the importance of continuing this work, and looking back guides our present and future; it grounds us.

MacKenzie: The queer culture I have grown up in comes from a long history of discovery, knowing, and family. Though our history is a site of joy, it sits in the negative space of seeking, hiding, loss. That dynamic has pulled me toward the work of preserving Black and queer histories as an affirmation of life. Our archives remind me that I come from love and truth - and that these are the gifts I bring into the world just by showing up as myself. I often sit with the fact of my good fortune, knowing how many of my ancestors could not live freely the way I can. This gives me a sense of responsibility for Black queer futures and a profound feeling of kinship across generations. And, yes, it does make me proud.

Now that we set the tone for y’all, remember to shoot this newsletter over to your friends and fam so they can get more familiar with the black and brown stripes of the LGBTQ+ pride rainbow.

– Starr

The category is: Black queer joy

Mainstream shows like FX’s “Pose” increased the visibility of New York’s underground queer ballroom culture of the 1980s and 90s. But did you know about the rich history of Alabama’s ballroom community?

A coalition of Black queer creatives are teaming up with historians and archivists at the Invisible Histories Project to bring that history to life through an exhibit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute called “The Fabric of Our Design: Alabama’s Black Queer & Trans History.” Prepare to be immersed in photographs, ball gowns, suits, crowns, t-shirts and other accessories that will tell the story of about 20 Black queer and trans elders, leaders and entertainers who were vital in building the safe havens where Black and brown LGBTQ+ folks found family.

The first exhibit of its kind in Alabama won’t be held until summer 2024, but I went ahead and chatted with two photographers behind the project. Now, the fact that Alabama has a ballroom culture may leave some of y’all’s heads spinning. But there are artists who have been documenting this community for years while also doing activism work. Tony Gaston, a queer photographer who works at Birmingham AIDS Outreach, has been snapping pics of Alabama’s ballroom culture since 2008 when they started their business Tony Haute Sinclair Productions. TC Caldwell, a Black trans photographer, is also the community engagement director of The Knights and Orchids Society in Selma, Ala., a Black-trans led organization, that’s received national recognition for building resources for trans and nonbinary youth and adults in the rural South.

This exhibit piggy-backs off the vision of Tony and Tommy Williams, another Black queer creative. They wanted to film a documentary about Black queer culture because many members of their community were dying from complications caused by HIV. Both Tony and Tommy wanted to archive those stories. Stars began to align after Tony joined the board of Invisible History Project. When the nonprofit scored a grant to expand its collection of southern queer history, Invisible Histories tapped Tony, and Black creatives like them to curate an exhibit honoring Alabama’s Black queer history.

TC and Tony talked to me about the purpose of their photography and the passion behind the exhibit.

Starr: What stories are you archiving through your photography?

TC: Being a queer kid from rural Alabama, I didn’t have examples of how this was supposed to go. My introduction to house families was actually my uncle who was in the Navy during the “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.” era, but he was a part of a house family. He had cousins and parental figures I knew nothing about until I was a couch-surfing young person in Montgomery, Alabama years later, trying to find my people. It was all of them who gave me my life.

I want to make sure that at the core of my work is the light. I think it’s important to tell those heavy stories, too. I know a lot of us are tired of hearing how resilient we are, but I want to show the resistance and push back against society and how Black folks have not only been surviving, but living beautiful, whole lives.

Tony: I used to DJ at the Black gay clubs. So I was like, ‘Well, what better way for me to learn how to take pictures inside a Black club with Black people in low-light situations?’ A photographer, or anybody creative, knows that low lighting is kind of difficult. Then it’s more difficult with Black people. So the archiving process happened there by taking pictures of my community.

I want people to have an authentic experience of what an actual Black gay club looks like in the South. I’m not trying to make it look like Naomi Campbell posing in a club. I like an authentic experience from other avenues of entertainment that people have seen, like “Pose” and things like that. That’s made for TV. There’s a certain type of substance and essence in authenticity. People can recreate things all day long, but it’s not until you see and experience what it actually is that you understand what it is. So if you want to understand the LGBTQ+ community from a Black person’s standpoint, this is what I would like for you to see versus it being a multi-million dollar movie budget produced by other people.

Starr: So can you breakdown the difference between what people see on shows like “Pose” versus that real authentic experience of a southern Black gay club?

Tony: Right now, I feel like culturally we’re in a melting pot, which has its benefits and drawbacks. We have people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, regardless of race, who enjoy the nightlife, who enjoy the ballroom community and things like that. But right now, it’s become kind of warped because their first point of reference is “Pose.” Like they knew nothing about it until “Pose” came out. So when people show up to the balls now, they show up like how “Pose” is. Very elaborate, over the top costumes costing $10,000-$15,000.

If you were to take something like “Paris is Burning,” which is [“Pose’s”] predecessor, you will see that those costumes were like makeshift costumes, because that’s what people had. People went to ballrooms to make money to survive everyday life. These people who are involved now, they are established. They have money. So they can spend tens of thousands of dollars on one outfit to show for 15 minutes and keep going. If we’re going to have a melting pot, we need to understand this history so it doesn’t become diluted and people don’t understand the actual heritage. You have to preserve history because when you forget history you forget where you come from.

Starr: So what was the inspiration behind the “Fabric of Our Design” exhibit?

TC: A lot of people don’t know about the ballroom history here. A good bit of the folks I’ve been talking to have been talking about “Pose” and I’m like, ‘Y’all don’t even know how it’s different in the South and how these folks literally saved my life.’

The importance of this exhibit is to make sure the queer southern ballroom scene got displayed in a way that didn’t get lost in the shuffle of “Pose.” And don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for shows like “Pose.” But it’s very different in the South and it was important to hop on this project to show our people and their beauty – to show that even their struggle has a beauty to it. I’m not saying struggle is a great thing. But I also like how a lot of them got it out the mud and set the tone for the way we move through Montgomery.

I was talking to a trans elder at a coffee shop, and she pointed out to me where the clubs and shit used to be. You’re not going to get that in the media. You’re not going to get that from other places telling the history of Alabama. It’s almost as if it’s forgotten. This is an opportunity for us to show that actually it’s not. We’ve been here and this is who we are.

We’ve always been sharing this narrative that the life expectancy of trans women is 35. And that was some data that they had given out. Nobody was talking about how they were living, right? Again, I sat and talked to a trans elder in her 60s. The oldest I’ve ever interviewed was in her late 70s. I think this project is going to show that not only are they alive and thriving, but they’ve laid the foundation for a lot of the organizing work people have been doing in Alabama.

[Quick side note: TC is right. Although widespread, the stat on trans women’s life expectancy is inaccurate.]

Starr: We talked a lot about what you hope folks will learn for this exhibit. But how has doing the work of collecting these stories fulfilled you?

TC: Being a Black queer kid growing up in rural Alabama, I didn’t have many examples of Black queer folks. When they were mentioned, it was always around shame or being condemned. I just knew I was different. I felt lonely and isolated.

This exhibit is helping me heal that child. This exhibit is allowing me to share the beauty and power of Black queer/trans folks in Alabama. There’s a young TC, somewhere in Alabama or even the South, who will be able to see those who carved out space and love so we wouldn’t have to break ourselves in half to exist. They will see that we have always been here.

Tony: The fulfillment or satisfaction I’m gaining from this overall experience is how much these people are wanting their stories documented to set the tone for the current and following generations. How some are using this to atone for what they may feel guilty for or how they didn’t have a chance then, but they are taking the chance now.

Vibin’ & thrivin’

As TC pointed out, Black queer folks deserve peace, love and joy, too. Here’s two videos paying homage to people and organizations that have carved liberating spaces for their community, both in the past and present.

The 70s may be many moons ago, but if Queen Bey’s album has taught us anything it’s that disco still got us in a chokehold. Many Black and brown queer artists engineered this legendary sound. Those roots are rarely acknowledged. But let me tell you something, ABBA ain’t got nothing on the falsettos of Sylvester Jones Jr., AKA the “Queen of Disco.” The soul-singing songwriter found his voice during his Los Angeles childhood spent performing in a gospel choir . The Pentecostal congregation’s disapproval of Sylvester’s sexuality shoved him out of church and into the underground night scene of San Francisco, where he not only joined a troupe of famous drag performers, but also lured people to the dance floor with his legendary hits like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat)” in 1978.

You can learn more about Sylvester’s colorful legacy of challenging the fluidity of both music and gender by watching our Instagram video made by Reckon sis and videographer Khavolshaia Howze.

In last year’s edition of LGBTQ+ history month, I paid tribute to the 30th anniversary of the nation’s first Black LGBTQ+ Pride celebration in Washington, D.C. The Center of Black Equity reported more than 40 Black pride organizers in the country. These celebrations create spaces where the Black LGBTQ+ community can explore the topics that affect their community and express themselves without shrinking their Blackness.

And during Baltimore Black Pride, folks had a time last week as they enjoyed good music, art and 20 years worth of community building. MacKenzie worked hard to capture all the good vibes for y’all in their video, which you can check out and share on Instagram.

Daric worked their magic for us again by not only educating us about which queer visionaries we should follow, but they also curated a playlist of Black queer bops. So jam out, be proud, live out loud and march to the beat of your own drum.

I’ll introduce y’all to other members of our Black Joy team in the future. For now, stay loud and proud by spreading the Black joy. See ya’ next time, y’all!

The Reckon Report.
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