«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
In this session, the collective members of ILL NANA (kumari, Jelani and Sze-yang) were not able to be present as they were scheduled to perform their piece, FIRE - an “exploration of their personal experiences of racism homophobia and other forms of oppression” - at the 34th Annual Rhubarb Festival. Instead, they had asked Shaunga and Meg, both of whom had been in the previous iteration of the intensive program, to facilitate the session which took the form of a works in progress showing. Much in the same way that ILL NANA's creative process was driven by their personal experiences, many of the dance pieces that we created for ourselves in the intensive explored our painful and difficult lived realities. In the weeks leading up to this session, ILL NANA had focused on cultivating dance as a means of personal expression, giving us dance techniques and advice on choreography, music and costuming so that we could learn to tell our stories through embodied movement.
Throughout the program, one of the participants, Dee confessed their unease with performing. Dee was originally assigned "female" at birth but their preferred gender pronoun at the time was "they" as they no longer felt comfortable being called she (or he for that matter).
They were quite willing to take part in the group choreographic pieces and even to make their own dance piece as per the program requirements but did not feel comfortable performing the piece to those outside of the intensive. Even still, they seemed nervous when it was their turn to share that day. I was more than a bit nervous for them myself. As a fairly reticent person, they seemed to be very tense when talking about the story that inspired their dance piece, a story about their relationship with their estranged father who struggles with substance use issues. I had no idea what would happen once the music started. As I was the person operating the boom box that day, Dee came up to me with their ipod and told me that their song was all ready to go. I just needed to press play. I nodded and said that I would wait for them to give me the signal.
However, they did not get started right away. They paced around for a few seconds. They went to get a few sips of water from their water bottle. They took off the black zip-up jacket that they were wearing and put it in the corner of the room. Visibly agitated, they leaned against the windowsill to comment in a shaky voice, "hey, it's snowing outside". After a few more seconds staring out the window, they turned to me decisively and said they were ready. They then took of their red tank top, the only piece of clothing covering their brown chest. I was so startled that I had to force myself to remember to start their song, a beautifully lyrical ballad.
I was shocked that they performed bare chested because during the intensive they had spoken of intentionally trying to find clothing to hide their chest in their everyday life. Choosing to perform in this way seemed to me to be a vulnerable act. The tender nature of the song that they chose, combined with the emotive quality of their movement in addition to the fact that they decided to bare their chest caused my breath to catch in my throat and my eyes to well up with tears. The room was silent once the performance was over. Another intensive participant who goes by her stage name Masti Khor (which translates to “mischievous” in Gujarati) eventually broke the silence by saying "we all have feelings" to which there was a chorus of affirmative "umhmm's". As those who had just witnessed a works in progress showing, we would typically give "notes" to the performer, providing feedback and sharing our thoughts about their performance. But in Dee's case this did not happen. The emotional intensity of the performance seemed to render us speechless. Shaunga asked Dee how they felt about performing and they shared that it was such a difficult thing for them to do that they now had trouble meeting our gaze.
As a way of indexing these kinds of settings, I defer to the phrase often used by QTPOC community organizers and those who take part in their initiatives by referring to them as "safe spaces". This emphasis on safe space is not limited to ILL NANA but is a common theme among many Toronto-based QTPOC community organizing groups whose initiatives typically take the form of this kind of programming. Naty, who describes themselves as Metis and whose off-beat, snazzy wardrobe is a telltale sign of their identification as genderqueer is a co-founder of the People Project, a community arts initiative focusing on queer and trans youth of color and indigenous youth. They offer, "It is so refreshing to be able to come into a space and know and trust and encounter the majority of people there are invested in your self-determination and having different tools and infrastructure in place for you to do that. People will do everything they can to support that and that's a rarity I think. Something that is prevalent in the queer community in Toronto, the POC, trans, 2-spirit and Black queer communities of Toronto" I could not help but witness this principle in action when, at the last minute, I found myself sitting in on some of the interviews for the Drag Musical program of Asian Arts Freedom School, an art-based radical history and activism program for Asian youth in Toronto (it has since changed its focus from pan-Asian youth to youth of color and indigenous youth more generally). One of the facilitators suddenly was not able to make it to the interviews and my friend Patrick who was the other facilitator, asked me to fill in. Sitting at a small table in a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, Patrick was wearing a fashionable Beyonce T-shirt and red headband, occasionally taking notes as Carson responded to some of the questions that we asked of him.
Toward the end of the interview, Carson somewhat guiltily asked if participants had to have lots of previous experience with drag and Patrick rushed to assure him that the program actually welcomed people with little or no experience. He spoke about the different measures that the program had put in place to make sure that participants felt supported in being able to create the drag performances that they envisioned, including facilitating workshops on character development and script writing as well as providing mentors that would be available to give advice on make-up and costuming as well as voice and movement.
Safe space as feminist community organizing against violence Many QTPOC community organizers maintain that it is important to create safe spaces because of the difficulty of creating art as racialized, gendered and sexual minorities in mainstream art settings. In his interview with me, sitting on the corner of the blue couch in my apartment with his hair swept to the side and his arms wrapped comfortably around his stomach, Jelani explains that ILL NANA was established as a consequence of the frustration that the founding members experienced with the mainstream dance world. The initial ILL NANA collective members, Jelani, his partner Sze-Yang and their best friend Ray, felt constrained by a traditional ballet/contemporary/modern dance education that was heavily invested in maintaining dominant modes of gender expression. The first ILL NANA performance thus involved dressing up in drag to perform an urban dance routine to Janet Jackson's song "Feedback"5. With Jelani finishing up his last year at dance school, Sze-Yang and Ray were auditioning for dancing jobs and felt frustrated by the racism that they witnessed where less proficient white dancers were consistently chosen over dancers of color. ILL NANA thus came about as a way for its members to continue to dance on their own terms in response to the racism and rigid gender norms that characterized their encounters with mainstream ballet/contemporary/modern dance.
It is important to note that all current collective members of ILL NANA do not identify as either "male" or "female". While assigned female at birth, kumari now identifies as "they". Similarly, Jelani and Sze-yang were both assigned male at birth but Jelani identifies as two-spirit and Sze-yang has no preferred gender pronoun or gender expression Melisse, who also participated in ILL NANA's intensive, shared similar sentiments about their encounters with mainstream dance (though originally assigned female at birth, Melisse's preferred gender pronoun is "they"). I had not met Melisse before joining the intensive and had the chance to get to know them better by doing an interview with them a month after the program had finished. One of my first questions was about what it was like for them to first join the program. Sitting on the same blue couch, munching pretzels in one hand while absent mindedly twisting their dreadlocks with their brown fingers in the other, they took a moment to think before responding.
“My last relationship with dance ended badly. We had a bad break up. Mostly because I was a pre-teen in a class with older women and the class was about sexualized female hip hop and I was in the middle of figuring out my gender stuff and sexuality stuff and feeling comfortable in my body and it was hard to have options to move my body. I felt as though I didn't have control and so I had to stop and I forgot that I really liked dance. It was just that part of my experience that tainted all of dancing.” ILL NANA was fortunate enough to book rehearsal space for the intensive at the National Ballet School (NBS) but warned us that it might be uncomfortable for us to be there. Both the physical architecture and the people who attended classes at NBS were radically different from the ILL NANA intensive. As a community group, ILL NANA was allowed to use the dance studios at the end of the night once all of the classes had finished, but there was often an overlap between when the intensive participants would arrive and when groups of largely white girls wearing their hair in tight buns and tutus would emerge from classes into the arms of their upper
class parents. Melisse states:
“The difference between the School [NBS] and the intensive was also whiteness…It's the architecture, how clean everything was, the uniforms, the connection between white parent and white daughter and this dance. It was uncomfortable on different levels…I had all these conversations that I hadn't had in a while, like “I wonder if they think I'm a boy or a girl?” Or they probably think that there are only boys and girls. The fact that there were Black people there probably freaked them out. Or that we didn't have our hair up and shoulder backs. That was a wow moment for me.” But for those organizing and participating in QTPOC community arts initiatives, this emphasis on safe space is not only a consequence of the exclusionary impacts of racism and heteronormativity within specific mainstream art settings but is also connected to the need to respond to the inter-related mechanisms of racism, sexism and gender oppression more generally. I asked Naty what they thought of the term "QTPOC" and why it was important and
“So now you can come into Toronto and at first glance say, there's a LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] community. There's a street with flags and so it's not a homophobic place.
Someone was sharing a story about a youth that was coming from the Caribbean and he had this idea that there was no homophobia here and literally as he was coming into the country, he was dealing with an immigration officer and he was like "no one told me that racism was there!" And that's a huge issue. My belief is that those spaces are necessary. My understanding is that those spaces exist both out of necessity and also with the intention of being able to create something that is separate, maybe not separate but as unique in providing alternative ways of organizing, alternative communities.” In their response to my question, Naty points out the limitations of what Jasbir Puar calls “homonationalism” (2007) or the way in which tolerance for sexual minority subjects become the barometer for evaluating the capacity for national sovereignty. Naty’s response echoes the statements made by many of those who are involved in QTPOC community arts initiatives and how these initiatives emerge in response to the racism that often pervades mainstream white, “gay” settings and the homo/transphobia that exists in communities of color. Masti Khor, a member of the intensive introduced earlier speaks extensively about her experience with this tension. I interviewed Masti in her dining room late one night over a pot of tea and in response to my question about how she came to understand art as a means of storytelling, she spoke about
her experience with Asian Arts Freedom School:
Masti: I think for me it’s about the fact that our stories are not told as marginalized people.
We are fed these mainstream stories and we feel like we don't belong or fit in. It's basically like consciousness-raising. That was what [Asian Arts] Freedom School was for me. I had all of this theory, I knew all this stuff, I went to school and read women's studies and had a few friends that talked about this. But you get there and everyone is talking about their hard immigrant experiences as queer people of color. I grew up in Scarborough. Everybody was brown or some kind of brown and so I actually don't have the typically Canadian POC [person of color] story of like “no one understood what it was like”, because everyone in my life knew what it was like. But I ended up being a fucking gaymo so when I came out, I lost all my friends and I started hanging out with white people and I started feeling isolated, like, ‘these people don't get me’. So Freedom School was the first place where all my identities were coming together. Almost everyone is working class, almost everyone is everyone was queer, I think - and trans and hot and gay and I was just so into it. So it was the first place where I could bring all parts of myself to...
Matthew:… the same spot.