A group of Black queer artists spoke on July 8 about the continuously-shifting experiencesand perceptions of identitywithin LGBTQ+ communities of color at the South Side Community Arts Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave.
The panel, "The New School: QTPOC Pathways," focused their discussion on the shift towards labeling identities rather than letting them exist quietly and beneath the surface.
Photographer and environmental scientist Patric McCoy moderated the panel as part of the programming for his first solo show in Chicago at the Lincoln Park gallery Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave. Panelists included interdisciplinary artists Jared Brown, LaMar Gayles and Najee-Zaid Searcy.
McCoy's photographs represent a project he conducted over the course of 10 years. He brought his camera with him everywhere, and took a photo of each person who asked him to. These many thousands of photos offer insights into the Black gay culture of Chicago in the '80s.
McCoy explained, "[The project] was about a time and a way in which people interacted that does not exist today…We're asking younger people, those who were not around 33 years ago in the scene, to come together and talk about how they perceive the world today. And how it has changed from the time I was taking those photographs."
He further reflected on how underground the scene used to feel, and that that the scene now well above the surface. McCoy said that younger queer communities are highly visible, and assign labels and terms to their own identities and to their communities to enhance this visibility. In older generations, queerness was more likely implied or inherent.
Brown spoke to the limitations of labeling identities with specific terms, with respect for the relative freedom of previous generations to live without labels.
"There's sometimes an overemphasis to label things…because we have so much verbiage that y'all just didn't have," Brown said. "And you all did okay. You all lived. Something I think about is that all the verbiage that we have access to and thrust into the lexicon; I worry that sometimes it stops us from being present in the moment and living."
The panel continued to think through the importance and meaning of outwardly labeling identities in queer spaces. LaMar explained how labels support the younger generation in embodying their true identities.
He explained, "When new terms are introduced, they are gifted to the community to be workshopped, and to fail or expand. The notion of labeling things should be less in the vein of perfection, and embodying this 'perfect way,' and more in the vein of progress… I think that I'd like to see more people be okay with failing at some of the things they embody or identify [with], because language is only going to do so much; we still have to live it."
Queer spaces were often not specifically named as such either. Many of McCoy's photos, for example, were taken at the Rialto Tap, one of the few spaces in the city where Black gay men were welcome; clubs on the North Side were often discriminatory towards Black queer people, leaving them feeling humiliated and defeated.
"The spaces have always been there," McCoy said. "They have not been named and they have not been promoted as spaces, but they have been."
The panelists also mourned the loss of an older generation to HIV/AIDs. Many of the subjects of McCoy's photos have since died from the disease, and the younger panelists wrestled with the lack of guidance from older queers.
Searcy said, "I think that our queer ancestry and our legacy is beyond blood, and it moves so cosmically… Millennials, our generation, we are the first visible-again, queer generation. I think we feel that importance, that significance, coming back to [labeling], there's a weight. Sometimes we don't stop to connect with the elders that survived—and those on the other realm—to decipher what that weight really was."
The panelists were asked about the importance of young people remaining engaged with art. Searcy took that opportunity to offer his gratitude to those young people and their work.
"Thank you," he said. "And I see you. And you are loved, you are loving, and you are lovable. Always remember your instincts."