More than 20 of Chicago's LGBTQ and questioning high schoolers gathered Feb. 23 for the annual Louder Than a Bomb ( LTAB ) edition of Queeriosity, a monthly open-mic series presented by Young Chicago Authors ( YCA ) for these youths and their friends.
YCA's smallest, most intimate program goes beyond standard "safe space" principles to provide an environment where young people can openly speak their truths and explore their identities with a supportive audience. About 12 teens and a few YCA staff members performed spoken word and read poetry onstage interspersed with jams by DJ Cash Era, followed by a feature performance by multi-genre singer, pianist, composer and arranger Akenya.
Usually Queeriosity's LTAB event is held after the festival with the goal of recruiting performers. Although it took place during preliminaries this year, the majority of attendees were first-timers. Louder Than a Bomb is the world's largest youth poetry festival, to be held this year Feb. 20 through March 17 at Columbia College Chicago. During these five weeks, 120 teams from high schools, middle schools or community organizations compete in slam-style poetry bouts. The next Queeriosity open mic is on Saturday, March 30.
Performer Cyn Juarez pointed out that Queeriosity "allows people to express themselves without anyone hearing," citing her own experience exploring her sexuality in secret. A 17-year-old from Noble Street College Prep, this is her first school year attending Queeriosity and competing in LTAB. As a rule, attendees are usually not allowed to take pictures or post about others on social media. The hosts made it clear that the LTAB edition was a rare exception, with a photographer and a reporter present to document the event.
Hosts Dominique James and Ari Appleberry began the night with introductions, encouraging everyone in attendance to share their name and pronouns and answer one of two questions: What's your astrological sign and do you agree with it, or what is your favorite pair of shoes and why? Doc Martens dominated, along with Sagittarians and Capricorns. James, a YCA teaching artist, noted that the conversation portion of the night gives all attendees an opportunity to unpack and explore emotions.
Safe-space rules were shared via call and response, with audience members shouting, "No racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no transphobia, no ableism, or any other derogatory language allowed," with the clarification that performers may reclaim language that has been used to oppress them.
In an interview, James stated that this particular group "has a different understanding of what it means to be harmed," and the focus of Queeriosity's safe space policy is not to shut down dialogue, as it unfortunately happens in other "safe spaces," but to make it easier for participants to share.
Poem topics ran the gamut from true stories to imaginative situations, a meditation on the word "gay," a politically engaged bus ride down Western avenue, racist violence, abuse within families, crowdsurfing, racism and rage-crying at a punk show, menstruation, body positivity, sex and many, many first loves. Performers showed a wide range of emotions in the face of their personal hardships; the audience snapped, gasped and vocalized affirmations throughout the night.
After a snack break, world-famous artist and Chicago native Akenya performed four original songs to musical tracks, most of which she produced herself. She has performed in Europe, the Middle East and North America, and worked with many other prominent Chicago musicians such as Smino, Saba, Chance the Rapper, Noname and Mavis Staples. She is currently working on her debut LP, Moon in the 4th.
According to James, Queeriosity is the most open format of YCA's programs, freeing the group to focus on specific content and modes of sharing outside the norms of a standard slam poetry workshop. Featured artists have included reiki practitioners and yoga instructors leading interactive experiences in addition to more typical poets and musicians.
Find more information about Queeriosity, LTAB and other programming on the YCA website at YoungChicagoAuthors.org .