EVENTS | ACTIVISM
Opinion: What Is Your Responsibility When Representing Your Community?
A non-binary drag fixture in the Brooklyn queer community, Thee Suburbia, held a fundraiser for the Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), a nonprofit organization based out of Washington, DC, and helmed by black trans activist Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter. What was meant to be a supportive and uplifting event took a sudden turn due to unexpected hostility and verbal abuse directed towards the attendees by Dr. Hunter throughout most of the night.
Thee Suburbia living for one of the performers
The fundraiser’s lineup included over 30 performers, most of whom were trans women of color. Thee Suburbia had the idea of starting The PoC Drag Art Collective for a while, and it took physical shape in Suburbia’s home, during Thanksgiving dinner, when she invited fellow queer creatives and announced her intention of holding the first PoC Drag Art Collective. “She just kind of posted up a sign-up sheet and told us to sign our names if we wanted to perform,” J Rosa reminisced about that evening, after their performance as Jack Skellington.
“Before we even figured out who we wanted to give money to, we were already creating awareness to support trans women of color, hence why the event’s lineup was mostly comprised of trans women,” Thee Suburbia stated in explaining the importance of creating this project. “We wanted to show how much we cared about people who might need more help; we also wanted people to experience the connection we are creating for each other.”
The event was held at a DIY space called Hartstop, located in the Bed-Stuy (short for Bedford-Stuyvesant) neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Brooklyn queer community is not new in creating DIY spaces to hold events – those are the spaces where everyone feels the safest, it seems: the Casa Diva party that used to be held at Charlene Incarnate’s industrial loft has achieved almost legendary status, while the Brooklyn Nightlife Awards 2019 winner for “Best Party,” Oops!, takes over The Rosemont bar every Wednesday to do whatever the creators Juku, West Dakota, and Magenta desire.
Thee Suburbia reached out to me a week prior to the event, asking me to attend her first fundraiser she worked so hard to arrange. It took me over an hour to get to Bed-Stuy from Harlem, but I didn’t dare miss an event with such an amazing lineup that also was supporting a good cause. The performances were scheduled to start at 6 pm and go on until 12 am.
I was about an hour late, but I got there just in time to catch a few performers from the earlier lineup. Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter showed up just a few moments after me, wearing a yellow African print dress. Soon after that, Suburbia invited Dr. Hunter to the microphone to introduce herself. Dr. Hunter started off her speech by advertising a book that was made for her by “a white woman” who wanted all of the proceeds from the book’s sales to benefit the TWOCC. “I got books for sale and I am not taking any of them home with me, so all of you hoes will purchase a book tonight...” Dr. Hunter proclaimed to the crowd’s cheers and laughter. She wrapped up her speech by noting that a black trans woman was murdered in DC “three days ago,” and that on the way to New York she learned that another trans woman had been murdered two days ago “three miles away from here.” “And it’s a bit much,” she continued, “so we are here to celebrate black trans women.”
During the first break between the performances, I wandered over to the side of the room where Dr. Hunter had set up a poster with photos and a quote that read, “I don’t want to be visible because I am trans. I want to be seen, affirmed and celebrated as a whole damn person… I want to wake up without a threat of violence! I want to fall in love, raise a family and pass down traditions my grandma and mom passed to me. I want to thrive without fear! I don’t want to have to tell you all about my pain for you to then journey towards an understanding that trans folk deserve to breathe, to live and thrive in a world that celebrates all of who we are… Humans.”
Dr. Lourdes Ashley Hunter
Moved by the inspiring quote, I turned around to find Dr. Hunter standing right in front of me. “Are you buying the book?” she inquired, to which I replied: “Sure, but I will get it a little bit later.”
Dr. Hunter looked me dead in the eye and said, “So you are not buying the book?”
“I will, but I wanted to ask you a couple of questions first about the work that you do.” I perceived an immediate shift in her attitude the moment I said I wasn’t going to buy the book on the spot.
“Why are you asking me this, do you wanna date me?” – which she didn’t say in a funny way; it felt like I had asked someone a question that I had no business asking.
“No… I just wanted to find out a bit more about your work,” I proceeded cautiously.
She made a frustrated puffing sound, simultaneously flipping up her hair and pointing both of her upper extremities to the poster behind me: “Well, go to my website and you can read what you need to know there.”
“I prefer to hear it directly from the source…,” I continued, even though I could feel the ground was getting shaky.
“Well then, you should have already known what this event was about before coming here, this event is for me!” she said, starting to lose her cool.
I made a mental check that she emphasized that the event was for her and not for her non-profit, but I went on: “Well, I am writing an article about this, so I thought...”
“I don’t give a fuck what you do! This event is about raising money! I don’t have time to explain! Black trans women are dying! We don’t have time to explain shit!” – she went berzerk.
I started shaking. This was so unexpected and the exchange was making me feel uneasy and unwelcome, all at once.
I withdrew myself from the argument and stood to the side. One of the performers of the night, Junior Mint, a black trans woman known for her funny yet politically charged performances, approached Dr. Hunter at that moment to chat, only to be met with: “Tell him sis! We ain’t got time to explain shit! Black trans women are dying!” At that moment I just got really pissed off and couldn’t stay quiet. I turned to Dr. Hunter and asked her if she really thought it was wise to shut someone down when they come to her with a question about her cause, to which she became even more unravelled, screaming: “You are a cis gay man! Don’t start with me! I’m a black trans woman!”
With that statement I felt like she had just invalidated my entire existence, like whatever I had gone through in my life didn’t matter at all. It made me feel small and unimportant, almost like an outsider that dared to invade a space that wasn’t built for me. At that moment I was ready to leave. I had gone to the event with the aim of supporting the cause and writing up something in support of the work that Suburbia and TWOCC were doing together. What was I supposed to write about now?
I went up to the rooftop to catch some fresh air. Thee Suburbia was standing there talking to a couple of other performers. She turned to me and asked me how I was doing. I told her what had just transpired. She showed instant concern and a flicker of a shadow appeared on her face. “I’m so sorry that happened,” she said. “It’s not your fault, maybe she is just drunk,” I responded.
After staying up on the roof for a bit, I decided to stay for the rest of the talent that was slated to perform later in the evening.
Zenobia, Charlene, Islaya, MTHR TRSA, Dai Burger
Throughout the night, over 30 queer PoC performers have taken the stage: Jayse Vegas, Dezi5, Showdolliana, Junior Mint, Robert Garcia, Xtain, La Candelaria, J Rosa, John Mateo, Zenobia, Charlene, Islaya, MTHR TRSA, Senerio, Foxy Belle Afriq, Sir Charles, Juniper Juicy, Kenzi Coulee, Denime The Queen, Xunami Muse, Paris L'Hommie, Caribu Vague, DJ Hard Candy, Thee Suburba herself, Dancer On Probation, Tina Twirler, Glow Job, Onyma, Skittlez, J'Royce Jata, Dévo Monique, Jypsy Jeyfree, Marcel, B Hawk Snipes, Mojo Disco, and the headliner of the night Dai Burger.
Even though Dr. Hunter was living for everyone's performances, she kept on sprinkling the crowd with violent verbal outbursts. At one point she snatched the mic from MTHR TRSA, the second host of the night, and asked for a chair. When the person manning the mix board moved a stool towards her, she commanded: “Bring its height up, white person!” The audience responded with uncomfortable laughter. At another point of the night, she snatched the mic from MTHR TRSA again while she was in the middle of introducing the next performer, responding to the host’s polite protest: “I don’t give a fuck about the next performance! Listen to me!”
Several times throughout the night she grabbed the tip bucket and ran around the room demanding that people put money into it: “I know you got coins, cuz I see you buying drinks at the bar!,” “Come on you white motherfuckers, I know you got money!,” “If you are not donating money, then why the fuck are you here!?” The barrage of verbal abuse towards the crowd went on incessantly. Right before Charlene was about to perform, Dr. Hunter misgendered her: “You are a white cis woman, what are you doing here?” By this point, no one was trying to cover up the uncomfortable situation with laughter any more, and many people were leaving. Finally, during one of Dr. Hunter’s attempts to extort the crowd, in a sign of defeat she rested her elbow on MTHR TRSA’s shoulder and pronounced: “You know what, I don’t need this.”
Eventually Suburbia came up to me and told me that she and a group of other people staged an intervention and asked Dr. Hunter to leave. The atmosphere significantly lightened up after that, and the people who showed up after this point were clueless about the night’s earlier episode.
Suburbia said: ”We just told her that this is the party we are putting together, we don’t know how many people were going to come or what it was going to look like, we just knew that we wanted to give her something and quickly it turned into her saying that we agreed to pay her.” I asked why the PoC Drag Art Collective chose this specific organization as a beneficiary. “I looked her up,” Suburbia responded, “I read about things she was doing, I read a lot about her collective. That night, a lot of people came because of her workshops. It really looked great on paper. In the beginning a part of me wanted to give to the Ali Forney Center, The Trevor Project, Audre Lorde, something like that, but I wanted to do something for someone that’s smaller, someone who could actually appreciate that we do something for them.”
It didn’t feel like Dr. Hunter was appreciative of anything. She treated the entire event with a palpable sense of entitlement, like everyone in attendance owed her something and was supposed to shower her with money at the ready. For her, if you were not a trans woman of color, you didn’t exist.
The insensitive and hurtful approach exhibited by Dr. Lourdes Hunter, regarded as a representative of black trans women, raises many questions and concerns. Should we be more mindful of people that we invite into the safety of our communities? Should people that represent a certain group be accountable for their actions? Just because someone is passionate about an issue, does that mean they are properly equipped with the right tools to represent their community?
As one of the night’s performers Glow Job perfectly summed it up: “I was giving Suburbia a pep talk upstairs cause she was pretty devastated. But we all still showed up, and we were all there because we wanted to be a part of this and do some good, so that when we do it again and then again, it’ll get bigger and better and we’ll look back on this first one that started it all, and reflect on its craziness. It’s epicness in a way. There is an opportunity to grow and to come together stronger as a group that really drives that conversation even within the community. There was a lot of energy, attention, and time that people put into this night, and I personally hope it could keep going and should only be bigger and better from this point on. If anything, there is more drive to protect this group and make it something worth fighting for for next time.”
It’s almost impossible not to compare the two completely opposite approaches taken by Dr. Hunter and by Thee Suburbia. At the end of the day, we have to be accountable for our actions when we take on the responsibility of representing a group or a community, and we must make sure that our approach doesn’t hurt the message. The wrong delivery can push people further away or tune them off completely, even possibly perpetuating stigmas about your community.
No one wants to be belittled or made to feel bad based on ignorant assumptions that you’ve had it so much better based on your race, sexual preference, experience, or gender. Love, kindness, openness, and willingness to educate will always be the only right approach to getting your message across and drawing people in to care about it. Thee Suburbia exhibited all these qualities masterfully, and I cannot wait for the next PoC Drag Art Collective gathering and to support her in her incredible work.