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Team Japan: We Are Family

THE MIXER | EDITORIAL

Team Japan:

We Are Family

Hey y’all

This is Ducky Sheaboi.

I’m part of a duo with my drag wife, Patsy InDecline.


Together, we program events and plan our fabulous YouTube channel as collaborators with a drag team from Japan. Their names are Aya, Michael, and Yuka and each of them adds a unique component to how Ducky & Patsy present as a duo. We’ve come to call ourselves Team Japan. If you’ve been to our events, you’ve likely noticed a strong Japanese influence that also blends with showcasing the overall diversity that is present in New York City. Team Japan has programmed over 25 unique shows since 2019. Our team has presented hair & makeup, styling, content generation, and entertainment throughout New York, as well as taken the show on the road to Charleston, South Carolina where we hosted a queer adult prom. There was also a weekend performing for a bachelorette party in New Hampshire. We’ve never seen so many bodies simultaneously on the literal floor lapping up spilled liquor! Our drag family is oddly making moves yet still a little off the radar. Nothing makes us prouder than to see how essentially five people’s ideas can blend into a final format that an audience enjoys. It’s a fulfilling experience to say the least. Each member of Team Japan is from somewhere different, both in Japan and the US, but we all bring different yet relatable experiences that shape collective final decisions. It’s been an interesting journey these past three or so years, and I’m so excited to share some insight into the dynamics of our drag journey with Sidewalkkilla’s readers.

The Beginning

To start, I have to go back a little further back, before there was a team. I remember in 2018 when I started doing drag seriously, I was in season one of a competition called ICONIC (curated by Michael Block & Lindsey Kay, hosted at ICON in Astoria by Heidi Haux). During the flyer photoshoot, the photographer asked

“Who is Ducky?”

What a question. Up until that very second, drag had been about the party. What did he mean, “Who is Ducky?” I’ve come to realize over the years that the drag Patsy and I strut around in is really a culmination of so many life experiences. But in retrospect, if a photographer is asking you who you are, you’re likely not going to win a competition (I didn’t).

Styled by Michael, DDNYC, Ducky Sheaboi, and Patsy InDecline at Bushwig, September 2021. Photo by Izzy Berdan. See all Bushwig photos by Izzy HERE.

But by the time the competition concluded, it was time for Bushwig 2018! Patsy and our gaggle of queers were so excited to get fancied up for our second time attending the festival as a group. We went by the name Haus of Guiou (pronounced like gyoo) and we were WILD! The Haus of Guiou hosted gender bender ragers at our apartment as kind of our launch as drag queens. While our Haus did not technically survive, Bushwig created a magical space for us to meet Styled by Michael and DDNYC aka Aya.

It didn’t take long for all of us to start attending more events together, which then turned into being styled for the events by Michael and Aya. Patsy and I are BLESSED to have their support. They are the glam squad sent from rhinestone heaven! Michael can take a wig and style it into art. He’ll take a flat wig and create such dimension, along with volume. He has also painted every single face we’ve done since early 2019. Aya has a way of making things sparkle; you just can’t help but feel gorgeous. Her custom nail gloves add sensual, rich diva vibes to any and all looks. Both Michael and Aya are fashionistas on missions. I don’t think any of us thought that the next few years would become what they have. We started to form this organic creative understanding. The pair styled Patsy during ICONIC S2. Patsy also mentions how the competition was a defining moment in figuring out her drag persona and how influential Michael and Aya were in figuring out aesthetics. It was astounding to see the art that was created and brought to the stage. After that, we all really latched on to the idea of getting more bookings. We would perform whenever and wherever we had the (paid) chance. Straight bars, queer bars, breweries, bachelorette parties, birthday parties, that one time at House of Yes, and so many restaurants. Michael and Aya would not only take care of styling us, but they would also attend shows nine times out of ten and cheer the loudest. We chased that dollar and programmed shows throughout late 2018 and into 2019. Our focus was getting into spaces and working that crowd with comedy and a dash of bizarre.

Haus of Guiou, Bushwig 2018. Blurry photo by Alexey Kim.

Moving Into Cyber Space

By February 2020, we started to hear more and more about the coronavirus and the possibility that it would be a force to reckon with. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it. We were all working well over 40 hours a week between day jobs and drag. This is New York fucking City and none of us could afford to stop the grind. Plus, we were really feeling good about where we were with hosting shows! Things felt like they were on the up. There would be no way that some virus could slow New York down, right? Cash up or go negative in that Chase account – that’s how this city works. Then March 2020 came along.

I feel like most readers that gravitate to Sidewalkkilla have a strong connection to nightlife. You likely work in nightlife or you go out and support your friends who do. Y’all understand that nightlife isn’t just face value partying. There’s much more life within it than only the party. We all live for the love and glamour that is found there. We have the potential to form strong community connections in queer nightlife. It’s what makes living in a city more manageable. The realization we all had when venues shut down, meaning no nightlife, was a harsh one. Remembering how many queer artists and queer venues were impacted in the first couple of weeks in March still gets me. Ducky & Patsy’s last live show until that point was February 23rd, 2020, at an amazing, community-focused restaurant called the Queensboro in Jackson Heights. Our drag family saw so many opportunities and potential dollars disappear on exactly March 13th. Over seven upcoming gigs were canceled in a matter of hours. Then came the news that our day jobs were also shutting down in various capacities.

We kind of just sat in our feelings after March 13th. We didn’t pursue drag at all. I’m a self-proclaimed workaholic. Drag is a focus for me and a way to grow the quality of my life. It provides a lot for our household. Although at this point drag’s focus was merely entertaining and making things fun, it really had become a business for all of us. Sitting around our apartment in Queens watching, reading, and internalizing the despair occurring in the world was a moment. But y’all know the drag artists are going to find a way to serve a show!

On March 25th, we debuted Ducky & Patsy’s IG LIVE! For two months we created looks based on themes like anime, horror, and grandmas. Probably the coolest thing about our IG LIVE was that we were giving away thousands of dollars worth of free shit. Custom jewelry and accessories, apparel, sex toys (lots and lots of sex toys), hair care, CBD, skincare, drinks delivered by Brooklyn-based Shay’s Punch. It was an absolute rush playing trivia with viewers and figuring out who to reward the giveaway to after realizing there was a chat delay. Honestly, sometimes looking into that camera from our living room felt like some form of the abyss. The biggest challenge as performers was trying to incorporate something new into a number that just doesn’t work in a living room. Where were the affirming voices and cheers from a crowd? It really felt like this altered reality was here to stay. Add in whiskey and you have a situation!

Photos by Luisa Madrid as part of LIVE! From Woodside documentary, 2020.

But probably one of the coolest things that did come out of lockdown is The Ducky & Patsy Channel on YouTube, curated by Team Japan. Our director and editor in chief, Yuka, is stellar. She knows how to take a video and add a flair to it that makes you feel like you’re watching Japanese television. Audio is typically in English and we include Japanese subtitles. Aya translates the entire English script into casual, queer-friendly Japanese. Their combined efforts propel the channel and keep our drag fresh. For over a year now, we’ve produced 50+ videos that have some element of Japanese culture or a Japan-meets-NYC focus. Well, sometimes the videos are just Aya, Ducky, and Patsy acting absolutely ridiculous, but all in good fun. Our main viewer base is directly in Japan while a strong second base of viewers is Japanese folks living in New York. In early videos, we filmed things like reviewing Japanese porn, eating bugs, and smashing our faces into flour searching for Hi-Chew candies. Team Japan initially filmed once a month in our dining room, in front of a green screen. We now hit the streets to do impromptu interviews with folks, filming about twice a month. The most recent shoot was at a ramen shop in Alphabet City called TabeTomo and everyone got to enjoy a massive bowl of Tokyo-style tsukemen noodles (and sake from Niigata). YouTube is now an essential part of our drag with big plans to come!

Unlike YouTube, one thing that I and Patsy were never really sold on is purely virtual performance gigs, especially during the lockdown. When viewers were first tuning in, the virtual lens definitely felt adventurous. But virtual requires such hype from the hosts and performers. Without immediate engagement from the audience, it’s easy to feel like there’s no point. There was one virtual show in particular that really created an emotional set, our “HEY! Big Spender” virtual auction. There were tech issues, major chat delays, and too much whiskey. Everyone in the apartment was feeling burnout from keeping up with COVID and the increasingly critical social climate. The ultimate virtual experience produced was “Pool Party for a Cause”. Our sis, Gorgina, had expressed wanting to fundraise for Stop AAPI Hate so plans were made! The show was absolutely bonkers. We filled up an inflatable baby pool with balloons containing challenges. Zoom audience members (someone from Japan even woke up at 4 AM to join!) would pick a balloon color for a queen to pop. There was beer funneling, wet t-shirt dancing, bug-eating, and best of all a group rendition of “Milkshake” by Kelis. Looking back, we really did host some cute virtual shows, though.

Pride

Towards summer 2020 the world bore witness to the murder of George Floyd. The NYPD was showcasing brutality in a very public fashion. Money seemed to be the root of so many conversations. We regrouped and decided to tone down the giveaways. Need and visibility for mutual aid seemed like it was at an all-time high. The pandemic had begun to shine a light on many realities. Our drag family was making minimal money off the virtual drag. Paychecks started to feel the inflated prices on household goods and sanitation products. The city was making emergency food deliveries to us. Some days the food was great, but mostly it felt like a last-ditch effort. Probably the most impactful form of help we received was through Shangela’s Feed The Queens fundraiser. That provided healthy, fresh food to our household at a critical time. But overall throughout 2020, we had food, we were housed, and we had a sense of purpose, first through virtual shows during the initial phases of lockdown and then in life during an ongoing pandemic. With this in mind, we shifted the focus to putting drag funds towards mutual aid.

Pride 2020 really provided a sense of community and a source of light to navigate a crumbling world, through practicing engaged drag. We’ve always donated to organizations we believe in, but never really promoted what we were donating to. One of the biggest takeaways from 2020 is the need to be visible about where money is shifted. We started partnering with the Proud Mary Network & Hot Rabbit to raise funds for the Brooklyn Bail Fund to get at-risk queer folks out of jail during the protests. A lot of people in our network started to touch base with their needs. An out-of-state teacher, whose current state labor laws make it a fireable offense for them to be part of a union, needed more classroom budget to provide PPE while their school enforced in-person learning as national COVID cases skyrocketed. A food pantry in Chicago asked if we could help raise some money for their setup as their supplies were not lasting the night due to demand. We had the privilege of working virtually with some of New York’s finest talent to raise funds. Performers like Gorgina, Freeda Kulo, and Victoria Williams served show after show and brought their unique backgrounds and art to these fundraising efforts.

Mind you, Michael and Aya had been heavily involved in producing our virtual content. We were also working with our upstairs neighbor, Luisa Madrid, a photographer and videographer who captured much of our lockdown experience as drag queens. As the apartment turned into a studio set, it was amazing to see what Michael and Aya could do, from curating styling for our show themes to helping us with something ridiculous throughout the show like throwing a giant inflatable penis into the mix. “Pool Party for a Cause” would be the last virtually-based gig that we curated. As summer progressed, we slowly began seeing signs that a return to live, in-person performing could be possible during Pride 2021.

Photos by Luisa Madrid as part of LIVE! From Woodside documentary, 2020.

A smidge before Pride season, sometime in the late spring, Patsy mentioned that she would like to find a way to still express her persona as a queen without having to be in front of a camera, or even an audience. She and our good Judy, Christine, chatted about putting together a podcast. Christine had recently moved to Michigan and we all wanted to find a way to not just stay in touch, but also feel like we were all still hanging out in the same room together. She had also attended basically every drag show we were involved with. There was no telling how many times she had seen us perform the same numbers at brunch in Astoria. Her relocation and Patsy’s spark, along with my distinctive speaking voice, launched the Oddities Podcast. We’re currently in season one, with topics like “Gender” (featuring Mx. Lex Horwitz), “Home Town Crime Stories”, and “Hauntings”. Our goal as podcast hosts is to talk about things which typical media avoids and provide a platform that can destigmatize topics. Oddities releases an episode about once a month and this proved to be a nice release rhythm as Ducky & Patsy started to hunt for a Pride venue.

There is an art space in Long Island City called Culture Lab that we visited during the lockdown. Their parking lot serves as an outdoor performance space and it was probably one of the only places in all of New York City where you could hear boisterous live music playing during the early stages of the pandemic. We chatted back and forth with Culture Lab about getting drag into the space. Of course, venues experienced so many ups and downs throughout 2020 and early 2021. But with numbers slowly easing and a vaccine on the horizon, we set Pride 2021 as our launch. The idea was absolutely fabulous. A Pride festival featuring a unique range of talent to showcase the queer community and its allies in the city. Months of preparation took place but we had the privilege of working with talent such as members of The Cake Boys (Richard, Senerio, and Sweaty Eddie), a Japanese dance troupe called Dance Cat NY, and the first openly gay dancehall artist, Demaro. For three weekends in June, the shows occurred outside in Culture Lab’s parking lot, with LIC’s and NYC’s skylines embracing us in the hot, hot, HOT summer weather. The opportunity to be around so much talent again was breathtaking.

Featuring: Gorgina, Ducky Sheaboi, Patsy InDecline, Styled by Michael, Dot DeVille, Aria Derci, Krea Tine, TB the Dancer, Swag, JoJo, Dinho Aragão, Jazzy Baby, and Yanne Almeida, Cissy Walken, and Dance Cat NY. Footage by Luisa Madrid.

Drag Song Battle

As Pride concluded there were more opportunities blooming as the vaccine made it possible for more venues to open and travel to slowly resume. In August 2021, Team Japan was able to live their total J-pop fantasy through working with Aiji Tanaka aka IG, the Japanese talent who is the creator of SEXERCISE. IG invited Ducky & Patsy to perform at their SEXERCISE Live event at the Triad Theater in Manhattan. Aiji is a powerhouse. She’s a pole dancer, yoga instructor, choreographer, singer, and TV personality. She brought all of these elements to her show in NYC. It was so inspiring seeing so much energy and positivity coming from her stage. The sold-out audience was majority Japanese and the vibe was right. The show felt like such a win for everyone involved.

While opportunities were becoming more available, there was still a need to finance ideas. A theater connection we made during a Pride event proposed the idea of applying for grants. Patsy has a background in arts and nonprofits, so after SEXERCISE we started looking into a grant through the City Artists Corps. Each grant was worth $5,000 and required a free-to-the-public engagement component. The ideas started turning as to what we should submit. We knew that our YouTube project needed funding and we also wanted to positively impact as many queer artists as possible with coin. We created a YouTube special at Aquihito Bar, which is NYC’s only Japanese-owned gay bar. This event focused on bridging our Japanese YouTube viewers with our New York following. Then came the biggest idea yet. We wanted to tie in Japanese culture, queerness, small business vendors, art, and performance into one event. This formulated the base for Drag Song Battle aka Drag Utagassen. The Song Battle was based on an annual music industry competition in Japan called Kouhaku Utagassen (Battle of the Red & White) where female entertainers, typically wearing red, battle male entertainers who typically wear white. Of course, we wanted to challenge those gender norms through drag.

Patsy InDecline, Miyabi, Aiji Tanaka aka IG, Tomoe, and Ducky Sheaboi at Triad Theater, August 2021 for SEXERCISE NY. Photo by Triangle NY.

Another element to the Song Battle that was important were the kimono styled by Kimono NYC, founded by Chisa Sakurai. If you check out any of the team’s social media, you’ll find fabulous content featuring kimono styled by Chisa. She went above and beyond when she was approached to style two queens on the Drag Song Battle roster, Ducky & Gorgina. Both brought their performance plan to Chisa and she matched fabrics, obi ties, and colorful pops through accessories to the overall presentations. Chisa is a true professional who crafts memorable, sophisticated looks. She provides a much sought-after service in NYC. Hear from Chisa in the quote below (English translation by Ducky Sheaboi):

北海道からニューヨークに来て約10年、ニューヨークで着物に携わって9年近く経ちました。

-I moved to New York from Hokkaido ten years ago, and have been involved with kimono styling in NY for a little over nine years.

着物は元々大好きでしたが、ここニューヨークで着物姿の人々を見るのがとても好きです。日本文化の素晴らしさ、着物の美しさを再確認できる気がします。 今現在、主なお客様は日本人の皆様で、七五三や結婚式などトラディショナルな着付けをすることが多いです。

-I’ve always loved kimono and enjoy seeing people wear kimono in NYC. It feels good being able to capture amazing Japanese culture and the beauty of kimono [while in NYC]. Currently, my main clients are Japanese who are celebrating traditional ceremonies like Shichi-Go-San for kids and also weddings. These ceremonies are examples where the clients will wear specific, traditional kimono.

コロナ前は小学校や大学で着物デモンストレーションも行なっていました。また、色んなご縁で着物を使ったファッション系のお仕事をいただく機会もあります。

-Before the pandemic, I would go to American elementary schools and colleges to demonstrate kimono [with emphasis on the correct way to wear]. There are also a lot of opportunities to style kimono as fashion, which gives kimono an edge.

初めてダッキーとパッツィーに振袖を着付けた時は、ずっとやりたかった事だったのもあり、また初めてのチャレンジでとてもワクワクしたのを覚えています。 その時のテーマは花魁でした。

-The first time I styled Ducky & Patsy, I chose furisode kimono with an oiran theme (courtesan in the Edo period of Japan). Styling drag queens was something I had always wanted to do. I remember being super excited for the opportunity [to get the chance to style a queen].

Special note: 花魁 (oiran) styling today is Japan’s example of a boudoir photoshoot. There is still a form of oiran in Japan, but it’s a symbolic role that preserves the traditional dances of oiran. It is not the same as geisha. For more information on the distinctions and history between the two, please check out this website.

先日の紅白のダッキーの振袖とゴージーナの色無地の着付けもそうですが、日本人として常に誰に見られてもガッカリされない着付け、スタイリングを心がけています。たまに、これって絶対着物を何もわからない人が勝手な日本のイメージでスタイリングしてるな。。。と、げんなりする事があります(好みの問題もあるかと思いますが。。。)そうならないようにイメージを聞き、実際に着物を見てもらい、トラディショナルに囚われ過ぎず、でも品があり、彼女たちの良さそして着物の良さが引き立つような着付けができるよう頑張りました。

-When I styled Ducky & Gorgina (neither of whom are Japanese) for the Drag Song Battle, I wanted to make sure that Japanese audience members would know that the stylist is Japanese. We see more people who are not Japanese styling kimono through imitating Japanese culture. I question their level of taste. I don’t want my clients to be part of an imitation but also don’t want a non-Japanese client to come across as too traditional. It’s my goal as a stylist to showcase the beauty and goodness of both the kimono and client.

櫻井知紗 Chisa Sakurai. Photo courtesy of Chisa.

センシティブな問題になりますが、日本人以外が着物を着るのって、、と懸念される時もあります。私は着物を着ている人が私たちの文化を好きで、楽しんでいるのならなんの問題もないと思います。むしろ日本や日本の文化に興味を持ってくれてありがとう!もっと着物を着てください!と私は思います。また、着物は私たちだけの物!とはせずに、大いに世界中の人に着物の素晴らしさを知って欲しいと思っています。

-The question of whether only Japanese people should wear kimono is a sensitive one. For me, seeing other cultures wearing kimono who love Japanese culture and are having fun while in a kimono, is not a problem. I appreciate people taking interest in Japanese culture! Instead of thinking kimono is only for Japanese, my view is that kimono is a way for me to share something beautiful with the world.

そして私のスタイリングを見て、着物って美しいな、着てみたいなと思っていただければ本当に嬉しいです。

-I’m really happy when someone thinks the way I’ve styled a kimono is pretty and wants to wear one.

これからも色んなことにチャレンジして、より多くの人たちに着物を知ってもらい、着てもらえるよう活動していきたいです。

-I would like to continue to challenge myself and style as many people as possible in kimono.

We knew that with such an amazing style team and lineup, we would also need a magnificent host. Patsy would act as team lead for the Gold Team (Gorgina, Megami, and Patsy InDecline) and Ducky would lead the Pink Team (Ducky Sheaboi, Freeda Kulo, and Paris L’Hommie). But there had to be a more impactful moment to celebrate Japanese culture. There had to be a fuller tie-in that would be more meaningful with our following, especially the Japanese community living in New York City.

Life has an odd way of presenting answers. At the Pride festival finale, we were introduced to the stunning, beautiful, and amazingly kind Kubo Junko, who had hosted Kouhaku in years past. I actually saw 1999’s Kouhaku at a friend’s house in January 2000 (their grandparents had recorded it on VHS and sent it from Japan). I remember Junko in her stunning red kimono, her voice adding an uplifting quality to the large stage she was presenting on in front of a 4,000-person audience. 1999 was a major year for Japanese pop as the country’s entertainment industry boomed and record-breaking superstars were made. It was a total fangirl moment meeting Junko. We connected at a couple of Japanese community events where Michael was styling hair. Once she heard the idea, she was on board to host the Drag Song Battle at Culture Lab in Queens. To have such a star say they would host our event meant the world. Junko truly became the beacon throughout curating the event. Her input was very insightful as her career spans years of production, hosting, interviewing, and translating within television, internet-based outlets, books, and printed magazines. I remember her face lighting up during the event as audience members jammed to Japanese music artists like MISIA, Southern All Stars, and Hibari Misora.

In terms of affirmation, the only other moment that would come close to that was when the emails came through saying Patsy was awarded $5,000 and that I had also been awarded $5,000. Team Japan had a $10,000 budget to produce memorable, impactful events where artists came first. Michael created stunning wigs, beat glamorous makeup down upon our faces, and helped keep track of audience ballot votes with another friend throughout the show. Aya not only created Patsy’s nail gloves, but also stoned over 10,000 rhinestones onto the jumpsuit that included a cape with Patsy’s name fully stoned onto it! Yuka captured the entire show and presented a final video on YouTube. Everyone on Team Japan looks back on that night as an evening we’ll never forget because we did that! We were able to pay our team, support Aquihito and Culture Lab, book talent at a decent rate, fundraise for Black Girl Tutors & GLITS Inc, plus provide free space for vendors all thanks to the grant. Over 40% of the $10,000 went to paying artists for their contributions. This included photo documentation by Maryanne Braine, who’s taken quite a few of Ducky & Patsy’s portraits throughout the years. The remainder went to equipment needs and transportation. The grant process was a way for Ducky & Patsy as a duo to say thank you to our community and amazing team.

The cast of the Drag Song Battle: Ducky Sheaboi, Paris L’Hommie, Freeda Kulo, Junko Kubo, Megami, Gorgina, and Patsy InDecline at Culture Lab, October 2021. Ducky & Gorgina were styled by Kimono NYC by Chisa Sakurai. Patsy’s jumpsuit was made by Nicholas Mendoza and customized by DDNYC. Hair & makeup by Michael. Photo by Maryanne Braine.

Our Drag Family

It truly was an impactful experience to be able to re-enter performing live with a festival and end the year with such an influx of funding to host even broader reaching events. Our drag family knows what it’s like to stretch going full speed ahead on an empty tank. But, thanks to Michael & Aya, we present a rhinestoned drag fantasy that has an uplifting goal. Working with artists from fellow drag performers to folks like Yuka, Kimono NYC, Luisa Madrid, Maryanne Braine, Nicholas Mendoza creates a fabulous outlet for living life via art. Through virtual and in-person shows, Ducky & Patsy have performed for well over a thousand people in 2021. Both of us come from conservative South Carolina hometowns. Performing for that many people as queer artists wasn’t meant to happen. Our drag family continuously goes against the grain as gracefully as we can. Sometimes we take corners on two wheels, but it always works out. To have a chance to better showcase our capabilities really has inspired us to prepare for an even fuller 2022. Drag is that one thing that can bring together so many unique minds. It’s our version of hope and a method for us to be entrepreneurs. The New Year is already gearing up with Michael being nominated for a Glam Award for Best Hair. We’ll also return with more Snack Mama events where we continue to explore incorporating cooking and drag. Plus, all the images that were taken by Luisa are part of a larger documentary project that we’re hoping to premiere in Fall 2022!

I want fellow drag performers and nightlife folks to see our team as a resource. Every one of us is available for a gig, to a commission for some form of styling or a shoot – we don’t always have to come as a packaged deal. We are a unique powerhouse of talent! Nobody is the boss and we all put in the hours to reach a goal. Nowadays, if a photographer asks who we are as a team, we answer that we’re family. Who knows, you may catch us all in Japan within the next year or so, continuing to share moments of queer joy with as many people as possible. Nothing but excitement for things to come!

Home sweet home. The purple hue of the plant lights on the disco ball is how many clients, drag family, and friends recognize our apartment as they walk up. We consider our home both a queer sanctuary and a working studio. Photo taken by Luisa Madrid as part of our LIVE! From Woodside documentary.

Ducky & Patsy

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Activisim EDITORIAL Events Nightlife Timeline

Opinion: What Is Your Responsibility When Representing Your Community?

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,” one of the night’s performers J Rosa reminisced about that evening. 

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 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.

Junior Mintt

I withdrew myself from the argument and stood to the side. One of the performers of the night, Junior Mintt, 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. 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 uplifting the work that Suburbia and TWOCC were doing together. What was I supposed to write about the event 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, IslayaMTHR 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?

Glow Job

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. 

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Alexey Kim

Founder