Holding Horizon: Queer Cultural Spaces Now !/?
By Darian Razdar
This presentation is an adaptation of an essay featured in the self-published collection Toronto Queer: Erotic Experiments in Culture and Place (Summer 2020). Topics and keywords: queer, activism, culture, urgent, insurgent, planning, mutual aid, crisis.
Works Cited (in order of appearance):
- Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.
- Kazi, Rosina and Daniel Mack. Artists-organizers, Unit 2. In discussion with the author. December 2019.
- Parry, Evalyn. Artistic Director, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. In discussion with the author. December 2019.
- “Emergency Survival Fund for LGBTQ2S artists, performers, tip-based workers and Glad Day.” Glad Day Lit. Accessed May 2020, https://www.gladdaylit.ca/.
- Paul Soulellis, “Urgentcraft,” Queer.Archive.Work, Vol. 3 (2019).
- Vizenor, Gerald. “Aesthetics of Survivance: Literary Theory and Practice.” In Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Edited by Gerold Vizenor. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
- Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic.” In Sister Outsider. Berkeley, California: Crossing Press, 1984.
- Planning and LGBTQ Communities: The Need for Inclusive Queer Spaces, edited by Petra L. Doan. London: Routledge, 2015.
This presentation is a part of a collection of essays entitled, “Toronto Queer: Erotic Experiments in Culture and Place,” to be self-published in Summer 2020.
Right now, Toronto is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants and bars are all closed, you can’t convene in groups, we’re advised to shelter in place, the borders are locked, and many of us are self-isolating because we recently traveled internationally, are immunocompromised, or are showing symptoms. We’re waiting, unsure what the future holds. In the meantime, many of us are out of work, we’re cut off from our loved ones, we’re uncertain and apprehensive. No one knows what the situation will be three months from now, let alone how we’ll make next month’s rent.
It’s in times like these that we fall back on community. Those of us who are queer, disabled, immigrants, Black, Indigenous, and/or people of colour – we, in particular, are learning that our communities mean something. We matter to each other here and now. The tremendous crisis that this pandemic has triggered is familiar territory for many of us. For us, the world is constantly in crisis. For many, the end of days has already come and gone. And still, we and they survive and endure.
Queer cultural spaces in Toronto know how to respond to crisis. We always live in varying degrees of crisis and practice responding with mutual aid and solidarity. In a particularly hard time like this, I rejoice to see Toronto’s queer cultural spaces enacting mutual aid and solidarity.
At Unit 2, a Do-It-Together community arts centre for QTBIPOC and friends, we’re organizing autonomist food care efforts. Our aim is to get nutritious goods to those falling through the cracks of larger, more institutionalized food assistance efforts. Unit 2’s food care efforts were generated out of a wintertime community dinner series held every other Monday in the humble Junction loft. Unit 2 affiliates, also, started a Discord online forum for friends and strangers to socially connect while staying physically distant.
Meanwhile, Buddies in Bad Times — the largest and longest-running queer theatre in the world — lives up to its name by canceling all in-person programming until at least June 30th, paying their employees’ wages for the unexpected time off while government benefits fall into place, and reorganizing a physically distant iteration of their annual Queer Pride performance festival in June.
On the other side of the village, Glad Day immediately began offering 50%-off food and drinks for “LGBTQ2S artists, performers, and tip-based workers, no questions asked” once the pandemic escalated on March 12th. When it became clear the storefront had to temporarily close, the bookshop’s non-profit sibling, Glad Day Lit, launched the Emergency Survival Fund: an ambitious and necessary campaign to raise $100,000 for affected artists and workers, as well as for the struggling bookshop itself. Bolstering the campaign has been the organization’s research revealing the egregious economic inequities facing queer and trans artists and cultural workers in Toronto. As of May 1, 2020, Glad Day’s campaign continues with over $100,000 raised by individual donors and larger sponsors alike.
The efforts of these queer cultural spaces during this pandemic, though different in approach, will inevitably save lives. The foundations of Unit 2, Buddies, Glad Day’s life-saving efforts are their erotic ways of knowing and experimental ways of being. There are erotic ways of knowing that make clear to queers that our survival and fulfillment is shared. There are, also, experimental ways of being that encourage us to risk, iterate, and intuit in the face of such existential threats.
In this presentation, I reflect on the urgent and insurgent qualities of queer cultural spaces in Toronto in relation to Queer Studies theories of queerness as horizon. I, also, show how urgent insurgence qualifies the imperative to plan queer people and places. My intervention comes from the frontlines of grassroots queer life and urges us to understand queerness as a boundless, culturally-relevant social world taking shape at the scale of the here and now.
Queer Studies has a problem with the present. Since José Esteban Muñoz’s seminal text, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, hit the shelves in 2009, to speak of the queer ‘here and now’ elicits questions and critique from Queer Studiers. Muñoz’s argument in Cruising Utopia is entirely persuasive: the “stranglehold” of “straight time” is one that constricts queer life to its current violated positions. For Muñoz, not only is the present “not enough,” it is “impoverished and toxic for queers.” This leads him to assert that “we are not yet queer,” that “we have never been queer,” and that “if queerness is to have any value whatsoever, it must be viewed as being visible only in the horizon.”
For Buddies, Glad Day, and Unit 2, that horizon is here and now. These queer spaces produce different kinds of queer culture in order to hold the horizon where queerness resides in the present. If we weren’t able to hold this horizon, to create queer presents, we couldn’t imagine responding to our current conditions with such care, risk, and solidarity as we are today. Surely, we will fail and are failing. Surely, we are and will not be enough. But for us not to know, do, and be with our practiced eroticism and experimentality in the current moment would be untrue to present conditions and a disservice to relationships forged in community.
There is an urgency to queerness.
Designer and publisher of QUEER.ARCHIVE.WORK, Paul Soulellis folds together Muñoz’s queer futurity and Jack Halberstam’s queer art of failure into what he calls “urgentcraft.” Soulellis understands urgentcraft as:
“using what’s available to deliver an important message that needs to be expressed quickly . . . a practice of becoming that begins in the right now, and stretches way out into the future, a way to work together that’s at once slow and urgent in the face of immediate crisis.”
Evaluating our surroundings in Toronto right now, we feel ourselves working both slowly and urgently, separately and together. Empirically, Paul Soulellis is correct in his reorientation of queer praxis as urgentcraft.
The urgentcraft of queer space-making in Toronto appears as last-minute bookings for performers at Unit 2 and our hodgepodge, though effective and affective, efforts to quickly mobilize food and other goods to community members facing acute hardship during the pandemic. Urgentcraft appears as Buddies quickly decided to shift its programming calendar – to completely halt programs and close the venue during the pandemic. Urgentcraft is Buddies’ renvisioning of Queer Pride as a analogue, decentralized queer performance festival in a physically distant world. Urgentcraft appears in Glad Day’s rapid mounting of a campaign to fundraise for the immediate survival of queer, trans, and 2 spirit artists, performers, tip-based and gig workers, and for its own struggling store. Unit 2, Buddies, Glad Day continue to adapt to a rapidly evolving situation, while mobilizing their communities to address ongoing realities.
Along with urgency comes insurgency. To be insurgent is to contest authority, defy dominant logics, and transform existing conditions.
Insurgency isn’t always justice and equity-aligned — take for instance right-wing insurrection in liberal democracies the world over. That said, the insurgency I see happening on the ground in Toronto’s queer cultural spaces is one that prefigures boundless social worlds where all sorts of people have access to the benefits of mutual aid, resource abundance, and erotic fulfillment.
When Unit 2 organizes mutual aid projects in ongoing crises, we defy the dominant logic of charity. Charity assumes that a few will always have resource abundance to distribute among the many who don’t. Mutual aid, while not exactly the opposite of charity, sources community assets to redistribute among the most relegated parts of a society that is dictated by the myriad faces of capitalism. Mutual aid right now – sharing food, communing digitally, distributing resources and skills – is an insurgent cultural practice of queer survivance.
When Buddies canceled their programming for the Spring, they also decided to pay every employee for the hours they would’ve worked through March and April. The company’s insurgent history began as a nomadic troupe in 1979, and has led them to become a successful non-profit theatre today. As such, Buddies has built multiple funding streams: box-office proceeds, venue rentals, festivals, donors, and more. Buddies’ multiple funding streams support their mandate for “artistically rigorous alternative theatre” amidst capitalist demands that inherently quash creativity. Their insurgence as a powerful community counterinstitution put Buddies in the position to compensate their employees even during a temporary closure. Though Buddies had this capacity, the directors were not forced to act on it. However, they made the deliberate decision to support their workers, most of whom are queer artists themselves — and so, stand in opposition to the capitalist logic that tells employers to only pay for hours extracted from their labourers.
When Glad Day first announced 50% off food and drinks for LGBTQ2S folks, and then launched the Emergency Survival Fund for this same community, their organizers transformed the chaos of uncertainty into the chaos of power. Glad Day is leveraging its position as a beloved community cultural space in the name of queer survivance – that of the bookshop and those who call it home. Glad Day is not capitalizing on crisis, they are organizing through crisis to redistribute funds to where it is most urgently needed. In so doing, the bookshop is flipping the script in how to respond in an escalated moment of crisis – not by hoarding, but by redistributing funds and resources and transforming conditions of queer possibility.
This urgent insurgence of queer cultural spaces has everything to do with the erotic and experimental. All of these places are insurgent on an everyday level, not just in this moment of heightened fear. Performances and relationships forged in these spaces – from the vulnerable and painful, to the pleasurable and ecstatic, and everywhere in between – are what underpin the erotics of insurgency. Erotic ways of knowing dis- and reorient how we engage in these places. The erotic guides participants toward, what Audre Lorde called, the “expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us,” rather than shallow expectations of a capitalist-patriarchal culture.
As Muñoz also discerned, “the liberation of Eros . . . certainly embraces experimental modes of love, sex, and relationality.” Spaces like Unit 2, Buddies, Glad Day are hotbeds of experimentation — iterating collective processes, as well as taking risks in both moments of crisis and calm. These queer cultural spaces welcome experimental acts that are difficult (if not impossible) to imagine in places not organized around experimental ways of being. Their affinity for the experimental embeds these spaces in queer ways of being that push the boundaries of the possible.
What’s the relation between queer spaces and planning? Can planning happen for, with, or by queer people? Is planning enough for queer spaces to survive and endure?
Planning is a paradigm of “planning for the unplanned,” according to scholar of LGBTQ Planning, Petra Doan. From Doan’s perspective, Planning ought to work on the behalf of the marginalized, disenfranchised, and otherwise oppressed ‘communities of interest.’ Planners are ardent in their effort to ‘include’ ‘lgbtq people’ through ceaseless participation and dialogue with us as a ‘community of interest.’ Planning’s long history of violence against many groups, and the subsequent reorientation of counterplanning by and for the disenfranchised, muddies Doan’s call for a more inclusive Planning. To me, Planning is simply a regime disciplining people and place. Planning’s disciplinary regime is a highly-unequal process of geographically distributing modern society’s costs and benefits. An expert class of Planners and their institutional homes — be they governmental, non-profit, or private — are tasked with deciding the fate of our built environment. Celebrated LGBTQ Planning interventions, like Petra Doan’s, fall short of transformation; they tolerate policing, encourage surveillance, bolster settler property rights, and accept assimilationist marketing gimmicks. Instead of reducing harm, LGBTQ Planning actually invokes violence on the majority of queers.
Can queer spaces be planned? With such betrayal, do queers plan at all?
My engagements on the ground and on the page have taught me a lot about the power of brick and mortar queer spaces — the potential power to survive, redistribute, and even transform. Buddies, Glad Day, Unit 2 all take shape through a diversity of means that include, but are certainly not limited to, planning. More than anything, these spaces lean on the erotic and experimental to create spaces for queer culture. The people who made these places organized, played, performed, built, designed, risked, failed, and endured. I hesitate to say they planned. I hesitate to say they planned in the capacity someone who calls themselves an ‘urban,’ ‘regional,’ or ‘cultural’ planner would. In some ways, planning gives up on both the erotic and the experiment, because it is so wed to the idea that everything must be planned — and planned through hierarchal structures and predictable outcomes.
Take Buddies in Bad Times, for instance — the fateful and risky way that it moved into its Alexander Street venue from its small George Street squat in 1994. In our conversation, Buddies’ Artistic Director, Evalyn Parry, literally told me: “Buddies came here without much of a business plan. It wasn’t the plan to be here at all.”
While Buddies’ unplanned decision 2 decades ago ended an era of militant theatre, it has anchored a space for erotic & experimental artistry in the city into the present. Buddies has raised generations of queer artists, and supports them even when it has to close during a pandemic. Much of what is beautiful in our queer spaces today is that which goes unplanned. May it be that queer’s presentness, for which I advocate, troubles planning’s fastidious focus on fixed futures?
In a recent conversation with comrades organizing Unit 2, a consensus emerged around the idea that they mobilize planning as an anti-hegemonic practice. Planning at Unit 2 creates the framework within which queer erotics and experiment flourish, while disavowing the need for predictable or measurable future outcomes. Importantly, planning was mentioned as only one of many ways they hold space — dancing, performing, crafting, talking, observing, sharing, protesting, cooking, and eating all being noted as worthwhile modes of making and holding space itself. Unit 2’s planning doesn’t crowd out other ways of doing, knowing, or being. In this way, Unit 2 offers a praxis of queer space-making that might actually chart paths toward our collective liberation.
Now, I conclude: queerness is here and now. Queerness cannot only be a futurity because we live, breathe, and die queer every day and every night. We touch queerness every time we touch ourselves, when we consent to sense with each other, and when we feel the lifeforce between our selves. The present is irrefutably “impoverished and toxic,” as Munoz wrote, but it’s also abundant and nourishing. As Munoz also wrote, “Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that the world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.” Knowing deeply that something is missing, we are empowered in the present to remake the world in the shape of our desires, and to shape many possible futures.
I am calling for queer spaces for here and now. Queerness is urgent and insurgent exactly because it is aligned with the erotic and experiment – ways of knowing and being that are deeply attuned to the in-the-momentness of it all. We need queer cultural spaces, and we need them now. We are lucky that there exists a handful of brick and mortar queer spaces in our own backyard, which have long practiced the work of urgent insurgence in diverse and unexpected ways. Today, these spaces make and remake queer life – and life in general – in the face of an otherwise uncertain future.