[UPDATED 4/18/12: please see the follow up post]
sometimes when i’m out dancing, surrounded by queers i love and queers i don’t know, appreciating how so many folks around me are as much of a gender-fucking mess as i am, i forget that a “safe” space is never a guarantee. it is an ideal. a code of conduct that we hope people adhere to. it is, at root, a goal–not a proclamation. not a guarantee. sometimes, i think we forget this.
“Shut up queen! shut up queen! shut up! queen queen queen queen queen!” i can still hear that last part. it does this kind of echo-loop in my head sometimes where the word runs together, like a CD skipping right before the “en” sound. “Quee-quee-quee-quee-quee–.” If i wasn’t so appalled i might be impressed by their ability to repeat the same word so goddamned fast.
i’ve had bits and pieces written on this since it happened around mid february, but haven’t gotten around to organizing them into something coherent until now. And since I realized it’s still something i’m thinking quite a bit about, and something which influences my relationship to portland’s queer scene, I should get it out.
it was my birthday celebration and a group of friends and i had decided to go to Mrs. together, a monthly queer dance party at mississippi studios. watching blow pony slip further and further into mainstream gaydom (straight onlookers in welcome tow) left me wanting for more explicitly trans and genderqueer friendly spaces. while i had never been personally, Mrs. was repeatedly billed to me as just that, and it sounded great.
and here’s the thing: for the most part, it really was. the theme was “let’s get physical,” so there was plenty of brightly colored spandex, hot pants, swimsuits, you name it –and it all looked pretty fabulous. plus the absurd workout videos from the last four decades they were projecting behind the stage didn’t hurt. i even saw this one hipster in full 80s workout gear (sweatband and all) walking around with a walkman and headphones. such commitment! sidebar: are all party themes automatically retro now? is that just like, default?
Anyway, for the most part, the music was really enjoyable too. i remember one song — a sign of things to come, though we didn’t know it yet — that came on which made my friends and i stop our bodies to talk. i don’t even remember what song it was anymore, but the point it brought up was why, at queer dance parties, do we consistently listen–and dance–to super misogynistic music?? is it somehow ironic? is it okay because ‘hey, we’re all in the know and feminist and stuff, so we can just enjoy it?’ what, exactly, makes it okay?
One of the DJs had an answer they would share with me later, but for now my friends and I were content to sit out the song and jump back in when pump up the jam took over. The room filled up, the DJs continued to make us dance, and there was suddenly double-dutch on stage. Ya know, good things were happening. Up to that point I was having a wonderful birthday celebration with folks I love in a space where I felt comfortable, dare I say even safe.
And then the end of the night had to happen.
The DJs thanked the crowd and bid us goodnight, and put on the last song of the evening. To this day, I don’t know what it was called or who it was by—one reason was that the DJ refused to tell us, the other being that the only audible lyrics in the song were “bitch-bitch-bitch-bitch-trick-trick-trick-trick.” Now, even these take a hot sec to sink in when you’re dancing. But sure enough, I watched one of my friends after another slow their bodies, turn an ear toward the speaker, and screw up their face before stopping completely. As I watched, it wasn’t just my friends and I. It was at least fifteen other people standing around us.
“What is this?”
“I don’t think I want to dance to this.”
I heard all of these — echoed some myself — as I watched cluster after cluster of dancers slow and then stop during the song.
When it finally ended, a renewed conversation on queer spaces and misogynistic music took place as we lingered on the floor. “What a depressing song to end on. All I could hear was ‘bitch’ and ‘trick’ — that doesn’t make me wanna dance!” my partner said.
She suggested that we say something to the DJs before leaving, to let them know how we — and what seemed to be a significant portion of the crowd — reacted to the song. I agreed, and we were soon standing in front of a table full of audio equipment being broken down for the night. There were three individuals behind the table, and for the sake of simplicity (and ‘cause I don’t actually know what each of their titles were) I will refer to all of them here as “DJs.” While of course I don’t know their respective identities (hence my use of “they” for all of them), I can say that they all appeared to be presenting very masculine. Myself, I was pretty high femme that night: heels, a purple dress, pink scarf tightly around my neck, gold hoops and full make-up. I can’t be sure how I was read by the DJs, though if I had to guess based on our interaction I’d say i was — rather incorrectly — assumed to be a gay man in drag. I’m not exactly sure what my partner was in by that stage of the night (there had been lots of de-layering happening), but suffice to say it would surprise me if they didn’t read her as a cis woman.
When we approached the table, two of the DJs were hovering over laptops and cords, while the third stood off to the right of the table. “Hi,” I said when we arrived, more to the people over the laptop. They looked up. “I was just wondering if maybe next time, ya’ll wouldn’t end on a super misogynistic song? It made a lot of us stop dancing.” The last of my words were drowned out as the person to my right suddenly leaned toward me with an exasperated noise and requisite eye-roll, saying, “It’s okay, queen. Go away, we got it queen.” When their dismissal didn’t stop me from finishing my point, they raised the volume, resorting to a rapid-fire, “Shut up queen, shut up queen, shut up queen, queen, queen, queen!” before slinking backward, head shaking, to perch on the corner of the stage, where they remained quiet for the rest of the interaction.
Directing my attention back to the other two DJs, I found my partner continuing the conversation.
By this point from the start, things were unnecessarily heated. The middle DJ seemed to be taking personal offense that some members of their audience found one of their songs to be misogynistic. “Do you even know who wrote this song?!” They demanded of us.
“No, please tell us!” We both replied earnestly.
“Fucking drag queens wrote this song, honey, so chill out queen.” There it was again. Queen. Once for me, and once for their point, emphasizing drag queens like it was some anti-misogyny ace in the hole, as though somehow drag queens are incapable of perpetuating sexism. “Go look it up and know what you’re talking about before you come complaining to me about it.”
“But we don’t know that when we’re out there dancing! All we hear is ‘bitch bitch bitch bitch trick trick trick trick,” I said, avoiding pointing out the fact that some of those ace in the hole drag queens have long been critiqued by queer feminists for appropriating and perpetuating female slurs.
“Look it up,” the DJ repeated.
At this point, my partner tried to de-escalate. “Look, we had a really great time tonight, and for the most part really loved the music you played,” I nodded in agreement. “We just wanted to let you know, that people in the crowd – a lot more than just us, like fifteen others just where we were standing – stopped dancing because of this song, and I think that says something.” As the condescending, agitated DJ in the center stopped engaging with us completely, the person to our left spoke up. “Thank you, thank you for your feedback,” they said, barely looking up from what they were doing and clearly just trying to get us the hell away from there as quickly as possible.
we left the table. and i brought with me a nauseating mix of disappointment, hurt, and just plain shock. really, here?? certainly, i can understand that after a long night of work, the first thing you wanna hear is probably not a critique of your performance. i get that. but the immediate dismissal and outright hostility we received was never something i would have expected. because here’s the thing: it’s really not about you. or how good a DJ you are (well, maybe this isn’t completely unrelated… i would say that the willingness to hear feedback — especially on issues related to identity and oppression — is absolutely part of the job description of any
entertainer, er, respectful human).
it’s about how queers, as a subculture, deal with the misogyny and patriarchy we inevitable carry with us from dominant culture. it’s about our willingness — or lack thereof — to engage in examining the privileging of masculinity, the consistent invisibility and/or absence of trans women, and the uncritical acceptance (and even celebration) of misogynistic music in queer spaces.
it’s about how my feminine gender presentation can be used to silence and dismiss; to label me as a dramatic, over-reactor who needs to step back and let the masculine folks handle it. it’s about how the word queen, while having a rep as a somewhat equal opportunity derisive term short for drama queen, is still completely rooted in sexist stereotypes about women’s supposed over-emotionality and melodramatic tendencies. and it’s not like this was some instance of reclaiming a fucked up term — it was straight up used in its traditional sense: to devalue femininity and invalidate the views of those who express it.
and that’s not even to mention the extreme levels of assumption about my identity that went in to the two DJs choosing the word queen in the first place. i think had i been presenting more masculine — or been read as pretty much anything other than a male-assigned person expressing femininity — that term would not have be used. that’s called trans-misogyny. (after all, even my partner — who was voicing the same concerns as i — was never referred to in this way, though she was treated equally as dismissively.)
The purpose of this post is not to attack Mrs., or its organizers, or even the specific individuals mentioned here. but it is a red flag about the pervasiveness of sexism within our community. when two people associated with an explicitly queer event can derisively dismiss me as queen based on my gender presentation and qualms with misogynistic lyrics, it raises some serious questions about queer complicity in patriarchy and who is welcome(d) in queer spaces. and as a community, if we truly want to create and socialize in “safe” spaces — or at least, spaces where we can critically examine the presence of the “isms” and be accountable to one another for our role in those systems — then it starts with us talking about this stuff. and us talking about it? well, that starts with us being willing to hear it.