On Appropriating Gender, Sex and Identity

Chlo & Co Dance is a Bay Area company comprised of Courtney King and Chloë Zimberg, whose project, Tabled, brings together various artists to discuss endemic issues in the arts. The five-panel series runs from January through September. The third panel, Appropriating Gender, Sex and Identity: Authenticity in the Arts, was held on July 6th via Zoom and featured Bay Area artists Justin Carder (founder and director of Wolfman Books) Bhumi B. Patel (queer Desi performance artist) and Grace Towers (gender non-conforming performance and drag artist).

This transcribed and edited version seeks to continue the conversation. Please feel free to get in touch with emmaly@stanceondance.com or chlocodance@gmail.com with your own thoughts on appropriating gender, sex and identity!

Note: A week after this conversation, Wolfman Books announced it was closing, to be reopened as the QTPOC-led Wolffemme+Them.

Justin Carder, Photo by Anna Xu

Bhumi B. Patel, Photo by Lara Kaur

Grace Towers, Photo by Sloane Kanter

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Questions for panelists (given in advance):

  1. What do gender, sex, and identity mean to you and how do they manifest in your art form?
  2. How do you organize events, programming, and/or performances with gender, sex, and identity at the forefront?
  3. How are gender, sex, and identity addressed or not addressed in the arts community? What examples of colonialism do you see as prevalent in the arts?
  4. What role do gender, sex, and identity play in funding and grant applications? Are gender, sex, and identity invoked by artists with privilege as a way to gain funding? How can white/cis/hetero artists respect and raise the voice of gender non-conforming, BIPOC, queer folx beyond optical allyship or tokenization?
  5. What revolution(s) do you want within the arts regarding gender, sex, and identity? What locations/events/artists do you admire in your field?

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Bhumi B Patel:

Thinking about answering these questions was a huge challenge for me. I started thinking: What do I do? What have I done in the past? There was a time when we could gather. One of the ways that I decolonized the system of performance was that, when I put together performances, there would be food, tea, and conversation, the stuff that connects people beyond going into a theater and sitting in a chair. I want to create spaces where we are co-creating as audience, choreographer and performers. We all co-create what happens, which dismantles who holds the power in the room.

Grace Towers:

Yes, and cheers to finding creative ways to make these kinds of systems work. I’m curious Bhumi, and I’ll ask because I’ve had to navigate this myself, having done a weekly five-year run of a drag show that was fed by audience engagement: Have you considered using Zoom or any other internet platform, as far as performance and curation?

Bhumi:

I think about it a lot. Is it possible to cultivate the feeling of the thing without it being the thing? I sometimes tell people if I’m getting on a Zoom call to make yourself a cup of tea, grab a snack, enjoy, and sit in a chair that’s comfortable. We can only see you from the torso up, don’t wear pants if you don’t want to wear pants, you’re in your house, live your best life. It’s not the same but it attempts to create the feeling.

Grace:

Speaking to that feeling, we’ve been doing a drag show on Zoom. It’s been a beautiful platform and a creative way to stay connected as a community. There’s another platform called Twitch that provides a sense of absorption. We try to decolonize the structure by having a post-show where I unmute everybody and have a check-in, even if it’s not in-person.

Justin Carder:

It’s exciting to see people transform what’s ostensibly business software. Zoom is for meetings, and now all these people are making it a club. It’s fun but it’s also hard work. I’m challenged because so much of what I value about performance is everything around it: How to make the space feel nice, how to make the conversation happen.

Then the conversation switched in an amazing way toward the George Floyd protests. We went into direct service mode; our project turned into fundraising. We’re moving toward a more direct service model. Can art more easily direct money to the people who need it?

Bhumi:

There was this month of full throttle, “We are reading White Fragility, we are reading How to Be an Antiracist, we are taking down racism.” Now the Instagram feed is going back to pictures of dogs and homemade granitas, but some of us are in it for the long haul. That’s the thing I’m so excited about in the arts world, or at least the thing that I want to be hopeful about in the arts world: that we are sticking to it. That these solidarity statements that were made literally by everyone, from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to someone I bought a t-shirt from 10 years ago, and everyone in between, that they lead to an examination of what these institutions are. There’s so much more to look at: Who’s on your board of directors? Who are you hiring? Is your work environment hostile for marginalized people? If so, stop hiring marginalized people and harming them. Look at yourself and reevaluate. I feel hopeful that we’re in a moment that could lead to change. Maybe that’s as a result of this perfect storm where the arts industry is being decimated because of the pandemic. We’re not in the theaters, we’re not in rehearsal studios, we’re not creating in the same way. If we go back at some point, at least we can do it in a way that doesn’t harm so many of the marginalized people in our community. That’s my hope for the future.

Justin:

One of the ways our work manifested recently, that I’m thankful for and has been inspiring, was during the protests. Wolfman Books is right downtown in the center of Oakland, across from the Tribune Tower, right next to Oscar Grant Plaza. I was away camping when the biggest protest started and I got all these text messages, “Is the store okay? What’s going on?” I worked with my staff the next night, and we opened the store for people to use the bathroom and get water, hand sanitizer, and snacks. We did this as support for the protestors who were out in the street. It was honestly beautiful to be there, to see all these people come through and hold a space of direct action. It was the difference between barricading and opening our space, showing up to be with people.

Justin Carder

Bhumi:

This interesting thing has happened in the past months, and I’m sure this has happened to a lot of people who maybe look similar to me. I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking about antiracism and queerness. It feels like another tendril of tokenization. I’m not going to speak for all Brown people. I can tell you my opinion, but you need to talk to a lot of Brown people, and you need to not be afraid of Black and Brown people. I don’t know if anyone else has had this experience, but I’ve gotten at least half a dozen people asking, “Can you fill out my Google form and tell me how you think my organization has been racist?” No, I can’t because that requires you going on an inner field trip to think about the actions you have done, the systems you have bought into, and really interrogating that. I’m not doing that work for anyone because I do that work for me. Right? We all live on a spectrum of privilege and marginalization. So I’m doing that work for me.

Grace:

I’ve had friends reflect the same, there’s a lot of people who are reaching out. A lot of my BIPOC friends, my Latino friends, my Black friends are tired, and I’m tired, of doing the work for other people.

Bhumi:

The phrase I’ve been using is “There’s an entire internet out there for you to help you.”

Justin:

Grace, I wanted to put the question to you about events.

Grace:

Being very honest, it’s challenging on many, many layers. A lot of what I do is very social and physical, intentionally so. When I create events or performances, they’re derived from my own personal experience being ostracized as a queer Latino faggot who was kicked out from a home and had to find connection and community through chosen family. A lot of that is found around dinner, around a camping trip, around a sex positive space, around workshops and discussions, whatever it may be. I’ve leaned into my close-knit chosen family to support me and we’re all finding ways to stay connected. And this is one of those ways, right? These virtual platforms.

There are different answers for different events. This past weekend, I was trying to figure out what outside spaces feel right and safe. I’m trying to find site specific moments. I went on a beautiful bike ride to Hunter’s Point. There is a great little outside amphitheater there that I’m going to do a little gathering at. Golden Gate Park has a bunch of meadows that are beautiful, and we do these little bike rides/dance parties/picnics. That’s what I’m envisioning right now.

It’s very clear that we’re not going back into the bars, the clubs, the camp outs. I do drag performance that has shifted into a beautiful adjusted format via Zoom. I’m bringing in people from New York to do my show. I’m doing shows that are hosted and curated out of places that I’m clearly not going to go to at this point. Some of the drag shows that I’m hosting online, I’m able to pay the performers more than I was paying them at bars. That’s a whole other thing to wrap your brain around. It’s not all negative; it’s just a new set of challenges. We do some mentorship programs that are kind of like arts residencies, but drag residencies. I’m considering doing them as an online experience this coming year, though I’m not fully committed to that yet.

That’s something I would rather hold on to: the opportunity to say, “Let’s take a year to reflect, meet, and develop at the organizational level, to take in what we’re learning through these conversations and address holes that we can look into, develop, or change.” That’s been one of the pros of this experience. I’m a pretty “go, go, go” kind of queen and I love that. At the same time, I don’t know that I would have ever been able to reflect or take the time to process what has worked and what hasn’t worked to the extent that this time has allowed me to do. I have to remind myself of that.

Justin:

I’m the same way. I’m just “go, go, go” all the time. It’s been the decision that we made as a collective, and I made with myself, to pull back a little bit right now. I want to listen, watch, see what’s going on, and try to imagine bigger structural changes. This is the opportunity. Maybe this is the chance to build something else that is equitable. I’m excited about that.

Grace:

I do a lot of video and photography, but now I’m having to do it all on my own. This speaks to my process and reflection on productivity: “I’m not going to do anything but read today, what a pleasure. And then the next day, why don’t I look on YouTube and learn about photography?” It’s been powerful to reflect on what we can make the time to learn.

Bhumi:

Something I’ve been grappling with is sheltering in place. It brings up the question of access and how it is incredible how much access there is to artmaking. People could be on this Zoom call from anywhere in the world. I’ve been going to some of the Drag Alive! shows on Twitch and it’s so cool to see people write in from all over the world. There are some dance classes I’ve been taking online through Zoom and folks are invited to share where they’re from. I’ve taken class with someone who is in Thailand and someone who’s three blocks away from me, all at the same time. I love that. It also leads me to this question of who has access to the technology.

Grace:

And to counter that, who doesn’t?

Bhumi:

I struggled with this with my college students. I teach dance technique class at a community college in the South Bay. When we went to shelter in place, our department was immediately told, “Great, start teaching online, here’s a Zoom account, have fun.” And I was like hold on, do my students have computers? Do they have iPads or phones they can use? Do they have space where they can move? Are they caring for children or are they ill? Is anyone in their family ill? The dean of my department didn’t even think of that and I was like, “Really white man? Really? You didn’t think about the young people at this college not having access to technology and internet service.”

Grace:

Lived experiences!

Bhumi:

It’s something on my mind as I think about how we’re recalibrating to this platform.

Bhumi B. Patel, Photo by Douglas Calalo Berry

Audience question:

What role do gender, sex, and identity play in funding and grant applications? Are gender, sex, and identity invoked by artists with privilege as a way to gain funding? How can white/cis/hetero artists respect and raise the voice of gender non-conforming, BIPOC, queer folx beyond optical allyship or tokenization?

Bhumi:

I have so much to say about this. A lot of these conversations about antiracism and dance, about uplifting voices of marginalized identities, really come down to funding because we are required to make art and operate in a system of capitalism. Baseline, I would rather not deal with money at all; I don’t like the transactional nature. However, to answer your question, one hundred percent, yes. I’ve served on half a dozen grant and curatorial panels. I see applications that state: “Because I am a homosexual, I am marginalized.” But you’re also white, cis, and a man, so sit down. Or I see, “I’m a woman and therefore I’m marginalized.” You’re a white woman who is independently wealthy, so actually, no. And I’ve had so many program managers at granting institutions say, “If someone identifies as marginalized in any way, that has to hold the same weight.” And I push back on that because our experiences of marginalization do not hold the same weight in this country or on this planet.

How can white/cis/hetero artists respect and raise the voice of gender nonconforming/BIPOC/queer folks beyond optical allyship? Sit out grant cycles. I would love to see a mass movement of white artists in the Bay Area sit out grant cycles for three years and then see who is funded. And while you’re sitting out the grant cycles, reach out to all the funders who you’ve made friends with and tell them why they need to implement policy changes. Remove colonized language from applications. Stop requiring people to have some sort of white American grasp on the English language. How can you not have accessibility options for your application to be submitted? You’re telling me, the only way I can apply for your grant is if I have a Google account and fill out a Google form? Not everybody has a computer. Not everybody has the skillset to to do that. Figure out ways to disperse funding that don’t require a W-9 or a social security number because there are a lot of people in this country who don’t have access to those things who deserve to get funded for their art. You can’t measure the success of every artist based on how many tickets they sell. That is not every artist’s mode of understanding whether their art is successful. I’m going to pause right there and let other folks respond.

Grace:

Oh my god. Go off Bhumi!

Something I have found refreshing is working with specific folks like Ernesto Sopprani, a Peruvian artist and curator, Kevin Seaman, a wonderful drag queen and performer, and Beatrice Thomas, who also does amazing work in drag. The arts funding system has been in place for a long time. There are things that people know work and a lot of things people know don’t work. When you’re trying to be part of that system, and you’re not in the know, folks like these have mentored me through applications. That approach has been fruitful for me. The whole concept of access – how to value work, who decides what that value is – is super problematic. I’m always thinking about how we can move beyond it. I have more questions than answers.

Justin:

I’ve often seen my role as a bridge between these communities, trying to use whatever I have to support others. Now I’m learning that maybe in addition to acting as a bridge, I can act to dismantle the structure rather than accept the structure.

Bhumi:

What I’m seeing right now is that funders suddenly have a lot of money to disperse. In these applications for emergency grants, I am asked little more than if I identify as Brown, if I identify in some gendered way, if I identify as disabled or as a veteran. These are basic questions at the end of many grant applications as a demographic survey, but now it feels like organizations are saying, “We can see that the pandemic has negatively affected these groups so we’re just going to ask if you’re a part of that group and then we’ll give you money.” I understand artistic merit in granting, but why isn’t this given more weight in a traditional granting cycle when we’re not in a pandemic? All these things you’re asking about – if I identify as queer, trans, disabled – these aren’t going to go away just because the pandemic goes away. These are still going to be institutional things that keep marginalized people down.

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To learn more, visit www.chlocodance.com/tabled.

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