2021 taught me the importance of intentional queer spaces

When I found out that Donald Trump was going to be president in 2016, the first thing I did was go to my local gay bar. The Boiler Room in Manhattan’s East Village is dingy and quirky, the type of establishment where drunken people ditch half-finished cranberries to vodka on toilet covers and cockroaches scurry along walls. I walked in with a friend and we bought a drink before someone walked over to the jukebox to play a Whitney Houston song. The few other people in the bar screamed in excitement and stood up. One of them approached us, took our hands and asked us to dance. Little did I know this would be just one of the many times the queer community would become my lifeline in the years to come.

The boiler room was also where I took my first boyfriend when a group of older queens, as they liked to be called, offered us roses and slices of cake (it was one of their birthdays) and wished us a happy relationship. I went back there when we broke up. The boiler room was one of the few spaces where I could express myself without limits, where I could cry and celebrate, laugh, cry.

But for an entire year of the pandemic, we had nowhere to go. Some of us had to quarantine ourselves with family members or roommates and in many cases tone down our homosexuality as not all spaces welcomed it. During this time, I realized that I didn’t have a lot of close queer friends and that my relationship with the queer community mostly consisted of fleeting interactions – strangers I met in clubs, apps, or social media. bars but that I never saw again.

Then came Spring 2021. As vaccinations rolled around and indoor spaces began to reopen in New York City, three friends and I decided to throw a party and build a community of creative people of color. After a year of social and cultural upheaval, we didn’t want to go back to the same kind of crazy celebrations we went to before the pandemic, where the point was just to let off steam.

Photo: Ian Kumamoto

We had our first event at a public garden in Bushwick that belonged to a man named Hernan because we wanted to raise money for his garden. We blew the music out of our speaker and the people passing by on the street saw us and joined us. Hours later the event turned into a big dance party and neighbors who had lived in the neighborhood for years met for the first time. When we met for the second time in Harlem, we hosted an event exclusively for the queer community called Amor Prohibido, after Selena’s song. Seeing so many gay people laughing, kissing and singing in Spanish, my mother tongue, reaffirmed that after so much time in isolation, I can still find true joy without inhibitions in being with others like me.

By that time, enough people had heard of us that people formed a line that stretches the length of the block. It was clear the community wanted to party, but many told us that night that they were also desperate to make gay friends after a year inside. On the recommendation of friends, we started to organize dinners and smaller meetings for people to meet and chat without having to travel. Eventually, we formed a collective around our events called Whorecata, whose mission is to create a chosen family for queer, trans, and non-binary people of color.

Without the pandemic, I’m pretty sure Whorecata wouldn’t exist today. The pandemic made us realize that meaningful gay friendships aren’t just fun to have, they’re essential to our survival. Getting together, if only for a drink or to watch music videos in our living rooms, was the primary means used to fill the void. We created spaces where we could simply to be, without having to politicize, justify or explain our existence.

Photo: Ian Kumamoto

Vincent Chong, a 29-year-old artist and friend who is involved in Bubble T, a collective that centers queer Asians, tells me the pandemic has taught him to prioritize his mental health in queer spaces. Chong says that before the pandemic he thought the main way he connected with the community was through partying, but now people seem more inclined to participate in more relaxing activities and his friends tend to be more. understanding when he cannot attend an event.

At a time when none of us could access physical spaces beyond our homes, Chong believes that there is more empathy in the queer community for people with physical and mental limitations. For example, Chong tells him that large crowds and loud noises can easily overwhelm him. Due to the awareness that has accompanied COVID, Chong believes that among his queer friends, it is more acceptable now to use mental health as a reason to take time out from activities. “The pandemic has made it clear that we always prioritize able-bodied people,” Chong tells me. “It also showed how much we didn’t make the spaces accessible to people who couldn’t be physically present. “

Photo: Ian Kumamoto

He says he’s recently seen evidence of this new awareness of mental health in LGBTQ spaces. They said it was okay to struggle given the monumental changes our community has gone through this year and we did a little meditation together. I don’t remember that such awareness occurred in the same way or with the same frequency before COVID and it seems that many queer organizers make a point of constantly checking.

The pandemic forced many of us to face life models that were not sustainable.

While it’s not always as insightful as talking about mental health, the pandemic has forced many of us to face life models that weren’t sustainable. Jonathan Perez, another friend who runs a Mexican restaurant in Spanish Harlem called Ollin, identifies as gay and Mexican. Until recently, Perez was a DACA recipient and tells me this year he realized just how much he had neglected his sanity and how the end of quarantine catalyzed that awareness. “I didn’t realize how much my identity, especially being gay and undocumented, weighed so heavily on my mental health,” he says. “Until this year, I put everything else before my well-being.”

He says learning this made him want to be more intentional about sharing space with queer people in his restaurant. Perez manages Ollin’s social media account, which has many followers, and this year he has spoken openly about his sexuality and made it clear that Ollin is gay-friendly in a part of town that doesn’t have much. openly LGBTQ spaces. For Thanksgiving, Perez asked Whorecata to partner with him, and we had a dinner party for the gay people who couldn’t make it home for the holidays.

While last summer was a time of celebration and excess after quarantine, the fall and winter have given us time to reflect and figure out where we want to go from here. And now with the new variant, who knows when we can safely assemble again. Over the past year, queer spaces and organizers have struggled to be more inclusive and aware of each other’s limitations; others, including Whorecata, were created because we aspire to a meaningful community beyond the dance floor.

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