Queer Women of Color Still Face Racism During Pride, Among Other Things

In response to mainstream prides everywhere, including both the racism and sexism that pervades the larger gay community, Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+ Boston) hosts OPTIONZ — in its fifth year — tonight, a highly anticipated annual pride party specifically created to provide a space for lesbian, gay,bisexual, transgender and queer women of color and their friends, supporters, and allies during pride. But as excited as I am about QWOC+ Boston’s work in ensuring that we — women of color — are celebrated and visible during pride, that this is not the main subject of my post. If you follow QWOC+ Boston, you may have noticed on Facebook or any of our other social media channels, that our OPTIONZ party needed to be relocated to a new venue.

The reason for the venue change is that, last-minute, the previous venue, Caprice Lounge, presented me with some new terms: “No Hip Hop music, because of issues we’ve had in the past.”

Now, QWOC+ Boston has had a long-standing relationship with Caprice; we’ve been hosting events at their venue for the past three years. The reason, they gave, for the new policy was due to some recent violence that ensued after a Hip Hop show they hosted. Besides the fact that we’ve never had a single fight break out at a QWOC+ Boston event, it seemed ludicrous that the management had decided to villainize an entire genre of music based on a one-off incident. Something else that really pissed me off is that after informing us that we could not play Hip Hop at our party, we were offered a slew of other genres we could play as substitute including… (wait for it)… Rock music. So while we’re on stereotypes, it’s okay to play angry white man music, but not angry black man music? Wow.

Racist stereotypes aside, I was also only told that we could not play Hip Hop music on Tuesday (just two days before our event), which also seemed shady and manipulative. There had been no mention of this during our earlier communications. So, despite the fact that they’d been pushing for a large venue deposit to be made and incessantly trying to get me to sign a contract that would guarantee them two thousand dollars from the bar (of which I’d be liable if it was not met), I’m just floored that they had the audacity to limit whatever kind of music we played at our party.

So, guess what I said? HELLLL NO!

Okay. Not exactly in those words. I needed to be realistic. Despite the outrage expressed by community members after I’d relayed the incident — including the collective push for us to say goodbye to Caprice, I wasn’t sure it would be possible to find another venue, not during one of the busiest seasons of the year — weddings, graduations, prides etc — with just TWO days to go before the event.

So, rather than be seduced by the opportunity to give Caprice a self-righteous middle finger — and run the risk of having to cancel our pride party altogether —  I told the event coordinator at Caprice to send me the contract with all terms laid out; I would look it over and get back to her. In the meantime, I reached out to other venues comparable in size, and after just one day of mass emails and phone calls, I got lucky.

Market Lounge was big enough to accommodate us. Moreover, they weren’t going to charge us an arm and a leg to use the space (since they had no competing events during our event time). In fact, they seemed excited about getting the business of over 150 pride-ful peeps on a Thursday night. We had struck gold! Or so everyone thought…so  the applause began.

Great decision. Excellent. Yay for saying no to racism! But what I didn’t tell people, was that the new venue had a similar (albeit less overtly racist) dress code policy; a variation of the all too familiar Boston ‘dress code’ which goes something similar to “No hats, no sneakers, no do-rags, no athletic wear… women in dresses/skirts, men in collars etc” was prominently displayed on the wall by the entrance to their establishment. Here’s the picture on the right.

Making a decision based on who was less racist seemed impractical, so we went with this new venue because they were responsive, accommodating of our group last minute, the management agreed to not enforce their dress code policy during our event, and most importantly, they weren’t going to charge us an arm and a leg to bring them business (vs. Caprice that was essentially trying to make us pay them to go against our ideals).

Here’s the thing folks… I’ve been an event organizer for over five years, and I know first hand that most — if not all — downtown club venues have similar racist policies intended to keep “those people” out of their clubs. It doesn’t take a genius to note that these policies are overtly racist. In fact, as you read through the banned items of clothing, you’re almost expecting to come across, “No Black People,” towards the end of the list.

Venue policies are a stark reminder of Boston’s deeply rooted history with racial segregation, but racism isn’t the only issue queer women of color have to deal with.

If I turned my nose up at every venue that had a racist policy, homophobic and/or sexist staff etc, QWOC+ Boston would never have succeeded in pushing the physical boundaries of our community and creating new safe spaces for LGBTQ people of color in the manner in which we have. I daresay our willingness to push through the discomfort of so many tough, frustrating, awkward interactions has created more “ally venues” today for LGBT people of color — and the larger gay community as well as evidenced by a number of organizations / producers hosting events at venues after we’d done so successfully — than if we immediately walked away whenever we faced policies we didn’t agree with.

But this is not to say that we should ignore blatant signs of discrimination. There are venues that I’ll never send a dime of business (and LGBT organizations that I simply refuse to work with) until they’re willing to meet us halfway on the issue of white privilege/racism, male privilege/sexism etc. However, if we are to charter new territory, we must be patient, and more importantly, we must learn to speak the language of the gate keepers. In this case, that means knowing how to use money to send a message.

You should know that once I told Caprice that I was moving the party to a new venue, they came back with an O.K. to play whatever we wanted. This made for a great opportunity to explain that we would NOT be working with them this time around. And whereas, the loss of business may not result in the dissolution of their policy, the owner will remember that he lost a big event — a pride event, big dollars consumed at the bar, ouch — because he dared to broach the subject to the queer women of color who had been repeatedly giving him business for the past three years. (Incidentally, we first worked with Caprice during the second year of OPTIONZ, because we were in a similar situation; the venue we’d been in talks with slapped us with a racist dress code last minute, and wouldn’t budge on enforcing it. Caprice opened their doors to us then, and we’ve been working with them since. Isn’t it ironic, that the venue that has been the most flexible and easy to work with as far as hosting QWOC+ events, is the one being villainized for being racist today?)

I keep going back to the strong push I felt from our community to say F-U to Caprice and stand against racism, and can’t help but wonder if another ism or form of discrimination would have been met with the same level of engagement (and anger). What if I told you that via my work as an event organizer, I’d run into minority-owned/run venues with similar racist music / dress code policies? Can we remind ourselves that in women’s spaces /feminist circles, there is still so much language riddled with homophobia and transphobia? Shoot, I still pray for the day when sexism will be met with as much anger and outrage as racism from Boston’s LGBT community, when the political war being waged against women (via Planned Parenthood funding cuts, the GOP redefining rape etc.) will be treated as seriously by QPOC as they do AIDS/HIV prevention.

It’s easy to call out isms when the perpetrator is perceived to be a straight white man — the icon of patriarchy, which most of us can relate to wanting to take down. But the reality of being a queer woman of color is that you’re burdened with calling out offenses and violations against multiple facets of your identity, and forced to reckon with the harsh truth that your allies in one arena can be your oppressors in another.

Activism, for so many of queer women of color, is a constant negotiation of which ism to address. We don’t have the luxury of snubbing everyone that offends us, or we would have no where to go. We can’t — and shouldn’t have to — fight everyone. As a direct consequence, for queer women of color, standing up for what is ‘right’ in the face of racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia — all issues that significantly impact our community — can sometimes mean drastically limiting access to resources that we need as a community. So, whereas we should never compromise our ethics (as in this case — for the sake of a good party), QWOC+ Boston’s work isn’t just about one event, not just about today. I don’t think that I speak out of turn when I say that we all work our asses off so that tomorrow can be better, for everyone.

So, as we march, rally, dance, and speak out during pride, let us not forget those of us who are marginalized within the gay community, those of us who don’t have the luxury of approaching “Equality. No More. No Less,”, per the 2011 Boston Pride theme, as an isolated single issue. Most of the time, I hear louder, more aggressive forms of activism (against one kind of ism) encouraged and celebrated. But today, I feel humble as I reflect on the patience and perseverance that must have been maintained by my mentors and predecessors against so many injustices, that have enabled me to come this far. I celebrate you. I salute you. And I wish you all a happy pride.

  • Big Tasty

    Is there a resource out there for organizers about which venues are more legit than others? Which ones are (most of the time) open to new populations and especially to minority racial or gender groups? I'm thinking that bar/club owners know there's money in those communities, and that being a good ally = making cash. Is there a google doc or a website or something that has a list?

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com Spectra

      I don't think there is. And I wonder who would keep it updated. Sounds like a great idea, though!

  • http://www.twitter.com/timelysarcasm Danielle

    I completely, 100% agree about the music ban being discriminatory – but I have to respectfully disagree about the dress code being racist. It bans: baseball caps, sneakers, flip flops, work boots, hooded sweatshirts, and athletic wear. How are any of these inherently the attire of a specific race? I think it actually speaks more toward a desire for more dressy attire, which is common at all clubs in Boston, even those specifically catering to the black community (Vertigo, for example).

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com Spectra

      Danielle, I do see your point, somewhat. First, let me point out that I was making the connection between other signs I’ve seen and the new venue’s (i.e. the new venue’s sign isn’t the most racist form I’ve seen, but a variation as I mentioned):

      “But what I didn’t tell people, was that the new venue had a similar (albeit less overtly racist) dress code policy….. a variation of the all too familiar Boston ‘dress code’ which goes something similar to “No hats, no sneakers, no do-rags, no athletic wear… women in dresses/skirts, men in collars etc”

      Nevertheless, when I first started organizing, I dismissed any notions that clubs were discriminating against a group of people simply if they wanted it to be dressy. But after working with the LGBT women of color community, and saw women dressed up, looking really spiffy, and in the way that made them feel comfortable — kangols, really nice (expensive) sneakers, button down shirts, vests, scarves underneath their hats (as I often do) etc — and then being denied entry into various establishments, while a straight dude could walk in with an unironed shirt, torn pants, and dusty shoes and get in, I rethought the policies.

      I happen to believe that “Dressy” shouldn’t automatically equal the garb of our colonizers i.e. white male /western corporate attire. HipHop fashion is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it’s awesome (in my opinion) because it leaves room for personal expression, which can mean button down with shiny shoes and a hat, or sneakers and a tuxedo (yes, lol).

      I highlighted the dress code in this post because I think it’s important that people (who don’t see anything wrong with dress codes like the one I referred to) see how they exclude certain people, including people with different gender expressions, cultural backgrounds) while others don’t have to think about it. When there’s that kind of privilege, it’s worth illuminating.

      And to your point about Vertigo, I don’t share the perspective that just because a business in minority-owned, they are absolved of being discriminatory in their practices. I’ve seen too often, minority-run anything model systems and practices designed to hold us back simply because they think it gives them credibility / separation from “those other negroes”. I don’t think we can dismiss the internalized racism that can be at play. Strict dress codes don’t always mean racism, but I don’t think that’s what my post was saying.

      Thanks for chiming in with your perspective. I’m sure a lot of people share your view so I appreciate that you brought it up.

      • http://www.twitter.com/timelysarcasm Danielle

        I'm not arguing that the dress codes aren't prohibitive to a certain style of dress at all, but I don't think a dress code can be inherently racist, unless you are also arguing that racial groups uniformly dress a certain way. I also understand what you're saying about people wearing kangols and expensive, new sneakers – but having been to a lot of dress code free events in Boston, I can safely say not everyone adheres to that level of classiness when it comes to sneakers and hoodies. Then you get into the whole problem of having to go case by case. I'm not saying it's a perfect policy by any means, but I understand why it's there and I don't think it's racist. And I don't think different gender expression is stopped, either, since it's a very small amount of prohibited items. Additionally, the same rules apply to both men and women (as you stated, the Boston rules) throughout the night spots in the city.

        "Dressy" is up for discussion, sure, but I don't think anyone would argue it includes flip flops, hoodies, or athletic wear, right?

        I understand your point re: Vertigo and internalized racism. I still respectfully disagree about the dress code itself being racist.

  • Alyssa Kwan

    Thank you for sticking to your guns! And thank you for recognizing that dress codes can be racist. Danielle's comment highlights two things: that many progressives still view classism as OK, and that racism dressed as classism makes it OK. Dress codes are classist; not everyone puts the same amount of effort into reaching the state of "dressy". Those with money and a certain background can put a lot less. (Other dimensions are also conflated with class here, like race, gender, or parenthood status.) And selecting one ideal as "dressy" is inherently racist.

    We have an obligation as progressives to fight for public spaces that are welcoming and nurturing to all.

    • http://www.twitter.com/timelysarcasm Danielle

      It's incredibly presumptive to label me as being "OK" with classism because I don't agree that a dress code banning 5 items of clothing stops everyone who isn't white from expressing themselves fashionably. It's ridiculous, actually, and incredibly offensive and insulting.

      To the point – I find it discriminatory that you believe these banned items (including flip flops and hoodies, no less) constitutes any kind of race-specific discrimination – and then you support that argument by basically saying money makes it difficult for people of color to adhere to these codes. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it here (and again, not all people of color are broke). Fitted hats are $30, hoodies are $20+, and thanks to the plethora of discount and thrift shopping in Boston, you don't have to spend a lot to clear the dress code. With the small list of banned items, it's hardly identity-robbing. People should expect to not to be wearing work boots to a dance club.

  • Cassie

    Very nicely written, I was first going to say that, you mean to tell me when a fight breaks while any music is being played you would ban that music??? You would never have a venue if that were case. SERIOUSLY!? I would try to agree with the classism of the dress codes… I think it could been seen as a stereotypical…for example, If they said NO DO RAGS, NO WEAVES, NO CORN ROLLS etc. so yes I agree with need for proper dress. Thanks for advocating for us and for trying to provide a safe place for us to be us! You have my vote and I would love to get to now you guys better, I really did enjoy myself tonight!! It was a success! I am glad to have been apart of it! ~Cassie

  • http://twitter.com/veek @veek

    Alyssa: dress codes are classist when the economic situation of an area is such that a particular code excludes people on the basis of income. In Boston, and with this particular dress code, this doesn't happen to be the case. If you (impersonal) can afford to pay the admission fee or buy a drink at a club, a dress code that can be satisfied at Garment District, Dollar-a-Pound, or any of a number of places that sell appropriate wear will not be what stands between you and a good time at that club.

    If there were no places around the Boston area where such clothes could be bought for prices comparative to (say) jeans and work boots, then the situation would be different. But to say that the dress code at Market etc is classist is to miss the entire point of context.

    The music thing, yeah, absolutely, racist and perhaps also weirdly generationally discriminatory.

    • http://www.twitter.com/timelysarcasm Danielle

      Agreed. I don't think banning those 5 items, which can be pretty casual, makes it impossible to choose your own style of dressy, whether it's men's clothes, women's clothes, some mix, or whatever else. I also don't think sneakers, flip flops, and athletic wear = people of color.

      • http://www.spectraspeaks.com Spectra

        Danielle (and @veek), I just read several comments you left other commenters on my blog. Let me start by saying this: we all reserve the right to have our own opinions. But if you haven't been kicked out of a club because of your clothing, I would stay away from universalizing that experience for others (POC) who have experienced that kind of discrimination.

        @Veek, your comments don't take into account Boston's deep history with racism, segregation, and ongoing gentrification. People of color have been pushed further and further out from downtown Boston so that the "economic situation of the areas" they work and play in are different from where they actually "live", so just because they're in a different zip code / district from the a**hole venues doesn't absolve venues and businesses from being classist.

        @Danielle, that you don't "think" gender expression is stopped / policed by clubs in Boston may be indicative that you don't have in your circle many people who would argue the other way. I do. I have had several friends — including myself — being turned away from clubs not because I didn't look / wasn't dressed appropriately, but because my style of dress didn't fit their idea of what 'ladies' wear and/or it conflicted with their classist dress code. Isms are generally discussed when they negatively impact a subset of a group; and in my case, I have witnessed several white men looking MUCH less formal than I / my friends get access to spaces (while others have been denied) because they were wearing hard soled shoes, collared shirt etc.

        I also find it moot / less productive to discuss this issue without approaching it with the complexity which entails the larger POC experience — and that does involve how classism, racism, (and in the case of queer women of color) sexism intersect.

        This: ""Dressy" is up for discussion, sure, but I don't think anyone would argue it includes flip flops, hoodies, or athletic wear, right? " <– Hoodies and athletic wear are fine in my book, and dismissing them from the group of "classy", well, screams of classism. I remember when the NBA began implementing a dress code (and fines) for basketball players on the bench; they had to be in suits if they weren't in uniforms. It doesn't take a genius to note that the dress code was implemented in response to the way many of the African-American / POC bball players were dressing when not on the court. They didn't look bad. In fact, they WERE in "athletic wear" — it was just too much "hip hop" for white america.

        Sure, hoodies and flipflops and sneakers may not equal people of color, but if we're being picky, neither does hiphop, as most of the revenue from that industry comes from the consumerism of white america; still, it doesn't prohibit the racist airheads in power / policy-making roles from perpetuating the stereotype that it does and implementing policies to limit access to various forums.

        And finally — "exception" arguments in the face of discrimination smack of privilege. To trivialize the negative impact a policy has on a group by saying it affects just a few people misses the point. It's how the United States has gotten away with denying marriage to (just a few gay people) for so long, how gay parents are screwed over by heternormative maternity leave policies, and how, still, even in 2011, you need to "present a case" for racism to white people because not every situation affects every single person of color. My main point of writing this post was to highlight how racism, classism, and sexism still affects queer women of color, and remind white people / others who are privileged in different ways that we don't have the luxury of shutting down from communication when we're offended ('cause clearly, it comes from multiple angles).

        Yet, somehow the conversation has been derailed from a highlighting "how" LGBTQ women of color are discriminated against to defending the truth that we actually ARE discriminated against? Simply unreal.

  • shelita m daniel

    alyssa you make a very good point about the dress code. thanks for enlightening me with that point of view. I never saw it that way and would have taken the view of danielle. but I do think you made a very good point and change of my point of view of things.

    • http://www.spectraspeaks.com Spectra

      Shelita — your comment just made my day!

      I agree, thank you, Alyssa!

  • swim

    While reading an article about "extreme" NYC dress codes in the NYT it occurred to me that dress codes could not only be racist as the piece mentioned, but that ALL dress codes are inherently classist. I decided to do a little googling and stumbled on this blog. Great writing and a lot of food for thought.

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