Queer women of color create a scene
by Ethan Jacobs
Thursday Apr 17, 2008
About two years ago Adora Asala set out to tackle a longstanding problem in Boston’s LGBT scene: the distinct lack of people of color at the city’s LGBT clubs, bars and events. At the time Asala was part of the group of organizers behind MadFemmePride, which aims to raise femme visibility within the community; she and MadFemmePride head organizer Emily Howe decided to hold a social that specifically targeted queer women of color.
“I personally would go out and attend events, fundraisers, nightclubs, etcetera, and find that there weren’t many people of color,” said Asala. “I was one of three, and we were never out at the same time.”
In October 2006 MadFemmePride held the first Queer Women of Color and Friends (QWOC+) Social at dbar in Dorchester, and Asala said more than 100 people turned out. Asala believed the demand was out there for more women’s events geared towards communities of color and their allies, and she launched QWOC+ Boston as a separate organization. Since its 2006 debut it has hosted about four socials annually and is now expanding to include concerts, health-related events and film screenings. On April 17 QWOC+ Boston teams up with Fenway Community Health’s Boundless program to hold a workshop titled “The Physiology of Pleasure” with the staff from feminist sex toy emporium Good Vibrations, who will help attendees explore the joys of sex toys. August marks a major turning point for QWOC +, as it launches QWOC+ Week, a festival of social nights, health events and panel discussions aimed at queer women of color from Aug. 4-10.
Asala said QWOC+ Boston, which consists of herself and a handful of volunteers that plan events, was confident that the absence of women of color at most LGBT events was not due to lack of interest as much as a failure to reach out to them. She said QWOC+ Boston’s socials have regularly brought out upwards of 200 queer women of color and their allies.
“We’re around. It’s just never been integrated into marketing,” said Asala.
As for how to reach them, Asala said one crucial outlet has been the web, through sites like MySpace and Craigslist. But old-fashioned one-on-one marketing has been just as crucial to spreading the word. Asala said she and her volunteers act as a “street team” to build a buzz, going out to LGBT events, approaching the women of color in each venue, telling them about QWOC+ Boston and urging them to bring their friends to the next event.
“You can’t sit at home on your couch or in your venue and say, everyone come to my event. It just doesn’t work that way. … Maybe you should find out where they are, where they hang out, and go reach out,” said Asala.
That’s how Asala first connected with Heidy Gonzalez back in 2006, a couple months after the inaugural social at dbar. Gonzalez, a Brooklyn native, said that she was used to living in a city with a strong Latina community and a sizable Latina presence within New York’s LGBT scene. Before coming to the Boston area in 2006 she briefly lived in Atlanta, where she said there was a miniscule Latina community but a sizable women-of-color presence within the LGBT community, mostly black queer women.
By contrast, when she moved to Cambridge, Gonzalez said she always found herself to be among a small number of women of color in the room at LGBT venues. She and a friend were at an L-Word viewing party at Diva Lounge in Davis Square when she first met Asala.
“I went to this event. Everyone in the room was white, of course. … And then Adora Asala walked in the room, and it was immediately, ’Who was that?’” she recalled. Adora zeroed in on the pair and briefed them about QWOC+ Boston. Not long after, Gonzalez attended her first social at dbar. She said the diverse crowd, made up of queer women of color, white allies, straight allies and others, felt like an antidote to the overwhelmingly white events she had gone to in the past.
“It was so refreshing. … It wasn’t a rally. It wasn’t taking down The Man. It was, let’s provide a space for ourselves where we can network and make those connections for those rallies and that activist work,” she said.
Gonzalez began to get more involved with QWOC+ Boston as a volunteer, helping brainstorm about future event ideas, edit and proofread event posters and do outreach.
Another QWOC+ Boston volunteer, Stacey Tiamfook, also got involved with the group because she felt that Boston’s LGBT scene had failed to reach out to people of color. She said she moved to Boston about two and a half years ago after college. After going out to LGBT clubs and events she assumed that there were few LGBT women of color in the city.
Tiamfook explained, “Going out with a friend of mine, also from college, we noticed that almost all of the queer spaces were mostly white people. I personally just thought there weren’t many women of color in the Greater Boston area. Then I started going down to Providence, and there’s a space there mixed in terms of gender, but predominantly people of color. … Most of them lived in Boston but were traveling down to Providence.”
She had the same experience traveling to Black Pride events in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, running into people from the Boston area who she had never seen at Boston clubs.
Tiamfook said she has been working with Asala on marketing and outreach. She believes that attracting women of color to events requires much more than simply advertising a “women of color night” on a flyer. QWOC+ Boston makes sure that the music at their events represents a wide range of cultural traditions and eras, to appeal to a multiracial and multigenerational audience.
QWOC+ Boston has also branched out over the past year, expanding its repertoire beyond the regular socials. Last summer at Boston Pride QWOC+ Boston held a party in Roxbury called Options, and Asala said about 300 people turned out on very short notice. This year she plans to move Options to a venue downtown and closer to the Pride festivities, where she expects it will draw a larger crowd.
To mark Latino/a Pride, QWOC+ Boston will be holding a Latina social May 15 at Club Choices in Somerville, a first for the group. And in August QWOC+ Boston will be holding the aforementioned QWOC+ Week, with a slate of to-be-determined events running the gamut from panel discussions to social events. Asala hopes the week’s events will draw queer women and their allies and loved ones from across New England.
QWOC+ Boston has also been experimenting with events beyond the nightlife scene. Last month the group teamed up with slam poet Kit Yan and folkie Melissa Li to host the launch party for the duo’s Good Asian Drivers Tour. In addition to performances by Yan and Li the event also featured singers Joya and Tre Alee. In May the group will host two screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts’ Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival, including a screening of the documentary black./womyn.:conversations with lesbians of African descent, with a post-screening Q&A with director Tiona M, and a screening of Amber Sharp’s television series Don’t Go, which focuses on a diverse group of people in Los Angeles whose lives show the complexity of gender and sexuality.
On April 17 QWOC+ Boston branches out into a new area, teaming up with the Fenway’s women’s wellness program, Boundless, for the sex toy workshop. Asala said QWOC+ Boston hopes to do more collaboration with Boundless on women’s health issues, but for their first event they decided to go with a fun topic likely to draw a crowd.
“[We wanted] something fun, something light, because it is our first heath event, so we wanted to ease people into w
hat we’re doing this year,” said Asala.
While all of these events are geared towards women of color, the organizers of QWOC+ Boston say they take the “+” in their name very seriously. Several of the organizers, including co-founder Howe, are white allies, and Tiamfook said that while the group’s emphasis is on women of color, the goal is to make sure that everyone, including transgender people and white allies, feels welcome.
“In general if you’re going to places that are women of color, it’s just women of color, and you find few Caucasian people. … We’re not trying to market and say we don’t want other people at our events. I think we definitely want people who are open-minded and want inclusiveness, and they definitely want to be in this environment as well,” said Tiamfook.
QWOC+ Boston and Boundless’s “The Physiology of Pleasure: Sex Toys and More” will be held April 17 at Fenway Community Health, 7 Haviland Street, Boston, from 7-9 p.m. Light food will be served. The event is free. RSVP (optional) to Julie Ebin at 617.927.6369 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A social at a nearby location to be determined will follow the event.