Queer Media Activism Series
On Saturday April 20th, I attended the final event of the Queer Media Activism Series at Giovanni’s Room Bookstore located on South12th Street in downtown Philadelphia. The event entitled Archives, Affects, and Activism was held in the upstairs reading lounge area of Giovanni’s room. All seats at the event were full both in the room where the panelists were located and the adjacent room on the other side of the stairs. When I arrived at the event, the second floor was so packed that some guests were sitting on the floor. I found myself standing against the wall closest to the staircase. I enjoyed this location however, because it gave me the opportunity to not only see the panelists but also the expressions, appearances, and reactions of the diverse audience members that this event attracted. Through mediated discussion, personal anecdotes and a question and answer segment, this event addressed the many ways media artists, libraries, community centers and bookstores are preserving queer and transgender histories in Philadelphia as well as the creativity and politics involved with making these histories available to the public.
One of the panelists was a self-identified gender queer dyke named Helyx Chase who explained her methodology for making media creation and media tools available to individuals and bodies often excluded from media representation. Chase does this for the purpose of telling histories, and she referenced her work with the Trans Oral History Project in Philadelphia. I appreciated Chase’s call to action for audience members and their transgender peers to take the reigns on their own representations and historical portrayals. Also on the panel was gender queer media activist and writer, Che Gossett whose work is featured in the Transgender Studies Reader as well as in the book Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. I found it interesting that during the question and answer period, Che hesitated to take credit as a filmmaker despite having recently collaborated with Luce-Lincoln in directing a short film about AIDS activist, Kiyoshi Kuromiya. I do not think one has to be an adept filmmaker to be a media activist, and would argue that Che’s archival work as a writer manifests itself through media when those who read Che’s work are inspired to tell their own oral histories through film and other modes of media. I found myself questioning what my own criteria is for who can be deemed a true “filmmaker,” how my own understanding of this role compares with others, and whether or not this is relevant to how queer film and media activism are received by the public. When I reflect upon the work I have been doing in Queer and Feminist Film, I already consider myself a media activist, and a filmmaker, even though I am only just beginning to test my hand and some of the basic conventions and editing tools of film.
My favorite panelist was a man named Bob Skiba, a queer male archivist at the William Way LGBT Center in Philadelphia. Skiba gave the extensive history of LGBT community centers and archives in Philadelphia. Like Chase, Skiba urged us to “Take responsibility for our own history. Take responsibility for archiving it and making sure it’s secure and shared.” Bob Skiba also engaged the audience and panelists in a discussion about the politics of archive access and distribution. I found myself struggling with the debate of whether or not it is better to protect LGBT histories and archives in “safe space” community centers, or to disseminate projects and histories in more public access spaces. These are questions I have never wrestled with or thought about with regards to queer history and the violences and potential censorship that pervade the very telling and sharing of these histories. Surely the question of community-based archives vs. more public, transparent archives is a difficult one.
Bob Skiba also spoke on the digitization of the archiving process and joked about how he can now sort through histories and archives with his computer and a beer in hand from the comfort of his home, rather than being “bitched at for hours by some librarian.” It was obvious that a woman in the crowd took offense to this statement as her next question was prefaced by, “Let me begin by saying librarians are great” so as to suggest that Skiba’s use of the phrase “bitch” was inappropriate, though perhaps used in gesture. This moment reminded me of a moment of tension in the film “Chocolate Babies” when Larva makes an anti-feminist remark to fellow queer ally, Jameela. Assuming from her questions and engagement with the event that this woman at the event was at the very least an ally to the queer movement, I was reminded that sometimes even while we build-coalition with individuals who stand for our cause, we can still have moments of dispute and/or misunderstanding. Likewise, even when our social and political visions somewhat align with others, there can still be room for more listening and learning.