Let’s go back a bit. Not back to better times, but before we were sequestered in our homes and trying to keep ourselves busy. Let’s go back to when we could busy ourselves with other like-minded people and find the serendipitous moments of revelation on the streets. I want to go back to a very important day that I was lucky to share with a mentor, my husband, and the mayor of New Orleans on one of the most emotional birthdays I’ve had.
June 24, 2018 was not only my birthday, but was also the 45th anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire that cost the gay community of New Orleans 32 lives. It wouldn’t be until 45 years later that the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, would come out and recognize our loss on a public stage and march with our second line parade to the site of the incident in the French Quarter.
While we were moving down the tight streets, I was talking with my mentor-turned-close-friend, Danielle Abrams, about how amazing this whole event is. Danielle, a powerful performance artist that uses her body, her body’s history, and her body’s sexuality as points of concentration in her work, is the perfect companion while we participated in one of New Orleans’ oldest customs of mourning. It’s just one way that makes New Orleans so special and unique, because this custom has become a type of work-for-hire in this city, contracting out bands for processions.
We made our way to the corner of Iberville and Chartres, where the fire occurred, and we all stopped for a moment of silence in front of the small bronze plaque in the sidewalk. The group of over a hundred paid their respects to the plaque that’s seen its share of gum, beer, soles of shoes, and whatever the tourists of the city have thrown at it.
Danielle and I pop into the bar The Jimini for an O’Doul’s and a High Life, and start reflecting on this momentous day. We begin talking about how strange it is for all these people to be marching their way to a small inconspicuous plaque on the side of the street while many onlookers have no clue as to what our gathering is about.
What’s so amazing about this moment, is that I’m talking to the one person for miles who would understand the free flow of ideas that we were to traverse. We began talking about the rituals, the performances, and most importantly; the labor that was being taken on. The labor of remembrance, ritual, and most importantly, the labor of activism. We talked about artists like Mierle Ladereman Ukeles and her washing of the museum steps and how important that was for the feminist movement.
We then moved to discussing the importance of community-building in the reconstruction and beautifying of the Southside of Chicago by Theaster Gates. All these artists were able to see something larger than themselves as women, as people of color, and/or as sexual/gender minorities. They responded to their class differences and built a ladder for others to follow. They made art into a practice of labor.
We stepped back outside, beverages in hand, and watched as the crowd of politicians, survivors, lovers, and activists moved on, leaving plastic cups, paper flyers, carbonated liquid on the grounds, and a wobbly gum-covered bronze plaque that’s half cemented in the sidewalk.
That was when it happened. I turn to Danielle and I realize what I don’t see. I don’t see the next generation (me) working to honor these people. I don’t see the next generation (me) working to keep this story alive. I don’t see me, and that’s the problem. These are my ancestors, they are my family, and I am their child. Why am I not working to hold up their legacy? What can I do?
Since then, I’ve been on a quest to make art into a practice of labor by refurbishing and cleaning public sites and monuments of my queer ancestors. Hand washing the concrete and metal that stand for those who made it possible for me to be the openly queer person I am today. I don’t know if I would have come to this moment of clarity if it wasn’t for the random coincidences of having the right people at the right place at the right time, but I do know how important it is that I own up to my lineage now.