Rotimi Agbabiaka – The Best Catch-all Word

I never really used the word “queer” until about a year ago when I moved to San Francisco. I don’t recall making a conscious decision to replace the words “gay” and “lesbian” with “queer” but I do remember hearing that word used a lot by my fellow San Francsicans—especially the ones involved in the arts—and it seemed appropriate to use it myself. To my mind the word “queer” seemed to represent the wider world view present in San Francisco. In a city full of people who choose to self-identify in ways that define easy categorization, “queer” seemed like the best catch-all word for those who resist hetronormative nomenclature—be they bio male, bio female, trans, bi or even heterosexual folk who do not necessarily feel at home within the strict gender roles prescribed by traditional society. 

My understanding of the word queer has been based on intuition and hearsay. I must confess that I can be a bit lazy about doing research. When I hear a new word, I usually don’t go to the dictionary to clarify its meaning. Rather I try to understand it by observing the context in which it is used. From my observation “queer” seems to mean a lifestyle or artistic philosophy that challenges traditional notions of what is proper or natural. In this city where many people migrate to fully express their true nature, “queer” seems like a great way to self-identify as a person who realizes that human nature is often too complex to be contained in the narrow scope of traditional gender roles or in the traditional life goals prescribed by the American Dream. So, to me, a queer person is one who chooses to question or flout the status quo—who sees the world in various shades of grey, or pink, rather than strictly black or white.

However, when I had to blog in response to the question “What do you consider queer?” I decided to resist my usual laziness and actually do some research. I would look up a dictionary definition of “queer” and use that to examine how I view the word and how I feel about the way it’s used in our San Francisco artistic community. defines “queer” as “strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular.” That seems in line with what I have perceived queer to mean in San Francisco. The lifestyles of myself and my San Francisco friends and colleagues would be considered odd by most conventional folk. We pursue beauty and pleasure rather than money and security. We create and share rather than consolidate and hoard. We greet with kisses and hugs rather than handshakes and personal space. I could list many more oddities but I’m sure you get the picture.

When we shift the definition to art, we could perhaps reach the same conclusion. But I would like to ask a new question. Since I have moved here, I have seen many works of performance art that would be considered strange and odd from a conventional viewpoint. Most of these performances have been grouped under the aegis of queer art. Their identification as queer art seems to justify their deviation from what some may call the elements of a “good” performance—narrative, clarity of message, focused storytelling, and emphasis on the skill of trained performers. Many of these performances happen within a loving and supportive community that encourages its members to express themselves creatively. And ultimately it seems that if something seems honest and “queer” enough it is entirely valid as a work of art.

But my question is: Isn’t all art—or art of any signficance—queer by definition? I have come to view art’s purpose as placing the familiar and mundane in an unusual light. Art should cast a critical and precise light on human existence in order to show the audience a new way to view the world. It should challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of the world. And it should perhaps alert those who view the world unconventionally that they are not alone or crazy.

If this is the definition of art, then what separates queer art from any art that is valid and truly provoking? Is it just the fact that it is produced by people who identify as queer? If that is the case,wonderful. For every community must be able to create art that will nurture it. And the voices of queers must be heard in the artistic discourse happening in our city, nation, and world.

But if good art is always strange and unconventional then perhaps we can move away from strangeness being the measuring stick for good queer art and look to other criteria—clarity, depth of message, timeliness of message, masterful execution of performance. What are the aesthetic standards to which we’ll hold our art? What are the standards that might makes us relevant to people outside of the same small group that performs in everything and watches everything?

Because I love being queer and I love so many of the queer performers that I’ve encountered ever since the word “queer” became a regular part of my vocabulary last year. And I have seen some beautiful, magical performance moments happen within our queer performance community. But a lot of “queer art” kinda bores me to tears.


Best Queer Performance Moments in the past year

Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge used impeccably timed humor, beautifully performed music, a brilliant text and a rebellious communal spirit to challenge conventional notions of love and marriage. It is one of the most uplifting theatrical pieces I have ever seen and a great example of what skillfully crafted queer theatre can be.

At last July’s Queer Autonomous Zone I saw Ben McCoy lipsynch to a pre-recorded track of her reading an essay. Her essay used a news item about gender-bending bank robbers to explore the struggles of the transgendered. Her poignant humor, depth of subject matter, and her blurring of the lines between drag show, literary reading, and stand up routine expanded my idea of queer performance’s potential and moved me deeply.

Suppository Spelling doing Drag Roulette at Cocktailgate. Suppository to is a high priestess of irreverent glamor. Her body is an expressive, vulgar, beautiful instrument. And her fearless and often-shocking approach to drag are totally queer.

Krylon Frye in pretty much anything but most recently dancing to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in a grimy loft in the Tenderloin. Clad in only a white sheet and a crown of thorns, he was a black, queer Jesus who moved the entire QAZ audience to tears and exorcised our demons. I grew up in an evangelical Christian household and Krylon’s performance gave me a new understanding of what it means for someone to die for our sins. It’s what artists do.

Kallisto throwing a birthday party/music video shoot at 3am in the Tenderloin. As party goers imbibed substances, danced or sprawled out on couches, a DJ played a mix of dance songs and hip hop beats and Kallisto strode through her kingdom. She would rap to a beat and then go pose for the camera against a dirty bathroom door holding an exposed bulb up to her face for illumination. If most art installations were this fun I’d be more into them.

Phillip Huang‘s monologue in B.J. Dini’s “Is Money Money?” film. As B.J.’s film challenges the primacy of money and big arts organizations in the SF arts scene, Phillip dons Alice B. Toklas drag and reminisces about the glory days in Paris. He makes a hilarious and compelling case for skipping out on Yerba Buena Center and making art in our living rooms.

Veteran Artist’s Make Drag Not War. Military vets, local peformers like Raya Light, Miss Rahni, and Lil Miss Hot Mess, a mixed audience of activists, drag fans,and theatre-goers, and a political message of solidarity in the fight against our military-industrial complex. Beautiful.

Big Freedia at Public Works. For teaching me to say “Go Homo” instead of “No Homo.”

Fauxnique‘s one-woman show, Faux Real. A personal, visually stunning, physically proficient tour-de-force that helped me appreciate the power of glamor to upend the norm

Maryam Rostami recruiting a queer army at Laura Arrington‘s house show. Funny, challenging, and inspiring.

Rotimi Agbabiaka moved to the Bay Area about a year ago after receiving an MFA in Acting from Northern Illinois University. Before Illinois he lived in Texas and Nigeria. In the past year he has performed with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and joined the cast of Beach Blanket Babylon. Last September he wrote and performed in the solo play, Homeless, which won the award for best solo performance in the 2010 San Francisco Fringe Festival. He has also workshopped and performed at Queer Autonomous Zone (QAZ), Yerba Buena Center (with Jess Curtis) and at various locations with The Off Center. He’s even popped up on a drag stage or two around town. He’s excited to dive into the world of blogging with such fine company.

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