GSBA Vision & Mission

MISSION: To combine business development, leadership and social action to expand economic opportunities for the LGBT Community and those who support equality for all.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I Am Still Here, and I Am Still Queer

by Karyn Schwartz, proprietor of SugarPill, 2013 GSBA New Business of the Year and member of the Small Business Council. You can find Karyn at her shop at 900 E Pine Street in Seattle.

Here and Queer came out of my own frustration over reading the endless obituaries that people seem to delight in writing about Capitol Hill. Every time I hear someone say the neighborhood is gone, my only response to it is “I am still here, and I am still queer.”

This spring I kept thinking, “What if the neighborhood was just much more visibly queer again? Could that make a difference?” Through a series of unexpectedly lucky phone calls, I got connected with two young men – Bakar and Giorgi – who happened to be working on a platform to conduct social media campaigns about freedom of speech, and they had exactly the kind of projection capability that I needed. They come from a part of the world where freedom of speech is rarely respected. Through their company Deehubs, they are developing ways for people to communicate publicly about issues that are sometimes difficult to talk about, and in places where it is perhaps too dangerous to talk about them at all.

What Deehubs provided was a way for anyone to create their own messages and images to say what THEY wanted to express about being queer, about being a part of this community and about what they hope for in the neighborhood. Despite a ridiculously short amount of time to make this all happen, and a mountain of technological issues to work out, we received a marvelous variety of deeply moving contributions which were projected at about a half dozen sites around Capitol Hill throughout the entire weekend of Pride.

I think there is enormous value in using visible markers to create a sense of place. While I have admittedly never been the most ardent fan of the rainbow as the most ubiquitous emblem of queerdom (which is why I asked local artist Joey Veltkamp to create a logo for the project and practically begged him to put some pink triangles in there for me), there is something to be said for seeing an entire neighborhood festooned in recognizable symbols of identity and unity. It makes me feel like I am home, and welcome, and with that comes a tangible feeling of safety.

I cannot describe how wonderful the reactions to the projections were, as well as to a number of other really visible expressions of unapologetic queerness that were happening simultaneously. The timing of all of this was so profoundly emotional: not only had the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality just been handed down on the morning that Pride really kicked off, but there was also the wrenching funeral of Reverend Clementa Pinckney of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston that very same day. It was nearly impossible to feel celebratory while there was still so much grief in the air, and hard to feel victorious when such a violent and hate-filled act had just happened. I was so glad to see people use the project to express their anger and their grief over the very real consequences of hatred that too often goes unexamined and unchecked. The juxtaposition of these feelings alongside those of joy, love and heartfelt appreciation for the progress that has been made struck a chord that was far deeper than anything I could have planned.
It was not lost on any of us that while we were celebrating marriage equality here in the United States, queer folks were getting fired at by police with water cannons and tear gas during a pride parade in Istanbul, Turkey. Imagine if we could have projected the kinds of messages that were created here onto the walls of buildings in Istanbul to give people the inspiration to keep insisting on their right to be who they are, despite how they are still being treated there.
Before the project even went live, we were out one night testing the projection equipment and making sure that everything was working correctly. I had asked a few people to send in their contributions prior to the actual launch so that we would have something to test the system with, but I had no idea what would actually be projected or what it would look like. As I was walking to meet Bakar and Giorgi at one of the sites, I found myself alone, at midnight, behind a group of four very drunk, raging homophobes. I couldn’t believe it was happening. They were having the most hateful conversation, and recording themselves on their phones, laughing and saying horrible things about “all the f**king homos”, and if I had not been so close to where I knew Bakar and Giorgi were, I would have been terrified.

Just then, the projector went live, and this beautiful quote appeared, 40 feet high, on the side of the building we were facing. It said, “Our queer community feels like loving arms wrapped around you. We are here.”

We all saw it at the same time, and the most remarkable thing happened: they shut up. Those hateful, ignorant men stopped their conversation, they put their phones down, and they all read the message. It worked. I don’t know what they did with the rest of their evening, but what I do know is that what was happening got interrupted. It was the best thing I could have hoped for – that something beautiful got created which stood, at least for a moment, in the way of the continuation of some gesture of hatred. Maybe it is too much to hope for that something like this could actually stand in the way of outright violence – but I will hope for it anyway. The more we see positive messages about things we don’t understand, and the more we are confronted to re-think the biases and the prejudices we walk around with, the more likely we are to seek a different point of view or a deeper understanding of things we have taken for granted as truth.

I think change does happen this way, and I think we are in great need of a great deal of change still in this country as a whole, but also right here in what should be a safe haven of tolerance and acceptance. With so much pressure on our one small part of town to absorb the huge influx of nightlife visitors and recently arrived residents, it is even more important than ever to maintain a positive and unapologetic presence as a community, and the only way to do that is to BE HERE, and not abandon the neighborhood.

If you want a center of gravity as a community, you have to nourish it by supporting the businesses and organizations that cater to your interests, speak up on behalf of your concerns, and that fly those rainbow flags all year long, and not just on the one weekend that Pride brings us all together.  There are so many of us who are still here, and still fierce about trying to hold on to what makes this neighborhood special. But we can’t hold on to it all by ourselves; we need all of you who have loved this neighborhood and who have your own history rooted right here with us to BE HERE, visible, present and glorious in all manner of queerness. I live for the day that every night feels like Pride when I am walking home from work – that it never feels unsafe to be who I am, and that I still belong to this place that made it possible for me to become that person at all.

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