Report on Queer New York

Hosted by Rona Cran, and co-chaired by John FaggQueer New York featured panellists Fiona Anderson, Darius Bost, Gavin Butt, and Sarah Schulman.

Together they explored the queerness, and queering, of New York, offering a range of ways of thinking about queer preservation as enacted through writing and art-making. Themes of discussion included emblems of the queer and outmoded, historical weight and proprietorial legitimacy, the disruption of dominant notions of urban homespace, strategies of non-seriousness (and the co-option of non-seriousness by the 'killer clowns'), reading politics on various registers, and the untold stories of the HIV-AIDS pandemic.

Queer New York – event report by Jack Limebear (English Literature)

On the 3rd of February, the interdisciplinary event ‘Queer New York’ brought together writers and critics alike to discuss their respective work on the HIV-AIDS pandemic. Although by this point we have all experienced one too many Zoom pub quizzes, it was a breath of fresh air to use the platform to bring together an international selection of voices, with speakers calling in from New York, Utah, Newcastle, Northumbria, London, and our very own Birmingham. The event was chaired by Dr Rona Cran and Dr John Fagg, with four distinguished panellists, Sarah Schulman, Darius Bost, Fiona Anderson, and Gavin Butt all attending. Considering the first week of February marks National HIV Testing Week here in the U.K., the timing of the event was pertinent, coinciding with the ongoing effort to destigmatise HIV and calling into question how queer narratives can challenge hegemonic histories of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, both past and future.

The four panellists each took turns in discussing their work, centring around ‘Queer New York’ but with research spanning across the Black gay cultural renaissance, the ruined waterfront and associated artwork and cruising scene, the place of gentrification in the pandemic, and the question of seriousness in queer art and performance. 

The event began with a presentation from Fiona Anderson, a senior lecturer in Art History at Newcastle University and author of Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront (University of Chicago Press, 2019). Anderson explores LGBTQ+ social and sexual cultures and art from the 1970s to the present day, with a particular interest in queer approaches to challenging hegemonic histories. By detailing the balance between gentrification, municipal politics, and the occupation of ruined spaces, Anderson explored the combined erotic and aesthetic pull of the abandoned waterfront piers of the Hudson River, a site with which she engages directly in her presentation.

Defining the wooden pilings that stand as remnants of the piers as an ‘American Pompeii’, Anderson ruminated on the act of queer preservation through writing and art-making. Anderson began by moving through the work of Alvin Baltrop and Leonard Fink, demonstrating to the audience how their works attempted to capture the simultaneous grandeur and ruination of these spaces. The transgressive practice of cruising which occurred within the piers, and featured in works of art, was an unconventional form of urban reuse, building a queer world in the ruins of degeneration. As seen in 1983 with David Wojnarowicz’ invitation of hundreds of friends to join him in filling the empty pier with murals, sculptures, paintings, and performances, the queer world-building that took place in these spaces did not stem from attempting to preserve the buildings, but rather through repurposing space failed by municipal politics of preservation. Anderson noted how other artists, such as Xaviera Simmons and Jill Magid, similarly used the piers to construct queer records of these haunted places, archives which can challenge false municipal historic narratives. 

Returning to the wooden pilings, Anderson notes how although they are not a memorial to the past, we might like to think of them as one. Half visible, or perhaps half submerged, the pilings speak to an inarticulable sense of loss and recall the scale of the AIDS crisis. Anderson concluded by describing the waterfront as a place which invites artists, writers, and poets alike to think about the complex narratives which once took place.

The second speaker of the roundtable discussion was Darius Bost, who was tuning in from Utah. Bost is an associate professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Utah, with research spanning across Black cultural studies, gender and sexuality, as well the medical humanities. Bost is the author of Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence (University of Chicago Press, 2019), which explores the AIDS epidemic within Washington DC and New York City, focusing on how Black gay men used poetry, media, and performance to challenge the racist and homophobic prejudice that marked them as unworthy of grief. His new book, Diasporic Perversions: Black Queer Visual Cultures and the Politics of History, is an interdisciplinary study of queer visual cultures across the Anglophone Black diaspora from the 1970s to the present.

Bost’s presentation discussed the work of Kia Labeija in relation to HIV/AIDS in New York City and urban inequality. Labeija is a Black woman photographer, dancer, activist, and staple of the New York City ballroom scene. In 1993, she was diagnosed with AIDS, which can be traced back to her mother, a Filipino AIDS activist who died with Labeija was a teenager. Labeija published a portrait series titled ‘24’, her age upon the release of the work, as well as a depiction of her anxiety about the loss of apartment 24m in Manhattan Plaza – a home she moved into at 14 years old after the death of her mother. The series of photographs was, in part, a creative response to the loss of her mother and the trauma of losing a home space, demonstrating what it meant to grow up as an HIV+ woman of colour in New York City. Building upon Sarah Schulman’s connection between the high death rate of AIDS and gentrification in New York City (The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, University of California Press, 2012), Bost explored how urban home space can be reimagined in ways that exceed narrow political and economic paradigms. By combining interview quotes from Labeija with close analysis of her portraits, Bost suggested that her photographs reframe urban home space, inserting her body into the economic relations of property in order to disrupt dominant notions of home as it has been defined by the state and capital. 

The third speaker was Gavin Butt, a professor at Northumbria University and a scholar of modern and contemporary art, as well the co-chair of Northumbria Contemporary Arts research forum. Butt is the author of Between You and Me (Duke University Press, 2005), which follows the decades preceding the Stonewall riots and the informal, everyday talk of gossip and rumour that shaped artists’ lives and their work. His forthcoming book explores the crisis of legitimacy for modern art education in the 70s and 80s as post-punk bands came out of art school. His work explores seriousness and queer arts performance, especially detailing how these two concepts can, or may not, intersect.

Butt’s presentation focused on queer artists’ rejection of seriousness and the aesthetic of the New York underground. In the neoliberal decades of the 60s and 70s, homophobia and transphobia often rendered queerness as a comic object. Butt examined why some works of queer literature embrace this, perhaps pointing towards self-hating limitations of queer art. Starting with the work of Joe Brainard, Butt discussed how although his work was received warmly by critics, it was only done so in the minor key. The coded homophobia and femmephobia that presided within these critical understandings of Brainard’s works were, according to Brainard's long term friend, Ron Padgett, internalised by Brainard. As the art scene began to become more serious, and more expensive, Brainard withdrew from this world. Butt suggests that what Brainard valued, as well as what queer art was moving towards, was a focus on people, connections, and community, rather than the commercialisation of art.

Butt drew upon Marsha P. Johnson as an example of the rejection of seriousness in the queer New York art scene, quoting her as saying ‘I’ve never ever done drag seriously. I’ve always done drag, I’ve never done it seriously.’ Marsha P. Johnson represented a theatrical embodiment of the refusal of seriousness, counteracting the homophobia, transphobia, and femmephobic neoliberal culture of New York through her drag performance. Butt finished his talk by suggesting that Susan Sontag couldn’t have written Notes on Camp today, as camp for Sontag was what you turn to when seriousness and sincerity are not enough – principles that no longer rule modern culture.                                                          

The final speaker of the roundtable was Sarah Schulman, who was phoning in from the very city in discussion, New York. Schulman is an award-winning writer, AIDS historian, distinguished professor of humanities at the College of Staten Island, and is publishing her 20th book in May –to name only a few accolades! It was an incredible honour to have Schulman participate in the roundtable, where she questioned the other panellists on their presentations and furthered the discussion of their respective research. 

Schulman commented on Anderson’s speech, commenting on the links between gentrification and moralism, as well as questioning what it meant to situate oneself in relation to a past that one has never directly experienced. Next, Schulman turned to Bost, commending him for his research on those that were born with AIDS, as well as those whose parents have died to HIV – communities that are often overlooked. On Butt’s work, Schulman discussed the potential benefits of alienation and the aesthetic, political, and emotional benefit that people in systems act on each other. Schulman questioned whether this queer sense of community has extended into the post-rights and anti-liberation period of aesthetics we are currently in.

After a period of discussion, Dr Cran opened up the conversation to a Q+A portion, in which the audience was able to submit questions to the panel. Among many intriguing questions, one particularly saw Bost expand upon the sense that some bodies are absorbed by capital, while some are not. He focused on one of the photographs from ‘24’, detailing how the series of portraits subverted the HIV positive body away from the hegemonic depiction that it is stigmatised and decaying. Labeija used intersections of fashion and glamour (also drawing upon the supportive ballroom community) to counter visual notions of sickness.

The roundtable concluded by each of the speakers giving recommendations for further reading, essential texts that would help the audience fill in ideas of Queer New York. Among these was One-Dimensional Queer by Roderick Ferguson, Safe Space by Christina Hanhardt, Let the Record Show by Sarah Schulman (available in May), and United in Anger (dir. Jim Hubbard, and produced by Schulman) which is a documentary available for free on YouTube. 

The roundtable event was engaging, providing a detailed intersectional approach to Queer New York and the narratives that surround this area of study. We thank Rona Cran and John Fagg for chairing the event, Rona Cran for organizing, and all the speakers for their generous exploration of Queer New York – it was a privilege to hear them speak. 

Listed below is a selection of texts recommended for further reading/viewing during the discussion:

  • The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination – Sarah Schulman
  • Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948-1963 – Gavin Butt
  • Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York’s Ruined Waterfront – Fiona Anderson
  • Evidence of Being: the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence – Darius Bost
  • Times Square Red, Times Square Blue – Samuel Delany
  • One Dimensional Queer – Roderick Ferguson
  • United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (dir. Jim Hubbard, 2012)
  • Let the Record Show: A Political History of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power New York – Sarah Schulman
  • Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence – Christina B. Hanhardt
  • Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora – Martin F. Manalansan
  • Keith Haring′s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire – Ricardo Montez
  • Funeral Diva – Pamela Sneed
  • Work by Melvin Dixon and Essex Hemphill