In this month’s feature of the #FugitiveDiariesQueerPlume, Jamika Ajalon takes an insightful look at the relationship between; the ‘gay guerillas’ and that most American of political ideologies ‘democracy’. With clean copy and intriguing personal anecdotes, Jamika takes in-London (Hackney Wick to be precise) and its queer People Of Colour (POC) community, touches on significant events such as 9/11 and the much maligned ‘war on drugs’ and explores the significance of the late great, musician Julius Eastman. The multi-instrumentalist and composer was, after all, in his way the most guerrilla of gays.
It was some point at the beginning of the new century. We both froze in our tracks at the sight of each other. It wasn’t exactly a mirror image but certainly we could have been non-identical twins. It wasn’t just the aesthetic, though both of us had our unique takes on andro-grunge-queer-bohemian. It had more to do with a way of moving through space. We approached each other guardedly but smiling non- the-less. I couldn’t help but think, “I had to cross the Atlantic to meet you”? Later I would realise, I had met her many times before and would again in futures to come.
I’d been based in Europe, primarily London, for a few years when the new millennium kicked in. Nothing exploded, nothing crashed. Clocks around the world clicked seamlessly into a new century. Prince’s apropos song, Party Like its 1999 (1982), hit the top of the charts across the globe for the third time. There was hope for a blank page, a tabula rasa, a clean slate open to a new more futuristic future. We began to find ourselves ever more reliant on the virtual world. Portable telephones which became smaller before they got a little bigger. Touch screen-tastic. We were no closer to finding life on mars but communicating/organising across geographical borders was possible now in real time. This was changing everything, including how we organised internationally as activists and artists. There had been more main stream images of queer folks and strong women characters in the decade preceding. More open discussions around sexuality— it seemed that the 2000’s would surely herald in the dawning of Aquarius, with or without its shadowy cousin, the cyber-punk dystopia in tow. But then 9/11 hit, launching a new and improved fresh take on “operation fear”.
And now the preamble// To the fall of an empire//Hear the foundations crumbling//As speak in the cafes//On the war on terror and//global warming//escalated fears//of suicide bombers//swarming //and now the preamble to//the fall of an empire *
When I first heard about 911, I was waiting on a train somewhere in SW London, watching crows land and fly away from a pile of auto parts rusting away in a junk yard across from the platform. I got the call from my best friend in NY. Everything went surreal. Even under the shock of this highly unfortunate news I couldn’t help but think, even then, that the chickens had come home to roost. A crow squawked across a patchy London sky. I couldn’t help but feel that we’d been here before and we’d would be here again.
Moments later I would join the rest of the world watching the towers collapse repeatedly in front of a friend’s tv somewhere in Clapham. Watching this on repeat, sound tracked by Bush’s axis of evil antics, I was terrified. Not because of the suicide bombers, but of some recycled red scare days of the Reagan era re-approaching. I couldn’t help but see the irony in the decision to go to war in Iraq. It reeked of political machinations. Bush helped keep Saddam in power and the next moment he was taking him down. We saw Hussein’s statue tumble to the ground, quickly followed by tumbleweed, because alas, no weapons of mass destruction were found.
From the start of the war in Iraq, through the efficiency of social media networks and the likes. Anti – war demonstrations simultaneously broke out globally with record numbers of attendance. However, the days of even pretending the voice of the people mattered were clearly over. Our protests fell upon deaf ears as Blair and Bush became bosom buddies, spreading their tyranny of democracy across the globe- Direct to you from the makers of the war on drugs– the war on terror ladies and gentlemen, at home and abroad.
In fact, in more ways than one, it seemed that the great Atlantic had indeed diminished in size. Yes, this was due to technology, and the expansion of the virtual, but personally home and abroad became misnomers for me. As home was London, my trips back to America were few and far between. When I did go back it would feel at times more abroad than home. Europe began to feel more home than abroad. These sensations of being both home and abroad at the same time would shift, as did those waves lapping against either shore.
We shook hands, grins stuck to our faces in that way it does when you’re meeting a long-lost friend. A short time later I would visit her in a squatted factory building filled with a mixed crowd of artists, musicians and poets on the edges East London. From a make shift stage created in her studio/cum sleeping, cum performance space- she belted out the refrain to a song I would soon come to know well.
God is gay
Enter the gay guerillas. While, the Bush administration and its supporters were searching for weapons of mass destruction (aka ‘the mass distraction’), people were dying like flies not only because of the war — the global Aids epidemic was at its peak. Over the years, often integrated into anti-war protests worldwide, were the die-ins, calling for more support for HIV survivors, aids awareness and prevention programs. The money going to bullets and bombs could save lives. In the wake of an international crisis the usual folks were most at risk; queer, and/or black and/or African. They were dying at genocidal rates. True, in the proceeding years, the likes of Magic Johnson coming out of as HIV positive, contributed to the de-stigmatisation of Aids. However, his normative masculinity did nothing to de-stigmatise being gay.
Though ACT-UP was the most visible, largely white, queer ‘group’ during this period of activism, POC queers internationally, who worked to implement strategies for effective activism within POC communities, knew that visibility was integral and crucial to reaching the folks that needed support. Visibility meant educating communities on the existence of Queer POC throughout time, past and present.
In the throes of the Bush administration— which I didn’t know until a lot later, — being black and queer was represented within the mainstream American in ways hitherto unseen, with shows like Noah’s Arc * and of course the ever rising star Rupaul. Even those men who did not identify as gay, no longer had to be gangster rap masculine to make a visible impact on pop culture.
Living in the Europe I missed out on a lot of the evolutions of queer POC culture in the States, both in mainstream media as well as underground. Most things black- unless it was a spawn of the BET aesthetic or some other sure fire one dimensional black ‘normative’ brand fitting easily within the dominant snow-machine narrative. Most things coming from African-American communities, either came late or would never reach across the Atlantic.
In the London, during the same period, understanding that the specific needs of Queer POC were not being met within the queer communities at large, a core group of activists pushed to activate Black Gay Pride— the first march in 2005. Eventually, Black Pride UK would reach out and link with folks in Paris, underscoring a growing movement of Afro-Europeans who would strive to work to dismantle or all together disregard European ‘post-colonial’ structures, thought, institutions and all its fissures. This coalition, re-enforced the Afro-European voice in the world of cultural criticism and thought, helping create a platform for artists today like Amandine Gay. Her film, Ouvrir la Voix (2017) features testimonies from WOC (Women Of Colour) who live in France. It explores the racism, sexism and in some cases, homophobia, they experience in their “vie quotidienne”. This work forms part of a growing international movement of artists, activists and academics who refuse reductionist ideas when it comes to the voice and identities of the African diaspora.
These acts of resistance are rooted beyond what the superficial eye can see. Those of us who “saw” each other outside of immutable containers, bore witness to each other over and over the years, and being “seen” ensured our survival. Generations of seed planting and other cycles exist in the ever-moving spiral of the now.
And I am sure Julius Eastman would agree that the gay guerilla can come in many forms. Certainly not simply a carbon copy of the images you see on the covers of (Harvey) Milky white gay publications. That I feel obliged to add the fact that Eastman, the author of the genius 30-minute composition Gay Guerilla (circa 1979) was a queer POC, speaks volumes.
I imagine or fancy that he was a part of scenes in New York that echoed the ones I knew and know; a motley crew of culturally mixed artist, musicians, poets, some identifying as queer, some refusing identification. Maybe Julius Eastman himself, also found it tricky to navigate a somewhat nebulous space. A space existing somewhere between the consistently white washed world of the privileged, negro tolerant, saltines (including a small majority of white hipster trust-a-farians slumming it until detox time in a country side cabin where they recover before following in the footsteps of generations before them ) and the afro-bots, many of whom were still honing their image and clicks to the reductionist tune of Black is Black A’int (1994). Yes, also in Britain. This does not mean that I did not want to be with ‘my people’ because I longed for and needed it. It was just that I found the members of what would become my colourful international clan-becoming… in the most unlikely spaces.
It is (space) where change and regeneration are nurtured. As though through our difference we realize our connections.”
In London, when I wasn’t caving off, the folks I hung with I most often met during spontaneous mixers and mashups which usually happened within squat culture spaces, parties and salons. One of these places, during the first decade of the 21st century, located in the deep East wicked, aka no-man’s land East London aka, Hackney Wick(ed). When you alighted from the few and far between trains stopping at Hackney Wick station, it was as if you had landed at the edges of the earth. During these times it still was a no-go area for many folks. And because there were very few trains, once you got there, it was no easy task getting out.
One clan within this scene was spear-headed by a talented and charismatic musician, the wiry caramel skinned queer bohemian, I shall call “TS”. She floated between scenes creating her own niche consisting of a charged, (albeit dysfunctional), family of misfits. We gave each other power and liberty of expression in ways that normative ‘scenes’ could not. Out of these conglomerations of talented souls, some of the most creative spontaneous actions against the ism schims of capitalism, and the then mutating forms of racism that the toxic war on terror rhetoric birthed. Both within more mainstream protest, as well as within our own sub-ground actions, seeds were being planted. These actions happened in what Hakim Bey called TAZ , or Temporary Autonomous Zones- zones I have encountered over time in every place I have ever lived and/or frequented- home to those who are fugitive to the “norm”. These days, of course these zones still exist, but as soon as fruits of the zones are the ripest, they are replicated and indoctrinated into popular culture of cool. On the bright side, this process lays way for the commercial success of folks likes Janelle Monae.
And how could one not be proud of the talented brown-skinned woman, once self-proclaimed android lover, coming out to loving women? We live in a moment, now, in which phrases such as gender fluidity and white and /or man-splaining is a part of mainstream media vocabulary. Even under the reign of increasingly fascist governments posing as democracy across the West, alternative and or so called “othered” voices seem to be thriving.
However, though I am the kind of cynic that tries to hold on to even the most meagre threads of hope, as I witness the historical loops our lives seem to be irrevocably tied to, I am waiting for the next shoe to drop. Bottom line, if there is a system of government that values capital over people, eventually all that’s ‘subversive’ will be ground down to palatable bites sized consumable morsels. Either that or they disappear all-together.
There is however one thing that will never disappear and can never be controlled. Those times when, across time and geography, we see each other. There is a power in that, which cannot be controlled.
“In this realm a friend can be someone you never met in the flesh but will meet many times over. Someone with perhaps whom you have never had a conversation with but speaks to you all the same. Friends can live in other time zones even parallel universes. Our meeting and influence over each has to do with both resonance and reverberation. These friendships are not only important on personal levels but are inextricably rooted, intertwined with a force that exists despite brutal violent polarities we have constructed and choose to endure. It is (space) where change and regeneration are nurtured. As though through our difference we realize our connections.”
Years later, after life did what she does, my non- identical twin and I moved on to different paths. Unfortunately, the pain that brought us together was the pain that would eventually split us apart. However, I choose to remember the power of our first serendipitous meeting. Maybe we didn’t hear it then, but between us passed that timeless echo unspoken – “because of you I exist”.
* from up-coming book of poetry Take Back The Narrative
Featured image of Julius Eastman photographer unknown
Second image of the scne post 9/11
Third image of HIV sufferer David Kirby taken by Therese Frare
Fourth image poster from the film Ouvrir la Voix (2017)