by Aarushi Agni
Attendees and organizers of the first-ever Wisconsin Queer People of Color Conference strived to create this safe space last weekend. Among other measures, conference participants wore pins declaring their names and preferred pronouns. Being queer and out is not an option for all; in keeping with this knowledge, conference attendees were given the option to wear a sticker indicating they did not wish to be photographed.
The three-day conference began on October 9th Friday evening and ended to coincide with National Coming Out Day last Sunday.
Nationally recognized spoken-word poet Danez Smith, a graduate of UW-Madison and former First Wave Urban Arts Scholar, kicked off the conference on Friday evening with a performance. His poetry explores the intersection of gayness and blackness in an America, where, he noted, the fact of existence is a radical action. His verse touched on topics of sexuality, religion, race, family history– and their unique inter-minglings. The “[insert] boy” author titillated with details of sexual exploits and delivered a poetic takedown of systematic oppression in the US.
“Each night, I count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, I count the holes they leave. I reach for black folks & touch only air. Your master magic trick, America. Now he’s breathing, now he don’t,” said Smith, delivering his poem “Dear White America.”
The weekend contained workshops, with topics including queer and trans people of color in history, bisexuals of color, body-shaming, the experience of sexual pleasure, immigration as a queer issue, strengthening advocacy of transwomen of color, how to audit campuses to ensure they are creating safe spaces for queer people of color, identity and religion, and keeping activists safe from burnout, how to create inclusive institutional environments and writing. Additionally, spaces for art and recreation were made available.
I giggled through the Sexual Pleasure workshop, I felt at home while friends and strangers around me discussed the taboo topics related to queer sexual pleasure– strapons, vibrators, dildos, and what virginity means to a person who engages in non-insertive sex. The facilitated discussion also touched on racism and sexism within the porn industry, and the sexual oppression internalized by men and women at a young age.
The conference was keynoted by Coya White Hat-Artichoker, a writer, activist, board member of the reproductive justice organization, SisterSong, and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, who has worked across movements since the age of 15. The keynote was dedicated to the memory of notable feminist activist Grace Lee Boggs, who died on October 5th, 2015.
While growing up on the Rosebud Reservation in Todd County, one of the top 10 poorest countries, White Hat-Artichoker said she “took delight in defying the lowest expectations.”
Hat-Artichoker’s mother worked as a domestic violence advocate on the reservation. Hat-Artichoker noted that her mother’s feminist viewpoint differed from mainstream feminism at the time.
“They often saw answers that were more community-oriented. They took the issue of violence in our communities a direct result of colonization and rooted their answers in cultural values,” explained Hat-Artichoker. “They understood that our communities would not heal simply by shunning them or putting them in jail. They also recognized that violence was not traditional to our people.”
Despite these early influences, Hat-Artichoker explained that she did not embrace activism until she was attended a reproductive workshop for teens. The training, run by college students, introduced her to students her own age who affected by these charged, political issues. She said the experience politicized her.
“We were already experiencing violence against our bodies, and who has control over them,” she said.
At the age of 18, came out as a lesbian at a Queer Youth Center, and left South Dakota to find community. On the reservation, homosexuality was not discussed.
Queerness, said Hat-Artichoker, “was a new kind of assimilation.” She described feeling a sense of discomfort reconciling her Sioux identity with the often racist and misogynist iterations of the queer movement.
After attending a “Creating Change Conference” by the National Gay and Lesbian Taskforce, she encountered other queer people of color, and said the experience “saved her.”
“We were living intersectional lives, dealing with the nuance of walking through this world in complex bodies. We needed to center each other,” said Hat-Artichoker.
These experiences were the foundation of Hat-Artichoker’s work int he community and across movements. She has worked with Native American groups to define queerness within a cultural context– defining political movements in terms of liberation, sovereignty and access. She also works with other queer people to help them to better understand native communities.
“Native folks have been fighting for assimilation. But, do we want to be American? Part of what Native people have to offer the movement is memory. We have memory of a world before capitalism,” said Hat-Artichoker, “Capitalism is a top-down way of life. Are we in this fight to be better American citizens, or to be liberated?”