Queer Survival Economies: Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies at #SF41

At the Scholar & Feminist Conference 41: Sustainabilities conference, I attended a panel entitled “Queer Survival Economies: Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies.” BCRW Senior Activist Fellow Amber Hollibaugh was joined by Kate D’Adamo, Hamid Khan, and Ola Osaze to discuss issues impacting low-income and immigrant LGBTQ people and their experiences with ongoing changes in the neoliberal global market.

From Hollibaugh, I learned about the concept of gay affluence propagated by mainstream media. Hollibaugh urged us to reframe mainstream efforts in reforms for “equality,” and instead look to dismantle systems that leave queer people at the margins of the economy. Many panelists suggested similar structures for conceptualizing the economic intersections in queer identities. I have been conditioned to visualize liberation as “equality,” visibility, and assimilation. This panel has helped me understand alternatives to the dominant framework that has been pushed by mainstream media and mainstream LGBTQ organizations.  I am now delving deeper into feminist theory concerning the importance of anti-assimilation organizational efforts, and I was excited to see the theories I read put into practice by activists.

The fluctuating global market and its impacts on LGBTQ people are some of the issues that Hollibaugh addresses with her new initiative Queer Survival Economies, created after the closure of the organization Queers for Economic Justice and currently hosted by the Barnard Center for Research on Women. On speaking about her Queer Survival Economies project, Hollibaugh has expressed the need for a new framework, stating, “liberation has to reemerge as how we see change.”

Queer Survival Economies “gives traction to an economic justice perspective that is queer.”

Hollibaugh criticized the dangerous myth of gay affluence,  a political strategy that frames LGBTQ people as wealthy consumers with large disposable incomes. Yet the majority of LGBTQ people are poor or working class. The media portrayals of queer people as mostly white, wealthy gays and lesbians exclude the majority of the LGBTQ population. The myth of gay affluence ignores the economic hardships that LGBTQ people experience, particularly people of color and people with disabilities, which cause and reinforce barriers to employment, housing, and healthcare. 

Moreover, when the media does address LGBTQ poverty it portrays it as a youth issue, largely ignoring the economic struggles of LGBTQ elders. Hollibaugh stated, as  “you [get] older you are blamed for your poverty.” Queer movements that promote assimilation, mainstream visibility, and political reform ignore the nuances of class, ability and gender in the LGBTQ community. By doing so, people of color, poor, working class, and disabled individuals are erased in the narrative of who constitutes queerness.

Ola Osaze, an activist for queer and trans communities as well as African immigrant communities, spoke about the intersections of immigration, economics and criminalization. As an immigrant from Nigeria, Osaze discussed how “being black in America came with a huge amount of signifiers” and that “criminalization often intersected with immigration.” As a result, Osaze explained, African immigrants face high rates of deportation.

Like Hollibaugh, Osaze believes that reform is not the end goal, as it would not undo the racism and white supremacy that shapes immigration rhetoric and systems in the U.S. Instead, Ozase posed the question: “What if transformation and liberation were [our] framework instead of reform?”

Pakistani immigrant organizer Hamid Khan, leader of Stop LAPD Spying echoed these ideas. Khan discussed how American society is built upon histories of surveillance and counter intelligence, and how these histories of surveillance are permeated in every aspect of our lives.  The origins of policing in American society can be traced back to slavery. Therefore, we must be conscious and critical of the ways in which we conceptualize history and its connectivity to contemporary issues and our organizing efforts must reflect this.  

Kate D’Adamo of the Sex Workers Project, a legal service organization that works directly with sex workers, talked about different forms of formal and informal labor. For countless individuals, informal labor is a mechanism of survival. Therefore, informal labor for queer people is vital and must be decriminalized. D’Adamo stressed the importance and urgency of the Fight for 15 Movement, which would raise standards in employment nationwide. The Fight for 15, in D’Adamo’s opinion, is a queer issue. She stated statistics that said that roughly 40% of runaway youth are LGBTQ, and that although it is important to bring queer elders into the spotlight, numerous queer youth are struggling economically. D’Adamo stated “[Queer people] rely on each other to survive…why are we criminalizing the ways that marginalized communities are surviving?”

Although I thought that the speakers were very clear in portraying their goal of refusal in lieu of reform,  I left with a number of unanswered questions. My questions were specifically related to the ideologies of visibility, equality, and liberation. As a community, we must think through what these ideas and concepts mean to us. How do we imagine our future (where do we go from here and how do we plan to get there)? How do we resolve mainstream narratives of our goals, and how should we go about, if at all, resolving the lack of consensus within our own communities? I do not have specific answers to these questions,  and do not expect to formulate simple and straightforward answers, yet I hope to be able to discuss these issues and ideas with others.

Watch the video below:

Queer Survival Economies: Invisible Lives, Targeted Bodies from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

Further Reading

Amber Hollibaugh

Yana Calou

Kate D’Adamo

Hamid Khan

Ola Ozase


Art, Community, and Activism: Beyond our Lines of Vision at #SF41

Sustaining Harlem: Art, Community Activism and Black Women’s Leadership from BCRW Videos on Vimeo.

At this year’s Scholar and Feminist Conference, Sade Lythcott, Virginia Johnson, Pat Cruz, and Thelma Golden were invited to speak on the importance of art in considering the sustainability of Harlem as a community that centers Black cultural, political, and social innovation. As self-identified Black women, the speakers spoke to the centrality of their identities in imagining the futuristic impact of the cultural institutions they each represented. Pat Cruz, Executive Director of Harlem Stage, highlighted the reciprocal relationship between cultural institutions and the communities they serve and represent as crucial to the framework of sustainability.

Through mutual engagement and dynamic exchange, cultural institutions at their best are part of a dialogic set of engagements that extend beyond static locations and that challenge the bifurcation of art and everyday enactments of resistance. Cruz cited the Civil Rights Movement, to which three of the four represented institutions could trace their founding, as an example of social and political stimulus to the production of art. Virginia Johnson spoke of the ways in which the Harlem Renaissance fueled the creative energy that propelled art institutions like the Dance Theater of Harlem forward.

While they shift along with the ever-changing context of Harlem, these cultural centers exist on a historical continuum that acknowledges and honors the past while actively creating visions for futuristic advancement and present sustainability. In considering the meaning of community, Sade Lythcott draws a distinction between the physical spaces that neighborhoods occupy and the broader landscape of community, which is ever-expanding and untethered to a static location, reaching even the imaginary and metaphysical realms. For Lythcott, it is these unstable spaces that present sustainable potentials and possibilities for collectivization.

To look beyond the physical realm is to recognize the ways in which Black livelihoods are not entirely legible on the ideological parchment provided by a society that actively obliterates Black integrity. It is part of an effort to engage the shadow spaces where the Black imaginary thrives and lends itself to a subversive creative effort. All the women on the panel offered radical self-definitions of history, art, and community, centralizing the importance of creation as an articulation of sustainability.

You are SO Brave: Disability Studies vs. Disability Justice at #SF41

“You are SO BRAVE” is a statement most disabled people are used to hearing. Able-bodied and able-minded people frequently infantilize our experiences and lives for their own inspiration fetishes. But you might be shocked to hear these words coming from the mouths of disabled people at a conference surrounding disability studies and scholarly work, what is seen by many, especially the attendees, as a vital part of the disability justice movement.

Last September, I went to pick up flyers for the conference “Keywords and Key Questions” from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender Studies at Columbia. As a disability justice activist, I was excited to hear about the conference, as disability rights advocacy has been taking a new turn on campus this year, with the production of V-Day’s show Respect(Ability), the formation of various student groups, and the sponsoring of Invisible Disabilities Awareness Week by Student Life. My excitement quickly diminished, however, seeing the list of speakers and realizing that there were two panelists of color, Sayantani DasGupta and Michael Ralph, out of 25 speakers. As a member and organizer at FIERCE, I have met countless queer and trans disabled people of color: Kay Ulanday Barrett, Mark Travis Rivera, and more.

The reality is that disability work, just like anti-racist work, just like the LGBTQIA+ movement, and just like feminist politics, many times fails to be intersectional. White supremacy has permeated movements so deeply that when people in those communities who also hold other marginalized identities, specifically people of color, speak out about the lack of intersectionality, they are patronized and patted on the head. Instead of incorporating the ideas of intersectional justice into the disability movement, academic scholars are too focused on defending their work and their fields.

Despite the fact that I saw few panelists of color on the posters, I decided to give the conference a chance. As a member of the Social Justice House who had started a project to confront the issue of disability injustice at Columbia, I was curious to see what the faculty of this university was doing to support disability rights on campus. Perhaps they would address the issue of so few academics of color in disability studies. Perhaps these academics were still allies of people of color and would create conversation around issues that exclusively impact us. Perhaps there would still be a large audience of color who would ask questions to specifically lead panelists in the direction of race and disability. Unfortunately, none of this was the case. The conference was no more than a circle of primarily white disability scholars blowing their own horns.

This work is not about you, white disability scholars, this is about us: the disabled people in your community who are not given a voice, not given representation, not allowed access to your spaces because: face it, academics is inaccessible. Yes. Your version of disability justice is INACCESSIBLE.

When over seventy percent of college graduates are white, your space becomes inaccessible to people of color, particularly Black people. People of color whose races impact how and if their disabilities are diagnosed, whose races impact their interactions with the police and criminal (in)justice system, whose races impact every aspect of their lives and experiences because we do not live one-dimensional lives. Disabled people of color are three-dimensional experiences. We cannot separate our brownness or Blackness from our disabilities any more than we can separate our spines from our backs. And yes, we do have spines. We are unafraid. We are unafraid to confront you if your disability work is not intersectional.

And we do not want to hear patronizing compliments on how speaking out is SO brave. People of color are not meek, we are not compliant, we are not silent. We are warriors who have been roaring for centuries and you have just begun to notice. We deserve a movement that is built around obtaining justice for all disabled people, not just disabled people who are cisgender, heterosexual/romantic, and white.

Our communities are building a movement for justice and healing that hold our queer, trans, low or no-income folks of color at the center. We are building for those of us whose disabilities impact our sexualities and intimacies. For rape survivors with PTSD who have the right to choose if they have sex and who they do or do not have sex with. For women of color with cerebral palsy. For those of us with chronic pain and social phobias who cannot leave our homes to spend time with our loved ones. We work for those of us who are trans, like me, who do not have access to medical transitioning because hormone replacement therapy can create complications for our pre-existing conditions. For transmasculine folks whose masculinities are denied because masculinity and disability are seen to be in conflict with each other. Disability is connoted with dependence and weakness whereas masculinity is associated with power and autonomy. For trans femme sex workers with AIDS who do not have access to treatment. We fight for those of us who are low or no-income who cannot afford the long and expensive process to become diagnosed and, without the ticket to ride that a diagnosis provides, are barred from disability services, benefits, or disability-specific healthcare. We are still equally as disabled because the medical-industrial complex does not have the right to tell us our pain and experiences are invalid. Disabled people with invisible disabilities, such as borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, autism, autoimmune disorders, and chronic pain, who are told their illnesses are not real because they do not present visibly, whose doctors refuse to diagnose them. Folks with invisible disabilities in unstable housing conditions who cannot disclose that they have disabilities because of the likelihood of being evicted. Disabled young people who are tracked and sidelined in special education, institutionalized in detention centers or psychiatric hospitals, or sedated with drugs. Or disabled young people who do not have the option of pursuing a diagnosis or treatment because of stigma within their families. Disabled people like me who did not see a single representation of themself in that room.

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Fortunately, a few months later, the Scholar and Feminist Conference: Sustainabilities hosted a panel organized by our very own Che Gossett titled “Disability and Healing Justice: Making Our Lives Sustainable and Our Movements Livable.” This was the panel I had longed to see in October. Panelists Geleni Fontaine and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha reawakened my faith in the disability justice movement. Geleni Fontaine is an anti-violence, self-defense instructor creating a movement for women, survivors, and disabled folks through their work at the Center for Anti-Violence Education, as an RN, as a holistic healer, and as an acupuncturist. Leah Lakshmi, a mixed-race Romani, Irish, and Sri Lankan writer, is an incest and intimate personal violence survivor who self-identifies as “crazy, chronically ill, and disabled.” She attended NYU where she did HIV/AIDS work, but at 21 moved to Toronto because of her healthcare access needs. She was part of a “movement culture of entering movements to save our own lives,” and did work for Sins Invalid, an organization for disabled performance artists to create space for discussion on respectability and desirability politics.

Textbook image of drapetomaniaLike many other movements, the disability justice movement begins in Black liberation and Black studies and these scholars did not fail to touch upon that. Disability studies in this country begins with runaway slaves being diagnosed with drapetomania (“the disease causing [slaves] to run away”). The creator of the term “disability justice,” Leroy Moore, was a Black disabled man. Harriet Tubman was disabled with a traumatic brain injury and went on to save thousands of slaves. Our stories of disability are rooted in intersections of race, gender, class, religion, culture, and queerness. Disabled people are either seen as broken machines or as having perfectly-working bodies with broken minds. But disabled people are people with a culture, with history, with communities, and with organizations. Disabled people are resilient, and able-bodied people have a lot to learn from us. Our existence is resistance. Even we disabled people have a lot to learn from each other about solidarity because we all have different experiences. We are not a monolith.

Geleni and Leah touched on healing justice in the disability movement, quoting Cara Page: “If our movements themselves aren’t healing, there is no point to them.”

Pushing against the system means that power is shared. We must work to make systems accessible. The panelists shared their hopes for the future. A future where disabled people are believed, a future where disabled people are valuable, not a liability, and a future with a medical system that recognizes that we are intersectional beings. We must build communities of care and healing. We must make disability movements intersectional and accessible. We must create movements to save ourselves.

“Taking Up Space and Making Art”: An Interview with Nia King

Nia King is a creative powerhouse whose work expands many different forms of media. King is a podcast producer, writer, zinester and self-publisher, and most importantly an artist and activist. In 2014, King published the collection of interviews Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives and is currently in the process of compiling a second volume. I was able to talk to King about activism, artistic inspirations, and the ins and outs of self-publishing and grassroots marketing strategies.

Nia King

EM: You describe yourself as an “art activist.” What does that mean to you? How do you see art and activism as linked?

NK: I identify as an “art activist” because I make art that is political, that deals with race, gender, queer and trans issues, class, disability, fatphobia and other forms of social oppression.

EM: Who/what has inspired your work?

NK: People who really inspire me include Jaime Hernandez of Love and Rockets fame. He is probably my favorite artist in the world. I love his visual style and also his storytelling. Some of the first representations I sought out of people like me (queer people of color) were in comics, and Love in Rockets was definitely one of the first comics to portray queer women of color in a way that felt very real and very relatable. Maggie and Hopey were so cool, and I wanted to live in their world.

I am also really inspired by Poly Styrene. She was a mixed-race (Black/white) woman and the lead singer of an early punk band called X-Ray Spex. As a woman of color who grew up in punk scenes and became politicized largely through punk, it was really important for me to be able to look back at the history of punk and see people like me—women of color—who were taking up space, sort of demanding a right to be weird, and making amazing art.

EM: What does DIY mean to you?

NK: DIY means you do everything yourself. At this point, there are some pieces of work I delegate— like graphic design for the cover of my book, or transcription for the podcast—but for the most part I do everything myself. I book the podcast guests, I research their work, I interview them, I spend hours and hours editing the interviews, I record the intro, I add the music, I upload the files to my website and I share them on social media. Other podcasts have studios and engineers and interns. I just have me, and a couple friends I pay to do transcription or occasionally help with editing.

Similarly, the money for the first book was all crowd-funded. It all came from individual donors who believed in the work I was doing. I think the largest gift was $250, but most of the donations were $5-$20. I have never received a grant for any of my work.

EM: You take a grassroots approach in terms of fundraising, marketing and creating your work. Why is the grassroots approach important for you? What obstacles have you faced? What advice do you have for others who want to utilize this approach?

NK: I don’t really see an alternative to doing things the grassroots way. My work is not mainstream enough for institutions or organizations to want to resource my work in a meaningful way, or at least that hasn’t happened yet.

It’s really hard for people of color to get published, especially queer and trans people of color, especially if their work is politically charged in a way that is challenging the status quo. I self-publish because my work is considered too “niche” or too “specific” by mainstream publishers, but also because I am too impatient and I feel like the work is too urgent to wait for institutions with access to resources to want to get behind it. Every time I start to work on a book proposal or a grant application to try and convince people that my work is important and worth funding, I feel like that’s time and energy I could be spending on the book or the podcast instead, so I tend not to get very far.

EM: Why did you decide to start doing interviews? What is your interview process?

NK: I wanted to pick the brains of artists I admired about how they got where they are. I wanted to get their advice and economic survival strategies and share them with others that might be hungry for the same information.

EM: What is the process of self-publishing like? What are the advantages and the biggest roadblocks?

NK: The advantage is complete creative control, including control over the publishing timeline. The other big advantage is that even though you pay more up front, you also get to keep more of the money because no publisher is taking a cut.

The downside is limited distribution and sometimes not enough energy to promote the book properly. If I had a publisher, they would get the book into stores for me. Instead, I have to personally ship or deliver books to every bookstore that carries my book, which is about 22 independent bookstores across the US and Canada.

Also, if I had a publisher it would be easier for me to get the book reviewed in publications, though I’ve actually had pretty decent luck with that on my own thanks to the support of women of color I know who work in media like Tina Vasquez, Cathy Camper, and Mey Rude.

If I had a press I would be able to give away more copies for free to people that want to review the book. Currently, if I don’t charge people for every individual copy of the book that’s printed then I lose money because I am paying for the copy out of pocket.

EM: What advice do you have for young people who want to write, build community and create their own art?

NK: Don’t give up. There are going to be a lot of times you feel like giving up and a lot of perfectly good reasons that it seems like you should, but the only way to gain success or any kind of recognition for art-making is to keep doing it. It’s ok to put it on the back-burner when you need to prioritize economic survival or things like taking care of partners, friends, and family, but try to come back to it if it’s really something you want to do.

EM: What do you have in store for book two?

NK: The first year of the podcast (which is what the first book is based on) was fairly heavily Black- and Latin@-focused. In the second year, I’ve tried to include more East Asian, South Asian, Arab and Indigenous artists. The second book is also more focused on women and femmes, particularly trans women.

The themes that are emerging from the interviews are also different. Themes I’m noticing in the second book include bisexuality, religion, and punk rock. For example, Juba Kalamka talks about biphobia in gay male communities and transphobia in queer hip-hop. Vivek Shraya talks about how Hinduism offered spaces where she was celebrated for her femme qualities, which she was punished for almost everywhere else. Martin Sorrondeguy talks about why he still sees punk as valuable, now that’s he’s been part of punk scenes and documenting punk culture across continents for several decades. He also talks about the importance of protest music for his family as young Uruguayan exiles in Chicago.

If the first book was QTPOC 101, this is QTPOC 102. The conversations go deeper and they’re really rich and layered. I hope people will enjoy the second book. I think it will definitely give readers something to chew on intellectually. I hope that it adds nuance to their understanding of the ways oppression works.

Thank you for joining BCRW at S&F 41: Sustainabilities

All of us at BCRW continue to feel the waves of inspiration that you have left in your collective wake. Thank you for joining us and participating in challenging and generative discussions on intergenerational activism, queer survival economies, disability justice, fat activism and intersectionality, community safety, resourcing and resilience in queer and trans liberation movements, Harlem’s historic arts institutions, navigating state and structural violence, and housing justice in New York City. Your participation made the 41st Annual Scholar and Feminist Conference a resounding success.

The sessions that were recorded will be available on the BCRW website in the coming weeks. Please stay tuned!

Che Gossett

In the meantime… We’d love your feedback! Tell us about your favorite panels and share your feedback for next year.


Thank you from all of us at BCRW!