September 4, 2014

New exhibit imagines a future from queer perspective

Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, left, and Carrie Y. T. Kholi, are co-creators of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival , opening Friday, September 5 at Oakland's Betti Ono Gallery. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, left, and Carrie Y. T. Kholi, are co-creators of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival , opening Friday, September 5 at Oakland’s Betti Ono Gallery. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

Amidst the changing cityscape of downtown Oakland, Betti Ono Gallery has become a steadfast reference point for unharnessed creativity since its establishment in 2010. To celebrate four years of art, culture, and community, the gallery is hosting an anniversary art party on Friday, September 5, which doubles as the highly anticipated exhibition opening of AMEN: A Collaborative Meditation for Survival.

Co-created by visual artist Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and writer Carrie Y. T. Kholi, AMEN will prove nothing short of its description – “a supraliminal experimentation” that integrates history, myth, and magic to re-imagine a future grounded in the “affirmation and history of all people, and intentionally inclusive of marginalized queer people of color.”

DeJesus Moleski, 28, a Puerto Rican, Afro-Latina, queer, femme, unabashed art geek, and Kholi, 29, a self-identified goal-digger, dream-catcher, and black lesbian, have taken their combined prayers, visions, and spiritual emissions, and translated them into meditations for survival. The body of work is dream-like: some pictorial, some textual, all emanate a visual rhythm meant to invoke feelings of self-affirmation, curiosity, and resolve.

Gallery owner Anyka Barber, an Oakland native, is known for curating provocative and inspirational art shows – the kind grounded in experimentation, independent thinking, social justice commentary, and spirit. DeJesus Moleski and Kholi, friends for three years, had individually worked with Barber before and, on account of Betti Ono’s principles, Barber thought the two would be perfect for a collaboration show.

“Betti Ono is about presenting shows that unlock the gates to art and culture,” Barber said. “It’s about shifting the perception around who can participate. It’s about validating marginalized voices, othered identities, and showcasing work in an accessible way. Amaryllis’s work is about imagining the brown femme body as an ancient powerful figure, and Kholi is interested in how writers shape and push culture forward. Betti Ono is named for women who were futurists: Yoko Ono and Betty Davis. They’re also female archetypes. Both Amaryllis and Kholi understand what it means to be an archetype, and are interested in understanding how archetypes shape and give them power.”

DeJesus Moleski and Kholi started having conversations about the show’s concept in June. It quickly grew into something grounded in a shared experience they felt thematically symbolizes how marginalized people are forced to engage with the world, by means of survival.

“It started with surviving academia,” DeJesus Moleski said. “I’d just graduated from California College of the Arts and Kholi is in the process of getting her Ph.D. in English literature. We were having conversations about being working class queer women of color in academia, and what it means to survive an institution that was built to keep us out. Then it evolved into this larger idea of cultural, mythological, and spiritual survival.”

“Particularly in this moment,” Kholi said, “in being aware of what’s happening nationally and internationally, it feels necessary to present work that not only says the rest of the world gets to exist, we get to exist, too. The world we live in will, literally, kill us. There’ve been acts of survival that have gotten us here, and we want to make sure we’re contributing to tomorrow. I want to make sure we have a future.”

AMEN explores how marginalized people, particularly queer femme women of color, have been expunged from mainstream historical myths and imaginations of humankind’s future. In identifying the omissions, both artists reassert visibility in powerful, integral forms through time and space.

“I’m a huge sci-fi fantasy nerd,” DeJesus Moleski said. “One of the reasons I love the genre is because people are working out difficult things: themes of survival, apocalypse, cultural anxieties. Right now, I see a lot of apocalypse stories, but they’re filled with white, straight, middle-to-upper class people. In these futuristic stories we have the opportunity to create something new, but the same systems of oppression are being reinforced. I don’t think that’s by mistake. We’ve been written out of the past already. People of color have experienced cultural genocide. And now future stories are being created and we’re not there either. For me it feels urgent to contribute, to play around with future myths. We existed yesterday and we exist tomorrow. We’re integral to the integrity of our planet.”

Kholi said that she’s studied the works of several writers.

“I’ve studied writers like Amiri Baraka, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker,” Kholi explained. “Even in the academic world we don’t talk about these writers because they’re ‘crazy’ or ‘different.’ It’s actually because they’re people of color taking very seriously their future, magic, and talents. We get to have a future. We have a voice of authority. Not superiority, but authority, which is different. And our exhibition is also celebrating Betti Ono’s anniversary. That’s really important because for four years Betti Ono has been in the middle of downtown, a place not controlled by black women. That right there is survival. The work really locates where we are, where we’ve been, and how we get to tomorrow.”

And, Kholi and DeJesus Moleski emphasize, AMEN is for everyone. Both agree that the exhibit is a public conversation to be witnessed and experienced by viewers from wherever they exist.

Betti Ono Gallery is located at 1427 Broadway. The opening of AMEN, from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, September 5, coincides with Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday event, a free monthly art walk in downtown Oakland.

August 29, 2014

LGBT groups respond to Ferguson

Protesters gathered in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse in San Francisco Tuesday, August 26 to demand justice for Michael Brown and others killed by police. The rally was organized by  (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Protesters gathered in front of the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Courthouse in San Francisco Tuesday, August 26 to demand justice for Michael Brown and others killed by police. The rally was organized by
(Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri has prompted LGBT organizations across the country to join others in raising questions around the circumstances of his death in the almost three weeks since the incident.

Brown, 18, was fatally shot by police Officer Darren Wilson around midday August 9. His bleeding body was left lying face-down, uncovered for a time, in the street for four hours while neighborhood residents, including children and Brown’s family members, looked on, horrified. According to news reports, at least six different bullets caused over a dozen different wounds including two through his head.

Police officials said Brown assaulted Wilson and a struggle for the officer’s gun ensued ending with Brown fatally shot. According to the Los Angeles Times, a handful of witnesses, including Dorian Johnson, who was walking alongside Brown when the incident began, negate Brown as the antagonizer and place Wilson as the aggressor, ultimately shooting and killing Brown while he was either surrendering or running from Wilson’s first shots.

In the subsequent days, protests to the shooting erupted in Ferguson, a working-class predominantly African American suburb of St. Louis. Fueled by the nature of the shooting, the treatment of Brown’s body, and the police department preserving Wilson’s anonymity until nine days after the shooting, Ferguson residents called attention back to one of America’s largest problems – racism.

During the first week, demonstrators were met with police in riot gear, armored vehicles, K-9 units, assault rifles, smoke grenades, stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Scattered reports of looting and property damage surfaced, as did accounts of press censorship and police brutality.

Communities respond

But Ferguson hasn’t been alone. Expressions of solidarity have ranged far and wide. On August 15, Palestinian groups and individuals signed a letter expressing solidarity with Brown’s family and the people of Ferguson. The same day, the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda publicly called for justice and extended condolences to Brown’s family. On August 19, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates released a statement naming racial profiling as central to Brown’s death and denounced the state’s treatment of Ferguson demonstrators. The same week, the National Domestic Workers Alliance extended support to Brown’s family, condemned racialized state-sanctioned violence responsible for his death, and demanded justice.

On August 12, three days after Brown’s death, a letter signed by 17 social justice and LGBT organizations was released stating the “[LGBT] community cannot be silent at this moment … because all movements of equality are connected.” The letter called Brown’s death one of countless “racialized killings that have marred this nation since the beginning of its history.” The letter’s signatories has grown to 68, the San Francisco LGBT Community Center among the most recent.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights was among the first to sign the letter. And, as Executive Director Kate Kendell said, after signing, it still felt important for NCLR to draft an individual statement. But the words didn’t come from Kendell herself; her 18-year-old African American son, Julian Holmes, and mentor to both Holmes and Kendell, African American civil rights lawyer Eva Paterson, wrote them.

“Rather than me write something decrying the events in Ferguson,” Kendell said, “I thought the real power might come from an intergenerational piece by a longtime civil rights lawyer and my son who is coming-of-age in a country that still has deep, deep racism and racial tension.”

In his statement, Holmes reflects on the devaluation of black lives:

“It is obvious that the justice system is not set up to protect people that look like Michael and me,” he wrote. “There has been something rooted into the system, something rooted into our minds as human beings that makes this acceptable. Something that tells police officers with guns that they can fire them off at will just because they have a badge … They are perfectly fine with having another black boy’s blood on their hands … This story of Michael Brown’s death is tragic. Not only does it make me angry, it makes me sad. Because with every story like this I see my body lying in the street where Michael’s was.”

Growing up with same-sex parents, Holmes told the Bay Area Reporter that he “has one foot in the LGBT community and one foot in the black community,” and it’s especially important for marginalized communities to support each other.

“When people decide not to speak up about an issue, that’s how things get worse,” Holmes said. “Complacency is just as bad as supporting racism. If you assume we live in a colorblind society because it’s 2014, that’s when things get swept under the rug.”

Last weekend, Gay-Straight Alliance Network released a statement drawing the connection between systematic racism and the criminalization of young people like Brown, and called for GSAs across the country to commit to addressing the criminalization of young people in their communities.

The Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project has been the only explicitly local LGBT organization to release a public statement. On August 22, the organization expressed solidarity with the Brown family and the people of Ferguson in the face of “unspeakable human rights abuses at the hands of law enforcement.” While no other local LGBT organizations have released their own public statements, Norio Umezu of Community United Against Violence said the organization’s internal discussion about whether or not to do so was ongoing.

Rebecca Rolfe, executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said the center did not release its own letter citing public statements as “not a strategy we’ve had the resources to pursue on a regular basis.” Similarly, the executive director of the Pacific Center in Berkeley, Leslie Ewing, cited “lack of organizational bandwidth and capacity” as reason for the same. Brown Boi Project was also contacted but could not be reached for comment.

The weekend of August 16, San Francisco hosted the annual American Sociological Association meeting. A group of sociologists, many from San Francisco State University, drafted a statement titled: “Sociologists Issue Statement on Ferguson: 400 Sociologists Demand Justice and Change in Policing Communities of Color.” To date, over 1,400 sociologists have now signed the letter.

SFSU sociology Professor Andreana Clay, a self-identified queer woman of color and black feminist, was central to the statement’s making. Her participation, she said, was rooted in her work as a sociologist and her upbringing – Clay grew up in Missouri and spent her summers in St. Louis near Ferguson.

The statement addresses police brutality, racialized policing, institutional racism, and anti-blackness as an epidemic in this country and central to Brown’s death. It is timely, Clay emphasized, for allies to speak out, which should include the LGBT community.

“It’s a real opportunity for LGBT organizations to address the violence that continues to happen on marginalized bodies,” Clay said, “and link, not equate, but link the violence targeted upon black bodies to the violence targeted toward queer bodies, specifically trans women of color. It’s an opportunity to talk about how violence is used to surveil queer and racialized bodies; often times those are the same bodies. Just because the ongoing targeting of black bodies, both male and female, in society is what we see at this moment, the mainstream gay community is never far behind.”

The letter also endorses Black Lives Matter, a nonprofit initiative committed to using social engagement to end state sanctioned violence against black people. Currently, 16 states have Black Lives Matter contingents organizing rides to Ferguson to sustain ground-level action. Made up of various professionals, specialists, and organizers, the Bay Area has its own Black Life Matters Ride scheduled to depart August 28.

To donate to the Black Life Matters Bay Area contingent, visit The campaign ends September 5.

June 26, 2014

Life of activism shaped transwoman’s compassion

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at her Oakland home with her dog, Moose. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy at her Oakland home with her dog, Moose. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

Shifts in social climates require decades of contextual movement work, and there’s no better testament to that than Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a self-identified formerly incarcerated black transwoman whose lifelong activism has remained consistently central to the progression of trans rights and visibility.

In commemoration of her life’s work, the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee Board of Directors named Griffin-Gracy, widely known simply as Miss Major, one of this year’s Pride parade community grand marshals alongside other selections that communicate staunch support for the transgender community. Griffin-Gracy is currently the longtime executive director of the Transgender GenderVariant Intersex Justice Project, an organization that works to end human rights abuses committed against incarcerated transgender, gender variant/genderqueer and intersex people.

In company with Griffin-Gracy, 74, is celebrity grand marshal and bestselling author Janet Mock, who underlines Griffin-Gracy’s impact on her own life. Mock described Griffin-Gracy to the Bay Area Reporter as “brilliantly resourceful, resilient, and legendary,” and didn’t stop there.

“The mere fact that she chooses to be visible and vocal about the multilayered facets of her existence created a groundwork and foundation onto which I could move past survival and actually thrive as a young trans woman writer of color,” Mock told the B.A.R. “Without Miss Major’s contributions and work, I would not exist.”

Also being honored with Griffin-Gracy is 16-year-old community grand marshal Jewlyes Gutierrez, a transgender Hercules Middle/High School student who faced a misdemeanor battery charge last year after a fight related to long-term bullying broke out. (She participated in a restorative justice program and the charge was later dropped.) Griffin-Gracy, Gutierrez told the B.A.R., “is a pillar in the community,” a predecessor she’s “honored and blessed” to be celebrated with.

Trans March is the organizational grand marshal, and Chelsea Manning, a transgender soldier convicted last year of leaking classified content exposing American military follies, is an honorary grand marshal. Like never before, the transgender community is taking center stage at this year’s celebration, a precedent that, according to Pride board President Gary Virginia, runs parallel to larger cultural trends.

“The many nominations and votes related to the transgender community happened organically amid an increase in visibility on the national and local level,” Virginia said. “Transgender people are the most discriminated group within our LGBT civil rights movement. We work to make sure our annual celebration reflects the most pressing issues facing our LGBT family.”

While Griffin-Gracy is quick to redirect attention from her public accolades to community issues at hand, the honor, she said, brings her full-circle. But, it’s less about personal acknowledgement and more about witnessing the large-scale appreciation of transwomen, particularly transwomen of color.

“We’re finally getting some recognition,” she said. “I’m proud it finally happened and I’m alive to see it because a lot of my girlfriends haven’t made it this far. I’m trying to get as many girls as possible together at the parade so people can see we’re a force to be reckoned with; we’re not going anywhere.”

Griffin-Gracy has always been a “force.” She’s lived her life on the frontlines – not the frontlines of marches, parades, or lobbying initiatives – the frontlines of the 1969 Stonewall riots, the 1971 Attica State Prison uprising, the early AIDS epidemic, and every other survival front occupied by trans women of color to stay alive.


After being born and raised in Chicago, Griffin-Gracy moved to New York City where she established a supportive community that helped her grow into her identity. At the time, bars and clubs were the primary avenue through which LGBT people met each other. The Stonewall Inn, a working-class LGBT bar in Greenwich Village, was a particular favorite of Griffin-Gracy’s.

“Stonewall provided us transwomen with a nice place for social connection,” Griffin-Gracy said. “Then, only some gay bars let us in, others would chase us out. We could go to Stonewall and everything would be fine, we didn’t have to explain ourselves.”

During that period, anti-LGBT sentiment was supported by law; police raids on LGBT bars and clubs were commonplace. Griffin-Gracy was a regular patron of Stonewall, and was there “perking up with a girlfriend” the night of the police raid that subsequently triggered three days of riots in June 1969.

“The boys [police] were always targeting those with social stigma around them – gay men, lesbians, but not as much as us,” Griffin-Gracy said. “This one night, though, everybody decided this time we weren’t going to leave the bar. And shit just hit the fan.”

Widely credited as the catalyst for the modern LGBT civil rights movement, the Stonewall riots, like many movement initiatives, didn’t function without their own internal hierarchies. Griffin-Gracy distinctly remembers transwomen of color being excluded from the protests, a dynamic still perpetuated today.

“After the raid happened, I remember Sylvia Rivera and I going to a gay rally in Central Park,” Griffin-Gracy said, referring to the late trans activist who died in 2002. “Sylvia went up to speak and they booed her offstage. We were so heartbroken; I cried for days. There was this sea of white people and they had the audacity to do that. The thing is, this disconnect is still happening. I saw a movie last year about Stonewall and didn’t see one transwoman of color in the whole film.”

For Griffin-Gracy, it took participating in another act of resistance to truly claim her politicized self. In September 1971, a four-day uprising in New York’s Attica State Prison claimed the lives of 10 hostages and 29 inmates. Incarcerated there at the time for two felony convictions, Griffin-Gracy experienced the upheaval firsthand, as well as the inhumane living conditions and discriminatory treatment that served as precursors to the uprising.

“It was an awakening,” Griffin-Gracy said. “Trans or not, being considered a black male affected my relationship with everyone I met. And some of the atrocities I saw happen to my trans sisters were devastating. [The guards] would tell us they could take us off property, bury us, and no one would know. I got out and got my act together, started thinking about what I could do to help the girls so they don’t have to go through that.”

Since then, Griffin-Gracy’s intent has only been strengthened by the challenges she’s faced. She remembers a particularly painful event that solidified for her, as a sex worker at the time, the importance of support between transwomen engaged in the trade.

“One of my dear friends, a trans woman of color, was murdered in her apartment,” she said. “She had two dogs, neither of which would’ve let a stranger near her. After talking with the other girls we figured out someone she knew had done it. We told the police but they didn’t care. We decided that whenever one of us got into a car, another girl either saw the driver or the license plate. No one was going to help us but us.”

Coming to California

In 1978, Griffin-Gracy moved to San Diego where she began a decade of ground-level community building work. What began as working at a food bank grew into providing direct care services; supporting transwomen through incarceration, addiction, and homelessness. And then the AIDS epidemic hit. Attending two funerals per week was status quo, she said, and ensuring her sick friends were comfortable via proper home health care became a priority.

By the time Griffin-Gracy moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1990s, she’d worked with numerous HIV/AIDS organizations. Continuing along the direct care track, she worked with San Jose’s AIDS Project, San Francisco’s City of Refuge, Glide, and the now-defunct Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center where she created “drop-in” services that enabled more community members access to lifesaving resources. Then, in 2003, she found TGIJP.

“TGI is the one place that is my heart,” Griffin-Gracy said. “I work with TGI so incarcerated girls know someone cares about them, wants them to do better, and will do whatever it takes to help.”

In nearly every position she’s held, Griffin-Gracy is credited with spearheading direct service initiatives that emphasize interpersonal care and connection. Intersectional and complex, her story is currently being made into a documentary titled Major!, and slated for late summer release. Produced by Annalise Ophelian and StormMiguel Florez, the film also highlights LGBT elder care. Health challenges, medical costs, and budget cuts to TGIJP have recently left Griffin-Gracy without sustainable income. A donation circle has been created to facilitate her care through intergenerational support.

There’s a long way to go in the battle for LGBT equality, but Griffin-Gracy remains optimistic. The expanding freedoms she’s witnessed in her lifetime, particularly for trans women of color, keep her energized.

“When I see younger girls out shopping in the daytime in their attire,” she said, “it fills my heart with so much pride. Our increased visibility is marvelous. Who knew it would turn out like this?”

To donate to Griffin-Gracy’s monthly giving circle, visit

June 18, 2014

Dunye film explores transman’s identity

Black is Blue star Kingston Farady. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Black is Blue star Kingston Farady. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

It’s a well-known fact that the world’s best queer cinema is screened at the annual San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, a 38-year-old event produced by LGBT media arts nonprofit Frameline. That said, having a film selected from nearly 800 international submissions and receiving a coveted slot in the festival’s line-up is no small feat.

Award-winning black, queer masculine-of-center filmmaker Cheryl Dunye has done it over a half-dozen times, her well-known pieces beingThe Watermelon Woman in 1996, a “mockumentary” starring Dunye as herself; Stranger Inside in 2001, a story about an incarcerated black lesbian; The Owls in 2010, a film about the accidental murder of a young queer woman; and Mommy Is Coming in 2012, a risque lesbian rom-com.

This year, Black Is Blue is making a highly anticipated debut. Dunye’s short chronicles the complex identity-related feelings of Black, a black transman working as a security guard in Oakland, after he runs into an ex-lover. In just 21-minutes, Dunye is able to leverage one character study to explore experiences that many transmen of color regularly undergo.

“As prestigious and popular trans dialogues are emerging,” Dunye said, “there’s a message coming across – which rings true for every marginalized community – it’s not just about what we’re lacking or how we’re physically different, it’s about emotional experiences. This film represents the shift in that conversation. We’re not talking about Black’s physical transition, but more about his emotional landscape. It’s about how multiple identities function, being black, trans, and masculine, and what’s running through your head as you have your inside and outside to deal with as well as memories from past identities.”

Starring noteworthy actor Kingston Farady, 31, a queer black transman, defense-side investigator, and trans advocate, Black Is Blue premieres Friday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theatre (3117 16th St., San Francisco) as part of “Realness and Revelations,” an 85-minute collection of shorts featuring queer and trans people of color, and again on Thursday, June 26 (7 p.m.), also at the Roxie as part of “In The City of Shy Hunters,” an 82-minute collection of shorts centered on the stories of transmen.

Black Is Blue is the first narrative of its kind. The film’s debut comes at a particularly poignant time, adding to the burgeoning wave of trans visibility led by Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox and New York Times bestselling author Janet Mock, powerhouses that have quickly become queer community sweethearts, and the general public’s reference point for language around transgender identity.

But up until now, Farady pointed out, representations of transmen within popular culture have received significantly less limelight and been limited to white and Asian-Pacific Islander-identified transmen – never black.

“I’m excited to see transwomen of color receive the attention they deserve because it does trickle down to all trans people,” Farady said. “Due to patriarchy and the constant attack on femininity, there’s an urgency there that doesn’t necessarily exist for transmen. Not to erase attacks on transmen, but transwomen are murdered at a higher rate than any other person in the country. They need to be in front leading the movement. Then there’s the flipside of wanting to see my brothers at the table at some point, too. People still believe someone like me or Black doesn’t exist. Black Is Blue is about building a consciousness around black transmen, filling the void and stepping into that space.”

As Dunye detailed it, the seed of Black Is Blue was planted a year ago as she was meeting more queer and trans-identified people of color in Oakland. She wrote the script leaving room for Black’s character development, an intentional decision meant to provide collaboration space for her and whoever would eventually step into the role.

“When I put the call out to find a lead I was given Kingston’s information,” Dunye said. “I knew when we first sat down the character would be shaped by his experiences. I talked to a few other people about the role but Kingston came along and that was it. He exudes a sense of dimension, a sort of a royalty; it’s wonderful.”

Initially, Farady had reservations about joining the project which, he said, had nothing to do with Dunye, and everything to do with his own awareness around the misrepresentation and exploitation of trans people. But he wanted to hear from Dunye first before making a decision.

“I knew her prior pieces of work,” Farady said. “I love the way she holds complexity and creates pieces that allow the audience to be curious. A story centered around a black transman in Oakland was compelling to me. Also, Cheryl wanted to focus not on the physical aspects of transition, but the ways someone emotionally and socially transitions. After three or four full conversations, I knew the film was something I could do with her.”

There’s also something to be said, Farady added, about Dunye’s intentional decision to cast a black transman to play a black transman.

“When I see characters with certain identities,” Farady said, “whether it’s race, gender, or even sexual orientation, played by people that aren’t that identity, it feels like a parody to me. Without even saying it, Cheryl’s choice to cast a black transman to play a black transman expresses that she knows black transmen are worthy. Not only is this film about non-erasure, Cheryl is backing that up by filling the lead role with someone from the community.”

Shot exclusively in Oakland, festivalgoers can expect to experience the film’s provocative storyline set afront skillful cinematography that captures Oakland’s charming familiarity, urban grit, juxtaposing socioeconomic environments, and natural landscapes.

To purchase tickets, visit

June 5, 2014

Hayward’s gay prom turns 20

Project Eden program director Rochelle Collins, left, joined with Lambda Youth Project members and gay prom organizers Jennifer Heastan, Kalli Jacobs, Arianna Rodgers, Mathew Quarless, Brendon Birky, and Haley Barth. Photo: Elliot Owen

Project Eden program director Rochelle Collins, left, joined with Lambda Youth Project members and gay prom organizers Jennifer Heastan, Kalli Jacobs, Arianna Rodgers, Mathew Quarless, Brendon Birky, and Haley Barth. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

It’s that time of year again – gay prom season – and this year’s Bay Area event is looking to shine in the usual festive manner. But one thing sets this prom apart from past proms – it’s the 20th anniversary celebration of what’s now become a progressive tradition, the Hayward Gay Prom.

Hosted at Chabot College on Saturday, June 7 from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m., the dance is for youth ages 20 and under. This year’s theme is “Rainbow Over Wonderland.”

Project Eden, a substance abuse prevention and intervention treatment center in Hayward, overseas the Lambda Youth Project, a program designed specifically to support LGBTQ youth. In 1995, the Lambda Youth Project approached the City of Hayward about funding a gay prom. After a tense city council meeting attended by both dance supporters and religious protesters, the city council gave about $7,000 to the Lambda Youth Project but the money could not be used for the prom. The nonprofit used other funding sources and the event was held on city property and included a mandated police presence to de-escalate potential conflict between attendees, supporters, and protesters.

Today, Lambda receives $30,000 in city funding, $2,000 of which is used for staff time associated with the prom.

The “receiving line” outside gay prom is no longer a buffer between attending youth and protestors but now, rather, a welcoming crowd comprised of the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Band, supportive parents, clergy people, teachers, and other allies. Supporters said that the need for gay prom, despite advancements in LGBTQ equality, indicates there’s more work to be done, said Rochelle Collins, program director of Project Eden.

“As a straight ally, I’m always profoundly moved after every single prom,” Collins said. “When you’re there, you realize there’s still a need for acceptance. Harassment, homophobia, and bullying are a prevailing problem to this day. It still exists.”

Within the last five years, reports of prom-related discrimination have surfaced in Pennsylvania, Utah, Mississippi, Alabama, and even California. Mostly recently, LGBTQ-identified students at a San Bernardino County high school were told last year by the school’s administration to abide by “gender-specific” standards when choosing prom attire. The American Civil Liberties Union quickly approached the school district in support of the students.

National Center for Lesbian Rights staff attorney Asaf Orr specializes in issues related to family and youth, and strongly agrees with the need for gay prom. Despite a changing social climate that’s becoming more LGBTQ-inclusive, he said, discrimination is still rampant and most of it goes unreported.

“As you get into more rural areas of California, it’s just as conservative and scary as it is in traditionally conservative states,” Orr said. “The ACLU’s case is an example that it happens here in California. One of the issues with prom is that it’s very imbued with tradition. There’s a way it’s supposed to happen and whenever you get those heavy social restrictions, you’re going to marginalize a lot of LGBT kids.”

Much of the time, Orr said, LGBTQ kids forgo attending prom to avoid the same harassment they experienced in the classrooms from their fellow students and teachers, harassment that keeps them from attending their classes, too.

“If prom is an automatic safe space, a place where they can feel comfortable and meet other people like them, that’s incredibly powerful particularly for youth that feel isolated,” Orr said. “What’s really important for kids is that they get to be kids, and have a space to do that while society is in this process of changing.”

And the changes are happening. Support from community churches and schools has increased, Kaiser Permanente is continuing its fiscal sponsorship of the event for the seventh year in a row, this year providing $2,500. Kohl’s department store provided $2,000 in funding and is sending volunteers for the first time this year. Southwest donated the drinks. The total cost to put on the prom is between $7,000 and $10,000 annually, according to organizers.

Collins said that more than 300 LGBTQ and allied youth are expected to attend the dance.

With the help of Gay-Straight Alliance Network, every year Lambda Youth Project puts out a gay prom bulletin to GSAs across the state. Students from as far south as Los Angeles, east to Las Vegas, and north to Santa Rosa make the trip to attend. Youth and LGBTQ-related organizations come from all over the Bay Area to conduct outreach and facilitate activities at the event, too. There is no dress code and parents are welcome to attend or volunteer in support of their children.

“It’s a regular dance with food, a photo booth, souvenirs, games with prizes, and adults supporting the youth,” Collins said. “Everybody comes together on that day and it’s a celebration of acceptance.”

Zohal Abdi, 19, a genderqueer lesbian from Union City, underlined the importance of acceptance. This is her second year attending gay prom and won’t be her last, she said.

“Gay prom allows individuals to show their true colors and express themselves without fear of judgment or exclusion,” she said. “It’s a safe space for LGBTQ and allies to experience the full ‘prom experience’ they weren’t given in their high schools. It’s still important because across the country there are couples and individuals facing prejudice and choose not to go to their proms. Everyone should have a fun prom experience.”

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at Project Eden’s office, 22646 2nd Street, or at the door. Chabot College is located 25555 Hesperian Boulevard, Hayward.

To donate to or volunteer for gay prom, visit

May 21, 2014

Oakland’s vibrant cultural scene now on film

Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre will host a new series of short films, Oakland Originals, next week. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre will host a new series of short films, Oakland Originals, next week. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

Oakland Originals, a highly-anticipated new set of short documentaries intended to highlight Oakland’s cultural scene through compelling vignettes of the city’s residents, is set to premiere next week at the historic Grand Lake Theater.

The first four “originals” of the series are people the local filmmakers, Jim McSilver and Erin Palmquist, feel are “pushing boundaries, countering stereotypes, and exploring territories singular to this dynamic city,” according to the project’s mission.

“Anyone can be an Oakland Original,” Palmquist told the Bay Area Reporter. “It’s more a state of mind rather than a resume of accomplishments or regional affiliation. Selection was hard. There are thousands of people in Oakland doing amazing things but we had to stick with four people due to a limited budget. All of the first four had, of course, some strong connection to Oakland.”

Both filmmakers feel a strong connection to Oakland, too. McSilver has lived there for 22 years and Palmquist for 15 years, and when McSilver approached Palmquist about joining the project, she was thrilled.

“He’s an amazing filmmaker and very passionate about the Oakland Originals project,” Palmquist, 37, said. “Like him, I too am constantly in awe of this amazing city we live in.”

Palmquist, who rejects categories by identifying as “human,” has previously worked on projects with LGBTQ undertones. In 2008, Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, screened her film, BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!, a documentary designed to counter misconceptions around BDSM culture. That same year, another film she shot called Out on the Dance Floor , which explores healing in gay country culture, was also screened at the festival.

Additionally, for the past six years Palmquist has been chronicling the journey of Ghazwan Alsharif, an Iraqi man who worked as a translator for the U.S. military during the Iraq War.

“While working as a translator,” Palmquist said, “Alsharif was wrongfully accused of being a double agent, arrested, and tortured for 75 days in an American-run Iraqi prison. In 2008, he came to the U.S. as a refugee, and he is also gay. While the film, From Baghdad to the Bay, is not a comprehensive look at the cultural dilemmas that Arab and Muslim LGBTQ people face, it does expose some of those struggles.”

While the first four Originals represent diversity in different ways, none of them are LGBTQ. But, Palmquist said, that doesn’t mean the next round of Originals won’t include someone who is.

McSilver and Palmquist found the first batch of Originals through online research and community networking. The compelling group – Asiya Wadud, Michael Christian, Vanessa Solari Espinoza, and Tim Monroe – will be present at the premiere for a question and answer session.

Wadud is the founder of Forage Oakland, a fruit barter network founded in 2008 that organizes the harvesting and redistribution of fruit growing in the yards of North Oakland residents.

Christian creates large sculptures out of metal. Using large vacant warehouse spaces, he erects pieces designed to be transportable. While his sculptures seldom stay put for very long, they’re distinct, the most recent of which can be found in Oakland’s Uptown Art Park.

Espinoza, also known as Agana, is a graffiti artist. She’s also a deejay, jewelry maker, educator, clothing designer, and 3D animator, a “true Renaissance woman” and “Jane-of-all-trades” as Palmquist called her. Nurtured by an Oakland culture that fosters community engagement through art initiatives, Espinoza uses her graffiti art to transform public spaces into sites of transformation.

Monroe, the oldest of the four Originals , is an inline skater who may or may not have, according to the Oakland Originalswebsite, skated all 837 miles of Oakland’s city streets. A software engineer during the day, Monroe explores each district on skates in his free time.

The premiere is also serving as the kickoff to the Grand Lake Theatre’s plan to screen the short documentaries before showing feature films. The event’s after party will be at nearby Ordinaire Wine Shop and Bar and Panorama Framing at 7 p.m.

The first four shorts were made possible by the city of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program ($5,000 in 2010) and independent contributions. Palmquist and McSilver hope to continue expanding the Oakland Original series and are already looking at who to feature next.

“We’re always looking for eye-catching people but with the release we’re hoping that people will be inspired to suggest their friends, family, and colleagues,” Palmquist said.

People can send their suggestions to

Oakland Originals premieres Thursday, May 29 at 6 p.m. the Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue. Tickets are $10.

May 15, 2014

Funding campaign under way for Oakland trans shelter

Queens Cottage Shelter CEO Elizabeth Howard, left, and founder Brianna “Breezy” Golden-Farr anticipate a successful crowdfunding effort for their project, which would provide shelter to transwomen. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Queens Cottage Shelter CEO Elizabeth Howard, left, and founder Brianna “Breezy” Golden-Farr anticipate a successful crowdfunding effort for their project, which would provide shelter to transwomen. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

Brianna “Breezy” Golden-Farr and Elizabeth Howard are spearheading an unprecedented project that addresses the absence of emergency shelter housing for transgender women in Oakland. Called Queens Cottage Shelter, or QCS, the housing initiative, while still in its beginning stages, is quickly establishing a foundation that the project’s team, supporters, and community are hopeful about.

In partnership with Transitions House, a local transgender housing advocacy group, QCS created an Indiegogo campaign last month to raise start-up funds. Clair Farley, Transitions House co-founder and associate director of economic development at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, was able to leverage her social media aptitude for the project and within one week of going live, the campaign had surpassed the $5,000 goal.

“The need for Queens Cottage has been demonstrated by the over 350 individual donors that have come together thus far to support this campaign,” Farley, 31, a longtime trans advocate, said. “By starting in Oakland, we’re starting with the folks most impacted by violence and discrimination. Trans women of color are six times more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Queens Cottage speaks to why housing our community is important, to get people out of the street economy and provide access to other employment and education.”

At press time, the campaign had raised $9,475 with 22 days left to fundraise and there’s one thing Golden-Farr, Howard, and Farley are sure about – QCS is going to need more.

“We set the initial goal low to make sure we’d reach it,” Golden-Farr, 48, an African American transwoman and QCS founder, said. “We have an idea about what our start-up and operating costs will be and our priority right now is to raise as much money as possible. Our next steps depend on how much we’ve raised.”

Howard, QCS chief executive officer, agreed, saying they’ve applied for tax-exempt status, started developing a board for the organization, and are looking into a business license for the shelter’s future residence.

“It’s all very expensive just to open the doors and get people off the streets,” said Howard, 50, a mixed-race transgender woman. “You wouldn’t think it would be so hard but it is, so we’re really trying to broaden the campaign’s reach.”

Scratching the surface

While QCS isn’t the be-all, end-all solution to homelessness among transwomen in Oakland, it scratches the surface of a larger issue. To date, there are no trans-specific housing shelters in the Bay Area. While a few organizations in San Francisco work to be trans-inclusive, gender-affirming shelter spaces created exclusively for trans people in the Bay Area don’t exist.

“Walden House has a program for folks in recovery and Larkin Street Youth Services has some accessibility for LGBTQ youth but those systems aren’t specifically tailored to the trans community,” Farley said. “There’s nothing else.”

Golden-Farr can speak firsthand to the immediate need for trans-specific housing. When, at the end of last year, she found herself homeless after an unsteady living situation collapsed, she went to Bay Area Community Services, an Oakland-based vulnerable adult services agency, to seek transitional housing.

“When I walked in,” Golden-Farr said, “they didn’t know what to do with me. Luckily, I had other options but if I didn’t, which many girls don’t, I would’ve been in a world of trouble. There would’ve been no place for me to feel safe and comfortable because they couldn’t figure out where to put me, on the men’s or women’s side.”

But two months later, after “resorting to the oldest profession in the world” to pay her weekly rent at a downtown Oakland hotel, Golden-Farr approached BACS a second time. After explaining to the agency that she was experiencing panic attacks caused by anxiety around entering the shelter system, BACS moved her to a separated space away from other shelter residents.

“If it wasn’t for that program,” Golden-Farr said, “I don’t know what would’ve happened to me. That moment, I vowed to do everything in my power to ensure that the next trans woman wouldn’t have to go through that because it’s not right. There’s no reason a girl like me shouldn’t have a safe and comfortable place to lay her head at night.

“And,” she added, “if I was going through this I can’t imagine what other girls are going through, who may be strung out on drugs, HIV-positive, have no family, absolutely nothing.”

BACS Executive Director Jamie Almanza agreed that trans-specific housing in both Alameda County and the broader San Francisco Bay Area is urgent.

“I know Breezy well,” Almanza said, “and I fully support her mission both personally and professionally to create a transgender-safe environment for the homeless. There is a huge need amidst all social services to create safe, discrimination-free environments that are welcoming across genders. We’re supportive of Breezy and hope to collaborate with her organization to get it off the ground and do whatever we can to help her be successful in meeting the needs of that specific population.”

The QCS team intends for the shelter to be a starting point for transwomen to gain stability and access to skills, resources, and health care in a safe and affirming environment. Golden-Farr and Howard foresee space for 10 residents initially, each with case workers, and a van to provide transportation to the shelter.

“The girls working out on MLK [Jr. Way in Oakland] are already talking about it,” Golden-Farr said. “Some are 13, 14 years old, others barely 20, 21. They’re saying, ‘QCS is coming and we’re going to have a place to go,’ which means no more sleeping in the doorway of a church.”

When asked why something like QCS hasn’t existed before, Golden-Farr and Howard, friends for 31 years, explained that transwomen, especially transwomen of color, exist on society’s periphery.

“It seems to me,” Howard said, “there are certain categories or subgroups that are in a queue waiting for their cause to be pushed forward. The homeless transgender is at the bottom of the list, if on the list at all.”

The QCS team plans to continue increasing visibility around the project. Video vignettes of transwomen sharing their stories will be posted on the QCS Indiegogo page and Transitions: A Residence for the Trans Community Facebook page within the next week. Additionally, Golden-Farr and Howard will be featured on a KOFY TV20-Cable 713 segment (airing Sunday, May 25 at 9:30 p.m.) during which radio personality Michelle Meow interviews them about the importance of QCS.

To donate to Queens Cottage Shelter, visit The campaign ends June 5.

April 16, 2014

Trans dance company to debut new season

Choreographer and dancer Sean Dorsey is preparing for the new season of the Sean Dorsey Dance Company. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

Second only to longstanding powerhouse New York, San Francisco is home to the nation’s most dynamic dance climate, and may soon surpass its previously uncontested competition when it comes to pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance.

A front-runner in the movement to redefine the dance world is Sean Dorsey Dance, an award-winning San Francisco-based company founded and directed by transgender choreographer and dancer Sean Dorsey. The company combines dance, storytelling, and theater to create performances that breathe life into LGBTQ narratives from the past, and mirror timeless sentiments shared between all beneficiaries of the human experience, regardless of identity.

“Our productions feature full-throttle, high-energy athletic dancing, luscious queer partnering, dynamic live theater, and intimate storytelling,” Dorsey, 41, told the Bay Area Reporter. “The work I create has elements of movement, text, and narrative. It’s not abstract modern dance; it’s accessible, relevant, and meant to move people.”

The company is currently gearing up for its 2014 home season, which runs from April 24-26 at Z Space, and features the return of an audience favorite, and debut of highly-anticipated new work. Dorsey is excited to “remount” “Lou,” a 45-minute suite of dances that’s part of the larger production, Uncovered: The Diary Project, which uses text from real-life diaries of transgender and queer people.

“Lou” is based on the journal entries of Lou Sullivan, a Bay Area gay transgender man and activist who educated the medical community about the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, and founded a few early transgender support groups before dying of AIDS complications in 1991.

“He’s also a co-founder of the GLBT Historical Society where he left 30 years of his lifelong diaries,” Dorsey said. “I spent a year transcribing the diaries by hand because you can’t photocopy them, then created a soundscore based on his diary excerpts, then choreography based on his life. ‘Lou’ is gorgeous, very powerful work and speaks to all people – transgender, gay, straight, questioning – of all ages.”

“Lou” premiered in 2009 and has been performed in 20 cities across the country. Each year it is featured in a home season, Dorsey said, shows sell out in advance.

“There’s still of lot of Bay Area audience that hasn’t seen the work, so I wanted to bring it back,” Dorsey continued.

Complementing the long-standing favorite during the company’s home season is the world premiere of The Missing Generation, a production based on two years of oral interviews that Dorsey conducted with survivors of the early AIDS epidemic. While the full production is set to debut in April 2015 before touring to 15 cities, attendees of this year’s program will enjoy a sneak-peek excerpt. Dorsey’s intention with The Missing Generation is to honor LGBTQ ancestors that died during peak AIDS-incidence years; in 1994 and 1995, HIV was the nation’s leading cause of death for those ages 25-44.

“In addition,” Dorsey explained, “I want to bring transgender experiences into the AIDS narrative, which I still feel are silent around this particular subject.”

Dorsey’s work has been recognized as unparalleled in many circles, winning praises that include “San Francisco’s Best Dance Company” by SF Weekly, an inclusion in Dance magazine’s “Top 25 to Watch” list, three Isadora Duncan Dance Awards – which Dorsey describes as “the Oscars of the dance world” – and a Golden Crown Literary Award (Goldie) for performance.

Not only is Dorsey the nation’s first transgender modern dance choreographer, he is also the first transgender artist to receive a National Endowment for the Arts grant, awarded in January, to allocate toward Sean Dorsey Dance productions. The NEA is the largest federal funding body for the arts and, under President Barack Obama, restored funding for LGBTQ-related projects after a stretch of censorship that began in 1989, making Dorsey’s grant particularly noteworthy.

“I feel so blessed to support transgender visibility,” Dorsey said. “It’s revolutionary to have transgender and queer bodies onstage performing well-crafted professional work and giving voice to those experiences. It’s revolutionary to be a transgender artist directing work that’s award-winning, touring, and breaking new ground in terms of content and form.

“There are times,” Dorsey added, “especially when I was in dance school, when I didn’t know anybody like me who danced, times where it’s lonely and challenging. It’s still a challenge to feel like I don’t have many peers. I’m very mindful that the reason I can do this work is because I’m standing on the shoulders of my elders and ancestors who struggled through violence, life in closet, and busting out of the closet.”

Dorsey is also the founder and artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions, a San Francisco nonprofit committed to creating year-round transgender and queer dance and performing arts programs and events, including the annual Fresh Meat Festival. Sean Dorsey Dance operates under Fresh Meat Productions.

 Z Space is located at 450 Florida Street, San Francisco. To purchase Sean Dorsey Dance 2014 home season tickets, visit

April 16, 2014

Queer Rebels’ new show aims to ‘Liberate’

Liberating Legacies performer Lambert Moss. (Photo: Ep Li, courtesy Queer Rebels Productions)

By Elliot Owen
The Bay Area Reporter

It’s business as usual for Queer Rebels Productions, the five-year-old critically acclaimed local production company that showcases queer and trans artists of color. Curating compelling, varied, and innovative shows is something co-directors KB Boyce and Celeste Chan are no strangers to, and their upcoming production, Liberating Legacies, will no doubt fall in line.

Debuting at the Koret Auditorium in the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, Sunday, April 20 from 2 to 4 p.m., Liberating Legacies is a free, all ages show featuring performances by over a dozen queer and trans artists of color. Organized as a sampling of various Queer Rebels programs, attendees can expect to enjoy experimental film and excerpts from past productions like SPIRIT: Queer Asian, Arab, and Pacific Islander Activism, and longstanding favorite Queer Rebels of the Harlem Renaissance (now called Queer Harlem).

“Expect the unexpected,” Chan told the Bay Area Reporter. “Fresh, new queer/trans of color art – from ‘tropical sci-fi’ to transgressive torch singers, queer Asian electro, Afrocentic literary duets and world class Blues. We’re paying homage to our ancestors and marching boldly into the future with aesthetic, experimental, joyful, liberatory zeal.”

Queer Rebels recognizes that accessibility to high art forms is lacking for LGBT youth, people of color, and elders. Liberating Legacies is meant to speak to those realities and, by waiving admission fees and welcoming people of all ages (viewer discretion is normally advised), also reach a broader audience.

What’s also special about this production, Boyce said, is its location.

“The library has always been important to us,” agreed Chan. “KB practically grew up in one and I went to two libraries per week. It was where we found freedom and space for queer of color histories. When we heard about the chance to partner with the San Francisco Public Library and present a free show, we jumped on it.”

The dynamic multi-ethnic cast of artists participating in Liberating Legacies includes internationally known blues singer/songwriter Earl Thomas, slam poetry champion Joshua Merchant, vocalists Star Amerasu and Lambert Moss, experimental artists Jeepneys and Laura Kim, and Bay Area favorites Jezebel Delilah X, Carrie Leilam Love, Amir Rabiyah, Bellows, and Frederick Douglas Kakinami Cloyd.

“We want people to know that we’ve brought together artists from all different programs to develop Liberating Legacies,” Chan said. “All different interpretations of queer heritage by proud, out, queer/trans artists of color who are creating vibrant work. It is very much alive. All these different voices and visions fit together and form a conversation. We’re talking about our heritage and finding freedom. We are powerful together.”

The show will also include two films, Words of Sonny and Malaysian Memories, and a video excerpt of Boyce and Chan’s co-collaborated project MOON RAY RA, which combines sound, text, images, and performance.

The intended impact of Liberating Legacies, Boyce and Chan said, is to leave the audience feeling celebrated and connected in the spirit of honoring the ancestors of queer and trans people of color.

“A feeling of pride in who you are,” Chan continued, “pride in being queer, bringing our community together. We want attendees to leave excited for the future of queer/trans people of color art. We do this to energize our community through the arts, to create our own culture, and to inspire hope.”

 For more information about Queer Rebels Productions, visit


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