Categories
Interview

Black Lesbian Archives

An interview with Krü Maekdo

Storytelling archivist and founder of the Black Lesbian Archives Krü Maekdo sat down with wmn editor Sara Duell to talk about the importance of home, ownership of your own stories, grassroots organizing and how term lesbian is an Aries from New York. Featured photos are from her recent archive highlight about Aché: a Bay Area journal for Black Lesbians from the 1980’s.

8 members of the ACHÉ publication standing against a railing smiling.
“Seven months in, co-founder Pippa Fleming moved to London. Question: How do you publish a 44-pg. monthly journal by yourself? Answer: You don’t–you call in some serious cavalry. This is what serious cavalry looks like.” (photo by Annie Valva) – Lisbet Tellefesen

For the month of June Black Lesbian Archives focused on ACHÉ (a Black Lesbian Publication) & how we can use this organization as a conduit (Oakland, CA 1992) for Grassroots organizing & community building through these current times. We will expand more on this in the upcoming months. Stay tuned! 

Most of lesbian history is so hidden and obviously Black lesbian history is even more so. Can you share how the Black Lesbian Archives came to be and what it is?

One day in 2017 while I was staying with my Auntie in Williamsburg VA, I saw this documentary The Last Lesbian Bars, about how some of the lesbian bars have been disappearing around the world. Once I finished watching, something inside of me sparked: if these lesbian spaces shut down then we don’t have places to connect and commune besides the internet. Don’t get me wrong I’m always talking about the internet, I appreciate it, but meeting in person is a completely different kind of energy.

I started researching and realized that there wasn’t a lot of information on Black lesbians even online. A lot of what I found about Black lesbians was diluted into other gay and lesbian history, I was just like “hell no! I know I’m not the only one out there searching for this info”. So, I immediately set up the Black Lesbian Archives Instagram, Facebook, website, and twitter. I was just mad and wanted to see what I could do about it. I’m that kind of person. I’ll definitely talk about shit, but best believe that if I’m talking about that shit you are going to see me doing something about that shit. I’m not all talk and no bite, I’m talking and I’m biting, too! I knew that Williamsburg, VA wasn’t the place for me to be able to grow while doing this research, so I went from Williamsburg to Chicago. I was between moving to DC, New York, or Chicago. I wanted to go to New York, but it was just too much for box. I love DC, but couldn’t see myself living there. I had been to and lived in Chicago, so I moved there.

As I was settling into Chicago, I happened to find Tracy Baim, one of the co-founders of Windy City Times, a LGBTQ+ newspaper. I emailed Tracy and I was like “Tracy! Where is the black lesbians history in Chicago? Where are they at?” She hit me back, and I always say this because I thought it was funny, because this is the culture that we live in: she was like “Is this a threat?” And I was like “No no no, no threat, I’m just really genuinely interested.” She told me I should come to this exhibit going up at Reunion Chicago called Lost & Found – the dyke spaces of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with Kristen Kaza and Ruby Western. The exhibit was beautiful, but I wanted to see more black lesbians. I wanted to know more history about the black lesbians that I knew were at the front lines of a lot of these movements. It went from me seeing the exhibit, connecting with Tracy, connecting with Imani at the Black Gold Affair fundraiser, and research by talking to people that were in the community. We ended up doing an exhibit at Affinity Community Services (a non-profit organization serving Chicago’s black lesbian and bisexual women’s community) on June 14, 2018. At the exhibit we had Yvonne Welbon, a dope filmmaker, producer, and screen writer, doing a book release for her book Sisters in the Life: A History of Out African American Lesbian Media-Making, and, we had a room for what I call the BLA confessional so you could sit in there and tell a story. I had a list of questions if you got a little stuck. On the other side I had a movie room, where you could go in and see the reels of people in the community being played; then the archives were plastered all over the building at Affinity. We had a film screening with Coquie Hughes’ films The Homestretch and My Mama Said Yo Mama’s A Dyke,  a mixer so people could come in and mix, and a panel discussion with Chris Smith, Anna Deshawn and Pat McCombs. At the end, in August we also had an archiving on-on-one workshop. It was a full course meal! Then we did a nine day pre kick off tour the next year with an opening reception at Gerber/Hart Library and Archives. After that, we also went to D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. We were going on the Grassroots 2020 tour starting in March but then shit hit the fan.

What was your goal for the planned 2020 grassroots tour?

The grassroots tour was something I planned that would allow me to go to different cities and research how Black lesbians have done grassroots organizing in the past. Giving out flyers, being able to communicate with people face to face, building centralized places where people come and meet, organize, talk, connect, and be able to distribute information without having to distribute it online. Everyone does that differently no matter where you go; the south does it way differently than the west coast does it, and the north, the east coast, mid-west; we all do our shit differently. But there is one connecting factor that we’re all connected, right?

Even though the internet is a great way for us to connect , we don’t have control over it, the power of the internet is not in our hands and it could go at any time. I want to find out how we can build efficient communities between each other right now, as we’re seeing each other’s faces, as we’re riding these things out, as we’re communicating with each other, because if the internet were to ever shut down – what would we have? I want to be able to give people enough information on the internet, and I want people to be able to come and experience the archives for themselves in person. We live in such a scrolling, quick, fast and in a hurry of information that we are not actually taking the time on the internet to read, to really read the information that is in front of us.

I’m not sure when the grassroots tour will come back up, I said 2021, but honestly, the way things are looking right now I don’t know, we’ll have to see!

“I need a space where when you come there your worries are gone, and I want that space to be somewhere you’re not only coming to meet, but that’s your home.”

You’ve mentioned wanting the Black Lesbian Archives to be housed in a home in the future, can you share more about that vision. For example, what and where do you foresee that to be?

When I first started thinking about the vision for Black Lesbian Archives long term and what it would look like, I envisioned this home that everybody could come to. I see it as a place where people would come in and feel comfortable. A lot of archives that I have visited are very cold. I get it, because of the temperature and the way the materials need to be preserved. But the insides of a lot of these archives are just very cold, and they don’t have any life, it’s very dead, and it’s no shade to all the archivists out here doing the work. When I think of my culture, when I think of my people, and where I’m from, there is so much life and energy that goes through us and I need that in a space. I need a space to feel inviting. I need a space where when you come there your worries are gone, and I want that space to be somewhere you’re not only coming to meet, but that’s your home.

Now as far as a central location? I feel like that could be multiple homes. I’m going back and forth on that. Yes, I want it to be a place where Black lesbians can come but I’m thinking about even making it multi-cultural and having a full spectrum of lesbian history in one place. I’m all for building community in different places, but we still need these spaces where we are able to collaborate with people who don’t look like us, that’s how we learn. A skill set one person might have, or a gift  could be something you do not and you can teach each other Regardless if it seems like things are changing, we still need spaces for lesbians to commune, and think, and take action.

What are your short term plans?

Right now, I’m starting to expand the archives. I don’t want to do this alone. I am not saying that I have been doing this solo the whole time, because there have been people that have been coming in and out. I do not want to carry on the legacy of these women alone, because these stories are very sacred. I’m seeing myself as a storytelling archivist; these stories need to be told, and they need to be told in a way that is respectful. I’m in a place right now where I’m looking to find a council, committees and volunteers for the Black Lesbian Archives so that we’re able to expand.

I’m also hoping to build out a mobile history van. I see it as a group of us being able to travel to different cities in this van with people showing us around their cities and how they’ve done grassroots organizing. I see it as the pretense to the actual home. Teaching and learning to story tell; how to build an archival collection. My short-term goal is really to buy this bus, gut it out, build it, and take small trips to different places to get information and do more research. This will give people a glimpse of what Black Lesbian history is and has been.

What are some of your favorite pieces or stories out of the archives? 

Vernita Gray, I will always tell the stories of Vernita Gray! Tracy Baim, gave me a book she wrote about her: Vernita Gray: from Woodstock to the White House and she was a Sagittarius soldier! She had a home for those who had gotten kicked out of their house for living their truth. She also had a hotline for people to call in, and it was on the FBI list; that’s a whole other story. She had people living in her home and sleeping in her tubs. She kept her home open to people in the community who didn’t have nowhere else to go.

There is also this story of how she and her roommates had a party at University of Chicago, it was the first gay lesbian party that they had, and they didn’t think nobody was going to come. At that time people were very much in the closet, it was a hush-hush thing, so when they had this dance, all these people showed up and it got so wild and out of hand they had to shut it down. Even though they didn’t know the outcome of what that would be they still did it anyways. They still strived to create that space for people who were, regardless if they knew what it was or they were questioning, all those people came to connect to other people. I love that sense of community building and people risking it all. Risking it all to change shit and do something that is beneficial to the community.

That’s definitely one of the stories I love to tell, because to me it really shows her heart; shows where her mind was. The reason people were in that house was because she genuinely cared about these people who literally didn’t have a place to go. What does home look like when you don’t have it? Or what does home look like when you do have one, but are still searching for that community base?

the yellow front door and a shop window to the ACHE
Around 1991 (?) we moved into our new office on Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley across the street from La Peña. And as I would find out later, next door to the former office of the Black Panther Party! The beautiful cowries were painted by Adalia Claywomon Guarani-Kaiowá Serenata. Photo by Skye Ward.

What does the word lesbian mean to you? 

A lot of people have a hard time identifying with the term lesbian. But to me there is something so revolutionary about the term. I feel like the word lesbian, the term, it’s bravery, coming from nothing, like the rose that grew from the concrete. I think of the women who weren’t afraid to be who the fuck they were, and just be out with their shit and not give a damn. That was very in your face. I think of that Lilith energy, I think of an Arian energy. If the lesbians had a zodiac sign it would probably be Aries, because it’s just so much “yeah, I’m here. I’m not going to rely on you”. It takes charge, stating your claim you’re not shying away from who you are. The term is more than just who you’re sleeping with, it came from the concrete! It probably came from New York, yo!

A lot of us wouldn’t have been able to integrate in bars if it wasn’t for the lesbians. I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now! Or I probably would, because I’m that motherfucker. I could talk about the lesbian term all day. Honestly I’ll probably do an exhibit about it. Not just the Black Lesbian Archives but the term lesbian, and the roots that this term comes from. And digging into that. It’s powerful, it’s a powerful word to use. It’s a powerful way to state your claim. I love it, it’s amazing. 

“If the lesbians had a zodiac sign it would probably be Aries, because it’s just so much ‘yeah, I’m here. I’m not going to rely on you’.”

Are there lesbians that you look up to? From the past or current, living?

Oh yes, Chris Smith from Affinity, Imani Rupert-Gordon out of Affinity, and Pat McCombs, for sure. These women aren’t typical women, and I hate to use the word typical, but they ain’t no basics. It took a tribe; it took a community of people to make shit happen. They knew the odds were against them; they knew what they would be going up against, but they still chose to do it anyway.

Affinity would not be here if you didn’t have a group of women, who we’re having meetings, having meetings and trying to dodge bullshit to create this space for lesbian women to come together and commune! If they hadn’t been looking around realize that we need these spaces, how are we going to get it? Not having much but still being able to manage and create a space that is still living and breathing. Affinity is on its 25th year this year, and it’s the only Black lesbian organization that I know that is still living and breathing our history.

You have to know your past before you can shoot fast forward into the future! You have to understand it, you have to really sit down and tune in with that it before you can just carry on or you’ll forget where you come from. I could talk about all these things: me being Black, me being lesbian, me being a woman, I could talk about these things all day but if I don’t know where I come from? All of this shit don’t mean a goddamn thing. It really don’t!

These women that have been doing this work, I commend them all, I pay my respects to them and I always will even, if they are still living, or gone.

“I could talk about all these things: me being Black, me being lesbian, me being a woman, I could talk about these things all day but if I don’t know where I come from? All of this shit don’t mean a goddamn thing. It really don’t!”

What kind of support does the Black Lesbian Archives need right now?

I would definitely say that funding is one of the biggest things, because this work is a lot. I have also been trying to adjust the scope of how I’m bringing in the archives. When I first started, I encouraged everyone to just submit their archives, but we hadn’t created a submission process of how we were getting the archives, the dating, getting that contact info and scanning. I’ve been learning that as I’ve moved on, but I came into this from a storytelling perspective, so I have been able to piece together enough to share a story, however, the backend stuff is what I’m really trying to figure out. I want to make sure that wherever we are putting our archives, it goes to a place where people are actually going to take care of them, and preserve them. I think that’s why I want to expand too; so we can have more conversations about how to build archives with other people as well.

I talked to Bay Area lesbian archives and even though they have been in this game for a long time, they just started off on their first 5 years of actually archiving the stuff that they have. I want to learn from other people and figure out what would be the best method for the BLA. I get that there are resources out here, but it is important for us to establish and create our own. That’s another reason why I want this in a centralized place because we need to be sharing our own stories versus other people sharing and telling our stories for us.

Tell me more about the importance of Black lesbian telling Black lesbian stories? Is it so it’s not just pushed away in mainly white archives or becomes a subsection of that?

You need the people that were there telling the stories, and not letting other people tell those stories for you. What happens is that we go through these periods of time where we have other people telling our stories and we go off thinking that these things are true, but then when we go back to the original texts and say “wait a minute”. That’s one thing that I love about archives because I can go back and I can follow up. We have to be able to interpret and tell our stories, the honest to god truth, no matter how scary that shit is, no matter how fucked up or great that shit was. We have to share it and we have to tell it.

I have had so many people come up and tell me that if they would have seen the Black Lesbian Archives years ago, they probably would have been out. We have to be on the front end, whether we’re writing or we’re organizing. When you have someone telling a story that is like you, or that has been in the same shit that you’ve been in, you will connect to that person and you will listen.

We have to understand how vital and important it is to be able to share stories, to be able to preserve them, and keep doing that work of passing them along. Itt can change the scope of the world.

Krü Maekdo (make-do) is a multi-media artist known for her work as an archivist with the Black Lesbian Archives. An ongoing archival herstory project to uplift the voices of Black Lesbians. To educate, preserve and bridge inter-generational gaps between communities. Kosmic Rootwork Astrologist @ Aranae Storm and CEO of Maekdo Productions. A multi-media production company producing media & event programming. Serving women’s arts, community & culture in the LGBTQ+ community.

Categories
Interview

Lesbian Invisibility
in Art History

An interview with art historian Ksenia M. Soboleva

In late may 2020 Soboleva sat down with in WMN co-editor Sara Duell over a video chat discussing lesbian invisibility, being a grumpy dyke, and the value of criticism. Soboleva is currently PhD Candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU where she is writing her dissertation on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility.

Soboleva in Brooklyn photographed by Florencia Alvarado

Would you describe a bit of your background and how you ended up in New York?

I was born in Moscow, but I mainly grew up in Arkhangelsk, Northern Russia—I lived with my great-grandmother. When I was eight my mother and I moved to the Netherlands, and that’s where I came of age. I studied art history at Utrecht University for my undergrad, but I didn’t find it to be very rigorous or exciting, so at the time I had no intention to pursue grad school. It was only when I visited Madrid in 2012 and saw the Sharon Hayes exhibition Habla (curated by the brilliant Lynne Cooke) at the contemporary art museum Museo Reina Sofía that I realized what art and exhibition making could be. I didn’t really learn that much about queer history or queer artists during my undergrad, so I would say it was really this exhibition that made want to pursue grad school. But I knew that I didn’t want to stay in the Netherlands, and I had this dream of moving to New York to study with Linda Nochlin, who wrote the famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, so I applied to the Institute of Fine arts, NYU. I got in, came to New York, but unfortunately Nochlin retired a year later. I was fortunate enough to see her lecture, but sadly never got the opportunity to take a class with her. But anyway, that’s how I ended up in New York; I loved it, so I stayed and pursued my PhD.

I’m assuming your interest in lesbian artist started well before grad school.

The interest definitely existed, but I was a huge closet case until well into college. Funny story; when I was six years old, I took drawing and painting classes at an art gallery in Arkhangelsk, of which my aunt was the director at the time, and I had a huge crush on my art teacher, who kind of looked like Liza Minneli in Cabaret, with short black hair and bright green eye shadow. It’s such a cliché, but I just adored her. The way I decided to make sense of it at that time, was to conclude that the passionate feelings I was having were not for the art teacher, but for art itself. So if I hadn’t been a lesbian, I might not have become an art historian. But I only started seriously studying queer art and culture in grad school.

“So if I hadn’t been a lesbian, I might not have become an art historian.”

How did you end up focusing on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in New York for your dissertation?

The AIDS crisis in an art historical context only entered my consciousness when I visited the 54th Venice Biennial in 2011 (this was during my undergrad). The Norwegian pavilion that year was taken over by the artist Bjarne Melgaard, whose project Baton Sinister centered on the stigma around HIV and AIDS. One of the pieces was this poster that said “Don’t get fucked up the ass. Period.” It addressed the government homophobia and what the solution to AIDS was according to the government, basically: don’t be gay and you won’t get AIDS. I was really captured by the project, I guess because I hadn’t really been confronted with AIDS in an art context, and especially not in a language context before, and it really resonated with me.

At the time, I didn’t think twice about the fact that the project presented HIV/AIDS as a gay male issue. It wasn’t until I moved to New York, when I was doing preliminary research on lesbian artists of that generation, that I kept encountering references to the AIDS crisis in their biographies, in catalogue essays on their work; they were all crucially informed by the AIDS epidemic. But then when I would read art historical scholarship on art of the AIDS crisis, the lesbian was almost entirely absent. Even the most recent large survey exhibition on art and AIDS: Art AIDS America (Tacoma Art Museum in partnership with The Bronx Museum of the Arts’) barely mentioned lesbian artists, and only included a few women artists. I thought that was strange and that’s how I first started thinking about it. The first conference paper I ever gave was about the lesbian activist art collective fierce pussy, and their role during the AIDS crisis.

I was very drawn to the sense of community queer people who lived through the AIDS crisis all seemed to have felt, and that was something I personally had not experienced in my life. My dissertation is driven by a profound admiration for that community; doing research on it was a way to getting closer, and also making sense of my own identity.

What are some interesting takeaways from your research?

It’s been a challenge to study a history of visual culture that is so rooted in invisibly. You can’t underestimate the extent to which lesbian contributions just tend to magically disappear both from feminist discourse and from queer discourse. Lesbian invisibly is no joke. There is a lot of contemporary stuff happening on lesbian visual culture which I think is wonderful: Instagram accounts dedicated to lesbian culture, TV shows, films. I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the first truthful depiction of the lesbian gaze. But if popular culture doesn’t somehow bleed into academic scholarship, then there is still a real lack. Especially in the field of art history, there are surprisingly few serious considerations of art and lesbian identity. Lesbians also haven’t held the same amount of tenure track positions in academia, or prominent museum-jobs, as gay men. It’s not only lesbian artists who haven’t received enough career opportunities throughout history, but also the lesbian historians who are most likely to write on them. Whereas gay men have always had a network, a support system. Historically, the art world was one of the few spheres in which gay men could get prominent positions. It wasn’t the same for lesbians. When Harmony Hammond organized “The Lesbian Show” in 1978, many lesbians declined the invite to participate, because it was still dangerous to come out and it could really hurt your career. One lesbian artist was even threatened by her gay male gallerist that he would drop her from the gallery if she participated in the show. Harmony Hammond’s Lesbian Art In America is a great source for lesbian art history, by the way. She was really one of the pioneers for creating a context for lesbian art.

Which historians do you look up to?

My go to is Catherine Lord, who is just a brilliant writer, curator, and artist. She has written a ton about art and lesbian invisibility; there’s an essay on Louise Fishman’s Angry Paintings that I could probably quote from memory. Then there is Terry Castle, who is an English Professor at Stanford. She wrote The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (1993), which was a great starting point for my research. Ann Cvetkovich has made an invaluable contribution with An Archive of Feelings, which explores lesbian trauma and has an entire chapter on ACT UP’s lesbians. Elisabeth Lebovici, who’s in Paris, recently wrote a great book on how AIDS affected her life, with a particular emphasis on lesbian artists as well. She maintains this very personal voice throughout her scholarship which I really admire. Also, Helen Molesworth is a big inspiration in terms of curating, and also a wonderful writer; the exhibition catalogue of This Will Have Been is a staple on my desk. My scholarship is also very informed by queer theory; I love Sara Ahmed and Heather Love’s work.Last but not least, there’s Jan Zita Grover and Laura Cottingham, who don’t write on art and lesbian identity anymore, but were powerful voices in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I actually dedicate an entire chapter of my dissertation to the disappearing lesbian, or the lesbian who drops out. So many people who were actively writing about lesbian visual culture during the AIDS crisis just sort of seem to have dropped out.

Why do you think that they dropped out?

It has a lot to do with trauma, as Ann Cvetkovich argues as well. I also think that they didn’t receive the recognition they deserved, and when that period of the AIDS crisis started to be historicized, lesbian contributions were excluded. Even though it was the lesbian sex wars that informed much of the theory during the AIDS crisis. Cindy Patton was crucial to Douglas Crimp’s scholarship, for example, which he acknowledges. A lot of queer theory emerged out of AIDS activism, and AIDS was informed by lesbian writings of the sex wars. Lesbians brought so much to AIDS activism, because they had already become politicized during women’s liberation and then the sex wars. They knew how to organize. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but people tend to forget, overlook, or just not care about the lesbian contributions. Everybody knows who Douglas Crimp is. How many people remember Cindy Patton? I’d be interested to know.

Anyway, I can’t reach Jan Zita Grover, I think she opened a puppy rescue and wrote a children’s book about dogs. I also heard she was teaching cooking class somewhere. I have no idea where Laura Cottingham is, last I heard she was traveling through Egypt. But what’s sort of comforting is that other queer scholars of my generation seem to have the same issue. In Spring 2019, I organized this symposium, Queering Art History, which is how I met a lot of other young queer scholars working on similar stuff. After the symposium we went out for drinks and as we were chatting we realized that we all were running into the same issues with the same people, like: “this person won’t talk to me”, or “I can’t figure out where this person is,” or “this person emailed back but they seemed kind of rude.” It was hilarious, and a good reminder that we shouldn’t take things personally.

And even though you might encounter more gay and queer art today than before, I find that it’s harder to just come by lesbian art, which was one of the reasons I started WMN with Jeanette and Florencia because I realized I knew very little about lesbian art and history. I’ve learned a lot over the last year, but it takes a lot of research even just for something as simple as posting on Instagram.

To me that’s the beautiful thing about being queer. Coming out tends to incite this passion for research, for a lot of queer people at least, it is the way we make sense of ourselves. Most of us don’t have queer parents, or any queer family members, but queer ancestry extends beyond familial and biological relationships. So we go to the library, or I guess today you can look under the queer category on Netflix. We look at history to show us proof of our existence, that others like us existed before we came along.

“We look at history to show us proof of our existence, that others like us existed before we came along.”

What does the word lesbian mean to you?

So many things. I think it’s a common misconception that lesbian is a fixed identity, while queer is so fluid. I think that the term changes over time, it means different things to different people in different places. It’s funny, when I tell people in New York I’m a lesbian it comes across like I’m using this super outdated term and am like a 75 year old lesbian separatist or something. When I tell people in Russia I’m a lesbian, it’s super shocking and radical and just like “whoa she said the L word out loud.” The reason I insist on the meaningfulness of the term lesbian is because of the history that it carries, a history that hasn’t been sufficiently documented. Studying the ways in which lesbian identity has shifted over time is absolutely crucial to the history of queer identity. Lesbian and queer aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s not an either or. A lot of people assume that if you identify as a lesbian you must have some problem with the term queer or you must be essentialist, which is not at all the case. I hope that my own scholarship shows how lesbian can exist alongside queer, and how the two contribute to one and another, how they can strengthen each other, and how both have flaws and challenges.

“The reason I insist on the meaningfulness of the term lesbian is because of the history that it carries, a history that hasn’t been sufficiently documented. Studying the ways in which lesbian identity has shifted over time is absolutely crucial to the history of queer identity. Lesbian and queer aren’t mutually exclusive, it’s not an either or.”

Another fun fact, thanks to Terry Castle. The first time the word queer was used in a gender sexuality context, it was used as a code word for cunt, by Anne Lister in her coded diaries from the 19th century. So queer has this inherently lesbian origin, yet it has somehow swallowed up the lesbian. I’m constantly asked why I identity as a lesbian instead of a queer woman, and none of my gay male friends seem to get the question why they identify as gay instead of queer. The lesbian is such an awkward term to many people, which is sort of what I love about it. You know, my yoga teacher always says something like “the way we become comfortable in uncomfortable positions, is if we stay in them.” I like meditating on the awkwardness of lesbian.

Which makes me think of your article about artist and AIDS activist Tessa Boffin in Hyperallergic, where you mention how scholars who started writing about gay history intentionally focused on the fun parts, but how important it is to also to highlight the darker aspects of LGBTQ history.

Yes, and I should mention that it’s Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards that truly shaped my approach to this. People tend to act like we always got along, and were one big happy family. And sure, on one hand there has always been a strong sense of community to some extent. But queer history is full of exclusions and frictions. It’s valuable to study those messy histories just as closely as the histories of pride and victory.

What are your thoughts on lesbian visibility currently and for the future?

I co-chaired a panel The Return of the Lesbian? Examining Lesbian Visibility in Art History’s Present, Past, and Future at the art history conference CAA with my friend Alexis Bard Johnson, who is the curator of the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles. The panel explored the recent re-emergence of lesbian visual culture in the form of Instagram accounts, TV shows, etc.. but at the same time an increasing reluctance for people to identify as lesbian. The panel tried to make sense of these opposing trends. But what we concluded at the end of the panel is that there cannot really be a return of the lesbian if the lesbian has never been turned to. That’s what I’m trying to say when I talk about popular culture versus academic scholarship, it’s not that I’m discounting the former, in fact my work is very much informed by it, but I think that in order to properly turn to the lesbian we need to create a solid, rigorous discourse on the history of lesbian identity, which is on its way but we’re not there yet. Laura Cottingham said: “Without any sense of our historical place, how are we to understand or produce our meaning in the present?” I’m very happy that there are groups like you [WMN zine] who keep insisting on the meaningfulness of the lesbian. I was also so moved by Barbara Hammer’s last interview before she passed away, with Masha Gessen in the New Yorker, where she said “we don’t want to forget the lesbian, and we don’t want her to be lost”.  Thank you, Barbara.

You’ve described yourself as a grumpy dyke, but no wonder you’re grumpy if you’re continuously having to try to work against a field that is ignored and people that don’t respond.

You know, I should clarify that I don’t mean this as a complaint. I like being a grumpy dyke! I like disagreeing with people, I like being at odds with a lot of contemporary writing on queer art. I think there is a tendency within the queer community to be overtly praiseful, which I understand because of course we want to support each other, but I also think that in order to create a rigorous discourse, art criticism should make no apologies for itself. We should disagree, argue, hold each other accountable. As long as we don’t drag each other down. Catharine Lord once told me that criticism is a form of generosity, and I couldn’t agree more. To sit down and think about somebody’s work, whether you’re critical of it or not, is a form of praise in itself.

Soboleva in Brooklyn photographed by Florencia Alvarado

Which is funny working within an American context. I think it’s pretty unamerican to disagree.

Totally, I remember my first graduate seminar, I raised my hand and said something along the lines of “I disagree because…” and then later a classmate told me that in America first you say ‘I really like the point you made about X, and I really appreciated your careful consideration of Y,  however I just wonder if in this particular very specific respect you could have perhaps potentially elaborated a little bit on…” That’s another thing I had to learn when I moved here.

Also, when I first started writing about lesbian artists of the AIDS crisis, I remember emphasizing that gay men had come to define the period and there was very little art historical scholarship on lesbians simply because there was this misguided notion that they weren’t affected by AIDS just because female-to-female transmission was rare (but not impossible, and some lesbians have sex with men, or were intravenous drug users). The AIDS crisis affected the entire queer community; it was more than a medical crisis, it was a socio-political crisis. People were dying because of government neglect, because of homophobia. Lesbians weren’t allowed to donate blood because the entire queer community was considered to be dirty, basically. AIDS was viewed as symptom of being queer. But anyway, I was pushing so hard for the consideration of how the AIDS crisis affected lesbian artists, that at some point I read over my proposal and I was like: Oh my god. It sounds like I hate gay men, and don’t think their art deserves the attention it has received—which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Needless to say, I completely rewrote it. I’m by no means discounting their work. I just want to bring in the lesbian voices too.

Ksenia M. Soboleva is a Russian-Tatar writer, art historian, and curator based in Brooklyn. Currently, she is completing her PhD at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Soboleva’s dissertation focuses on lesbian artists and the AIDS crisis in the United States (1981-1996), framing it within a larger genealogy of lesbian (in)visibility. Previously, Soboleva has curated exhibitions at the 80WSE Project Space, Assembly Room, Honey’s, SPRING/BREAK Art Show, and Stellar Projects. She has taught at NYU and the Cooper Union, and presented her research at various institutions in the United States and abroad. Her writings have appeared in Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, art-agenda,and QED: A Journal in LGBTQ Worldmaking, among other publications. Most recently, she launched a virtual series of artist talks in collaboration with The Center in New York, to highlight lesbian and dyke visibility. Soboleva is the 2020-2021 Marica and Jan Vilcek curatorial fellow at the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum in New York. 

 
Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Wanda Acosta

This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.

The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work. 

Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.

Riya Lerner, “Wanda Acosta, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Wanda Acosta is simply a nightlife icon. She is the creator of parties including Indulgence at Casa La Femme, No Day Like Sunday at Café Tabac, Pleasure at Bar d’O, Kitty Glitter at Liquids, Skin-Tight at Tribal Lounge, Circa at Trompe L’Oeil, YuMMY at Cafe Melville, Soho Groove at Sticky! Puta Scandalosa at Mother, Starlette Sunday at Starlight, AVA at Clubhouse and Showstopper at BLVD. She owned lesbian bars including WonderBar, Starlight and Clubhouse which were open the late 1990s and early 2000s. Her work in nightlife ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on March 24, 2018 at 2pm at Smooch Cafe in Brooklyn, NY.

Gwen Shockey: The first thing I’ll ask of you is to describe the first lesbian or queer space you were ever in and what it felt like to be there.

Wanda Acosta: The very first lesbian bar I ever went to was called Peaches & Cream. I think it was on the Upper East Side. I wasn’t really aware of my sexuality yet – I was probably nineteen years old and I was working at a photography studio as a studio assistant. There was a lesbian woman working at the studio as well who I kind of had this crush on but I wasn’t really attuned to what that all meant. I just thought she was cool. I had never really been around a woman like that before. She wasn’t a girly-girl and she wasn’t boyish – there was something different about her. She invited me out with a friend of hers that she would call her lover and I had never heard that expressed before either and it kind of made me nervous. She was going to have happy hour drinks after work at this place and she asked me to tag along because she was going to meet her friend who was also her lover. I was curious so I went. I felt super nervous and I wasn’t old enough to drink. I don’t know that I had a drink and I didn’t stay very long but it always stayed with me.

After that, maybe ten years later, I went to Henrietta Hudson.

GS: Were you out when you went to Henrietta Hudson? 

WA: Yes.

GS: Can you tell me a little bit about your coming out process?

WA: I was married to a man in my early twenties. Prior to that I had had flings with women but I never really thought anything of it. I just thought of it as another sexual experience. I got married – I was in love. It was a genuine relationship but then I met a woman on the subway! (Laughing) We would see each other every morning because we lived in the same neighborhood and we had the same schedule and we would check each other out every morning. One morning during rush hour we were facing each other holding onto the pole and we just started talking. She worked in the fashion district so we actually worked near each other. We would get on at the same stop and off at the same stop. We decided to have coffee one afternoon and it turned out that she was bisexual and I think she was engaged and I was married and we just had this affair and I got involved emotionally. Now this was different, right? I wasn’t just having sex. Everything shifted and I thought: Oh no, this is what’s been going on all these years.

I got separated and eventually divorced and saw women from then on.

GS: Once you started going to Henrietta Hudson did that become a community-building place for you? 

WA: I had other lesbian friends for sure and gay male friends but a lesbian community – no – that was the first place. It’s wild because when I think about it now, my first visit to Henrietta Hudson was with a friend who I am still very close with and the first woman I met there I am still friends with and this is almost thirty years ago. We were all dancing and she was a really fun dancer and we had mutual friends.

Back then Henrietta’s was more like a Cubbyhole in a way because it was smaller and it wasn’t all modern. I have to say that I didn’t go there a lot. I was still kind of nervous being in those spaces because coming out of a heteronormative lifestyle the spaces were different, right? So now going into the lesbian community I felt like I was going into these dungeons, you know? These dark places. Some of it was cool.

The Clit Club was amazing because it was so sex-positive and you knew you were going there to sweat and to make out. But in the other spaces I would occasionally find myself feeling depressed. At the time Henrietta’s wasn’t my comfort zone. That’s why Café Tabac started because I wanted to create a place that I was looking for, that I could feel comfortable in and it seemed like many other women were feeling the same thing.

GS: What did this ideal gathering space look like for you?

WA: It was a space where I could get dressed up, where I could go have a drink in a proper glass and not in a plastic cup, where I could be visible. It was some place that was really alive – not in a basement, not really dark or hidden. Visible was the key word for me. I had been hiding and I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wanted to be around beautiful women and I wanted to be out and open.

GS: How did this idea of visibility or emphasis on visibility affect the planning that went into Café Tabac?

WA: The funny thing is that at the time in 1993 the restaurant (Café Tabac) which was on 9th Street was in all of the gossip columns. It was this hot spot where all these celebrities would go and I kept reading about it. I went in just to fuck with them, thinking these people are never going to want to do a lesbian party there. I had been there for dinner and I thought the place was really nice. It was a two-tiered restaurant – the downstairs had seating and tables and the upstairs was a VIP area during the week. The celebrities would go up and have their exclusive space. There was a gorgeous red velvet pool table upstairs, more tables and a bar.

One afternoon I was just walking around the East Village and I kept thinking about it, thinking about it, thinking about it. I decided to just go in and ask them. I had only done one party before at a restaurant in SoHo called Casa La Femme. It was a small Moroccan restaurant. We only had two Sundays there because in the end I didn’t feel like it was a safe space. So, I go into Café Tabac and lied a little bit and told them I did these events and that they were lesbian parties with beautiful women. I thought it would be great to do something there because I loved the space. Tim, the day manager, asked me what kind of crowd I thought I could bring in. I told him I could pack it and he said the only day they had available was Sunday since it was their slowest night. He said that the owner would never go for it but that he would ask him. I gave him my information and he called back to tell me the owner would let me try it, that he wouldn’t pay me but wanted to see what I could do. He asked me to do the first one the following Sunday which only gave me four days to prepare. 

Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

We didn’t have cell phones, we didn’t have social media – it was all word of mouth. I went through my friends’ phone books, handed out flyers at other clubs and the first Sunday was great. It was busy, the women were amazing, everyone thought it was really hot. We did it and we were there for about three years after.

GS: What was it like to find spaces for the other parties you threw over the years and eventually the bars that you opened [Starlight, WonderBar and Clubhouse]?

WA: At the time there were lots of spaces available. Tabac was on Sundays and it was so popular that we actually needed an overflow spot. We started another party at a different bar on Mondays called Bar d’O. Whereas Sundays was this very glam and chic, Mondays we had more R&B and Hip Hop. It was also sexy but it was dark, smooth grooves – that party was a lot of fun too (laughing). We had go-go dancers. Queen Latifah used to come – all these celebrities would go there and kind of hide out. That was Mondays!

I had a lot of parties at different places at that time. There were tons of spaces that were open to having queer parties then. There were a lot of parties that were fun and busy!

GS:  What was the crowd like at the parties you threw? Was it usually mostly women?

WA: Tabac was very mixed actually but predominantly women. There were a lot of gay men, straight couples, occasional straight guys but we did have a bouncer and we did try to keep the space safe. My other events were pretty much women. Guys were welcome at most of the parties but at Starlight men had to be accompanied by a woman. During the week a lot of men would come to Starlight so we would try to have Sundays be primarily for women.

GS: That seems to be happening at Cubby now too. I’ve noticed it tipping a bit towards more men on certain nights.

WA: That happens and sometimes it was really frustrating for me because the men had so many places and they still do! Let us have one night. Go to the Cock or something. You know the Clit Club was strictly women. They had a no men policy. The men would stay away. Sometimes you’d get a fool at the door who would say he was going to sue and that it was discrimination. I went to the Clit Club a lot. I loved that place. It was sweaty. There was great music. When you walked in it literally felt like a sauna because it would be so packed. It was humid from all of the dancing bodies and it was topless – you would take your top off and everyone was in bras. Julie Tolentino who was running the show there. She would always have some kind of performance. There were go-go dancers on the bar. She had all different types of dancers: androgynous, super high femme – all mixed. The performances were edgy, sometimes fetish, sometimes like: Ooo – did they just do that? The stage was on the main floor and then you would go down to the basement and they had television screens with lesbian porn on and couches and then upstairs in the back there was another little area that was chill where you could make out.

GS: I’m curious to hear more about the relationship between the lesbian chic aesthetic and Sundays at Café Tabac. Do you feel as though Tabac really influenced the style? 

WA: It was sort of serendipitous that our events happened around the same time when lesbian women started to feel more empowered and ok being out and to want to look a certain way and not fit the stereotypes that were there previously. There was a lot of media attention around KD Lang and Sarah Bernhard and Ellen Degeneres. I think that definitely the media jumped on the fact that there were so many beautiful women in the space that they hadn’t seen before. Everyone thought lesbians only wore flannel shirts and combat boots, right? In interviewing women for the film we are making about Tabac they pretty much all said the same thing, that when they walked into that room they felt so empowered and beautiful just by being surrounded by that energy and that the next week they could dress up, walk in there and own it! It was really beautiful to watch. I didn’t know what to expect. I just created the space. Sharee [Nash] who was my partner at the time, was a deejay. We set the tone of the space with our own attire and with the music.

GS: Can you describe one of your favorite outfits that you wore to Sundays at Café Tabac?

WA: Every week I would try to wear something fun and different but I do remember that I’d taken a trip to Italy and I bought this beautiful, kind of burnt orange, pin-striped suit which I used to like to wear with a sheer, femme, sexy shirt with heels. We all dressed up – we would wear heels and lipstick and makeup and then the next week maybe a wife-beater and torn jeans. It was really fun though, the dress-up was really fun.

GS: It sounds like it would have felt quite liberating to be in a space like this where you could play with gender presentation, explore androgyny, high femininity and mess with the binary in this way. Did you find that to be the case?

WA: Not only were the women doing this but the men too! We had guys coming in there in outfits – in a sarong one week and the next week gym-wear. There was so much playfulness and I’m so sorry that we didn’t take more photographs and that nobody filmed it. I have about thirty polaroids because I used to carry a polaroid camera around and take pictures but that’s all I have.

The style and the clothes were really important at that time and you really saw the shift then to a new way of presenting as a queer woman. There were so many identifiers and codes prior for lesbians that I felt were a bit restrictive. There had always been the haircut, the swagger, that t-shirt thing – the wife-beater – and then the tattoos and piercings started happening and of course now it’s back and totally intense.

GS: Do you think this almost opening-up of style and code has affected younger generations of queer women?

WA: I think it allowed people to feel like they didn’t have to fit into any kind of mold, that they could self-identify and not have some outside source labeling you. Women felt they could be themselves in whichever way was comfortable and not have to be part of this contrived code. I did get the combat boots when I was first coming out (laughing). When I came out I was like: I’m a dyke! I cut my hair off, I wore the boots, and it was fun for a bit but it wasn’t the only thing that I was or am. I’m so many things. I never wanted to confine myself to a certain look because it was known to be queer.

GS: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your experience running both bars and weekly/monthly parties. Did you find that it was a different experience for women, especially in terms of community-making, to go to bars versus parties?

WA: As a bar-owner and an event promoter I think the difference is perhaps in the economics? The economic situation in this city is quite prohibitive. I give it to Henrietta and Lisa (Cannistraci) that they’ve been able to keep that space for all of these years because the changes in rent and in the social fabric of this city is astonishing! When I had my parties gay people all lived in the city and they could easily walk to the parties and then as things gentrified and prices went up the crowds dispersed and now you have women who are coming from Brooklyn and the Bronx so that dilutes the number of people coming to your events. If you have a seven-day-a-week situation it’s not easy to keep the momentum up and to keep a crowd coming night after night. It’s probably why Cubby and Henrietta have to let some guys in. When you have a weekly event, you can be a little more creative with it, you can entice the crowd into getting more exciting to come and they know what to expect and it’s this one-time thing so they have to go because they might not be able to make it next week.

GS: Why do think there is such a disparity between lesbians and queer women showing up to support lesbian bars versus gay men who have so many spaces still in Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea?

WA: I think it’s economics again sadly. Men get paid more, gay men don’t have families necessarily although things are changing now. For me it’s always been the economics and of course there is always the sexuality of it. The guys really want to hook up. Girls want to hook up too of course but guys have always been so out there. Now there’s Grindr too and I actually wonder how gay men’s bars are doing and whether they’re as many as there used to be. I have some gay male friends who say they don’t go to bars anymore because hookups just come right to their doors when they use the apps.

GS: I remember not even eight years ago seeing so much more sex going on in the bathrooms at lesbian bars. People were a lot more physical with each other. I still see women making out once in a while but I wonder if it’s become harder to initiate a hook up in person now that it’s all happening online.

WA: I’m fascinated with this too because I saw a shift at my parties once the phones were so in your face. I saw the interactions change and it was really interesting. At some of the earlier parties at Café Tabac if you told your friend you were going to meet at the party you really had to plan to meet there. There was no room for texting or backing out and if you did back out you had to go to a phone booth, leave a message on their answering machine and then the person had to check their answering machine! I started noticing women not knowing how to engage with each other. You’re standing at a bar and there are people around and you’re on your phone, not really making an effort to talk and I could see that they’re all single and they want to talk but they’re too shy so they’re on the phone. Or they walk in, it’s not as crowded as they want it to be, they text their friends not to come and then nobody comes. It was really fascinating. It affected our attendance levels a little. Right before I stopped the last party at Starlight in 2008 or so I saw a difference. People were impatient, handing the deejay their iPods and requesting songs, always on their phones. Then it wasn’t really that much fun for me anymore because I felt like people weren’t really so present.

GS: Is there one moment that stands out to you from your years of throwing parties as particularly meaningful or poignant?

WA: Oh girl. There were a lot. Do you know that this one moment always comes back to me though because it really made me feel like I was doing the right thing? It was at Tabac on one of the early nights and an African-American woman came up the stairs and I was standing there – I would always host and make sure I was welcoming – so I said hello, how are you, what’s your name and she said she heard that there was a lesbian party here tonight and asked me which part of the restaurant was ours. She was looking to see into what part of the space we had been shoved. I said, “The whole restaurant is yours! The whole restaurant is for the party tonight.” She was shocked and asked me if I was serious. So, I was like: Wow! We have to get out of those dungeons man! She came every single week and we are still friends. I was like: Wow… Yeah! We’re out, we’re out. That’s always something that stayed with me.

There were a lot of funny stories too of finding underwear in the back room and the celebrities that would swing through. There are a lot of stories.

GS: That moment you described of your friend arriving at Tabac and realizing that the whole space was for her kind of perfectly describes the motivation behind this work I’m doing. Even though there is so much acceptance now and it feels like there are queer women all over the place, there is nothing like walking in somewhere and knowing that the whole space is yours.

WA: Totally. And that your tribe is there and you can be yourself. Do you feel like now with more acceptance and visibility that safe, queer spaces are necessary?

GS: Yes. Maybe more so than ever actually. I led a coming out support group for women through Identity House last spring and it was a mixture of ages from about twenty to late forties. A constant topic of conversation was how much everyone hated dating apps and how much isolation and loneliness they still felt and that Cubbyhole wasn’t enough. Meetup groups and parties are great but unless you know who to ask they are a bit hard to find.

I guess to wrap things up a little bit, what has it been like to look back at this legacy that you have created through working on the documentary about Café Tabac with Karen Song?

WA: It’s been really, really, really fascinating, emotional and intriguing to hear other voices and their optics on what that time was like for them. The interviews are centered around the event but it’s also such a broad discussion on the early ‘90s and what it meant to be a lesbian in those years leading up to today. How the early ‘90s impacted their lives. Karen and I decided to do this film because it’s been over twenty-five years since we did that event but people we would run into who we knew went there always told us that nothing ever compared to that party and we wondered why people were still remembering it in that way.

It keeps coming back to a sense of community, this real sense of community that existed for everyone on that particular night and that they needed to come back on that particular night because everyone was so open. You would walk in and there would be a stranger sitting at a table and you could go and sit at that table and you’d have an amazing conversation, you’d have dinner together, maybe you’d see them the following week and maybe they would introduce you to their friends. You would just meet so many people and you ended up becoming friends with them and they are still friends years later. There was something special that was happening there.

I think there was also something special happening in the East Village at that time. So many artists lived in the East Village. It really was a sense of community and a neighborhood. You would walk out the door and run into people you knew and it was affordable and there was this synergy of artistic energy and queerness and being out. It was also on the heels of so many men who had died from AIDS so there was this feeling of coming together and really trying to be together and help each other and push each other forward and support each other. I think we’ve lost that somehow. 

Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.
Invitation from Wanda’s iconic party, “No Day Like Sunday at Cafe Tabac.” Image courtesy of Wanda Acosta.

Technology has shifted that idea of face-to-face support and conversation. The armchair thing is happening where folks think it’s enough to post something or to sign-off on a petition online but it’s not enough.

 Maybe you should start something with a no cell phone policy! At the time people were doing these little salons or dinner parties. Initially the idea for Tabac was that it was going to be a salon. It was a combo – a salon where you could dance, the gay boys would do the runway thing or you could tuck yourself into a corner and talk to a designer, hairdresser, artist or whatever. Since it was a Sunday night people would always ask whether anybody had jobs in this community but most of us were creatives so our hours were flexible. We had a lot of hairdressers who were off on Mondays (laughing). Anyway, it was just a really special time.

GS: Well, thank you so much Wanda. This was just amazing.

Categories
Interview

Addresses Project:
Sharee Nash

This portrait is from Addresses Project, a mixed-media series by Gwen Shockey and Riya Lerner featuring lesbian and queer women who have dedicated their lives to creating and holding space for women in New York City from the 1950s to today.

The individuals included in the series represent a diverse network of community builders engaged with social and political organizing, mental health advocacy, nightlife, music, journalism, visual art, literature, poetry, performance, research, safer sex, and kink practices. Each portrait includes a photograph taken in a significant location for the sitter, along with segments from their oral history interview and selected ephemera from their life and work. 

Shockey began the project in 2016 by interviewing community members about their first experiences in lesbian and queer gathering spaces in New York City. She kept a log of the locations which now exist on a digital map alongside a growing collection of oral history interviews. Lerner began photographing project participants in 2019 after reading a number of the interviews that Shockey had conducted and wished she could see the faces of the women whose incredible histories she was encountering through the project. Taking inspiration from important work like Robert Giard’s, Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers Lerner has thus far created eleven portraits to accompany the oral histories, and plans to create an ongoing archive. To see the full multi-faceted project please visit addressesproject.com.

Riya Lerner, “Sharee Nash, Addresses Project,” 2019, gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Sharee Nash is a writer, deejay, and co-founder of iconic parties for queer women and lesbians including Sundays at Café Tabac and Mondays at Bar d’O in the 1990s and early 2000s with fellow nightlife icon Wanda Acosta. Sharee’s extensive knowledge of and passion for music has led her around the globe in search of sounds unheard of in New York City. Her work in nightlife with Wanda ushered in a massive shift in lesbian culture out from the hidden, mafia-owned dive bars into visible and glamorous spaces. Parties such as Sundays at Café Tabac enabled queer women to see one another and to see themselves with respect and adoration. The following conversation was recorded on April 16, 2018 at 4pm at Patisserie Des Ambassades in Harlem, NY.

Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian bar or predominantly lesbian space that you ever went to?

Sharee Nash: Hm. I’d have to say it would have been Pandora’s Box. I didn’t come out until I was twenty-two. I moved to New York when I was twenty-one and I thought I’d figure it all out. I was adventurous. I had been living in Germany for a while with my family and I would just go out and find places where women gathered there. I wanted to figure out if I was a lesbian so I figured I’d just go to Pandora’s Box. It was in the West Village and I walked in, looked around, panicked and left! My idea of queer then was a sort of Anais Nin vision and I imagined I’d walk into a room full of women with long, long hair and red lipstick but when I walked into Pandora’s Box I was like: Blimey! It was just sort of typical I guess for a lesbian bar then.

I had been engaged to be married since I was eighteen and I had only ever read about queer lifestyles. It never really crossed my mind that it could be me, I was just reading literature about women and the culture so I had this fantasy in my mind about what lesbians were. I mean, the music in Pandora’s wasn’t sexy to me – it was old school pop. I was just going through a different phase music-wise. So, yeah I mean the music wasn’t romantic, the scenery wasn’t really romantic – I’m a romantic so that whole scene was a little hardcore for me. So, that was the first one! Pandora’s Box was around forever. I liked the idea of the name. I had myself all dolled up for a night out you know? But I ran straight out of there and went into another tiny bar that looked nice and seemed to be owned by a queer person. I met some guys there, some super sweet guys, and they were like, “Oh honey, don’t give up!” (Laughing) 

GS: Do you remember what you were wearing when you went out that night?

SN: Probably the same thing I wore everywhere: a pair of jeans, a nice t-shirt. I think it was warm. My uniform is always a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I’m a tomboy with a bougie mother… so I’m sure I had on a very expensive pair of shoes, a handbag with a tube of lipstick and a pack of Gauloises cigarettes in it.

GS: Was the dynamic pretty butch/femme in Pandora’s Box then? 

SN: Yeah! I mean that was my first experience. I eased into it. I found you had to sort of tease through the scene because there were little pockets of different types of people. At the end of the day once I met more lipstick lesbians that became a sort of pocket or scene that I helped create. Actually, when I finally found kind of what I was looking for it was this house party in Brooklyn. This woman who I knew threw these parties for women of color and it was just hot house music and girls half naked, sweating, dancing, gyrating and I thought: Yeah! That’s more like it! It was a private party, special invite. It was called “The Children’s Hour.” So, that was a different dynamic that just felt more comfortable for me. Having a conversation with someone is fine but I like dancing and obviously I like music, I’m a deejay. So, I liked that part a lot you know? It was just different from Pandora’s Box or Henrietta Hudson, I mean there was diversity but a lot of places were just where the white girls went.

Everyone had their own agendas too. Some of the parties were private because a lot of women couldn’t come out. That was one of the things that people really liked about Café Tabac when we started throwing that party. It was upstairs and it was private. You had to know someone to get in so we had people in the limelight, in the celebrity world who couldn’t afford for it to get out that they were hanging out in dyke bars. Even then, in the ‘90s it was sort of hush, hush.

GS: What was your coming out process like?

SN: Well, I realized I wasn’t straight when I fell head over heels for one of the girls in my dorm. Like I said I was engaged to be married. I went to the University of Missouri-Columbia. I didn’t know any other lesbians then but all of my male friends were gay and my cousin is queer. I was hanging out at the gay bars near school with gay boys but I was like: I’m good, I’m heterosexual, I’ve got a man, no problem. Something really hit me though and I started really thinking about. But, man, I was 19 years old engaged to be married and it was crazy! So, I called off my engagement because I felt like I would be a ball and chain at twenty-one years old. So that was that.

Boy bars were great though! If you were the only cute girl in the room all of your drinks were paid for, you were complimented, you were fanned, they carried you around, your feet never touched the floor – they were just great. There was so much trauma in that community so there was a lot of love brought to those spaces. So, appreciated all of that and so when I finally came out it was fine. Of course, my mom’s reaction was to tell me she really wanted grandchildren and I was like: I haven’t given up my womb! I mean even if I were heterosexual I’m not sure I’d want kids because I don’t really feel that maternal thing. All together I have six aunts and for a while I was the only child because I’m the oldest. When I came out to one of my aunts she told me she understood and she told me some stories about experiences she had when she was younger. She had fun! I think a lot of people deprive themselves of experiences if they aren’t willing to understand their bodies and needs for other forms of comfort and familiarity. I mean it’s just like you will never understand the black experience if you aren’t black, you will never know what it feels like to move through the world as a black person unless you are. It’s like the experience of being a woman too it’s really different. You have to have an open mind to see yourself as something other than how people perceive you because of the color of your skin or your gender. You just have to find places with like-minded people.

I always searched for the alternative in everything anyway so at the end of the day I had the crazy fortune of meeting Wanda [Acosta]. I met her at this place in Chelsea called Lola’s. It was owned by Alexander Smalls who was just a tremendous chef and happened to be southern. They would have live music, dancing, salsa night and so my girlfriend at the time was the hostess for the restaurant. It was swanky and upscale everybody would come after work in business attire but it was straight, totally straight, I was there because my girlfriend was the hostess. My girlfriend was a model and all of her friends were models too so I would just be in there with all the pretty women. I was there one night sitting at the bar while my girlfriend worked it, having my martini and, this sounds corny, but I was reading Orlando – I’m a walking cliché! (Laughing) Wanda rolled up and asked me if the seat next to me was taken and I said no so she sat down and was looking at my book and I was wondering if she was queer too! She could have just as easily not have been!

GS: I need to start carrying lesbian literature around!

SN: (Laughing) It used to work! You can’t tell anymore because everyone’s on their iPhone or Kindle! So, Wanda and I started talking and realized we were both queer and she asked me what brought me to that bar and I told her I liked my martini in a proper glass and I don’t like peanuts on the floor! Stemming from that first meeting we started talking about creating a party for chic lesbians – a space that we wanted, that we ourselves would go to! And that’s how it started! As simple as that. We both liked to get dressed up and feel fabulous and we liked to be wooed and read poetry you know? It became about creating the space that was ideal and alternative and clearly it was! I mean, there were parties before that like Cave Canem on 1st Avenue which they just closed recently. Cave Canem was a restaurant with a little cellar that you went down into. It was a private party for queer women to go and be outrageous and unapologetic.

Article in HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

GS: Where do you think this desire for different modes of presence as lesbian came from? Was it a desire to break down the butch/femme dynamic?

SN: I don’t think we’ll ever break that dynamic. Listen, I was out as a lesbian. I was published in a lesbian anthology. It was ok for me to be out because I was always an artist. You can choose not to hire me or read my writing but being out never threatened the work I chose to do. I do think for other women there was a need to keep their sexuality separate from their professional lives. I think privacy is just a value for some people. Our parties were basically that. They were private parties. Bar d’O was private. Once we opened WonderBar and Starlight everyone was welcome. Do you remember the scene in the L Word where Bette Porter comes to New York and goes to a lesbian bar? That was Starlight!

GS: It really seems like the parties you and Wanda threw and the bars you ran really allowed women to find self-worth as individuals and as a community. To be able to escape the dive bar, come together in a beautiful, thoughtful environment seemed so important.

SN: Yeah and something that was important to us was that it wasn’t always about going out every night and cruising and picking up chicks, rather being around creative people. I’m a writer – I like to talk to poets, readers of books, healers and other writers and music is my life so meeting someone who would notice what was playing rather than just standing there drinking their beer was amazing. On Sunday nights it was a huge dinner party with community tables and people would sit and hop from one table to the next – there was food, music, drinks and sexy lighting. There would be a muralist sitting next to, say, Sandra Bernhard or a drag king, gallery owner, photographer, comedian, fucking tight-rope walker sitting next to Patricia Field so we just had all these different types of people together. We had it all! The idea for us was just queer women sharing their passion for all things queer and cultured and each other as women in our different experiences…together.

GS: Could you tell me a little bit about how you began deejaying? Did it start at Sundays at Café Tabac or were you deejaying before? 

SN: Deejaying for the public was again one of those serendipitous moments (I’m a bit of an agoraphobe) I loved making compilations since I was a kid. When I got my first job as a babysitter, I used that money to buy records and turntables. So, when I moved to New York from Germany and got settled, I set up my deejay booth under my loft bed in a tiny studio apartment in the East Village. An ex introduced me to this super cool guy new to NYC from Oakland and he saw my setup and flipped through my collection of vinyl and encouraged me to basically Shine My Light! *Much Love to Disco Dave*!

I would make mixed tapes for Sundays at Café Tabac. This is how long ago it was. Every week I would make about four mixed tapes for the night. So, I ended up with a huge collection of mixed tapes. And I was actually spinning records at Bar d’O. I was doing this, then I met these women who were doing huge parties with like a thousand women on Friday nights in a warehouse space. They had three floors. They wanted everything. First floor was house music with pole dancers and strippers, the second floor was Latina, and then the top floor was a lounge where I was spinning soul and jazz and stuff. That was huge because it was one of the biggest lesbian parties at the time. I was doing some major things and then Wanda and I started Bar’d O on Monday nights. People thought we were out of our minds and that no one would show up on a Monday night. We were like: They will. You’ll see. Bar d’ O was really intimate. The idea was to add an element of burlesque…not a strip-show… a strip-tease in a triptych. Exotic dancers, drag kings, contortionists, fire-eaters!  Lots of celebrities showed up there because they knew they had anonymity. We carried on at Bar d’O for years. Another one of my favorite experiences was working with Julie Tolentino, mastermind behind the Clit Club! We all have her to thank!

GS: I feel like the role of the deejay at lesbian parties that I’ve been to is this mythic type person. Not only are you controlling the energy of the crowd in a way but you’re also there to be seen, there is such almost desire between the audience and the deejay. Did you feel that?

SN: I mean for me, there was always a frame for it. I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of WonderBar but our partner John built this deejay booth, he’s a set designer. It was up on a platform in the back of the bar when you walked in. There was this huge oval almost like an eye and he created lighting so it was basically a stage. If you’re an aesthetic snob every little detail has to have some sort of connection to art or nature – you have to be able to connect the dots. Funnily enough I’m the most introverted person. I don’t like to speak publicly, I don’t like having my picture taken, if you look at me for too long I’ll run up a tree you know? There was something different for me about deejaying. It was my way of communicating. Being a part of the community, I could party with everyone but not be on the floor with everyone. We would try to make sure that the booth situation was part of it all but not in the middle. There was a lot of thought put into that. One night I was hanging out with some friends after hours and there was this guy there and one of my friends was like, “Sharee’s a deejay!” and he was like, “Oh never heard of her”…  my friend told him he had to go and “See me”! and I thought it was really interesting that she said he had to see me…because it was a visual experience. It’s a really visual experience in that the crowd is loud, that he could come in a watch me spin for hours and jam to the music. I guess I lose myself you know? When everyone’s out there dancing and I’m standing there with my cup of tea, I pull off all my clothes and I’m just like in it. (Laughs) It was so fun for me. I’d have a sort of call and response. I would kind of know what would happen like, they’re going to lose their minds in three, two, one! It’s the most amazing feeling. I stopped. I was deejaying at a wine bar up here in Harlem. It was nice because people really listened. But after a while people started requesting songs they knew and I would say: No! I’m the deejay! I’m going to play something you don’t know so you can experience something new! That was a lot of what I heard from people over the years – that they’d come hear me spin and only recognize two or three songs in a night and they loved it! It was fantastic. Total opposite today.

Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.
Cover of HX featuring Sharee Nash from 1996. Image courtesy of Sharee Nash.

GS: Do you think it has something to do with technology? I mean people have their phones with them all the time, they’re like, “Play this song!”

SN: It was not like that. It totally flipped. It used to be so amazing. It was global too. So much of my music came from overseas. It was nothing you would hear on the radio. Even the radio is different now. Back in the day when we were listening to the radio there was a loop, yeah, but they would loop in something new. It was a lot more soulful. There were lyrics. I do like some trap music but most sounds like they just created a dumpster fire and called it music and sold it to everybody as “trending”. I had my European collections and friends would come over from London and come with new vinyl. This whole idea of being connected globally… I mean people just don’t understand! Norwegians just killed at house music! Bringing it here was so fun and challenging. I would get so excited for certain nights when I could say like: Fresh from London, some new vinyl! The people would be so into it. It’s just a different attitude. You can’t even have an opinion about anything anymore. People are having fist fights over Beyonce and I’m like: Stay mad! Because Beyonce is doing Beyonce better than anyone else could ever do so whatever you’re mad about it’s your mad! You can’t even write a fucking post on social media without people saying it’s not politically correct.  So yeah, the whole dynamic just changed and it no longer interested me to try to share something new with people who thought they knew it all.

GS: that makes me sad you know? That lack of curiosity, that lack of wanting to learn… Do you think it’s changed the way people party now?

SN: People are either on the offensive or the defensive…like, everybody in the room is either the hostess or the deejay! Those have been my experiences. If I’m going to go out and have a good time now I go to Europe. (Laughing)

I retired this year from my job at Columbia University in the Graduate History Department. I had to hang that up – I did it for sixteen years and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’m an English teacher and that’s what I’m trained to do. So, I retired from university life and I’m writing a series of different things. I write poetry, short fiction… I guess I would describe my writing as sci-fi erotica.

GS: Does music affect your writing in any way? 

SN: Oh yeah! Just yesterday I started writing a series in response to ten songs that had an impact on my life. I usually don’t do these things because it’s hard to pick a finite number of things that have influenced me. I’m on day nine now but I was thinking should I choose hip hop, soul, house? It just so happened that I picked the first album off the top of my head, which was this acid, jazz, soul album that was really brilliant and from that I remembered that I had already started a story from a long time ago just inspired by one of the songs. The chapters ended up being based on the rhythm of a song – a lot of Sade in there. The long answer to your question is yes. I don’t know what came first, music or writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child and it’s all about rhythm.

GS: Do you still go dancing?

SN: The last time I danced was on my birthday. The first girl I fell head over heels for reconnected with me a couple years ago. I was home in St. Louis visiting with my mother and she took me out for my birthday and the DJ played “No diggity, I like the way you work it…” and it was such a great time dancing in my hometown…being older…still feeling none the bit wiser in the “Great Scheme”…but that was the extent of my dancing recently. No dancing in my bra like the good old days! No tumbling off of tables in my stilettos… I’m not kidding. I still have the scars to prove it! I’m not saying we had more fun than kids now but Wanda and I, twenty something years ago, were in our late twenties and there were a lot of people in our circle who were famous and loved to dress up and it was just a different time in New York. Really different from now. I’m older now and I just want to cheer from the sidelines…leave it to you crowd to have the fun and keep the party alive!

GS: Any juicy stories you want to close out with Sharee?

SN: How about me distracting some girl by showing her my tits while her girlfriend was sitting in a booth with another girl on her lap with her tongue down her throat! There was tons of drama! But we didn’t have it splashed all over viral social media like we have today! PrideNYC was just beautiful madness. You’d get a fresh batch of women in from out of town…lots of love and trouble-making! It could get pretty debauched!

GS: Sharee, you’re amazing. This was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing these stories with me.

Categories
Interview video

Lesbian filmmaker
Megan Rossman

Film maker and director Megan Rossman and WMN co-editor Jeanette Spicer chat about older generation dykes, photography, film making and the desire to keep lesbian archives and our story alive.

Megan Rossman is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and assistant professor and chair of communication at Purchase College.

Rossman’s feature-length debut, The Archivettespremiered at Outfest in 2019 and has screened as an official selection at over 30 film festivals. The Hollywood Reporter called the documentary a “warm tribute to second-wave feminism.” The Queer Review called it “a gift to the future.” The Archivettes, which explores the founding and development of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, has won jury prizes at Stamped Film Festival and the Fargo-Morehead LGBT Film Festival, and awards from the Princess Grace Foundation and Reeling Film Festival.

Rossman’s additional films have screened at festivals including DOC NYC and NewFest. Her film Love Letter Rescue Squad won best student documentary in the Emerging Filmmakers Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival American Pavilion in 2017.

Back to News and Features