The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA Subculture

Queer of Color Archiving

Here we consider what "queer of color archiving" might look like for the house/ball scene in the context of its living repertoires and mainstream moving image representations like Paris is Burning and Pose. In addition to being mindful of Taylor's concern that archives have at best a remote relationship to performance-based cultures, we are also mindful of the fact that REACH LA is not equivalent to the LA house/ball scene. The spectacle of the ballroom is one of a number of vehicles for REACH's larger material mission of fostering self-care for LGBT* youth of color. An active non-profit struggling for funding and mostly committed to arts-programming and HIV-prevention might not frame archiving as a priority, even as such organizations hold crucial collections. While Occidental College can help initiate the process of organizing a multimedia history of REACH from these collections, undergraduates and professors at liberal arts colleges cannot do the work of professional archivists.

We hope that our partial display of REACH's collections might inspire a broader archival mission, but we also want our provisional Scalar exhibits and scholarly approach to clarify the stakes of documenting house/ball and arts-based HIV prevention. To this end, we think that it is worth spending some time with both "queer of color critique" and the archival (re)turn in recent queer studies.
We have lingered with Paris is Burning in part because an early strain of queer of color critique treated the film as a kind of "bad object" over and around which to articulate its own materialist approach to situated knowledge production. Indeed, Muñoz’s field-founding 1999 text, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, pointedly pivots toward the documentary The Salt Mines (1990) with its “starker and less glamorous” rendering of black and Latinx trans life in New York as an “antidote” to the sensational ethos of Paris.[1] Roderick Ferguson's 2004 Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique assiduously avoids direct mention of Paris but hails Chandan Reddy's essay about the film and glosses a brief image of a "black drag-queen prostitute" from Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989), a film about black queer life released a year earlier than Paris. Ferguson argues that because this black trans sex worker is a "fixture of urban capitalism," who manifests as both hypervisible and unaccountable as a site of critical affirmation, queer of color critique must "disidentify with historical materialism" -- i.e. disclaim Marxism's historical inability to read the intersections of race, gender, class, and sexuality while also retooling its crucial methods.[2] Even Nyong’o, who defends Paris and lauds the Houses United ball, concludes that “Vogueing and walking on the Celebrate Brooklyn stage -- welcome as it was --does nothing to transform the real conditions of poverty, racism, and transphobia,” which continue to plague members of the ballroom scene.[3]

In other words, the stakes are larger than good or bad representations for queer of color critics. As performance studies scholars, Nyong’o and Muñoz are hardly dismissing spectacle outright in favor of deterministic historical materialism; rather, they argue that queer of color critique dialectically measures the real conditions of the past and present with fantasy worlds that make for livable lives. Whereas queer theory has traditionally staked its claim in polemical critiques of normativity, queer of color analysis, according to scholar Amy Villarejo, “takes the prismatic pressures of the normative as impossible to seize and to systematize simultaneously.”[4] This chapter of The Grit and Glamour of Queer LA seeks to positively channel some of this impossibility of simultaneous seizure and systemization that Villarejo locates in queer of color critique. In our following "Archive" section, we certainly try to seize part of REACH’s collections. Yet we also attempt to respect the LA ball scene’s own systemization by displaying its repertoire through ephemera and by linking ball programs to video of actual performances so they may speak for themselves.

That said, recent interest in "queering the archive" has pushed us to reconsider how archival practice comes with its own deep history of critique about appropriation. In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Derrida interrogates the etymology of the concept of “archive,” linking it to ancient Greek terms signifying “the residence of the magistrates” or “those who commanded.” The act of archiving thus connotes a disciplining by “coordinating a diverse assemblage of [materials] to articulate an ideal unity.”[5] To "queer" ostensibly means anything but such an ordering of things, identities, and periods. Queer histories have certainly been lost and silenced, but as Michel Foucault argues, LGBT* politics forestall a richer history of "bodies and pleasures" when it insist on an epochal historiography of ever mounting visibility.[6] Even when evidence of LGBT* lives presents itself clearly, “Queer things cannot have straight histories,” as the editors of recent special issues of the Radical History Review dedicated to “queering archives” succinctly state.[7] Queer archiving can thus seem both an urgent and impossible task. On the one hand, queer of color archiving can seem only to complicate such a task further; on the other hand, the point of reading intersectionally is not necessarily (just) to increase inclusion in mainstream activities like institutional archiving, but rather to unsettle the terms of engagement and to look differently.

As Kwame Holmes notes in “What’s the Tea,” queer communities, and especially racial minority ones, may archive their histories in more informal modes such as gossip (“tea”) and ephemera that are often illegible to an outsider.[8] Can there be such a thing as an archive of gossip, and/or should gossip itself be considered a community archival practice? While Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and José Esteban Muñoz had previously raised these issues in the context of literary and performance studies, Holmes gets at the material and affective sine wave unique to the historian’s disappointment that a certain oral history respondent might refuse to “spill the tea” one day and delight at finding a gossip column in a 1980s black queer newspaper another day.[9] We are also inspired by ethnographer Martin K. Manalansan IV, who examines the lives of undocumented immigrants and their household archives of “stuff.” While potentially just as opaque as Holmes’s gossip is to outsiders, the “mess and migration” of queer immigrant lives for Manalansan actually reveals an auto-archival practice through “seemingly hoarder-like household material, symbolic, and emotional conditions [that] are arenas for creation of a queer immigrant archive that enables contestations of citizenship, hygiene, and social order.”[10] Through choreographies charting the rhythm of shared space, his respondents, “the Queer Six,” produce a cramped but curated household, a kind of queer kinship, and an archive of blended  humans and things. Where Manalansan first observes an apartment that “was like a haggard old person, weighted down by the burdens of things and lives,” he excavates a hot mess, in the best sense of the term.[11]

If queer of color archiving provides an exciting hermeneutic, it is because it offers that everything provisionally means and matters in under-documented marginalized lives and that new principles of command and coordination may be afoot. It also means admitting certain limits and opacities into the archive itself. As Leah De Vun and Michael J. McClure suggest in their piece “Archives Behaving Badly,” we attempt to fashion our Scalar archive “as a site where the ellipses and limits of the past might become accretive and communal sites for the present.”[12] It also suggests deeper interdisciplinary engagements that exploit and repurpose traditional methodologies to value what might otherwise seem disposable. In our case, when Oxy students merely observed a huge stack of unused and out-of-date condoms at the REACH LA headquarter, we wondered how a professional archivist might throw them out whereas a museum curator might display them against a wall as evidence of REACH's enduring efforts. Why has REACH LA kept this pile of condoms? This question seemed to open on a much larger narrative about a busy non-profit that has accidentally accreted an incredible collection. Time and care equally but differently animate the task of the community organization, the archivist, and the archival researcher.

We hope that our readers experience the palimpsestic pleasures that this digital archive may provide and get a sense of our own thrill in getting to sift through REACH's remarkable collection. Our experiences of viewing grainy SuperBeta sex-ed videos (meant to be screened for Club Prophylactive), listening to Adrienne Adams’ audio recordings of the organization’s histories and gossip, and watching the “Legendary” Sean Milan showing off his moves on video certainly provoked our own archival passions.  By layering 25 years of lived queer of color experience mediated through a non-profit organization and its collections, we attempt to work against the idea of archiving as a disciplinary, unifying discourse. While we remain outsiders to the house/ball subculture’s grit and glamour, our field visit and Scalar’s multimedia capacities have allowed us to experience a sense of its grain, both in terms of its lasting groove in cultural history and the material status of its various documentary media. In the next section Adrienne Adams speaks of what it meant to dig deeper after the CTSJ 337 course ended.

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