Queer Urban Geographies Reflection

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All I wanted was a SIM card for my old phone.  And all I wanted to do was to know how to send a text message to a mobile number.  I wasn’t asking a lot, was I?

After approaching the orange information desk for the third time, the woman that had at first smiled at me when I approached the orange desk the first time was smiling no more.  “Oh no, here he comes again.”  I knew she was thinking it.

“No, no!  You do it dis way,” she said as she grabbed my mobile and typed in the number for me.

“Mursee Bod Coop.” I said.

After that I did not forget how to enter French mobile numbers in my phone.

Traveling is always one way to help you wake up to the fact that most of our lives inhabit some sort of vacuum.  As a recent graduate, the Queer Urban Geographies experience reminded me of a world that exists beyond the academic padded room I had occupied for almost a year.  It reminded me that despite faculty approvals, awards, and accepted thesis documents, there is a real world out there that will force you to re-examine your work — again, and again, and again.  This examination is scary, rewarding, and beautiful.  I would argue that, in our case, it was the geographical aspect of it that made it so.

By this, I mean that placing ourselves in a city in which we were vulnerable to an unfamiliar location, language, and customs was key to making this project queer.  In other words, the strength of this project was that I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar, new place – a suburb of Paris, France.  In a strange way, it was like stepping back into the closet.  This time, though, I wasn’t peeking out to tell the world that I am gay, but to see what people think of the homo-normative world I have so carefully crafted in my head, in the safe world of New York City, and in my thesis project.  As an inherently apprehensive and award-winning worry-wort, this was practically terrifying.

Being able to step back and retain a certain vulnerability but at the same time exert a quiet sense of purpose is a trait I am only beginning to undertand.  The issues we sought to address in that suburb were familiar to us, but I now know less familiar to the people we worked with.  We came at a time when the same-sex marriage argument was a hotbed of activity.  At one point during a workshop, I thought I would have to stop.  Questions were coming at me in two different languages, and people, I thought, were getting impatient.  I was unsure, not confident, and a little on edge.  The feeling was all too familiar.

Suddenly, though, we got over the hump.  In some ways, the people I was working with were better problem solvers than I was.  I say this because while I was unsure and on edge, people in the room were thinking; they had ideas.  In the end the people of Argenteuil developed a fantastic methodology for me when I didn’t even ask for it.  After that, we received a sense of warmth and generosity I think few of us had experienced before.  We were given delicious homemade food, given places to sleep, and we even had poems written for us.  It was a blissful reminder that in the end it always works out.

Remembering that it’s going to work out, though, is harder that it sounds.  It’s true, the experiences of being vulnerable allow us to grow as human beings.  Learning to manage and profit from these experiences — and to do so on the spot — is one of the skills I believe my master’s degree sought to address.  Acting in the face of uncertainty is perhaps a skill more closely related to queerness that I had ever thought.  While I think it’s easy to speak of our Queer Urban Geographies project as it relates to topics like same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, in my own reflection of the week I’m tempted to think of our group’s displacement and vulnerability as a reason in itself.  Being in a new place and not knowing how to talk about who we were or what we did was all too familiar.  Learning to overcome this and still be productive and enthusiastic is a skill that, as I mentioned before, I am still learning.  I think it’s going to be a long process, and I’m sure I’ll visit many more orange desks with grumpy French ladies along the way.

What can I say?  Dis is just how you do it.

 

Paris has burned

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Growing up a queer person of color (QPOC) in the Midwestern United States, I never dreamed that it would be possible for someone like myself to go to Paris.  In fact, until last year I had never been out of the country.  At 28, the world seemed to open up in front of me.  Now 29, I am here.  I’ve arrived in “the most romantic city in the world.”  Well, as with many romances, it all seems to be built up in our heads as some distant possibility.  A possibility that we desire, but accept as an impossibility – which I believe is part of the attraction.

I recalled my obsession with the documentary film Paris Is Burning.  A documentation of the POC queer community in the late 80s.  Though in many ways the film has become a tokenizing artifact of the African American queer existence it still provided me with some hope as a POC queer coming from a sea of whiteness in much of my youth and young adulthood.  This film inspired me to think about what has been happening in the past months as France has passed marriage reform which includes non-traditional couples in the institution of marriage.

As a queer, Paris is romanticized as a place for queer culture in ways that are similar to New York City or San Francisco – an international gay mecca.  The reality, as we are recognizing in the States as well, is that violence and hatred is re-penetrating our claims to space.  In Chelsea just a week or so before our trip, my roommate and her partner came across the crime scene where a young POC queer man had been gunned down simply for being gay in the wrong place and time where I often pass to ride the train home from Manhattan into Bedstuy.  This carried with me to Paris and on our first day in Argenteuil it was expressed that homosexual people were “not seen” or rather, invisible or intentionally blending in due to some perception of necessity in this space.

These happenings inspired me to think of how performing in public space requires a reading, interpretation, and expression that is impacted by the environmental factors of material, design, and psycho-social influences.  I conceived of a narrative that explored how a queer person might behave in a variety of geographies and urban contexts – on the Esplanade, the train, and in front of Hotel des Invalides (the converging epicenter of the protests against same sex marriage on May 26th).  I hope that my work will be accepted in solidarity with those who have been fighting for equity in the recognition of love and family as determined by each and every individuals’ own experience and capabilities here in France.

For now I have uploaded some raw footage to youtube that can be used for comparison of my embodied identity and translation of the same song in two different geographies.  Later, the project will fill in the story between these two places…

– Rashid Owoyele

Raw footage from Invalides

Raw footage from Argenteuil

Queer Paris: culminating events

Our trip ended with two culminating events. The first was a dinner with queer theorist and curator Manuel Segade, whose writing “focuses largely on the circulation of critical discourses on representation. My basic interests are: the aesthetical construction of subjectivity, the ways in which a community is developed, the history of subjectivity, the complexity of lifestyles, Queer theory or language performativity, intertwined by an essentially political task.” He has extensive knowlege of the ‘hidden’ histories of Paris, as well as contemporary artists who have interrogated the spaces of queerness here, through mapping or otherwise.

The culminating event was a private tour of the atelier Le Cent and a presentation of the collaboration and projects. Hosted by Sarah Goldberg, curator of the ‘Be My Toys’ festival. We hope to continue the conversations here toward future collaborations and projects here, as the saying goes, “we’ve only just begun”…