Queer artists tackle race, identity at festival leading up to Oakland Pride

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Led by a queer activist called Blackberri, the crowd gathered at Leo’s Music Club in North Oakland took six breaths together Sunday night as part of a symbolic breathing exercise representing the vitality of Oakland’s queer arts community. The exercise kicked off the first event of Revolve Creative Arts and Film Festival, a series of performances and art exhibitions focusing on queer activists of color preceding this weekend’s Oakland Pride celebration.

Though advertised as a queer comedy show, the night included non-traditional comedy acts like a drag king show and comedic musicians, and performers spoke freely about race, sexual orientation, gender identity and political ideology in their acts. Stand up comic Sampson McCormick incorporated into his set stories of getting tear-gassed by Oakland police during a Black Lives Matter protest, and headliner Karen Williams discussed racism in her home state of Ohio.

“Revolve 2015 acknowledges the multiplicity and intersectionality of our queerness,” said Kin Folkz, the event’s co-producer. “Revolve looks at activism in our role in the world as artists.”

This year is Oakland’s seventh LGBTQ Pride Festival, though the city has celebrated the LGBTQ community through other festivals and events intermittently since 1997. Folkz, who previously served on the board of directors for Oakland Pride, created the Revolve festival as a supplement to Pride in 2012 to specifically highlight work by queer activists and artists of color.

This year, Revolve’s theme is “Breathe,” a reference to the death of Eric Garner. Garner, an African American, was killed in 2014 by a white New York City police officer who held him in a chokehold, despite Garner repeatedly telling the officer, “I can’t breathe.” Activists in the group Black Lives Matter, which works to stop police violence against African Americans, started incorporating the phrase “I can’t breathe” into their work. Each event at Revolve will begin with collective breathing exercises led by different members of the community.

The issues the performers at Sunday’s event tackled were controversial, but the audience, comprised of people representing different generations, ethnicities, and gender identities, laughed raucously throughout the evening. The crowd howled as McCormick, one of the evening’s headliners, described being racially stereotyped in San Francisco’s Castro district. “People keep coming up to me at the club asking me how much they can get for 20 bucks,” said McCormick, who is African American. At first he didn’t know what they were asking for, he said, but quickly realized they thought he was a drug dealer. As the audience clapped, McCormick quipped that he took the opportunity to sell an allergy pill to a guy asking him for Adderall.

Williams, a seasoned comedian who traveled from Cleveland to perform, chastised the crowd for complaining about the cost of living in the Bay Area. “If you can’t afford it, then move somewhere else!” Williams shouted. When badgered by an audience member to share what she does socially as a lesbian in Cleveland, where the queer population is notably smaller than the Bay Area, Williams kept her focus on the cheap cost of living. “I live! Look at all of you—you struggle,” she said.

The crowd responded voraciously with hisses and boos when performers discussed challenges queer people of color face, like when a drag king who goes by the name Alex U Inn discussed protesting Facebook’s “real name” policy, a point of contention between the queer community and the social media powerhouse. The policy, which requires users to use their real name—not an alias or pseudonym—has caused some queer-identified Facebook users to be locked out of their accounts for using non-traditional names. “They force me to take a name that I don’t want to have,” Inn said.

The Revolve series is meant to highlight diversity in the queer community, and one difference arose spontaneously during the evening over the use of gendered pronouns. At one point, Williams commented that she doesn’t “do the pronoun thing,” meaning she didn’t understand how to refer to gender nonconforming people. Williams went on to say that she did not know what pronoun or name to use for Inn.

Commenting later, Inn said that Williams “is an incredible comic,“ but added, “I hope we all realize when it comes to gender identification, it’s not something to be dismissed so easily.”

Folkz said Williams did not represent Revolve’s position on the use of gendered pronouns, but called her comments an opportunity for conversation, adding, “We don’t see our community as a monolith.”

Throughout the week, Revolve’s events will focus on amplifying the voices of queer people of color and facilitating conversation about artists and activism. Wednesday’s events include a free youth open mic night and film screening at Humanist Hall. The art exhibition culminates on Friday with “Black Queer Voices Rising,” a performance and open mic night at Oakstop, a gallery space in downtown Oakland. On Saturday, Revolve is hosting a Pride 5K Fun Run at Lake Merritt.

Visit the festival website for more information about the week’s events.

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