Passing the (Queer)Bomb
What's the future of the June celebration for Austin's LGBTQ community?
If there's one thing the LGBTQ community excels at, it's throwing a damn good party. In the 47 years since the first high heel was lobbed at the Stonewall Riots, queers have found a way to intertwine revelry with rights. Those of us on this side of the rainbow are all too familiar with a world that tells us we're sick, perverted, invisible – hell, some of us can't even pee in public without legitimate fear. But put us all together, and we create magic.
In June of 2010, a group of Austin queers began Queerbomb – a free, all-inclusive LGBTQ celebration – in response to what was then a corporate, expensive, cisgender Pride run by a predominantly white gay (and lesbian) board. Six seasons later, Queerbomb has grown from what co-founder Paul Soileau describes as a "ragtag, Little Rascals" event, filled with impassioned people and limited space, into a full-blown festival with multiple thousands of people in attendance every June. Not only has it become a local queer institution, it has become one of the few days of the year where thousands of Texas LGBTQers unite to celebrate their queerness.
"Nothing makes homophobes more angry than to see a bunch of queer people celebrating being ourselves," says Tamicka Phillips, one of the original members of Queerbomb. The event, split into three parts, consists of a rally with speakers and organizations, a procession of several thousand queers through Downtown and Sixth Street, and an afterparty. "There are few greater highs than running down Sixth Street in a jockstrap," says Matt Korn, another co-founder. "The overwhelming response is so positive. It really makes you feel strength in numbers."
But with growth comes growing pains. Earlier this year, Austin's LGBTQ community saw GayBiGayGay, the unofficial queer music festival and celebration that marked the end of SXSW, go on indefinite hiatus after a decade, and rumors swirled that Queerbomb would follow suit. "I think the movement does not a festival make, and I started to question, 'How did this become a festival?'" says Soileau, who's also known for his drag alter egos Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer. He admits that he was the one who originally raised the question of whether Queerbomb should continue in 2016.
After hosting an open meeting for new members in March, the answer for many of those in attendance was a resounding yes. Queerbomb is both necessary and relevant "because homophobia, transphobia, racism, and sexism still exist," says filmmaker PJ Raval, also a co-founder. "I think it's important to question who isn't gathering so that we can make sure everyone is included. There's a need to call out and a need to trust your community, but good things can only come out of all this."
But that didn't settle the future of Queerbomb for everyone who helped start the event. Some saw the need for more organization and transparency in the way Queerbomb is run. "As an activist, I felt I need to take accountability," says co-founder Sym Coronado-Prole. "We haven't held ourselves accountable, and we live in Texas. There's a large need for us to have a voice in state politics. We need to be working towards nonprofit status."
For co-founder MJ Smith, Queerbomb needs "checks and balances." Several of the grievances presented online concern the current structure, arguing that only a small handful of people are part of the "steering committee." She proposes that the organization "break things into chairs, consensus-style, and have transparency between each committee [vendors, permits, procession, etc.]. Vendors need to be vetted, and we absolutely need to be working towards nonprofit status. That should've happened years ago."
In recent weeks, the discussion about what Queerbomb does and what its responsibilities are to the community on which it relies for financial support has migrated to the Facebook event page and the collective's page in a sometimes-heated public dispute, much of it among the co-founders of the event. To many, it comes as old news that there's been dissent among the ranks of OG Queerbomb. The root of the online dissent is one part tangled personal histories and one part honest, good-natured questioning of what Queerbomb has the capacity to do.
A town hall meeting on Thursday, May 26, successfully managed to address those topics as well as give face to several new(er) members who have expressed serious interest in taking the reins from the OG members who, after six years, are ready to step down from their posts. With all the talk about the "new" Queerbomb, seeing a handful of energized queers ready to infuse the event with fresh blood was both reassuring and exciting.
The meeting also helped establish ways to move forward and to address the questions facing Queerbomb. In its current form, Queerbomb does not have the capacity to operate 365 days of the year as an agent of change in the queer community. It is a single event. But single events can still be radical forces in our community. While Queerbomb's own mission is – for at least the foreseeable future – primarily focused on offering an alternative to corporate-sponsored Pride, it can be, and has been, a platform for other queer organizations to make their own impact and to network with other nonprofits under one "roof." And perhaps most importantly, the event functions as a much-needed gathering place for the queer community. For those who don't live within liberal Austin's city limits and/or those who've just come out, Queerbomb is the promised land of Central Texas. The future of Queerbomb may still look a bit hazy, but there's a sense of queer optimism in the air.
As for whether or not Queerbomb is "just" a party, that all depends on how you look at it. "For some people, Queerbomb is a party. For some, it's a movement," says Phillips. "For some people, it's one day out of the year where they get to be themselves without the fear of repercussion. For me, it's a day where I can be unapologetically black, fat, queer, loud, and happy. If most people consider it a party, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing."
Soileau adds: "I don't think a party devalues it because that's a space we have less and less of. It's a place to be gay as a $2 bill. [Queers] bring life to some ugly places in this world, [so] let's not put a bottle on that magic we have." As long as the event continues to engage with all of Austin's queer communities, it will continue to be relevant. Because, in 2016, it's still a radical act to dance in the streets with several thousand queers. Queerbomb offers its attendees a beautiful realization/reminder of the power in numbers and community.
Queerbomb 2016 goes off Sat., June 4, 6pm, starting at Fair Market, 1100 E. Fifth. For more information, see the Facebook event page, www.fb.com/events/487222131464832.