How Austin's Queer Community Supports Its Own
Spotlighting the LGBTQ people and orgs looking after our health, youth, elders, and art
Not all revolutions are grand and not all radical acts are born from extraordinary circumstances, but every day, Austin's queer community shows up for one another in ways that can only be described as profound. It's Pride in Austin, and in keeping with this year's theme of revolution, we're paying homage to the city's LGBTQ community for taking care of its own – for taking care of us – when the going gets tough.
It's not a new phenomenon, nor is it directly tied to the current political climate, because those of us under this big queer umbrella have always protected one another. We're a community known for our chosen families and our ability to create sanctuaries to combat hardships faced at disproportionately higher rates. From homelessness to suicide to conversion therapy to a general lack of legal protections, sometimes it's not so easy being queer.
Ask folks from any corner of the community, and they'll tell you some outcomes are universal: a fear of isolation, a feeling of living in the "inbetween," general otherness. But these experiences bring us closer together. Our histories make us resilient, and our survival gives us cause to celebrate.
This Pride Week, we're doing just that by lauding our quiet rebellions, small revolutions, and radical acts of love and self-care. Sure, this might not overthrow governments, but these acts and those behind them keep us alive, nurtured, and determined. After all, without our health, our youth and elders, art, and outlets to let go and be seen – where would we be?
The entities spotlighted here are not the only folks doing great work in and around Austin, but we're honored to share our community with them. More so, they act as an important reminder: Pride isn't just to be celebrated one weekend a year. – Sarah Marloff
Taking Care of Our Youth
How many LGBTQ youth live in Travis County?
Ask Kathryn Gonzales, Out Youth's operations and program director, and she'll offer their "most conservative" estimate: 15,000. After factoring in the 10 surrounding counties, the number swells to somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 kids, all of which fall under the local nonprofit's service umbrella.
"It's daunting," acknowledges Gonzales, who explains that Out Youth – an organization that's worked with Central Texas youth of all orientations and gender identities for nearly three decades – stands equipped to serve about 1,000 clients internally per year. Kids, mainly age 12 to 18, come to the two-story "little blue house" in North Central Austin for resources like counseling, "drop-in" social hours, and a transgender wellness program in partnership with the Kind Clinic (Austin's full-service sexual health and gender care clinic).
Staff, services, and a growing demand combined, it's a full house these days. "We're maxed out on space," says Gonzales. "I can't – I wish I could – wave a magic wand and change that." But what Out Youth lacks in square footage, they exceed in entrepreneurial spirit. Gonzales says they're exploring options like teletherapy, community-based GSAs (Gender and Sexuality Alliances), and in-school support groups. "We're going to kids where they're at," she says, with the goal of reaching more kids remotely.
Indeed, Gonzales admits this new strategy is uncharted territory, but at its core lies Out Youth's guiding principle that's never led them astray. "What Out Youth has known for 28 years will never change: When you create safe spaces for [LGBTQ] youth to talk about what they're going through, their life outcomes improve. Period." Why? "Because they feel less alone."
Gonzales says this feeling of isolation is a leading factor behind why "LGBTQ youth, by and large, are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing skills like teamwork, cooperation, and social" know-hows. Encouraging kids to open up to others and embrace self-discovery can be a difficult process for Gonzales and her team, but when they do break through, there's nothing else like it. "To see the life come back to their eyes, to see them smile and laugh, [especially] for the ones who couldn't speak above a whisper on their first day to now be the loudest ones in the room" is the part of Gonzales' job that gives her the most joy. "I get to watch our kids come back to life." – Beth Sullivan
Taking Care of Our Health
For over 32 years, allgo has celebrated, nurtured, and cared for Austin's queer and trans people of color. But recently, the organization has heightened its focus on supporting the mental and physical well-being of the community, thanks to a grant from Austin Public Health's Equity Unit. As Health and Wellness Advocate Jae Lin explains, health care for QTPOC folks can be "dehumanizing, inconsistent, and unreliable," which results in racial health disparities cutting across income lines.
As the Chronicle has covered (see "The State of Trans Health Care," April 14, 2017), Western health care often excludes, dissects, and stigmatizes members of the QTPOC community, and those negative actions can extend beyond doctors' offices and into yoga, herbal, and other self-care classes, which are frequently led by white people. Although some QTPOC folks have found healing in these spaces, others find them isolating and – at worst – retraumatizing.
Program Coordinator ena ganguly explains that, because of negative experiences with the health care system, the network of trust between QTPOC folks and health care providers "could be better," which is where allgo comes in. The Health and Wellness Program actively works to build trust within the community and increase access to support. Doing so allows QTPOC folks to have "really important conversations" that they don't necessarily "feel comfortable having with their health care providers," says ganguly. "Or maybe they would never think to ask."
In crafting the program, allgo chose to take a holistic and humanizing approach to wellness that balances physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual health. The program's work is rooted in QTPOC traditions of healing that rejects prescribed assumptions on what self-care should look like and how it should be done. Their bimonthly community discussions are facilitated by community members – many of whom are returning participants who were inspired by previous events. The conversations are treated as a platform for facilitators to manifest their own visions, and topics range from Kitchen Witchery to Practicing Polyamory in a World of Oppressions and Possibilities.
Each spring, allgo also hosts a QTPOC Community Healing Health Fair that connects nonprofits, healers, and practitioners with the greater community. Aside from building a "network of trust," Lin says the fair serves as an important reminder that "a lot of the solutions to the issues our communities face can be solved within our own communities." – Charlie Neddo
Taking Care of Our Elders
Isolation is the No. 1 issue for Austin's LGBTQ elders, according to a 2016 focus group on aging in the community. That group, which has since evolved into the LGBT Coalition on Aging, formed to tackle isolation and ensure change was made to the city's Age Friendly plan.
"We're the generation that went through the AIDS crisis," recaps Charles Curry, a founding member of the coalition and Austin Prime Timers, a social organization for mature gay and bisexual men. "Based on our experience, we're not real trusting that the city or anybody else" will take the ideas unearthed in the focus group and make them happen, because "they didn't before."
The coalition has their work cut out for them. The 2016 focus group remains the city's only attempt to survey LGBTQ elders (as many in the aging community have not reclaimed "queer," it's often omitted from group names), but a recent national survey from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) found that 60% of LGBTI adults over 45 are concerned about long-term care, while 73% say they do not have access to LGBTI-specific senior services.
The coalition is starting to address some of the concerns identified locally and in AARP's survey. One of their main goals is to offer trainings to senior service providers, and they've recently finished teaching soon-to-be presenters using curriculum from SAGE, the national LGBT elder advocacy organization. Other areas of focus include centralizing the community, decreasing barriers to inclusive medical care, and advocating for affordable and friendly housing options. They're also continuing to gather feedback, because the community members "most in need are going to be the hardest to reach," explains Curry.
But now they have help, thanks to the newly formed Austin LGBT Elder Task Force headed by the World Famous *BOB*, who moved to Austin from New York last year after working for SAGE. She's served on the coalition's steering committee and hopes to start a local SAGE affiliate to offer additional LGBTQ-specific senior programming. The task force recently hosted a potluck for LGBTQ folks age 18 to 110, because *BOB*'s goal is to "stop the desexualition of older bodies" and unite generations.
"The best way to learn about our [community's] history, our struggle and victories, and what's going on now is by spending time with each other," says *BOB*. Her advice: "Reach out to somebody older than you and somebody younger than you. Make sure you're always in the middle." – C.N.
Taking Care of Our Nightlife
One night, you may find yourself at a p1nkstar and Y2K show transported to a Lisa Frank fever dream of jelly jewelry and neon crop tops. And you may ask yourself: "Who are these early Aughties aliens?"
"We're the pop girls," summarizes Y2K (also known as Yung Kwane). Their "pop" identity and new millennium auras, however, are deeper and weirder than Paris Hilton's Juicy velour tracksuit. Because, as p1nkstar adds, "We're the pop girls of the underground dark scene." And queerer, too. "I call myself the 'Desirous Virus Leading the Queer Apocalypse,'" says Y2K, and upon infection, "you're manifested into a big, queer world" where everyone's invited to embrace their big, queer selves.
The local performers – each their own act, but who often collaborate and perform together – create that world via music and conceptual shows mixing saccharine beats with subversive lyrics, tiaras with ball gags, and body hair with hypnotic ponytails. The sometimes-duo identify with (and thrive in) a realm far removed from this dimension's binaries. As space-makers, where they perform becomes a place where qmmunity members can embrace their otherness and be recognized.
They agree destabilizing gender and sexuality is an inherent, and important, aspect of their art. "I exist in between genders, in between sexualities," says p1nkstar, noting that she tries to "make music that's innocuous," but with "super strong queer aesthetics." Y2K feels at home in the inbetween, too. "You don't really know what you're getting from me, [whether] masculine or feminine vibes. ... That's what I go for." She explains, "I like you not being able to specifically tell me what I am."
Fluidity also plays into the space the duo creates within the queer creative community. The two feel they exist between scenes, equally straddling the worlds of nightlife, performance art, and underground electronic music. They've performed at DJ GirlFriend's all-queer music showcase GAyCL, appeared at Museum of Human Achievement art shows, and p1nkstar occasionally DJs and emcees community events.
Wherever they do – or don't – fall, one thing's for certain: Austin's queer nightlife will always be a haven for p1nkstar and Y2K, and they ensure it's a refuge for others, too. "That's our family," says Y2K. "It's more than just going out and partying. It's showing your art to people who appreciate and understand it." (And perhaps need it.) p1nkstar, who identifies as Latinx, says the family vibes among Austin's POC, queer, and femme artists helped her "be unafraid" to create art she was once scared to make. In turn, she's committed to further nurturing those sectors of the community. "I think nightlife, historically, is important to queer communities," she expounds. "It's a space where we can exist and thrive and create our alternative realities." – B.S.
Taking Care of Our Art
Art is powerful because "it's not restricted to language," says creator Natalia Rocafuerte. Perhaps that's why art is especially galvanizing during turbulent times. Where words fall short, art steps in as visual language to connect, affirm, and inspire.
For Rocafuerte and their Chulita Vinyl Club cohort Erin Gentry (MASS Gallery president and burgeoning artist), the current political climate has spurred a greater need for greater representation in the arts. Gentry, who's been with MASS for six years and approaches curation through a social justice lens, says they've been angling for more POC representation and more "identity-based" installations. In January, Gentry co-curated "Proxemics," a "super queer" show featuring several well-known queer and trans artists and showcased the body in all its glory, including a "big, gay sex pileup," painted by Xavier Schipani. Gentry said the show was a first for the gallery and queering the space "felt really good. ... MASS is small, but the more places that show queer, POC, and QPOC work allows more people to see that art," explains Gentry. Though visual art no longer carries the same reach as television and film, it still helps normalize the queer experience.
Rocafuerte agrees. As an androgynous, Latinx artist, they believe being visible in their artwork can help "release someone," from society's expectations. "There's a lot of duality – I want to hide, but I have to be seen," says Rocafuerte, who lives and creates in the "inbetween" of genders and nations, as a nonbinary, Mexican-Arab immigrant. A lot of their work is about "existing as an other." Similarly, Gentry identifies as genderqueer and was also born in Mexico.
Rocafuerte, whose installation Home Is Where My Papers Are is in Mexic-Arte Museum's "Young Latinx Artists 23" show, says, "It feels good to be the one to represent myself, especially since a lot of folks are talking about what people like me are supposed to be like and think [immigrants] are horrible." The artist, who gives tours at Mexic-Arte, is frequently faced with explaining their installation to guests and believes their art is helping change the narrative one story at a time. Visiting children often tell Rocafuerte they know what passports and green cards are, and describe immigration as "where they take your children away." The opportunity to address immigration and offer proof that it can get better is the silver lining for Rocafuerte.
Likewise, Gentry notes how impactful it is for queers to see their culture visually represented – and how it can support folks who are coming out or questioning their gender or sexuality. "It's important to see yourself reflected," because it makes you realize you're not alone. – S.M.