One Big Gay Happy Family?

QueerBomb and 2011 Austin Pride have much more than a hunch about the nature of the LGBTQ community and celebration

QueerBomb Collective & Friends: (l-r, front row) Risa Puleo, Matt Korn, Silky Shoemaker, d.king, Tamicka Phillips, Brett Hornsby, Paul Soileau, Melissa Smith, Beth Schindler, Raven Hinojosa; (l-r, back row) Joanna Labow, Kate Messer, Joe Sanchez, Bobby Johns (derby hat), Sym Prole, and Albert Dixon
QueerBomb Collective & Friends: (l-r, front row) Risa Puleo, Matt Korn, Silky Shoemaker, d.king, Tamicka Phillips, Brett Hornsby, Paul Soileau, Melissa Smith, Beth Schindler, Raven Hinojosa; (l-r, back row) Joanna Labow, Kate Messer, Joe Sanchez, Bobby Johns (derby hat), Sym Prole, and Albert Dixon (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Members of QueerBomb, Austin's renegade counter-Pride, and members of the official Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation board agreed to sit down together in the offices of The Austin Chronicle last week. Last year, the relationship between the two organizations – as well as Austin Pride's with this paper, at various times – was contentious (to say the least). The agreement to meet felt, needless to say, significant.

My intention in gathering this group – four members from each "side," plus one neutral guest with 40 years of attending Pride celebrations – was not to find nirvana nor to sing "Kumbaya." My intention was not to create a be-all forum for each side to present its case nor to cover all turf. Trust me, I have tons of questions for both sides, were that the goal. The intention of this forum was to break the ice and navigate appropriate territories for understanding and possible future accord. That said, this group has agreed that continuing this conversation is a good idea. We will meet again, very soon.

For the sake of sanity (our darling interns Sara Reihani, Angela Garner, and Trey Gerlich took notes and transcribed), I moderated with set questions.

The entire transcript resides, with very limited editing, in the sidebar "QueerBomb/Pride Roundtable: Extended Remix." Each participant had so much more to say, and I am very grateful for their good natures and candor. I encourage readers to enjoy the interview in its entirety.

Is this the dawn of one big gay happy family for Austin's LGBTQ community? Members from both organizations seem optimistic. But truly, only time – and possibly Judy Garland – will tell.

In June 1969, a bunch of queers rose up against institutionalized harassment and threw some cha-cha heels at some cops. It lit a fire that none have since been able to extinguish.

In 2009, President Barack Obama declared June as National LGBT Pride Month. For any person truly involved in the struggle, June is a very special month. On the eve of Austin's second annual QueerBomb, I hope the words and concepts exchanged herein begin a dialogue of how Austin cares for her LGBTQ community, how we care for one another, and ultimately, how we can learn to love and care for ourselves.

Austin Chronicle: What was your first public LGBTQ celebration – whether it was a Pride, a march, a protest, or a party?

Joanna Labow, invited neutral guest, activist, Pride veteran, musician, and licensed psychotherapist: Stonewall was 1969, and the first Pride march wasn't called "Pride" back then. It was Christopher Street Liberation Day. I had just graduated from college. The U.S. had just invaded Cambodia secretly, so my college went on strike. Classes were boycotted. College in the 1960s was really pretty great. [laughter] It was a time of feeling involved in protest and hopeful that you could have input into politics. The first Pride march was June 28, 1970 – four days away from me turning 21, so I was a happy camper. I very nervously went to this march; I wasn't out to my family. We knew there'd be news media there, New York news, TV stuff, and the cops were very negative. We marched down one lane of a major street in New York; there's traffic coming behind us down the other lane. The cops would turn and put their backs to the marchers. But the little research I did shows there were about 5,000 people that showed up. ["wow"s all around] When we got to Central Park, there were thousands of people there, just thousands in the sheep meadow, what came to be known as "the gay-in."

In 1970, I could have gotten kicked out of college for being a homophile. I went to Douglass [Residential] College, the women's college at Rutgers. In 1969, a homophile group had started; it was the second college organization to have anything to do with queers in the country. It was mostly guys. The name is kind of repugnant now, isn't it? "Homophile." [laughter] I so prefer "gay" and "queer," but those words weren't even around at that point.

Paul Huddleston, vice president, Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation: My first experience was when I was 16. I went to my uncle's drag show, and the next day marched next to him in Gay Pride in Dallas. That was in '97. We marched with PFLAG [Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays] in the parade.

Nathan Garcia, entertainment chair, Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation: Mine was in 1991. I was part of the crew that started Gay Pride with the Lesbian Gay Pride Commission of Austin. With Kip [Dollar] and Toby [Johnson of Liberty Books] and Pat [Kramer], and all them marching up Congress. We made ourselves very well known. After that, we had Pride at Waterloo Park. Everybody marched from the Capitol after the rally to celebrate there. I thought that was convenient!

Beth Schindler, member, QueerBomb: I was raised here in Austin by cool hippie parents. I was raised by a lot of drag queens, also. My mom worked at Charlie's and was a waitress. So, it was really normal at my house to wear lipstick and nail polish and to also have a penis. The first real Pride I went to was in San Francisco about 12 years ago. That was mind-blowing. I mean that's some other-level shit that none of us can ever aspire to. No matter what you're into, there's a march or parade for you.

AC: As you all approach planning your events, what does community mean to you with regard to gay celebration/LGBTQ togetherness?

Bobby Johns, member, QueerBomb: I don't speak for everyone at QueerBomb. For us to have four people from QueerBomb is very peculiar, because QueerBomb is an open forum for anyone who wants to be active. That's a way that we define our community; it's a collective. It's all opinions, all in. I love the collective. That's important.

Garcia: Last year, sitting on the outside and having friends on both sides [of QueerBomb and Pride] was troubling. I wanted everybody get along, just like in '91; everybody was together. I would like for everybody to feel like they're under one umbrella, per se, and still be recognized for their individuality. And I said, "You know what, if you don't like something, do something yourself." That's half the reason why I got involved with the [Pride] board.

Matt Korn, member, QueerBomb: Pride has lost liber- .... It's not called liberation anymore. There was a conscious choice in the '80s to say, "We're not about liberation anymore," and, "We don't want to rock the boat." That was one of the biggest mistakes our movement ever made – to silence ourselves, to say that any facet of our community should not have their voice heard and should not be allowed a platform.

Karen Thompson, president, Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation: One of the things that was troubling to us last year was that we didn't have people of African descent represented fairly. We continue to look at that. We don't want to force people, we don't want to minimize people and have them fill a quota or a number or anything. We want to reach out and reach out widely. How do we find each other? How do we open ourselves up to each other?

Silky Shoemaker, member, QueerBomb: When I think of community, I think of my queer family. I don't feel I have a blood family that sets an example for me in a linear ancestral way, in that these are my role models. I do find that in the queer community and in queer history. A part of community for me is rooted in that idea of the radical lineage of all of these amazing creatures that have come before and paved the way. There are things that are inherent in being queer, like loving Judy Garland or ... [laughter]. Just kidding. It ultimately comes down to loving each other and accepting each other for who we are without shame, and shame can take a lot of different disguises. It can sort of cloak itself in a sort of selling out or compromising a little bit of ourselves in order to please someone else – to smooth into the mainstream a little more.

Johns: Community is all-inclusive. I hope that today we will eradicate any sense of us-versus-them, QueerBomb-versus-Pride. We don't want it to exist, and I know that y'all don't want it to exist either. A good example of that from our side is in picking the first Friday of June, not Saturday, when the bulk of Pride festivities [traditionally] happened. We did that because we didn't want this to be "You have to choose between these two groups."

Schindler: The one thing that I want to address is the class issue. That feels like a huge division between QueerBomb and Pride. For me, that was one of the major issues, and it had nothing to do with me being gay or not gay. It had to do with the fact that I didn't have money, and I didn't look or assimilate in this certain way. I could be straight-acting, I guess, if I didn't hang out with certain people. I'm not rich, white, and straight-acting. I don't know how to fit in here. That was a big hurdle. I participated in the last three Prides. And the whole time I felt like a sore thumb. I was, like: "Where are all my freaks? Where are my people?"

Johns: The reason why I got involved in QueerBomb is because for me, assimilation equals death. And I saw all of this – and it wasn't from Pride, it was from media sources here in Austin that were pounding this message of assimilation into the gay community. "Buy the things that straight people buy; dress like the straight people dress; be like the straight people, and they'll like you and be more accepting of you." This is ridiculous! We've all rolled over and are digging our own graves.

Korn: I've organized marches, and I know you can't do this shit for free. But something that is a problem for a lot of people in the LGBT community is corporate sponsorship. Some of the worst corporations are represented [as sponsors]. They want our money, but [many] are involved in busting unions, breaking strikes, environmental devastation. And even after we raise all this money from some of these worst corporations in the world, we still charge people to get into Pride.

We've found a lot of common ground with this conversation. We want to be all-inclusive, but that also means making it accessible for people, financially. For the trans community: There is a community with well over 50 percent unemployment. The average income is something like $10,000 a year? That's a huge set of people that not only are excluded politically so much of the time, but then financially excluded, as well.

AC: One of the feather-rufflers on both sides of the Pride/QueerBomb continuum is this: What is the line between family-friendly versus freedom of expression – specifically of gay pride?

Shoemaker: I hate it. It's really sad when the term "family-friendly" is used to instill a fear or some kind of reaction from the larger world – or from within our own community. It's totally possibly to be ourselves and have that be really good for kids. I don't think "family-friendly" should only mean about kids. But to the extent that it does, it's totally possible for parents to raise their kids in an atmosphere where we're remembering that now, gay parents can raise their kids out in public because queens were rioting in the streets, queer hookers were throwing shit at cops. All of this radical, sexual, crazy stuff has brought us to a point where we're allowed all of these liberties that we take much more for granted now.

Rick Holmberg, secretary, Austin Gay and Lesbian Pride Foundation: When I was 23 or 24, we went to L.A. for their Gay Pride parade. There were people on those big flat-bed trucks getting flogged. It was my first experience with all of this; my eyes were huge. It was really cool. They were experiencing who they were on the street, out in the open.

Well, how do those two worlds get put together on the same stage? Other cities have done it, and they made it work. And we are in Texas. That's the other side of that, too. Are we ready for that here? There are going to be the family people perhaps that get upset when they see the Fleshjack [sex toy] people there, and the Fleshjack people saying, "Why do you have kids at our event?" We struggle with that a little bit. We haven't run into that yet this year, but we've got a couple of months until the festival, and I suspect we're going to run into that again.

Korn: I want to pick up on what [Holmberg] said about this being Texas and what that really means. That [statement] is often used as a trope to say, "Oh, this is the most conservative state in the Union," so we have to tone everything down. But we have to remember: This is Texas. This is a state with a lot of people who are in the closet in small towns, and they come to Pride as a place where they can be who they want to be. I'm fighting for sexual liberation. Our community has been Will & Grace-ified. We have ceased to be gay because we have sex with people of the same sex or we have any number of ways of messing with societal norms about sex and gender; we're gay because we're effeminate, and we like musicals. It's become about appearance and what you do on your off-hours ....

Schindler: And what you buy.

Huddleston: We are all gay, and at some point, we have to say: "We all want the same thing, collectively. We want our freedom and our rights. We want the right to marry and the right to march down Congress in our leather chaps and vest if we choose to, in the parade; that's our right." I had to get involved, because last year, it just felt that it had come to a head: The community was dividing and separating. I travel quite a bit ... I've been to San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Seattle, Orlando, Miami – and seen Prides with guys marching in leather, dripping hot wax, right next to PFLAG. It can be all-inclusive. Other cities like New Orleans – I mean, come on, it's debauchery all the time, right? – [were] able to come together, a city half our size, and open their own gay and lesbian center. As a collective – gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, however you identify yourself – we have to come together and work together and say, "This is who we are."

Schindler: Our community is us having these separate events. I fantasize about one day if I were ever going to get married, how would I have that party? That sounds impossible; I would have to have QueerBomb, and I would have to have my mom and weird aunt [laughter]. How do you do that? I don't know that it's entirely possible. And I don't know that I would want to go to that party [explosive laughter]. I don't want to have to try to figure out how to make that work for kids. I like the idea of parents being the ones who get to choose what their kids are exposed to.

Holmberg: That's the key. Let parents make informed decisions so they know if they want to see. Let them know, "Hey, around this corner is a butt plug." [laughter] So, take your kid there or not. That's our responsibility. Not to say, "Yeah you can," or, "No you can't." But to say, "Hey look, over there, this is what's going on, make your informed decision as a parent," and allow them to be a parent.

Johns: This is how and why [QueerBomb and Pride] need each other. It is not ours to decide; it's the parents' to decide how they want to parent their children. Our rally and our march are all-ages; that's very important to us. We had a lot of families marching with us last year with their kids; it was beautiful.

Schindler: [Pride and QueerBomb] complement each other really well in this way, as long as we can squash this beef. "My family" cannot just mean "my kids" – which I don't have – it can mean "my friends." I want to want to go to your Pride. I want to want that. I want to support you guys; I want you to be really successful. That's really important.

AC: If you are with Austin Pride: What is QueerBomb? And if you are QueerBomb: What is Austin Pride?

Garcia: QueerBomb is half of me. I can see both sides. I was there last year. I was a little sad I couldn't get in [to the QueerBomb party], but I was happy because it was so busy. So I went to Cheer Up Charlie's and hung out for an hour, went back, couldn't get in, went back, couldn't get in [laughter]. One of my reasons for joining the [Pride] board was – I don't want to say I am this bridge – that I wanted to bring this element, to make Pride feel more accessible, because I am all of this, and I don't understand division.

Shoemaker: Pride is everyone's to own, and I mean that as the concept and literally as the celebration. QueerBomb is Austin Pride for me. In terms of the Pride Foundation, it's a responsibility and an honor to represent the queer and gay community in any city. When I think of Austin Pride, I've thought of it as a group of well-intentioned and business-motivated people that have come together because they have economic resources; they choose to represent the LGBTQA people in the city. It's totally necessary and important for everyone to feel that they can access Pride; the Pride Foundation is available to a lot of people, in a way that QueerBomb is not, maybe yet.

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