Citizen Green: Queering the Triad

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by Jordan Green

It was my wife’s idea.

We have a young friend here in Greensboro who came out last year, as a junior in high school. It was no surprise to my wife, who knew this boy as an 8-year-old who played with Barbie dolls.

And it was no big deal. He said something like, “Hey, guess what? I’m gay.” He came out to his friends and family, and has experienced no hazing at school that we’re aware of. His father is having a little trouble coming to terms with it, but will probably adjust in due time. Our friend has been accepted to NC A&T University this fall to study dance, and wants to transfer to a college in New York City in two years.

As I say, he’s out to his friends and family, but I’m not going to identify him here because it’s his prerogative to come out in a media forum on his own terms. I won’t ask permission to use his name because he would probably say it’s fine, but I feel somewhat protective towards him.

My wife had the idea that the three of us should attend a senior thesis concert on the theme of queer identity by an MFA dance student at UNCG. As defined by choreographer Michael Lee, who organized the dance recital, the term queer transcends both gay and cisgender identities, the latter term referring to people whose gender identities match the genders they were assigned at birth. The concert, Inbalanced/Inversion, explores Lee’s personal journey as a queer person parallel to the development of the queer movement.

We located the venue, a warehouse full of unused brewing equipment situated along the railroad tracks on the backside of Spring Garden Street, with little trouble. The first movement was already underway when we arrived on March 28, the second and final night of the concert, and we took our place with about a hundred people along the four walls.

Domonique Edwards and Kaitlin Clow, representing women pushing against the cultural repression of the 1950s, sat in straight-backed chairs dressed in long, conservative skirts while robotically intoning words like “inhibited” and “inconvenient.” Clearly yearning for an authentic experience of themselves, they seemed oppressed by repeated censure against transgression of the accepted norms of conventional sexuality. Then they began to roam the room, exploring the space and pushing against walls.

In the second movement Lee harshly enunciated the word “faggot” while changing out of a T-shirt and slacks and into a white gown and discussing his feelings of being different. As the performance unfolded, Lee gradually reclaimed the homophobic slur into as a term of empowerment.

Semi-public and verging on underground, the concert felt right in a warehouse. As Lee explained in the concert program, warehouses hold a long and esteemed history in queer culture as spaces set aside from the mainstream where people can feel safe being themselves. And warehouses are often considered ugly and devalued while possessing an intrinsic beauty that is in the process of becoming, like a butterfly metamorphosing from a cocoon.

Despite the Republican-led backlash against same-sex marriage across the state, it seems like the Triad cities, particularly Greensboro and Winston-Salem, are breaking out of their cultural straitjackets. Is an unabashedly queer dance recital in a semi-public space a mark of progress? Or is this cultural moment in urban North Carolina only one in a number of periodic upswings since the Stonewall uprising struck the first blow for gay liberation? It’s hard to say.

When I moved to Greensboro in 2004, I felt like I had taken a time machine back to the 1950s. Outside of an almost invisible anarchist circle of artists and activists, it wasn’t cool to talk about inequality, to care about politics or to challenge auto-oriented sprawl. Or maybe I was just too preoccupied with mainstream acceptance to notice the flowers pushing up through the cracks in the pavement.

As a student at Antioch College in the 1990s, I was profoundly moved by queer culture. Whatever your sexual orientation, the disruptive presence of queer culture opened up space to be yourself without worrying about fitting into a particular mold. I befriended a lesbian who called herself Lizard. She was a firecracker community organizer, and she turned me on to Lucinda Williams. We got matching crewcuts at the $5 barber in lower Manhattan. One of the highest compliments I ever received was when a filmmaker named Ricky Lee noticed I was carrying a Patsy Cline CD box set around campus, and said, “You’re such a dyke, Jordan.”

I haven’t given much thought since to how I relate to queer culture. Maybe I’ve defaulted to the easy privilege accorded the heterosexual majority. But I’m glad there’s room opening up for all of us to define our identities on our own terms.

I’m glad for our young friend who was watching the dance recital last Saturday. He didn’t care to stick around for the small-group discussion afterwards, but he watched every move of the recital with quiet attentiveness. He smiled with the self-possession of someone who knows himself.