There’s a lot of competition for this title, but I think the Queerest Night of My Life was spent at a burlesque show at a lesbian bar in Southeast D.C.
It was one night in the middle of a very queer semester—I was in the District for an LGBT internship, living in a house full of queer people, spending almost every night at some gay bar or reception or workshop or film screening or happy hour. There was a boozy night on the Hill with a delegation of foreign queer folks in town to lobby the World Bank; there was an evening at the British embassy to celebrate the beginning of marriage equality in England and Wales; there were countless drag shows and drag brunches and drag-yourself-to-work-the-morning-afters.
But the burlesque night sticks out in my memory as being one of the most amazing spaces I have ever shared in my life. The troupe was an inclusive, diverse group of badass bitches who did burlesque on the occasional Saturday night to feel beautiful. It was a way of flaunting their sexuality while still being very direct—I own this. I am letting you look. This is for me. I look beautiful. Tell me I look beautiful.
And the audience ate it up. They applauded, and laughed, and hooted, and danced, and dropped $1 bills like they weren’t all relatively poor folks living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. And those women left feeling beautiful. I left feeling beautiful. It was all so beautiful.
The bar was called Phase 1, and it doesn’t exist anymore. It was the oldest continually operating lesbian bar in the United States.
I am definitely not old enough to mourn the good ol’ days of queer culture, and I am definitely young enough to revel in the cultural moment we are currently living—where queer women dominate television, where legal equality makes strides every time you refresh the news, where more and more people feel comfortable living and owning queerness.
But there’s a certain queer anxiety associated with this moment, and I am not immune to it.
You’re probably most familiar with this anxiety from the anti-marriage equality wing of queer politics. Not the Not Now wing—not the people who say we are only prioritizing this because our organizations are funded by white cis gay men who want to save money on estate taxes, but in the meantime this community is killing itself, or being murdered, or living on the streets and in prisons and in institutions. No, I’m talking about the people who argued, flat-out, that queer folks should not want to get married.
The anxiety is that as the mainstream becomes queerer, queer people will necessarily become less so. After all, what is so odd, so queer, so boundary-pushing, about a bunch of people who get married and host awards shows and buy Subarus?
That anxiety didn’t make sense to me in 2015, during that sleepless week in June when I waited for the Court to drop Obergefell. Or at least, it didn’t make as much sense to me as the anxiety of not being legally entitled to your kid, or your health care, or your job.
It’s starting to make sense to me now.
AfterEllen was a website for talking about lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer women characters, writers, actors, models, musical artists, athletes, and thinkers, but it was never just that.
When I was a senior in high school, AfterEllen was a revelation. It was a lifeline. It was a provocation. It was a burlesque show.
AfterEllen, like Phase 1, was queer space. And “queer space” isn’t just about space for people who are queer. It’s about creating a space to incubate the next generation of queer—the next idea (after we adjust to the image of two gay dads, a picket fence, and 2.1 children) that society considers too threatening and dangerous to let stand. It’s about counting and celebrating the number of queer women on TV while simultaneously asking why so many of them keep dying.
It’s about creating a space for people who want to push society to be a little less conformist, a little less oppressive, a little more offbeat, a little more willing to pop on some pasties and shake its titties.
Today, I’m mourning the loss of another queer space, and I’m feeling some generalized anxiety about what will take its place.
But if there was ever a time to believe in the creativity and resilience of queer people, now is that time. Find your space, and make it queer. Find a queer space, and support it.
In the words of AfterEllen‘s editor-in-chief:
Support queer women, women of color, trans women—give other deserving women your money, your eyeballs, your attention. Donate to their Kickstarters, visit their websites, advertise in their pages, buy their albums, go see their films in theaters, purchase their novels, frequent their businesses.
Queer women are worthy. We are worthy.
It’s a fitting parting message, because it’s the lesson AfterEllen taught me—and so many of us—when we first landed on its home screen.
We are part of a community. We owe each other something. We owe ourselves something. We owe society something.
We are worthy.
Jacqui is a terrible dinner party guest—she only knows how to talk about politics and religion. On a typical Friday night, she can be found binge-watching her current Netflix show of choice, playing Civilization: The Board Game and drinking <$8 bottles of champagne.