Black Queer Nightlife Panel Explores Creating Place



Doctress Julian Kevon Glover (second to the left) found and fostered community through the ballroom scene, an integral part of Black queer nightlife.

Featuring scholars on the cutting edge of Black queer studies and research, a panel on Black queer Nightlife explored themes of intersectionality, resilience, placemaking, and the diverse experiences of Black queer communities. Associate Professor of Sociology Greggor Mattson and Director and Faculty in Residence of Afrikan Heritage House Candice Raynor organized last Thursday’s Zoom panel as part of the Black History Month programming and Mattson’s Disco Déjeuner Lunchtime Speaker Series. 

Much of Assistant Professor of Sociology at Bowdoin College Theodore Greene’s research concerns placehood and how queer people create culture by rooting themselves in a physical location. His current book project, titled Not in MY Gayborhood: Gay Neighborhoods and the Rise of the Vicarious Citizen, focuses on the ways citizens protect their neighborhoods and the lives they have built there from the threatening forces of gentrification. Greene initially chose Washington, D.C. — a city with a deep-rooted Black queer community — as a place to start his research. He knew he wanted to examine race dynamics, as methodologies in Gender and Sexuality Studies frequently exclude the subject. 

“I wanted to pick a place where I could not avoid examining African-American LGBTQ people,” Greene said. “And so as part of the study, thinking about some of the ways people keep gay neighborhoods alive, I was doing a lot of ethnographic work. There was just so much great data going on about queer people of color in these white bars and white spaces and how they sort of made these places relevant to them that I took a shot and did it.”

Studying the way these racial dynamics play out in queer nightlife is integral to Greene’s research, and has profoundly affected his life. His position in these spaces also provided him with opportunities to navigate them in different ways. 

“One of the reasons I even pursued this to begin with was thinking about all of the ways in which I’ve encountered rejection and exclusion on the basis of being a gay Black man occupying new spaces that are supposed to be safe for me,” Greene said. “When you’re standing at the bar waiting for someone to serve you and one white guy comes up after another and the [bartender] sees them, you’re kind of invisible in that space. But at the same time, it presented an opportunity too, to be able to observe activities that were happening.”

Much like Greene, Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University Julian Kevon Glover’s work addresses space-making-and-taking by queer people of color in environments that might otherwise be inhospitable to them. 

“This very fervent creation of space is very much evidence of world-making practice for and amongst Black trans non-binary, lesbian, gay, and bisexual folk who have lived our lives at the intersections of un-belonging, if you will,” Glover said. “So we’ve responded to that by creating our own place to belong, our own way to celebrate ourselves.” 

After being kicked out of her home at 14 years old, Glover was immersed in the ballroom scene while being supported by three Black and Latinx trans women. For Glover, tracking ballroom’s influence on the wider culture is an immense — and immensely valuable — project. 

“There are a lot of moments where the ballroom comes into the mainstream, but it’s really still a rather insular culture formation that is akin to a whale emerging from the ocean to be seen, making a splash, and then going back under the radar for quite a long time,” Glover said. “And of course like with the whale, the ripples of the emergence can be felt for quite a long time. So that analogy is very [much] how I think about ballroom and all that it has to offer.” 

Making and creating space is a main principle of ballroom, one that characterizes the culture. 

“Folks in ballroom have never really been able to rely on having any kind of concretized or permanent physical space — that has never been the case,” Glover said. “This is one of the reasons why when you see clips from ballroom, it appears that the balls are happening everywhere and anywhere — because they are, because of spatial marginalization or really special exclusion when you really think about it, based on being both Black and queer.” 

Nightlife, and all of its spaces, offers both freedoms and limitations, but it has become what Black queer people have made of it. 

“I think we are starting hopefully to think about that notion of place as unstable, that place can change, that space is a holder,” Greene said. “I think that’s what’s so interesting, so powerful about placemaking now, and placemaking being done through this sexualities lens. We’re highlighting how sexuality is such an important area of study on the one hand, and on the other hand, it can reveal so much about the notion of what place is and what the limits and the potential is.” 

Mattson organized the Disco Déjeuner Lunchtime Speaker Series in tandem with a course he is teaching called “Nightlife: Place, Identity, and Feeling Alive.” One of the course’s goals is to platform Black queer scholars and their work. 

“One of the main themes of the class is that nightlife can be a source of joy and thriving, but also of exclusions and inequalities,” Mattson wrote in an email to the Review. “It was important to us to mark Black History Month, honor the national and campus conversations about anti-Blackness, but also to celebrate these really exciting scholars who are doing critical work on the role that nightlife plays in sustaining Black queer communities.” 

The Disco Déjeuner Lunchtime Speaker Series extends from February through April, and will meet every other week at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time to discuss the present and future of nightlife from a variety of perspectives. The panel is also a part of a curation project by Oberlin faculty called Shared Distance led by Assistant Professor of Dance Al Evangelista.