by Angelica De Jesus and Lydia Weiss
For many queer people, perhaps especially for those of us growing up in rural and non-LGBTQ–hub cities like New York City, spaces of traditional practice are often the first spaces we learn to be subversive. Sometimes these are the first spaces we learn that we’re queer.
We learn(ed) our queerness at traditional dinners when we didn’t gesture in line with our assigned gender. We learn(ed) during prayer, wearing crimson faces of condemnation. We learned how to use our imaginations during traditional partner dances. We learned to confess behind curtains, and we found our bodies in banjo strings. We found each other during harvests and in food pantries, on bicycles and in dance halls, on electric dirt of a river’s edge, and in the percussive sounds of feet stomping and hands on drums.
Each moment of queer practice (or performance?) within traditional spaces becomes a seed of queer traditions, traditions that queer people (re)create among ourselves and within our broader communities. The Queer Traditions Summit, which was held on August 10 and 11 in East Lansing, had a successful inaugural run and is one blossom emerging from these seeds of subversion.
“It started because we three co-organizers [Nic Gareiss, Molly McBride, and Micah Ling] all work at the Great Lakes Folk Festival and believed that queer folklife was missing from that narrative, at our local festival and at folk festivals across the country. We decided it was time to have a queer folk festival, and so I successfully applied for a grant through the New Leaders Arts Council of Michigan, which is affiliated with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and was very fortunate to receive funding from them,” said McBride.
The Summit served as a way to elevate the experiences of queer people in traditional spaces and queer traditions. “One of the primary endeavors is to reexamine performances of queerness,” Gareiss explained. “And by performances, I mean both corporeal performances and performances of traditional material culture, as well as foodways, poetry, and performances of queerness that are from spaces that have not traditionally been associated with queerness.” The two-day event included several forms and modes of creating traditions — through poetry, food, textiles, dance, art, voice, music and many other forms of unique expressions of connection and traditions.
Keeping these traditions alive, sharing them, and coming together to learn about them is not only an effort in recognizing and celebrating them but is also a deep form of empowerment. It’s a form of resistance. In a world that continuously privileges and elevates the experiences of those whose lives are considered “normal” and mainstream, traditions outside of this norm inherently become queer. “Oppressive” forces often privilege certain narratives, experiences, and traditions and erase others. McBride agrees: “Recognizing and building our queer traditions is absolutely crucial in this increasingly dangerous political moment. To me, when we invest in local traditions, we’re investing in alternative economies and ways of co-existing and governing. Traditions themselves, like queer brunches or community gardens, are as equally important as the ideologies they engender. At the risk of overgeneralizing, it’s like grassroots politics that we connect with specific histories and lineages that are core to our community.” There is a beautifully intertwined resistance and grounding practice inherent to queer traditions.
But it’s not just LGBTQIA identified folks who create queer traditions. Practices and traditions that fall outside of the patriarchal, capitalist, homogeneous norms around us can all be viewed and honored as queer traditions. As resistance, resistance to the boxes that historically try to erase our identities. Resistance to the systems that would otherwise see us blend into the mundane and “normal.” Resistance to isolation, silence, fear, and suffering.
Instead, spaces like the Queer Traditions Summit and all of the queer traditions therein help honor and shed a beautiful light onto our existence, our history, our futures. “Queer traditions are often those of resistance and subversion,” Ling explained. “They aren’t always tangible. This could be subverting expectations of who practices textile traditions, like Levon Kafafian, or resisting normative Southern culture by singing songs about the actual one you love like Sam Gleaves. Perhaps more than ever, we need these attitudes, skill sets, rebellious spirits, senses of humor, and senses of ferocity.”
Gareiss echoed that celebrating that spirit of queer folklife, the “everyday cultures, aesthetic expressions, and traditional arts of LGBTQIA+ people,” was one of the summit’s “main goals.” This type of celebration becomes a space of empowered grounding. Queer traditions are often where we find our community — our sense of belonging. They are what tie us together, connecting us to our souls and to each other.
So continue to resist, create, and celebrate the traditions that bring you closer to yourself and your community.