This text arises out of crisis—both historical and contemporary, political and theological—as a philosophical critique of the past and a present shift in collective consciousness, as the mandate to create a future, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., in “The Beloved Community.” Crisis can catalyze new and expansive paradigms by rejecting antiquated epistemologies that serve to maintain the status quo, and engaging methodologies of radical listening that surpass the faculty of the ear and respond to ancestral cries for freedom. It is grounded in this kind of philosophical, theological, political “Trinitarian” framework that aligns with the progressive pedagogy of Paulo Freire. As a result, crisis serves as a Foucauldian epistemological rupture, radically going against the hegemonic grain, allowing the crisis to remain unnamed, reacting neither to the neoliberal impulse for silence (e.g., Ronald Reagan during the first seven years of the AIDS crisis, 1981-1988) nor the liberal use of what sound-art collective Ultra-red terms “value form” (e.g., Bill Clinton’s crime bill of 1994 and his “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy of 1993).
In 1992 Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins offered a pivotal analysis that lends credence to why the unnamed crisis is still vital at this moment:
In an increasingly poststructuralist world, however, positivist sociological interpretations of social reality have been challenged forcefully by people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and other historically marginalized groups. From their perspectives, the claims of sociology to be a value-neutral, objective science ring false. To them, sociological traditions produced by a homogeneous circle of insiders represent a partial perspective on social relations. Race, class, gender, and heterosexism now present major challenges to the field as a whole. Yet despite these significant changes, the inner circle of sociological theory—its membership, epistemology, and theoretical frameworks—remains strangely untouched by the changes buffeting the remainder of the discipline.
True to Collins’ assertion and to the history of global progressive politics emerging from this crisis, a collective called Vogue’ology was formed. Vogue’ology is part of a multi-phase, long-term curriculum created in collaboration with Ultra-red and members of New York City’s HBC. This collaboration rests on a common commitment to struggle for individual and collective freedom in the face of poverty, racism, gender, and sexual oppression. The curriculum provides an opportunity to be in conversation about how various creative practices in the HBC might reflect on or function as strategies of freedom. Vogue’ology is a pedagogy that privileges the simultaneous use of teaching and learning as a protocol necessary for deep learning, and listening as the precursory condition for justice-making. This allows suffering to speak as fundamental to liberation work, to what the Black church calls a “life-calling,” and to the ethical and moral imperative of a full human rights agenda.
As a collective grounded in the ethos of community, Vogue’ology has been in dialogue with long traditions of collaborative, creative work concerned with emancipation or liberation. Teaching and learning are as central to these traditions as they are to the many art practices wrestling with the dialectics of oppression and liberation, resistance and resilience. For this reason, pedagogy has been a constant and consistent reference point of Vogue’ology’s work as reflected in the etymology of its name. It derives, with intention, from the HBC’s most emblematic art expression and practice—Voguing—and from cultural-political-theological formation. What Vogue as an art form has done for the HBC illustrates Angela Davis’ thesis, that “progressive art can assist people to learn not only about the objective forces at work in the society in which they live, but also about the intensely social character of their interior lives. Ultimately, it can propel people toward social emancipation.”
…a wedge is driven between Blackness and sexuality and gender identities that makes even the collective struggle for freedom an occasion for deep and painful fragmentation.
Due to its demographic composition, which includes gay men, lesbians, gender non-conforming, and transgender people, the HBC has long borne the burdens of a theological assessment of homosexuality as an abomination. The Leviticus code, in particular, defines LGBT bodies and practices as a priori the negation of all that is good in the flesh. Given the central role of the Black Church in the long struggle for freedom from white supremacy, this theological violence is also a historical violence in that a wedge is driven between Blackness and sexuality and gender identities that makes even the collective struggle for freedom an occasion for deep and painful fragmentation.
Consequently, the HBC has been situated historically and theologically outside the image of God—the Imago Dei. Historically, one of the most effective ways to discredit a community has been to put its members on trial, accuse them of transgressions, particularly sexual transgressions, and dehumanize them either by condemning them to death or by allowing them to die.
Theorists, historians, and theologians have described and examined how this discrediting and dehumanizing of a people, often with references to sexual depravity, was used against African slaves in America (Kelly Brown Douglas). This was the strategy at the heart of the post-1865 emancipation of slaves in the US, giving rise to Jim Crow policies and the lynching of Black people as a means of terror and a form of social control (James Cone). We saw the same process at work in allowing Black women and Black gay men to suffer and die of AIDS during the early days of the epidemic, under the political regime of Ronald Reagan, and through the abomination doctrines of a politically divisive, homophobic Black community (Cathy Cohen). For more than 200 years, the US government “constitutionalized” Blacks as not human in America (Cornel West). Through the American project of democracy, institutions have been constructed—slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex—that reduce people and communities, specifically Black ones, “to the barest biological subsistence because it pushes them outside the law and the polity”, as we saw in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina (Angela Davis). When it comes to Black LGBT people, this dehumanizing structure is further amplified by the Black church’s hegemonic narrative of homosexuality as an abomination. The HBC, being predominantly Black and Latino, is situated historically, politically, theologically, and philosophically in relation to this history.
It is more commonplace to engage in discourse on racism rather than on xenophobia in an American context, and especially with regards to racially marginalized LGBT folk. According to Wikipedia, “Xenophobia can manifest itself in many ways involving the relations and perceptions of an in-group towards an out-group, including a fear of identity loss, suspicion of its activities, aggression, and a desire to eliminate its presence to secure a presumed purity.” For the HBC, xenophobia manifests not only in relation to perception of colour or race, but also in relation to the perception of the LGBT body. The HBC experiences xenophobia through multi-layered and multi-dimensional dichotomies such as:
- Blackness in relation to American nation-building;
- homosexuality in relation to homophobic Black/Latino communities;
- Black/Latino LGBT community in relation to the dominant white LGBT community; and
- Black/Latino trans people in relation to Black/Latino cis-gender privilege.
Furthermore, “Xenophobia can also be exhibited in the form of an ‘uncritical exaltation of another culture,’ in which a culture is ascribed ‘an unreal, stereotyped and exotic quality.’” The HBC—with its artistic practices rooted in the Black radical aesthetics tradition, and its cultural, political, and theological formulations rooted in a history of the Black struggle for freedom—has been commodified and misappropriated through the white supremacist gaze via Madonna’s song and video “Vogue” (1990), Jennie Livingston’s documentary “Paris is Burning” (1990), recent contemporary white European Vogue competitions, and so on. It has also been commodified and misappropriated by Black Entertainment & Fashion through a heteronormative gaze produced by Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Willow Smith, among others, and by almost every Black reality show on television today.
Despite this visibility, we are witnessing increasing violence and health disparities in the HBC. Black/Latina trans-women continue to be brutalized and murdered in increasing numbers; the NYC LGBT Anti-violence Project reports there have already been 7 this year (as of April 2017). The Center for American Progress, NYC State Department of Health, The True Colors Fund, and The National Coalition for The Homeless all report significantly high numbers of LGBT homelessness, ranging from 20-40% nationally in the US, to 30% in NYC, with a disproportionate representation of LGBT youth of color.
1 in 2 Black gay men and 1 in 4 Latino gay men will be HIV positive in their lifetime.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control report that young Black/Latino gay men have the highest HIV prevalence/incidence rates in the world. In February 2016, the CDC also released data through the agency’s NCHHSTP Newsroom online platform that 1 in 2 Black gay men and 1 in 4 Latino gay men will be HIV positive in their lifetime. Both the New York City and the New York State Departments of Health as well as numerous researchersreport that the HBC has been disproportionately affected by HIV and other health disparities. In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo drafted The BluePrint as a political response and strategy to radically reduce new HIV infection rates in the state by the year 2020, as a means to ending the AIDS epidemic in New York State. One of the document’s strongest analyses was its focus on the HBC as a priority.
We are currently in the 35th year of the AIDS pandemic, and what it has mostly produced is the materialization of historical-theological logic as the chronic physical, emotional, spiritual crises of Black gay and bisexual men and transgender persons. Attempts to circumvent this impasse using the science of public health have been unsuccessful. In fact, the field’s reductive and objectifying approach to sexuality only alienates members of this community further from ourselves, our partners, and our bodies. Karl Marx, in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, asserts that “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
The historical and contemporary, political and theological unnamed crisis leads us to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human, Black, gay, same-gender-loving, queer, and read as the antithesis to God? What does it mean to be exiled from our people’s history and struggle for freedom, having to live—in the words of W.E.B. Du Bois—under the “veil”? He wrote, “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.”