I remember picking up Michelle Tea’s book Valencia back when I was 18, reading about a queer San Francisco that seemed worlds away from a small apartment in Daly City. I had to wrap my head around the fact that Mission St. in Daly City led straight to the legendary Mission district where the queer population of the City congregated.

I thought about those times as I drove to the mission yesterday a little after noon, excited for Radar Production’s Bars, Baths & Butches: A Queer Historical Tour of Valencia & 16th. A friend invited me to join the tour and it never occurred to me that such a thing even existed, a decade into staying in the Bay Area.

The sun was high up Saturday noon, as the walls of the Women’s Building on 18th St. glistened in the October sun. Folks young and old were slowly milling on the alley way that served as the meeting spot for the tour, as my friend and I took the last drags of our cigarettes, prepared to join the group.

I looked at the faces around me — mostly white, older lesbians — and silently wished for more queer people of color. The first time I visited the Women’s Building was when I was 17, as a young immigrant baby dyke eager to learn about queer sexuality. I think it was right after reading Valencia too. The Building was holding a free class and I remember feeling queasy and extremely intimidated by the three other white butches in the room in their leather jackets and shaved heads. I never went back to the class but it was enough of an experience for me at that time, utterly confused but feeling like I was onto something I should further investigate.

A few minutes later, the tour’s organizers welcomed everyone. There were folks from Radar Productions, a San Francisco-based non-profit that organizes and produces literary events in the Bay Area, and from the GLBT Historical Society which collects, preserves and interprets the history of GLBT people and the communities that support them.

 In addition to the Women’s Building, the group made stops at the Lexington Club, Amelia’s and Esta Noche, historical queer spaces that have been shut down and replaced. there were performances in each stop: a poem to commemorate the Lex, the only lesbian club in the City which closed in April 2015, another poem to remember Amelia’s where Lynn Breedlove performed with their punk band, and Esta Noche on 16th St., where Persia performed to commemorate the space where drag queens once held shows. My heart, disculpe. 

And then it hit me: while national conversations around gender identity and sexuality are becoming more mainstream, the reality is that physical spaces have vanished in San Francisco. Of course Castro remains, but it has always been the haven of white gay men. Places for queer women, specially for queer women of color, are simply gone.

While part of me feels the loss of these spaces, I also know that queer folks have made our own ways of creating safe spaces for ourselves where we can celebrate each other, honor the ways we’ve learned how to survive. While we cannot reclaim past sites of intimacy, we’ve been able to recreate spaces of love and community. We’ve seen and felt the destruction of toxic heteronormativity, and how we’ve always responded with resilience.

Though we tremble before uncertain futures
may we meet illness, death and adversity with strength
may we dance in the face of our fears.

– Gloria  E. Anzaldúa 

Bars, Baths & Butches

Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: 5 Queer Poets of Color You Need to Know

Poetry, Sunday Spotlight

There’s nothing like queer poets of color who can speak truth to power, paint the most intimate landscapes, reach the most vulnerable parts of us and simultaneously make us swoon / ache. The recent deaths of 49 queer Latinx and Black familia in Orlando cannot impair resilience — it will continue to light up the deepest tunnels where hatred and violence live, the way poetry illuminates and gives life to things we are often afraid to say.

In the face of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, here are five queer poets of color you need to know:

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and educator, whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the “in-betweeness” that exists in us all. She is the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, 2013 Hispanic Choice Award, and 2012 Leeway Transformation Award recipient. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and the forthcoming book, Jotas: An Anthology of Queer Latina Voices.

Saeed Jones received his MFA from Rutgers University – Newark and is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, StorySouth, Jubilat & The Collagist. He is a regular contributor to Ebony.com & Lambda Literary. His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s received fellowships from Queer / Arts / Mentorship as well as Cave Canem.

Nikky Finney was born by the sea in South Carolina and raised during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. She began reading and writing poetry as a teenager growing up in the spectacle and human theatre of the deep South. At Talladega College she began to autodidactically explore the great intersections between art, history, politics, and culture. These same arenas of exploration are ongoing today in her writing, teaching and spirited belief in one-on-one activism. She is the author of four books of poetry, On Wings Made of Gauze, RICE, The World Is Round, and Head Off & Split, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011.

Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, Ocean has received honors and awards from Poets House, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry and fiction have been featured in Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, and the American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets.

Danez Smith is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine & The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014) & the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship books, 2013). Danez is the winner of the 2014 Reading Series Contest sponsored by The Paris-American & was featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Emerging Poets Series by Patricia Smith.

This Pride season — in memory of the 49 queer Latinx and Black lives lost, in memory of the lost lives of Black transwomen, in memory of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — we vow to fight against cultures of violence and systems of oppression. May their souls keep on dancing, may they rest in power.

Happy Pride!

Sunday Spotlight: Filipino Literature

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The month of April is National Literature Month in the Philippines or #BuwanNgPanitikan and in its honor, I thought of doing this Sunday’s feature on the literary work of Filipinos.

I grew up with mostly American literature and found it incredibly difficult to engage with Filipino lit. Although my first language is Tagalog, it was much easier for me to read and write in English. José Rizal, the journalist/poet/writer and national hero of the Philippines, would’ve surely scoffed at this.

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One cannot omit Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, two important pieces of literature that awakened the country’s consciousness during the Spanish colonization. Both of these were required reading when I was still in school. I have some faint recollection of the texts, mostly remembering the female characters of María Clara and Sisa. The former is the mestiza heroine of Noli Me Tangere, embodying the Filipino “feminine ideals” while the latter embodies the kind of hardships mothers go through for their children.

I was introduced to Jessica Zafra when I was younger, although I can’t remember any of her work. I might have read a book of hers (maybe Twisted?) but I think my mind was stubbornly glued to American lit, finding it more interesting at that time.

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I also vaguely remember reading Andres Cristobal Cruz’s Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even in Tondo There is a Heaven), a Tagalog novel about poverty and violence in one of Manila’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Again, my experience was the same — I found it hard to engage with the text, much less comprehend the essence of the book.

The single piece of literature that spoke to me at that time was a book called Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian, an anthology written by queer Filipino women writers. I was immediately smitten. The stories, essays and poems spoke to me on a personal level. That copy belonged to my English high school teacher and a decade later, I finally got my own.

I am fortunate that in the Bay Area, there are resources that people can turn to for Filipino literature. There’s the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Public Library with its trove of fiction and nonfiction materials. In the recently established Filipino Cultural Heritage District in the South of Market of San Francisco is also an indie bookstore called Arkipelago. It is a community-based specialty bookshop that I could get lost in for hours. And there’s PAWA, Inc. (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc.), a space that encourages Filipino American art and literature.

It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. that I became more interested in Filipino lit. The San Francisco Public Library and Arkipelago aided and nurtured that interest. My politics also influenced the kinds of literature I sought; I stayed with Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, I was smitten with Bienvenido Lumbrera’s Poetika/politika.

To contribute to the conversation around #BuwanNgPanitikan, here are my own “Pira-pirasong Panitikan” (literary pieces) from Filipino lit I’ve acquired over the years, à la Rappler style (as seen above).

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As this month and the celebration of Filipino lit nears its end, the resolution to keep reading and engaging with it remains. It is a continuous process of deepening one’s self, and a life-long journey that grows one’s roots even further. There are numerous literary greats that are not mentioned here, of which I’ve yet to discover. As Manuel Briones, another Filipino writer states:

The end of the Filipino writer, although he employs foreign materials, should always be to harness and unite these in the native manner so that the resultant piece becomes a perfect work of our own literature; developed in the treasury of the national soul.

Do you have Filipino literature recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!