Expected, Accepted, and Embraced: Thoughts on My First QWOC Week

I went to my first pride festival about a year and a half ago, I think. It was located in downtown Vegas and, of course, my first reaction was fear and delight. Delight because I had never gone to such an event before and fear because my suburban upbringing had taught me to avoid downtown anything, especially after night. I had gone with a friend of mine who I had been in love with and since she was busy looking out for the girls she wanted to or had already hooked up with, I spent most of the time wandering around and being in complete and total awe. Never in my life had I been around so many gay people before!

The keyword, of course, being “around.” Though I saw and was in the presence of a few hundred gay people, I didn’t actually “meet” any. It was like a park where we all roamed around in little packs of friends and acquaintances and with me being mostly on my own, I was too intimidated to approach anyone I thought was interesting or friendly and mostly stuck to myself.

Still, I was excited and intrigued and preoccupied myself by reading the Short History of Gay People that was printed on a board – noting but choosing to ignore the fact that there were hardly any lesbian history facts.  I watched drag performances, drank soda that was far too expensive and had inward squeals of glee when I happened to notice a relatively young lesbian couple or, even better, lesbians of color.

Due to my excitement, I chose to ignore the fact that there were relatively few women, relatively few people of color, and relatively few women of color – unless you counted the two drag queens. It was largely the White Gay Male pride and I didn’t really mind because I didn’t really expect anything different. In reality, I had no idea what to expect and was quite frankly very satisfied just by the fact that they were gay. I knew I wasn’t as comfortable as I could be, but the men in drag smiled at me often enough to feel like I belonged in some way. And, as a queer person, I did.  As a woman of color, I still wasn’t “the norm,” but gay or straight, that had been how life was for me in any situation, and I didn’t allow it to hinder my giddiness and excitement there either.

Now flash forward to QWOC Week, a pride festival dedicated to people who aren’t traditionally “the norm,” in any situation. To say that this past week is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before would be a hell of an understatement. I can hardly believe it’s over and I’m really still processing it all.

Where does one begin with 13 events? How does one choose a starting point when her entire summer has been dedicated to and her experience as an intern has culminated in this one explosive week? Honestly, I’m still reeling.

If I try to process each and every emotion from each and every event, not only will my mind explode but I will also bore you to death with the length of this post and I believe both instances will not bode well for either one of us, so let me simply start here:

You could not feel out of place or overlooked at a QWOC event. This was not a pride festival where you could nurse your drink in the corner and glower at all the individuals you didn’t know or wish you could know. It wasn’t possible. Someone, most likely an organizer, would have grabbed you onto the dance floor or into a mix of people and engaged you.

This is what stands out to me the most. Indeed, this past week is one of the few times in my life where I can say I wasn’t the minority – whether due to my race, gender, or sexuality. I was simply myself in a crowd of people, many of whom I had the opportunity to meet with, laugh with, or dance with.

I won’t highlight thirteen events, but I’ll highlight two that truly stood out to me.

Monday night was OUT OF THE BOX: Media and Literary Artists studio, where the Martinez Sisters,  Uriah Bell, Letta Neely, Vivek Shraya, and IDALIA, came out to present their work and speak with the attendees. In the days prior to this, I had been feeling tired, frustrated, and, most of all, uninspired, partially due to a concussion I had gotten a week before.  Determined to stay on my game though, I came armed with ibuprofen and a lot of energy. I was excited, in any case, because South Asian-Canadian performer and writer Vivek Shraya was going to be there.  I happened to own two songs of his because they featured Tegan and Sara, from my download-anything-Tegan-and-Sara-have-ever-produced-ever days, and I felt proud of myself for being “in-the-know.”

Though I came with almost a forced sense of energy at the beginning of the night, there was nothing but sincere inspiration and motivation by the end.  After witnessing talent after talent after talent perform and express, I was literally giddy. Of course, I’ve been in many situations before where talent has been presented before me. Concerts, talent shows, poetry readings, spoken word, etc. But something in those situations always made the talented and their work seem untouchable – they were admirable, but they weren’t there to inspire, they were there to perform.

Monday night, however, was entirely different. Though larger than we wanted, the space was intimate and the artists were interested in more than just showing and telling. They wanted to engage with those of us who were in the audience. They looked up from their poetry or their books or their pictures – they looked around and saw us. They felt our presence as we felt theirs and I like to think we were inspired by each other. As an aspiring writer-or-something, that feeling meant more to me than anything in the world. We all mingled after the performances and Vivek Shraya, who is by far the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet, indulged my obsession with Tegan and Sara as we worked the merchandise table. It was a night that I’ll always remember and if I ever do become something of a writer, it will be because of this night.

Then there was Wednesday night – Activism and Karaoke, where we worked with BlackandPink.Org to send out newsletters and personal letters to incarcerated LGBT folks. This night stands out to me for two reasons – one is because I’ve never enjoyed engaging in direct activism so much in my life and two is because it took me so far out of my comfort zone, I almost cried. (I cry watching Animal Planet and iCarly, so don’t worry too much.) I really spent most of my time stuffing envelopes, which can sound like a drag, but it’s surprising how much I really didn’t mind. I enjoyed talking to and being introduced to different people as we all worked together to assemble the envelopes and get them sent it out their appropriate addressee. It was great seeing so many people engaged (that word again) with writing personal and meaningful letters or intent on folding a newsletter the right way. I was excited every time an envelope was passed my way and I remember actually getting bummed out when we ran out. I wanted to do more!

Then came the karaoke, which I don’t like unless I’m with very close friends. It’s something I enjoy so little that it actually makes me a little lightheaded to think about. My sister and her superior stage presence and singing skills owe me many years of karaoke therapy, because of just how much I actually dislike being put on the spot, particularly with a microphone, particularly on stage. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to leave until I put myself in that very situation. With pregnancy breaths and lots of encouragement, I eventually came on stage and sang my high school anthem “Since U Been Gone,” by Kelly Clarkson (yes, I really am that emo), the one song I knew that I knew back to front. The fact that my friend and QWOC+ volunteer Lourdes was kind enough to accompany me offered me a bit of comfort. Then when all of the QWOC+ organizers came out to the front, singing at the top of their lungs with me, I actually sort of enjoyed myself. Maybe. A little.

I was given the opportunity to read at Youth Open Mic during Family Day and then played an intense game of Catchphrase. I was inspired once again at OUTSPOKEN, especially when spoken word artist Jha D performed with Zili Misik, and when Nataly Garcia gave an utterly convincing tribute to the awesomeness that was her ‘fro. My mind was opened at the Diversity Speaks discussion, especially when I saw how many people showed up. Volunteers I had met at other QWOC events prior to the week had become friends I looked forward to seeing as the week progressed.

Indeed, to say that QWOC Week is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before would be a hell of an understatement. It’s worlds away from that singular day in Vegas where, though perhaps welcome, I still felt alien and alone.  This past week, I felt expected, accepted, and embraced, which is what I think QWOC Week is all about.

I was taken out of my comfort zone so many times and put into a place that was even more comfortable and if it hadn’t been encouraged, I would never have known. I think many people experienced that same feeling and are, like me, still reeling from it. Still trying to process it and understand it and figure out why nothing else in their life has felt that way before.

My advice? Stop dissecting. Just accept being accepted and ride the high until next QWOC Week or, better still, work on replicating the spaces and instances for yourself and others so that each day can be inspirational and every moment can be engaging.  Why wait for one week out of the year where you can feel comfortable in your own skin when you can do it every single day, right? Just a thought.