Illustrations by ddnebula
The creation of Queer, Trans, Intersex, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (QTIBIPOC) spaces are crucial for many folks, who don’t always feel like they can be their full selves in white queer communities.
CuTie.BIPoC Fest is a grassroots organization that provides an alternative space for QTIBIPOC in Western Europe. All but one of their weekend events, which took place in Copenhagen, have been held in Berlin and this year will be the Festival’s fifth year. The The groundbreaking events they throw are self-organized and meant to give a platform to groups that are typically marginalized, even in gay and queer communities. In light of COVID-19, CuTie.BIPoC Fest are currently planning to hold a festival online, remaining largely community and volunteer driven.
I made some of my closest friends through non-white non-club centric spaces, like CuTie.BIPoC Fest, where there was sober space to explore myself as a Black and Asian person navigating the world. I sat next to them in workshops, in small circles I joined during lunch and connected with them through social media before my first festival. These connections flourished after I’d fly home — one-on-one as they travelled to London for a weekend or I went to Berlin for a few days. It’s often after CuTie.BIPoC finishes that I miss the abundance of BIPOC people, safety, community and learning. I wanted to know what CuTie.BIPoC meant to other attendees and spoke with four of them; Elliott, Layana, Dera and Aubrey* (*name has been changed). These cuties shared QTIBIPOC joy, the slippery slope of organizing in a capitalist and white supremacist system and their hopes for QTIBIPOC futures.
Layana is a 34-year-old Berliner who identifies as a Black, queer femme. Elliott describes himself as a trans, non-binary, queer Anatolian from the states and has been living in Berlin. Aubrey grew up in a predominantly white populated area in Northern Germany until moving to Berlin at 20, and identifies as Black and genderqueer. Dera is a 25-year-old, queer, first-generation, Nigerian-American, who grew up in the U.S. and moved to Berlin in the summer of 2018 — the same summer as their first fest. “I actually heard about the festival through you before I even moved to Berlin!” Dera reminds me.
CuTie.BIPoC Fest “can be a life raft in the sea of whiteness” among the queer, artist and sober communities Elliott participates in. In fact, as queer people of color, it’s rare to find a space that feels “safe enough” and that’s the all-encompassing reason and beauty behind the festival. As QTIBIPOC, the festival explains online “we often experience that certain aspects of our identities are separated. Within queer spaces only our queerness is in focus, in a way that erases our BIPOC experiences. The same happens in BIPOC communities, where our queerness is not always acknowledged. This is why this dedicated space is so important.” Their hope is to create a space where complex identities can flourish through community building, and create a space for people to address issues that affect us and our communities.
One of the more refreshing and radical aspects of CuTie.BIPoC Fest is that it operates at a grassroots “DIY/DIT” community level, meaning that unlike a conference, everybody chips in and is responsible for the organizing of the festival. What’s more, the program is decided by attendees and there is also scope for spontaneous activities during the open spaces of the program. In the past, these open spaces have been filled with conversations on colorism, interracial dating and creative workshops like comic drawing. he folks I interviewed had attended dancing workshops, sessions about gender, and Dera, in particular, really liked the Queer Futures zine-making workshop.
Dera believes what makes the festival different to similar programmed events is its financial accessibility. The event depends on time, money and community collaboration to help things run smoothly; cooking, childcare, cleaning and setting up is handled collectively by volunteers. Layana feels it’s important to volunteer her time at the festival each year and the last time Elliott attended the festival, he participated in the food crew, creating healthy low-cost meals for up to 100 people each day.
CuTie.BIPoC Fest exists for people like Dera, Elliott, Layana and Aubrey, but what does it mean to them and their identities? For Layana, CuTie.BIPoC Fest means something to seriously look forward to all year long. “I look forward to space to breathe! Space to be! Space to heal! It means feeling seen, and meeting people eye to eye. It means finally feeling desirable and beautiful. It means getting to see myself in people. Safely sharing culture. Learning, growing, healing, feeling.” Similarly, for Dera, CuTie.BIPoC Fest is the most important organized Pride celebration of the summer for them. “CSD (Berlin’s Gay Pride) weekend does not feel like a space meant for me and other QTPOC. Would you believe that Big Freedia was the main act at CSD 2018, and the crowd wasn’t even dancing? For shame.”
For Elliott, It means there is a space where he can break out of an overwhelmingly white community, “A place where I don’t feel compelled to explain or apologize for my existence as much.” A few days before attending the first festival, Aubrey ended a relationship with a white cis-man and the festival helped them acknowledging their own queerness. They attended a workshop on dating white people and felt glad to hear others had a history or were still in relationships with white cis-men or white cis-het men because that was always something that made Aubrey feel not queer enough. “I feel my heart expanding when I think of that festival and how I developed afterwards.” Aubrey feels the festival gave them confidence for everyday life and assurance that there is a place where they explore who they are. “I feel so grateful.”
CuTie.BIPoC Fest created a space where BIPOC people can feel at home in their queerness, especially in a European context, but it does not come without its downfalls. Aubrey says, “like the outside world, a lot of the labor and damage control falls on the shoulders of dark-skinned femmes.” Layana agrees, “There is an essential need for a space like this and it’s often the dedication of femmes who are the people organizing. There are less people able/willing to organize and not enough funds to pay the organizers accordingly.” This kind of cycle means the festival is insecure not only financially but organizers face the risk of burning out each year as they carry out the brunt of the work for free. Despite this, Layana plans to attend more festivals in the future and continue to volunteer her time — the joy and healing created here is vital to her.
So much of our Western world is rooted in anti-Blackness and femmephobia, even in the spaces we are trying to build anti-structure, and that rings true when Elliott notes, “There are things that disappoint me about the festival, but no more than any event.” Creating a safe space for QTIBIPOC people doesn’t always mean accessibility and inclusion are 10/10, but the festival tries to be communicative. They recently released a document outlining their shortcomings, showing accountability and transparency. When asked what he would improve about anti-structural organizing so that Black people, especially feminized Black bodies, don’t have to navigate spaces created for them the same ways they navigate “real world” spaces, Elliott says, “we can un-build the patriarchal and capitalist structures that we face in other parts of our lives, but we must replace them with something else. We can develop softer structures, fleshy and viscous, which expand and support and equalize. For example, in a roundtable discussion the louder or more extroverted people will be heard and those who are introverted or slower to raise a hand, or have anxiety or need time to translate their thoughts, will remain buried in an anti-structure.”
There are many pros to organizing at capacities like this and reasons I hope CuTie.BIPoC Fest continues to thrive and create an alternative space for queer people of color. Unfortunately, issues of anti-Blackness, patriarchy and capitalism, even within spaces that are supposed to be inclusive, reflect issues in our larger movements. We need to continue to do the work to do better because LGBTQ, BIPOC and intersectional organizing still crumbles under ingrained structural oppression. I tip my hat to CuTie.BIPoC Fest’s attendees and organizing committee for attempting to build their space with care and community. The complexity of queer and trans lives of color, not just in NGO spaces or charities, but in spaces that we are trying to build for ourselves, still holds the same narratives and ideals created by the Colonial West. It’s often hard to escape what’s so ingrained in us, even when we create spaces to end it. But we prevail.
Even amongst these structural and mindset hurdles, CuTie.BIPoC Fest has brought a sense of joy and hope to the folks I interviewed. Aubrey spontaneously facilitated a singing circle at their second festival because many people had mentioned they would love to sing, but thought they couldn’t or didn’t find a safe enough space to explore their voices. “This was probably one of the most touching moments for me because I witnessed people being super shy about their voice singing alone in front of the group and people jamming and freestyling together, when before, almost everyone said that they couldn’t sing – liars!”
Dera appreciates that something like CuTie.BIPoC Fest happens so close to CSD because they still get to participate in Pride celebrations without feeling like an outsider at an event that’s supposedly celebrating people like them. The literal unbearable whiteness of Pride is the best reason why festivals like CuTie.BIPoC Fest exist. There are barely any BIPOC exclusive spaces in Berlin, and for Layana, this is the “safest, happiest and most fun space” she has ever experienced.
“It feels so different to feel the energy in those spaces,” Aubrey notes. “I open up, I am more loving, I feel love surround me and move through me. I feel magic and potential. I feel potential expanding. I feel fire and life; I feel people come to life and I feel myself come alive.” Aubrey is able to sit with loved ones in an open space and not have to worry about people sharing their opinion on their appearance, staring, making strange or rude comments – “That’s amazing.” Dera agrees, “It’s rare that I see as many QTIBIPOC in one place in Berlin as I do when I’m at CuTie.BIPoC Fest. To me, the best thing about the festival is being surrounded by so many melanated and queer people. The energy is amazing. Not to mention that they are *ahem* very attractive people. I met my girlfriend because of this festival.”
During this uncertain moment, how will we continue to build accessible QTIBIPOC communities? Layana continuously will speak up and address injustices she sees come up within our community such as anti-Blackness and femmephobia. “In the future I hope I will have more capacity to become a bigger part of the organization of this festival and would love to offer workshops within my expertise in the future.”
Elliott is keen on creating a health and wellness conference for QTIBIPOC. “I think it is always important to have space for ongoing conversations around medical trauma, breaking through shame, self-healing, ancestral knowledge, the connection between emotional and physical health, accessible plants and herbs, and general access to medicine and healthcare for QTIBIPOCs. I don’t know that this will happen any time soon, but wow. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” Aubrey plans to be more involved in music and host healing circles. “It is so difficult to find access to spaces that can facilitate healing for us. Either it is super expensive or so white-washed that most of the time I’m busy regulating my uncomfortableness with whiteness and cisness and heteroness that I cannot focus on what I actually need. And I believe that all the discrimination is a destruction of our body, mind, soul and spirit. And that makes us forget that we are actually pretty great.”
It’s a space that, even with imperfections, is missed by the people I spoke to — especially during this time of social distancing. Elliott, who’s expecting a baby anytime soon, feels that even in this era of social distance, protests, and policy reform, they need to connect with their QTIBIPOC community even more. “CuTie.BIPoC provides a subtle and powerful act of collective feeling,” he says, and while our white friends are talking about how the world is suddenly a scary place, where institutional inequalities are a death sentence, QTIBIPOC people have been with this knowledge for centuries. CuTie.BIPoC Fest gives me hope that it’s possible for spaces to exist that don’t sit under a roof of white supremacy, patriarchy or capitalism, but for that to happen the work must continue in all corners of our community, even when we think we are doing our best.