For Queers, by Queers, in Strait-Laced Boston

The Boston Globe reacted to one of many inclusions of Boston on a number of worst-dressed cities just five years after GQ called it the “Bad-Taste Storm-Sewer.” It sounds dramatic: we’re really known for fleece & techfrump.

A sartorial expression is not important here, and more crucially, it would be gauche outside of the range of Berklee College of Music and MassArt. More than that, there’s a staunch Puritanical and traditionalist bent that persists in New England, now resulting less in atrocities like the perennially invoked Salem Witch Trials and more in people being doggedly polite: here, that means ignoring each other in public, not making small talk when you can be direct, and extreme propriety around personal questions to the extent of depersonalization.

It can leave a queer kid uninspired, and in communities where, for better or worse, coding is still a vital method of communication, it can make the world feel small.

Matisse DuPont (they/them), a 2020 graduate of the Simmons University M.A. Program in Gender & Cultural Studies tells me: “Self-presentation is about other people reading you the way you want to be read.” It’s not equivalent to self-expression in any meaningful way beyond inquiry-free conformity.

“The idea of presentation as the self-expression of identity allows many people to remain static,” Mati says. These people tend to not engage in continual, conscious evaluation of their sense of self with regard to identity, so Boston trudges onward in Bean Boots while queer kids define their own scene in the margins.

Boston’s Queer Agenda has been around since 1995, and Queering Boston, a project by Lauren Pellerano Gomez and Shannon McLean, seeks to corral together user-submitted queer events and spaces in the Boston area. The importance of community-created resources cannot be overstated, and Queering Boston summarized it nicely upon their launch:

“We’re here and we’re queer and we’re making the Queer Boston we want to see. Because no one’s going to do it for us.”

Getting Around Makes a Difference

Luca Laurentia spoke to me about the origin of their queer all-day space concept, Little Butchie’s, reflecting on the difference in reception of visible queerness between neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain and Boston proper.

“There’s pockets of Boston where you’re accepted as normal pedestrians-among-us, and other places where you stick out like a sore thumb,” they say of Boston.

Not all spaces in Boston feel hospitable across the spectrum, and indeed bend to accommodate some groups more than others in the community. Even explicitly queer spaces often cater to a “capital G, capital b, Gay Bar crowd,” which can feel limiting for those questioning or who are excluded by certain labels. In different ways, Luca’s vision and the drag scene Mati inhabits are both pocket universes: other worlds imagined and brought to life for us, by us.

Mati gets practical: transit norms influence how people can show up and move through the world. “In New York, you can just get on the subway, nobody will blink. I can’t think of a single performer I know who doesn’t take a Lyft in Boston—you can deal with one person’s weird look or a whole T car.”

In considering what drew my queer self to a place that slumps under the weight of repetitive J. Crew seasons, I reflected on the subcultures that keep me. There’s a glittering world spooky art performance fans, burlesque-drag hybrids, activist communities, the punk/DIY scene, and so many others. The drag scene feels like an interstitial world flaring up nightly across the city: explorative, creative, curious, and refreshing. The inquiry inherent in this form of drag seems a necessary antidote to the plainness of corporate strivers.

For me, Massachusetts is inherently creepy. The state seems to pop up in every podcast on ghost lore, movies explore the misery of the unforgiving coast like The Lighthouse, and a good chunk of Western literary canon looks to the state as the apogee of the heebie-jeebies.

Must Be the Season of the Witch

It’s midnight in December in Massachusetts, the type of crisp cold that sends several queued attendees scuttling to wait in their cars before the theater doors open. Due to who I am, midnight feels late and outer-worldly, but they’re showing Suspiria (1977) tonight. We’re here because Haus of Oni hosts a preshow before a midnight horror film showing at the Coolidge Corner Theater every month, and it’s hauntingly good. Among the great lineup, a standout performance by the Haus of Delicious, comprised of Sidney Delicious and Monstera Delicious, set to a slowed version of “Season of the Witch,” with impeccable visual accompaniments reigns tonight. Before a cat hissing in slow motion to timelapse footage of various flora on the projector, wrapped in swishy red chiffon that echoes the costuming of Suspiria (2019)—their act is truly delectable.

Mati (Monstera) and Emma Baker (Sidney) spawned their spooky, camp Haus from cabaret shows hosted at their house and studio, respectively.

“There was already weird, demented drag happening in Boston in small amounts—Dragula was already a thing, so that was influential. And there’s the witch-feminist movement happening at the same time; like all these things coalesced and gave us a channel through which to produce events and to kind of find this art form. We weren’t making anything new, but we were bringing feminist artsy non-binary queerness.”
“I got sick of feeling sad that I live in a city like Boston that doesn’t have any kind of interesting, creative, artistic, bohemian scene that I could go absorb, so I decided to do this stuff that I wanted to see. It started happening in a moment when there was a critical mass of people around Boston deciding the same thing—especially in queer spaces, but not exclusively.”

Mati tells me there plenty of spaces for a certain type of attendee for whom drag itself is sufficiently taboo to constitute a night out for an occasion. In their drag as Monstera Delicious, performing songs that resonate more with women, lesbians, and nonbinary folks felt like a natural drift—that’s what they want to see, and their audience connects with it. There are glam shows with popular music options in the city elsewhere, but the witchy art drag space creates a context for a particular brand of creative expression. It’s part of another world in Boston’s greater space.

“The main audience of people that appreciate it is my peers and other queer weirdos who are out clubbing with me, not some white boomers in a gallery,” Emma says.

In Another World

Looking forward to the future of queer spaces in Boston, Mati humors me and muses on a more expressive Boston.
“The queer people wouldn’t look the most different if the values of queerness, like fluidity, acceptance, celebration, spread to the mainstream.”

There are some signs of a shift—among Boston food scene darlings like Shore Leave and Tiger Mama, hosting drag or queer nights is growing in popularity.

Not everyone is looking for the more boisterous queer spaces at all times, though. Talking to Luca about the impetus to make a more versatile space, they share that while bartending, a local fire inspector struck up a conversation with them “like I owned the brewery.” It got them to consider: “Why wouldn’t he think that? I can do this.”

Emma introduced it to me: “It’ll be like the Cheers of good Italian food,” and a place where Pasta Amatriciana and artsy drag can be enjoyed together. Luca wants the space to be multifunctional, overcoming the one-off “queer nights” that are more common in Boston bars and clubs, and tend to attract only members of the community who are also interested in bars and clubs. Luca explained that the idea came from experiencing Boston as a single and partnered person: blame for a “dying scene” is usually (unfairly) placed on people coupling up, and the attendant reduction in going out that’s expected.

Luca imagines a place that’s available all day, will accommodate grassroots community fundraisers, can host sober nights, and doesn’t feel there’s a limit to the events and attractions that LB can contain. Possibly coming to Central Square, they imagine accessibility for folks on the Orange Line (Malden, Melrose, and Jamaica Plain) and Red Line (Dorchester, Mattapan) as well as Cambridge and Somerville—less the standard downtown radius for events and spaces.

Imagining this other world is up to the limits of our hopeful imagination and the level of ownership we can bring. There’s another world in Boston, with room for all the tiny, glittering worlds we can make.

Chaya is a bisexual New Englander with a one-eyed, polydactyl familiar. She writes about chronic illness, access, and is nosy about everything else. Follow her on Twitter.

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