The Return of Sister Spit: A Love Letter to Queer Spaces of Belonging

feature image from Nicole J. Georges Instagram

Queer art traveling show, Sister Spit, is hitting the road again for the first time since before COVID. Artists on the tour this year include Brontez Purnell, Beth Lisick, Denne Michele Norris, Lynne Breedlove, Kamala Puligandla, Nicole J. Georges, Vivek Shraya, Sini Anderson, and Michelle Tea. After COVID-related cancelations in the Pacific Northwest, the Sister Spit crew is hopeful that they’ll get to kick things off at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive on August 12th.

I remember my first experience at a Sister Spit show, back in 2010, as a conduit to queer belonging. I had been living in Minneapolis for about a year, which I’ve learned after almost two decades of moving around a bit, is about how long it takes to find your footing in a place. It helped that I was there for grad school, which meant I had a built-in cohort of potential friends, but it was only months into being there that I really began to find the people who clicked, which of course meant the queer people. When I found out that Michelle Tea’s traveling show of queer art was coming to town, the event became an anchor, an excuse for the small but powerful act of hanging out together. With the invitation to congregate, a group of us — four queers who didn’t yet know each other very well — made our way to the crunchy, punky Bedlam Theater (RIP) on the West Bank of the river. I recall little pieces of the incredible performers that night – Nicole Georges clucking like a chicken stands out — but mostly I recall that feeling of relief. This was a weirdo show for my weirdo people and the performance meant I got to find so many of them, all in one place.

When Michelle Tea describes how Sister Spit began, I hear kernels of similar longings. Tea explained that the original version of the show in the 90s, emerged as a sort of counter to straight, white, dude-heavy open mic nights. “There was a lot of Bukowski love,” Tea recounts. But Tea was in circles with women and queers who were writing vulnerable work about their lives, and she wanted a space where reading those things would feel more comfortable.

That’s when she teamed up with Sini Anderson to start an all-girls open mic night, which became an instant success. Tea and Anderson hosted the event weekly for two years before taking a break. At this point, Tea explains, she started touring with a band she was in and feeling a lot of excitement on the road, but not as into the snobby punk music culture that came with it.

In Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution, Liam Warfield shares a similar reflection on the sort of searching experienced by queer punks. “The queer-punk stance was reductive rather than additive, defined largely in the negative, the stripped-away. We didn’t fit here and we didn’t fit here… freaks among freaks.”

Tea wanted to strip away the bro-ish punk vibes, but craved something to take its place .

“I felt like a writer not a musician, but I was like, ‘Do I never get to go on tour anymore? Can we bring poets on tour? The poets that I know are way more talented than my band.” And thus was born the traveling part of Sister Spit. “We would book shows as ‘slam poets’ a the gay bar that did drag shows, so they would have a little stage and, like a microphone. And then we would do it at, like, punk venues. We’re like, oh, we’re like a punk band, but there’s just no music. And we just kind of cobbled it together, and it worked!”

From that point to now was a time filled with lots of successes and mishaps, a couple of breaks, and a few reformulations. That this next round of Sister Spit will be in-person again feels important to first-time performer (and former Autostraddle Editor in Chief!) Kamala Puligandla who had two books come out during the pandemic. “I have gone to all kinds of lengths for a very long time to be in physical spaces with queer people. It’s not always easy and there’s always barriers to it, but it’s so important.”

Both Tea and Puligandla agree that Zoom and other remote events are wonderful and can be such a powerful way to be inclusive of so many more people than in-person events may get, but still they both revere the history of queers creating physical space. “I totally relate to what Kamala was saying about doing wild things to be in queer spaces with other queer people. There’s so many barriers all the time, but I just love these spaces, and I love performance spaces, I love punk spaces and, like, what it takes to make these places exist and be a physical place for us to go into.”

In Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, Jeremy Atherton Lin recalls activist Harry Britt’s assertion that, “When gays are spatially scattered, they are not gay, because they are invisible.” But queers like the original Sister Spit organizers have long been committed to gathering. It’s never been about individual visibility — it’s been about togetherness.

Christians are taught that “wherever two or more are gathered, Jesus shall be;” I think we could say something similar about queers in shared spaces. Maybe it’s still Jesus for some, but whatever transpires when our bodies are near each other, it’s electric. Holy. Our elders and ancestors have always known this — it’s why gay bar history is so salient to our roots. The dancing in them, the flirting in them, the throwing bricks outside of them when the territory was threatened. When we gather, we feel our strength. Queer art reminds us of this too.

That first Sister Spit experience in Minneapolis was a seed to something that grew into real queer family. It was and continues to be the truest sense of ‘community’ I’ve ever experienced. We would go on to be part of a group with whom I would share meals, matching tattoos, countless dance parties, and, devastatingly, a funeral. I’m not saying going to the Sister Spit show was the key to our belonging, but it was, undoubtedly, a contribution. We need places–safer and accessible ones– to be; to be together. Sister Spit is carrying on the legacy of what so many gay ancestors before implore of us: to keep going.


Catch Sister Spit on the West Coast in August (August 12 @BAMPFA; August 13 @Detroit Vessey’s in LA; August 14th @ Verbatim Books in San Diego), and the East Coast in the fall (dates coming soon, follow Michelle Tea on Instagram for the details!).


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Raechel Anne Jolie

Raechel Anne Jolie is an educator, writer, activist, and a queer femme working-class witch. She holds a PhD in Media Studies with a minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University of Minnesota, and her writing has been published in numerous academic and popular press outlets. Her work focuses on social movements, prison abolition, media, liberation magic, and more. She is also the co-host and co-producer of the Feminist Killjoys, PhD podcast. Raechel lives in Minneapolis, reads tarot, and spoils her perfect black boycat.

Raechel has written 2 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I got to see them come through Athens GA a few times in the late 90s. The first time, they were surprised by how many people were there in the basement of the coffee shop where we were. The ad for an event with “a dozen dykes” in the local independent paper was enough to fill the room there.

  2. really felt shunned from the skinny aesthetic / body politic (the punk of it was also erasing – i was assumed to have been decidedly “non-punk” but what they failed to realize was i fit (literally..) NOWHERE, certainly not in the “women’s dept”, shoulder-padded options my mom tossed into layaway
    same style in pinks, purples & depressing blues for school). they saw nothing but fat. they took my “application fee” every year for mexico, talk a lot of shit about diversity, but every year it was the same handful who went, a few names switched around. it was humiliating, hurtful beyond belief, (still hurts to this day, if you can’t tell..) but not surprising to me in the very least. i’ve been fighting to be “truly seen” my whole damn life. maybe next year… (NEVER give up!) <3

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