January 2020

Tracing the Color of Queer Choreopolitics

Black queer and trans direct action actively and visibly challenges the "daily choreography of conformity."

by Zoie (Zane) McNeill and Blu Buchanan

Direct action is understood, on a practical level, as an intervention into the everyday functions of power. Using non-institutional means, direct action is meant to evoke and activate the liberatory potential of everyday life. It is meant to create a gap in which we imagine—and demand—time and space to think and live otherwise. Scholars have traditionally examined these kinds of actions through an organizational, social movement, and political lens. In doing so, they note important aspects that tie direct action into their queer and racial histories, connecting the way direct action is taken to the social and political foundations from which they emerge. [1] In this essay, we consider direct action, particularly Black queer and trans led action like the Black Pride 4 (also known as the #BP4), as a choreographed piece of political performance art.

The action began halfway through the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade in 2017. Ten activists, mostly Black and trans, moved into the designated parade lane dressed in black. The parade floats and marchers, mostly white, continued to move around them, some seemingly confused, others apathetic, and some sneering and cheering for the police. The police moved towards the protesters, herding them with their bikes and tackling them to the ground. Supporters of the protesters circled in, filming the police reaction. Police then pushed the onlookers back, using their bikes to create a boundary—fully stopping the parade—while behind them police on horseback rode in, acting as crowd control. The parade was fully stopped for about 3 minutes before it continued around the contained activists. By the time the action ended, four organizers had been arrested by police and taken away.

Wripley Bennet, a Black trans activist, being removed from the parade route by police. Image from Black Pride 4.

The organizers of the #BP4 action planned for this reaction. They intentionally used their bodies to disrupt the normalization of racism and anti-blackness within both the march and the general LGBT community. These organizers wanted Pride—its marchers and onlookers—to recognize the continued murders of trans women of color, the white supremacy in LGBT spaces and organizations, and the recent acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who murdered Philando Castille a year prior.

More broadly, the organizers aimed to disrupt a white space that eclipsed Black queer and trans voices, whitewashed queer histories, appropriated the title and meaning of the Stonewall protest, and supported and was supported by a police presence that had murdered 20 Black people between 2013 and 2016.  These activists recognized the power of their embodied subjectivity as a tool for challenging the white supremacist State and calculated a choreography of protest that would disrupt and engage with the choreography of police, evoke a response and a dialogue from their audience, and shift normative discourse surrounding Pride parades. Integral to their performance, and similar performances by Black queer and trans folks in DC, Minneapolis, and Toronto, was their use of the queer and trans Black body as an instrument of resistance. For them, there could be no pride without justice, no celebration of freedom till all were free.

This insertion of Black and Brown queer and trans bodies was at odds with the overall hue of the event. Most of the marchers were white, and those who came to participate in the Pride activities were also disproportionately white. The police officers, as you can see in the image below, were also white. An apologist for this racial composition might argue that this reflects the general demographics of the Midwest, yet as Indianapolis-based writer and author Tamara Winfrey-Harris poignantly points out, there are Black Midwesterners. Exclusionary practices, divergent interests, and the overwhelming whiteness of Pride cannot be reduced to mere demographic makeup. Reckoning with the racial reality of queer spaces means seeing whiteness as a practice—a choreography of its own.

Black Pride 4 protesters interrupt the Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade. Image from Black Pride 4.

The function and movement of whiteness becomes even more apparent when we examine the role of police in managing this direct action. The police, on hand and in collaboration with Stonewall Pride organizers, circled the demonstrators, maced them, and arrested four Black protestors. [2] Rather than think of these actions as incidental, it’s important to see how their actions—including ignoring white activists who also participated in stopping the parade—is meant to instill and reinforce white supremacy, to nod to the “protection” they now provide white LGBT people from the pesky voices of those upon whose backs their “freedom” is now built. 

White supremacy choreographs space through constant, invisible surveillance—through the Foucauldian concept of the panopticon—meant to influence and alter an individual’s subjectivity. Performance scholar Andre Lepecki observes that there exists a “daily choreography of conformity” with or without visible police presence. [3] To exist within networks of power means reinforcing them and the abuse they deliver to “aberrant” bodies. But this control is not complete—the very fear of the Black queer and trans body is in its capacity to “escape” this choreography, to refuse it’s bounds. This subjectivity, like the fugitive slave, is pursued by two sets of controls: the assimilation of their fugitive movements and the stilling of their bodies through physical coercion. [4] This pursuit and evasion constitutes its own performative piece. Again, existence itself within systems of power is performative; for example, saying the pledge of allegiance—or refusing to do so—can either reinforce or refuse the project of American nationalism.

The actions undertaken by the organizers of the protest, and the refusal of the #BP4 to participate in the increasingly assimilationist and whitewashed LGBT movement, do not represent a solitary blip of resistance. In 2016, Black Lives Matter halted the Toronto Pride Parade, in 2017 No Justice No Pride disrupted the Capital Pride Parade in DC, and in 2019 #ReclaimPride disrupted events in Sacramento, California. [5] These organizers consciously enacted meticulously-planned and organized actions in public spaces in order to protest the corporatism, pink washing, racism, and de-radicalization of Pride from a protest to a ‘non-political’ celebration. The main message: while white gay men dance in celebration, while Black trans women are murdered.

Ayotunde Ikuku voicing protest against police presence in Sacramento Pride events. Courtesy of Ayotunde Ikuku via the Guardian.

This message, borne from the political, social, and material reality of Black queer and trans organizers, was amplified through coordinated action. Far from random, they rather exemplify relational, antagonist, socially-engaged art. More particularly, they embody confrontational choreopolitics. The confrontational nature of the performance is important. Relational antagonism, coined by art historian Claire Bishop, is an aesthetic encounter between artist and audience that evokes “unease and discomfort.” [6] In the case of #BP4 and other events like it, participants are nonvoluntary—the audience (i.e. parade goers, the media, and the police) did not consent to engage in the “interactive installation.” [7] This, we would argue, is intentional—Black and trans bodies are not allowed the personhood to provide consent under cis white supremacy. Reversing this, exposing an audience (particularly one whose autonomy is often recognized) to involuntary participation achieves a reversal of power relations in the performance.

This intentional air of confrontation creates a back and forth—a dialogue—between the artist-activists and the audience. Art historian Grant Kester has said that projects that rely intangibly on dialogue as a “generative process” subvert the normative in order to “imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities, official discourse, and the perceived inevitably of partisan political conflict.” [8] This dialogue, while open to certain kinds of engagement, is specific and directed in its overall intent. The goal is not only to have an instructive back and forth, but to structure engagement in ways which are transformational. In the case of the #BP4, the activists halted the Stonewall Columbus Pride movement with the expectation of facing an antagonistic response from parade organizers, parade visitors, and the Columbus police. The antagonistic response ensured that the #BP4’s message would reach a larger audience while also illustrating the alignment of the mainstream LGBT movement with white supremacy and the carceral state.

By putting their bodies on the line in front of a national audience, the organizers challenged the normative understanding of Pride as a welcoming place in order to change the ‘official discourse’ surrounding LGBT politics. By demonstrating how vulnerable their bodies were to white violence, they underscored both the intra- and extra-communal violence Black and Brown bodies face every day. Du Bois’ foundational concept of double consciousness can help explain the choreopolitical maneuverings between the #BP4 and white supremacy. “Double consciousness” is the act of splitting one’s Black subjectivity; to know how you are viewed by white people, and white supremacy, while also maintaining your own sense of self. [9] This splitting is necessary in order to survive—knowing the scripts of white supremacy better than white people themselves is a way of preventing white violence. While white people may be free to rage, to cry, to express themselves publicly, even a simple glance can get a Black person killed.

In this instance, the police and their well-oiled movements embody – physically ground—what Lepecki  describes as “an abstract machine holding in place the social order, actually defining the social order as nothing other than a policed thing.” [10] They embody the white supremacy to which Black queer and trans actors are keenly attuned. [11] The direct actions undertaken by the organizers both reveal the visceral, embodied structure under which Black queer and trans people live and demonstrate how despite this system Black queer and trans bodies can be used in agential ways to accomplish liberatory goals. Underscoring this difference, we might turn to two different examples. The first is Kiwi Herring, a Black trans woman shot and killed by police, who did not have a choice as to when she would be gunned down. In contrast, engaging with police at the Columbus Pride event was a choice – a choice to confront the danger which looms over Black queer and trans life rather than let it find you on some unexpected evening.

But why use their bodies, bodies that are already at risk for what San Francisco State professor Darius Bost calls “double cremation” or the annihilation of Black and queer bodies? [12] Why not use a proxy or stand-in to represent bodies-at-risk? As Rodney Diverlus, a Black Lives Matter activist and multidisciplinary artist who wrote about the Black Lives Matter Toronto action, mentions—their use of Black queer and trans bodies as a tool of resistance was a meditated decision built on years of Black liberatory direct action. [13] The importance of the Black trans body in protest cannot be overstated.

Participants in the Black Pride 4 action lead a community forum on July 24, 2017 to discuss the reasons for their protest. Image from Black Pride 4.

Thus, the Black trans body, and its movements, are important aspects of understanding the building and sharing of meaning in direct action. In 2014, critical dance scholar Anusha Kedhar brought chorographical analysis to the Ferguson unrest, following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. She argued that the Ferguson protest’s mantra, “Hand’s Up Don’t Shoot,” and the act itself of putting one’s hand up was not only ‘voiced,’ as she puts it, but ‘embodied’. The movement of the gesture itself, she contended, is a planned choreographical decision. The protest itself, the “deployment of the body” in acts of resistance is itself, generates a “choreopolitics of freedom.”

Choreopolitical analysis challenges the normative understanding of protests as emotional and violent actions by a mob of irrational actors. As choreographer scholar Susan Leigh Foster explains, traditional social movement theories understand the protesting actor as an “agitated irrationality, propelling individuals into the chaos of mob performance.” [14] These theories also tend to fetishize non-violence by limiting the scope of meaning to the direct action itself rather than the context under which actors develop and deploy particular kinds of messages and movements. [15] Further expanding on Black feminist critiques of science, choreopolitics facilitates finding epistemological, knowledge-making, value in Black queer and trans action and embodiment. [16] By understanding the Ferguson unrest as calculated and performed choreographies, instead of “the Ferguson protesters as mobs of Black bodies, which are unruly, lawless, and unpredictable,” as Kedhar writes, choreopolitics disrupts the white supremacist conception of the Black body itself. [17] 

Black survival and thriving can be viewed, in and of itself, as a performance of resistance. But when undertaking an analysis of collective social action we need nuanced tools for grasping how meaning is made and transmitted. Double consciousness is both a survival technique and a consciously political tool of disrupting and challenging white spaces. Black queer and trans direct action actively and visibly challenges the ‘daily choreography of conformity’ by, as explained by Diverlus, “pushing [Black] communities to reimagine the collective presence of Black bodies as power, and by using that power to deliberately disrupt otherwise white spaces.” [18] Black queer and trans bodies in particular not only challenge white supremacist institutions and ‘generalized functions of power’ embodied in the police but also effectively queer and destabilize white homonormative spaces that prop up the state and its systems of violence.

Zoie (Zane) McNeill is an independent activist-scholar with research interests in queer ecologies, environmental humanities, queer of color critique, socially engaged art, and critical geographies. Currently, they are on the editorial teams for the Journal for Critical Animal StudiesThe Activist History Review, and Queer Appalachia’s Electric Dirt. He is also co-editing anthologies, forthcoming from Sanctuary Publishers and PM Press. You can also find their work in the forthcoming collections, What’s White in the Rainbow: White Supremacy in LGBT Movements, the Palgrave Handbook of Queer and Trans Feminisms in Contemporary Performance, and the Routledge Handbook of Vegan Studies.

Blu Buchanan is a Black trans graduate student at the University of California, Davis—a university founded upon unceded Patwin land, land that should belong to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation today. They specialize in historical sociology, with a focus on the racial, sexual, and gender politics of the colonial United States. Their specific research interests lie in the areas of homonationalism, whiteness studies, and conservative social movements. Alongside their academic work, they also organize at the intersection of trans justice, Black liberation, and labor mobilizing. Currently, they are heading up a campaign to disarm campus police officers across the University of California system.

Further Reading

[1] Robinson, Cedric J. 2000. Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10351498; Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

[2] Shakur, Prince. December 6, 2017. “Ohio’s Black Pride 4 Were Arrested at the Stonewall Columbus Pride Festival and Parade,” Teen Vogue. https://www.teenvogue.com/story/ohios-black-pride-4-were-arrested-at-the-stonewall-columbus-pride-festival-and-parade; Video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQS8NCEwugk

[3] Lepecki, André. 2013. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: Or, the Task of the Dancer.” TDR/The Drama Review, 57(4), pp. 16.

[4] Lepecki, André. 2013. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: Or, the Task of the Dancer.” TDR/The Drama Review, 57(4), pp. 20.

[5] Similar actions also happened in Minneapolis and New York City. 

[6] Bishop, Claire. 2004. “Art of the Encounter: Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics.” Circa, no. 114(32), pp.70.

[7] Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011, 61

[8] Kester, Grant H. 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Pp. 8. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[9] Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Pp. 2-3. New York: Dover Publications.

[10] Lepecki, André. 2013. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: Or, the Task of the Dancer.” TDR/The Drama Review, 57(4), https://bit.ly/2t5YSTY; Lepecki, André. 2011. “Tania Bruguera.” In Move. Choreographing You: Art and Dance Since the 1960s, ed. Stephanie Rosenthal, 90–93. London: Hayward Gallery Publications.

[11] Singh, Nikhil Pal. “The Whiteness of Police.” American Quarterly 66, no. 4 (2014): 1091-1099. doi:10.1353/aq.2014.0060; U.S. Transgender Survey: Report on the Experiences of Black Respondents. https://bit.ly/2MZlQTJ

[12] Bost, Darius. 2018. Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence. University of Chicago Press.

[13] Diverlus, Rodney. 2018. “Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity.” Canadian Theatre Review 176: 64.

[14] Foster, Susan Leigh. “Choreographies of Protest.” Theatre Journal 55, no. 3 (2003): 395-412. www.jstor.org/stable/25069277.

[15] Chenoweth, Erica. 2017. “Violence Will Only Hurt the Trump Resistance.” The New Republic, February 7, 2017.https://bit.ly/2llA3Oy; Chenoweth, Erica and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press; Tilly, Charles. 2004. “Repression, Mobilization, and Explanation.” In Repression and Mobilization, edited by Christian Davenport, Hank Johnston, and Carol Mueller, 211-226.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[16] Collins, Patricia Hill. “Learning from the outsider within: The sociological significance of Black feminist thought.” Social problems 33, no. 6 (1986): 14-32; Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1990-91. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43: 1241-9.

[17] Kedhar, Anusha. October 6, 2014. ““Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”: Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson” The Feminist Wire. https://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/protest-in-ferguson/

[18] Diverlus, Rodney. 2018. “Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity.” Canadian Theatre Review 176: 64.

Recommended Reading

Bishop, Claire. “Art of the Encounter: Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” Circa, no. 114 (2004): 32.

Bost, Darius. 2018. Evidence of Being: The Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence. University of Chicago Press.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses Du Réel, 1998.

Chen, Jian Neo. Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “I Am Black,” Theater 47, no. 2 (2017), 12.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. and Anita Gonzales. Black Performance Theory. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Diverlus, Rodney. 2018. “Black Lives Matter Toronto: Urgency as Choreographic Necessity.” Canadian Theatre Review 176: 62-68.

Foellmer, Susanne. “Choreography as a Medium of Protest,” Dance Research Journal 48, no. 03 (2016): 58-69.

Forman, James. 1968. “Liberation Will Come From A Black Thing,” in The Black Radical Tradition.

Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

Gossett, Reina, Eric A. Stanley, and Johanna Burton. Trap Door Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2017.

Henderson, Mae, and E. Patrick. Johnson. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2005.

Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011

Johnson, Patrick E. “’Quare’ Studies’, or (Almost) Everything I know about Queer Studies I Learned from my Grandmother.” Text and Performance Quarterly. 21, no. 1 (2001):1-25.

Johnson, E. Patrick. No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Kedhar, Anusha. “Defining a Movement.” The New York Times, December 15, 2014. https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/12/15/what-does-the-style-of-a-protest-say-about-a-movement/choreography-and-gesture-play-an-important-role-in-protests.

Kedhar, Anusha. “‘Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!’: Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson.” The Feminist Wire, October 6, 2014. https://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/protest-in-ferguson/.

Kester, Grant H. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Lacy, Suzanne. Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. Seattle, Wash: Bay Press, 1995.

Lepecki, André. “Choreopolice and Choreopolitics: Or, the Task of the Dancer,” TDR/The Drama Review. 57, no. 4 (2013): 13-27.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Robinson, Cedric J. 2000. Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10351498.

1 comment on “Tracing the Color of Queer Choreopolitics

  1. Pingback: Donate – The Activist History Review

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