Closed Space, Open Place: A Queer Kitao Art Show
by Olivia Robbins
The walkway into the Kitao Art Gallery on Friday the 10th was lined with small pride flags. Inside, more flags hung around the space – a trans flag, a bisexual flag, and other flags representing different sexualities. Rainbow streamers lined the ceiling, balloons were on the floor, and desserts were available along with Abuelita Hot Chocolate. This event, Closed Space, Open Place: A Queer Kitao Art Show, was organized by Cindy Lopez ‘20 and Ian Ortiz ‘20 on behalf of the Pride Month Planning Committee (PMPC) during Pride Month (October 20 to November 20).
Allen Ginsberg once wrote, “Poetry is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” Echoing this sentiment, Grayson Mick ‘21 commented “art is a domain where humans are able to express how vast and complex we are and gay art is a medium for the LGBT+ community to express not only creativity but our specific hardships.” Many performers did share experiences that unite us, experiences that we, as queer people, might all share in one way or another. Mick concludes, “Gay art? Best art.”
Lopez began the event by stating that the goal was a space to showcase queer artwork and queer performances. Drawings of witches by Liya Harris ‘21 adorned one wall and displayed on a computer were photographs that Lopez took “queering Alice in Wonderland.” Lopez and Ortiz asked for thirty seconds of silence after each performance to allow the work to be processed and felt fully.
The event was emotional and intimate. Almost everyone in the room identified as queer and thus felt an unspoken understanding and empathy Multiple performers and community members, who will remain nameless for safety reasons, expressed that family members and loved ones have threatened to physically hurt or even kill them for being gay.
The first performance was by Q, who grew up in Chester and now attends Widener University. He performed two poems, named “Her and Arson” and “A Change of Heart.” Before he recited his poetry, Q explained that “art has been liberating to me and my sexuality. We have to do what’s important for ourselves especially when people who are supposed to love us cannot accept some part of us… it’s important to have those spaces where we can come together with unity. It’s a powerful thing.”
Next, Victoria Lee-A-Yong ‘21, who also goes by Abbas, explained the confusing and heartbreaking dynamic of growing up queer in a religious household. He read a poem titled “Three” about a person who was “an integral step in finding out who I was.” Before beginning the poem, Lee-A-Yong added, “all is not lost even if you feel like you’ve lost a part of you…I’m still here, right? And all of you is not lost if you find out you are different than you thought you were.”
After Lee-A-Yong, Gene Witkowski ‘21 performed two original songs, including “In Your Arms.” While tuning his guitar, Witkowski explained that he, too, grew up in a conservative and religious household. He explained that his family was unaccepting of homosexuality and that despite being “bad at dealing with emotions sometimes, music has helped [him]deal with them in a way that [he hopes] is healthy.” Before starting his first song, Witkowski added “I like to think that each song that I write has the power to make someone’s life a little bit better because each song that I’ve written has made my life a little bit better.” For example, “In Your Arms” was written from the perspective of a relationship but with a twist – he explained that he “used a relationship to talk about finding a version of [him]self. It’s kind of like talking about all these bad experiences that happened and then finding that one person who makes you realize all those things happened for a reason and then realizing that person is yourself.”
Lopez took some time next to explain her Queer Alice in Wonderland photography series. The photographs were of a black gay woman and each picture had lines from the book written around it. One photograph read “OFF WITH HER HEAD.” Lopez explained that although the quote has one meaning in the context of the story, there is another meaning for queer people – particularly queer people of color. “For me, it symbolized overarching societal standards and heteronormativity that hindered my ability to fully accept myself… so this is her [Lopez’s friend in the photograph] feeling defeated.” She furthered that the piece represented an internal dialogue of the girl saying to herself “off with my head. I’m not accepted. I don’t accept myself. Society doesn’t accept me. Who will accept me?” Indeed, mental health is often a more prominent issue within marginalized groups because of what is known as minority stress – poor mental health faced by members of stigmatized minority groups is usually caused by poor social support systems and the impacts of discrimination. As a result, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that LGBTQ people are up to three times more likely to experience mental illness (See the bottom of the article for resources for LGBT+ people who are struggling).
Lopez capitalized on this struggle with another piece, reading, “I’M NOT ALL THERE MYSELF.” “A lot of us, I’m assuming” she said, “struggled with our sexual identity and various forms of our identity and during that struggle… I felt like I was always missing a part of myself until I fully accepted my queer identity.”
Lopez’s explanation of her photography marked the end of the scheduled performances, opening the floor to anyone who was moved to perform. Another student from Widener University was in fact moved to perform. She explained that growing up, “I didn’t know I was gay. I knew that I liked the way it felt when I saw a pretty girl… I knew that I wasn’t happy in relationships with men so I kind of put some things into perspective and stepped outside my comfort zone to feel better about myself. That’s what I began to realize I knew what was right for me.” Finally, Tessa Hannigan ‘20 and Shelby Dolch ‘21 shared poems as well. Dolch explained she “wasn’t originally planning on sharing” but the bravery of her peers encouraged and inspired her to perform as well. This event celebrated Swarthmore’s LGBTQ+ identity and community and created a space for queer people to come together and strengthen the queer community that already exists.
If anyone reading this feels alone, particularly as a result of a gender or sexuality-based identity struggle, please contact:
The Trevor Project Hotline: (866) 488-7386
The GLBT National Hotline: (888) 843-4564
The GLBT National Youth Talkline: (800) 246-7743
If anyone else is struggling, please reach out to:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741-741
Other resources for marginalized students can be found in Voices’ “Blessings Up.” section.