THE FIRST GAY PRIDE WAS A RIOT. This defiant wordplay-as-slogan, appearing with variations on stickers, pins, patches, and protest signs since at least 1989, succinctly reminds us that the Stonewall riots – and earlier riots at Cooper’s Donuts and Compton Cafeteria – were in direct response to police violence, and refutes the orderly parade routes, corporate sponsors, and cheerful rainbow ads that now gild NYC as Pride approaches.
Premiering RIOT in the heart of downtown puts its raucous, hopeful energy just blocks from landmarks of queer history – so much of which was led by trans women of color and gender non-conforming folks, whose legacies are regularly overwritten, or altogether unrecorded. Stonewall, with Marsha P. Johnson’s legendary “shotglass heard round the world” – the Christopher Street pier – Washington Square Park, where Sylvia Rivera gave her searing rebuttal to transphobic feminist organizers during a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally, and where annual Trans Day of Remembrance gatherings are now held – the STAR House – the LGBT Community Center, formerly known as the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, where ACT UP meetings were (and still are) held, and more recently RISE AND RESIST meetings, organizing against #45 in myriad ways. These histories teach us that the process of fighting for access to substantive equal rights and social change is rarely polite, respectable, or well-received – how do we sustain ourselves, and each other, so that we can persist in this urgent work? Or as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney put it in The Undercommons: how can we “be together and think together in a way that feels good?”
RIOT is in part a commemoration of Ireland’s revolutionary past, marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion. The show has become a lens onto Ireland’s revolutionary present, with the presence of queer performers whose self-presentation echoes another artist in NYU Skirball’s 2017-18 season – Justin Vivian Bond – who regularly reminds us in word and deed that “Glamour is resistance.” Queer self-presentation carves out space – and also sends up signal flares to the attentive – for different ways of moving through the world, in which pleasure and aesthetics meaningfully shape our resistant practices, beyond the limitations of normative respectability.
Whether the longevity of ACT UP (their recent 30th anniversary message: “we’re not celebrating”) or the flash-mob-in-the-pan Werk for Peace, whose protests took the form of queer dance parties in public spaces – including the streets in front of Ivanka’s and VP Pence’s homes – queer activists make canny use of pleasure, spectacle, and performance, and often take pleasure in putting their bodies on the line – from the infamous, impromptu chorus line of dancing, singing, rioting drag queens during the Stonewall riots – to ACT UP’s kiss-ins – to Werk for Peace’s twerking protesters blocking access to security checkpoints as part of J20. Werk for Peace was founded in the wake of the Pulse nightclub Latin Night shooting in 2016 – which has already been surpassed as the deadliest mass shooting in US history – and their statement of purpose aligns politics and pleasure, taking Emma Goldman’s proverbial “if I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution” further to assert that without dancing – or whatever pleasures sustain us – there won’t be any revolution at all: “We take to the streets around the world to claim space and assert: We are here. And we will dance. We take to the bars and clubs and we assert: We are here. We will dance.“
In José Muñoz’s formulation, this is what utopia might look and feel like, the pleasure of making our ways through potential utopic iterations, glimpses of better times and places – past and future – from within the bounds of here and now. Muñoz lays out this queer logic in his abstract-as-manifesto on the first page of Cruising Utopia: “Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.”
Benjamin Shephard puts it more plainly: “Without pleasure, there can be no justice.” This is not an either/or logic of politics and pleasure, art and activism, instead reflecting the both/and breathless urgency of THISISPOPBABY’s name and work, no time for spaces, all caps locked. PLEASUREISRESISTANCE – words to live by, and with, and for – “We are here. We will dance.”
J de Leon is NYU Skirball’s Assistant Director, Engagement. They hold a PhD in Performance Studies from NYU and their research argues for the queer ethics and aesthetics of self-indulgence.