“Trump’s America is really good for the equity business,” says social-justice advocate and “faux-queen” performer Black Benatar. “I’d just rather not have that kind of job security.”
She’s referring to her gig as someone who helps companies and institutions push beyond the window-dressing that too often accompanies diversity initiatives, and land in the realm with people of color, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups take on concrete leadership roles. These are trying times, and even the most unflagging of us can experience “defiance fatigue,” but Benatar is sufficiently indefatigable that she’s returning to host the African American Art & Culture Complex’s annual event, Queer Rebel Fest, as she has for the past several years.
“We are into Trump’s America,” she reaffirms. “Last year, everyone was in trauma and powering through trauma and I feel like this year — at least in my opinion — we have grounded into the fact that we have survived through this before. Maybe we never wanted to survive through it again, but we have the ability to survive. We have the DNA.”
Oppression, she says, has made communities of queer and trans people of color (QTPOCs) super-powered. It’s unfortunate that they are theirs to draw from, but this year, at least, they’re building on strength.
Best known for her periodic show Black Benatar’s Black Magic Cabaret — a combination drag homily with equal parts irreverence and uplift — Benatar isn’t a curator per se, although it is her job to “stitch and knit the performances together into a cohesive narrative that can hold our disparate stories as a collective.”
With performances by artists such as La Femmebear, AhSa-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford, Europa and Alexa Burrell, and xDLEGIT, Queer Rebel Fest is where people who don’t always necessarily get welcomed onto the stage are the ones doing the welcoming.
“One of the things I am most exctied about is to see what the drag queen-performance artist named Faluda Islam [aka Zulfikar Ali Bhutto] will do,” Benatar tells SF Weekly. “It is sort of beyond the binary in a lot of ways but it is really knitting together a lot of critical narratives around living in war, and the immigrant experience and what they bring with you to new contexts. We need to be hearing from queer Muslins right now.”
If news about the murders of two trans women of color in Dallas this year alone leave you despairing for the possibility of creating lasting change in America, even five minutes on the phone with Black Benatar might recalibrate your gyroscope (and sharpen its blades). She seems to avoid burnout through sheer impatience with the very concept of it.
“What is fatiguing? Life is fatiguing!” she says. “It is. So there’s something in this festival about reclamation that provides the antidote to the fatigue. … There’s some oppositional energy invovled in the definition of fatigue — and Queer Rebels is a spafe that unapologetically centers QTPOC voices and QTPOC audiences. Everyone is welcome here, but it’s so much about when you are in this space, this is not a comfort space for those who do not identify as QTPOC. It’s a comfort space for QTPOC, so the narratives and the stories are less about the fatigue of hearing them and more about the catharsis of seeing your story represented on stage and in context.”
Calling her involvement in the festival “the most beautiful kind of pressure” because she’s “paralyzingly committed to doing justice,” she emphasizes that it’s still worthwhile for people who don’t identify as QTPOC even if the experience will leave you without guardrails. If the Pride season within the confines of whatever Wells Fargo’s PR team approves is what you’re used to, seeing this experimental art might be a very different experience. But not everyone is born into an identity that is easy to comprehend — not even for them — and it’s important that we all come to a deeper understanding of that.
“It’s a really place for you to observe and take it in, not take up space, and just try to” learn through osmosis,” she says. “The queer and trans audiences that are more versed in the QTPOC community — they’re going to be engaging itn a very different way. There’s gonna be a lot of ‘mm-hmm’ testimonials and feeling themselves ands we love that, and we gotta have a space for us so that we know how to be a we. If we don’t understand our individuality in the nuances of our own community, how can we be a we?”
By charging only $15 too $25, Queer Rebels keeps itself widely accessible. But, Benatar admits, there have been strong years and there have been lean years, and she’s got her vision trained beyond simply getting butts in seats.
“What I’m looking for is for allies to step up and support this festival by showing up to the performance or by buying a ticket for someone who can’t afford a ticket,” she says. “I’m looking for peple to donate big money even if they can’t come. If we don’t take care of these little baby institutions that are protecting and giving visibility to the right of trans folks and queer folks and folks of color, then we are in a whole world of hurt because anybody who value equity and equality knows that we are being attacked. Protections are being rolled back. They are setting up to annihilate us — and art has always been the answer. It has always been at the center of any revolution.”
Queer Rebel Fest 11 — Future Switching: May Our Rebel Hearts Grow Stronger, Saturday and Sunday, June 7-8, 7 p.m., at the African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St. $15-$25, 415-922-2049 or aaacc.org