Artists Like Us: What Queer Art Can Accomplish
Charlie Leppert is a guest blogger for Pride Month. This is his submission!
The first time I saw Alok Vaid-Menon was in 2014, when I came across a video of them performing in the queer, South-Asian performance poetry duo DarkMatter with Janani Balasubramanian. Though the original video seems to be lost, I believe the poem they performed was “It Gets Bougie,” a piece that struck me to my core: the unrestrained, eloquent, and clever challenge to the “It Gets Better” Project was just what I needed as a frightened,
closeted trans youth not so inclined to Dan Savage’s optimism.
More than anything, the pair’s vibrant, gender-rejecting presentation and unapologetic, ardent, often sarcastic delivery gave me something I didn’t know I needed: an honest, open display of queer truth. DarkMatter gave me permission to be myself in a way I had not yet known possible, and that permission could not have come at a more vital time in my life.
Discovering Alok’s poetry also solidified my passion for writing, and my dedication to making my art a political action. In these tumultuous times - when the injustices that people of color, immigrants, queer people, and other minorities are subjected to have been amplified - it can often feel frivolous to be a poet. Truth be told, though, I cannot think of a single more valuable skill I have to offer in resistance of oppression than the art I make, and I don’t think this is any
The impact of queer art often strikes straight and cisgender readers and viewers keenly, offering them a perspective they have never had to inhabit: that of the Other. The glimpse into personal truth our art offers puts a “face to the issue,” so to speak, so that instead of a massive Other to be ostracized or feared, our humanity is reinforced, inspiring empathy and understanding outside of the community.
On an even larger scale, the radical honesty of creating and publicizing our art is an act of political resistance in and of itself. In a climate of increasing erasure and animosity towards queer people, to step forward and expose our truth disrupts the patterns of shame and suppression being perpetuated by our government and our culture. The simple act of naming ourselves out loud, of creating something beautiful and, through it, offering something of ourselves to the world, defends us from the fear that some want us to live in.
Just as our art can liberate us individually, it may also liberate those viewing it - especially young and/or closeted queer people. As an anxious fifteen year old realizing that I was transgender, poets like Cam Awkward-Rich and Miles Walser gave me solace and a place to see myself which existed nowhere else. Now, as an openly queer trans twenty year old, I still find comfort in the essays of Elliott DeLine and S. Bear Bergman, and the poems of Adam Falkner and Donte Collins, and the music of Tyler Glenn and Girlyman, and the list goes on and on.
A few weeks ago, I came across a 2015 interview with Alok Vaid-Menon, a quote from which I had kept written on a sticky note in my planner all through my entire senior year of high school: “Art is the space we go when language fails us.” Language often fails me when I try to explain all the ways in which artists like Alok have saved, inspired, and educated me with their openness, showing me the unfathomable strength in vulnerability.
Of course, this magic is not exclusive to the written word: it is not just poets who “air this pain and alter it.” All queer art has the power to split a seam in the status quo, opening up new space in the world for people like us. From musicians like Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Hayley Kiyoko, and Troye Sivan, to actress Laverne Cox, the great performer Divine, visual artists such as Keith Haring and Zanele Muholi, and countless others expressing themselves through countless mediums, artists continue to express the beauty, power, and resilience of queerness.
Politically and personally, art remains an invaluable part of the cure. Creativity is a cornerstone of queer survival, a saving grace and an agent of change in a historically hostile world. Above all else, though, queer art has the power to save lives — it has certainly saved mine.
Charlie Orlando Leppert is a queer poet and student from northern New Jersey. His poetic work focuses on queerness, the complexity of American identity, mental health, and resisting conformity. His passion lies in communities of art activism, exploring the ways in which art and writing can help us all live happier, healthier lives while deconstructing systems of oppression. You can learn more about him at charlieleppertpoetry.com or @charlie_orlando on Instagram.