Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: Black Queers Connecting Virtually During COVID
Toronto Queer party Strapped.TO continues to create innovative space for virtual community building.
Author’s Note: Rebekah is a Black queer woman and a graduate of the University of Toronto. Currently, she works as a Podcast Producer with Hart House Stories, which produces a weekly radio show on CIUT 89.5FM. She looks forward to attending the Columbia Journalism School in the fall.
The sensations that I felt in pre-pandemic spaces for queer people of colour are unforgettable: the thumping beat collided with your chest as you made your way through a crowd; fog from the smoke machine hazed the air as blue, green, and purple lights bounced and danced off every surface. You could barely hear any chatter over the club beats that poured out of every speaker. The DJ wove together track after track to put the crowd in the mood to keep dancing in the dark. As hip-hop music spilled from the speakers, sweaty strangers bumped and grinded on the dance floor. The drinks flowed at the bar and the line for coat check continued past the washrooms. At the end of a long work week, this was the scene where I could freely be myself with those around me. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, gathering in person as we once did is not possible due to current safety restrictions. But there is still a driving force that can bring these queer parties to the community: the virtual world.
Queer communities, activists, and organizations are using the creative solution of going virtual to keep their parties and events going, taking up space they’ve been historically left and forced out of, and embodying our community’s needs and desires. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a creative problem in need of innovative solutions to deal with the loss of revenue, wages, and community spaces, and virtual programming provides an opportunity to rethink how we build community. The community is not bound by geographic regions but instead forged through the networks and connections that exist, which have reached a wider audience with virtual options becoming more widely available.
Coming together in a socially distant manner to share resources, at this moment, is no different than what queer communities have been doing for decades. Organizers have continually worked to carve out welcoming spaces for Black queer people as refuge from the overwhelming whiteness of The Village and other queer areas with anti-Black behaviors in Toronto. Black queer communities have also always held space for one another in times of difficulty, including during epidemics. They engaged in intersectional organizing and activism around the HIV and AIDS crisis throughout the 1970s and ’80s, successfully building strong communities that provided health and social care support. Trans and queer communities also used spaces in the 1990s to reclaim their ties and contributions to the city through extensive community-building projects. Queer spaces like the ones I described have been a part of the fabric of Toronto, despite being continually erased from narratives and histories about Toronto’s make-up. Parties, like Strapped.TO have taken to the virtual space and aim to produce programming that centers members of the Black queer community.
I tuned into the spooky virtual event, Stripped: House of Whore-her, a virtual collaborative project between Strapped.TO and Maggie’s Toronto that celebrates Black sex workers. Their focus was to highlight how essential Black queer dancers are for our communities and to encourage others to challenge anti-Black racism, especially within the industry. I flipped open my laptop to click on the bouncing blue icon with a white camera in the center, and I was transported through a portal filled with images and tunes curated by Chanelle Marshall and resident DJ Ace Dillinger. There was a sense of connectivity as the host spotlighted different live-feeds from users and offered a glance into other people’s reality in their intimate spaces. Black and brown folks were in Halloween costumes, had elaborate makeup, and used lights and decoration set-ups to fill the individual windows. They reached a worldwide audience, aligned in a mosaic on the Zoom platform. I felt an overwhelming sense of longing to be around other people on a weekend night and to celebrate ourselves and each other. I was reminded of previous, pre-pandemic times watching these beautiful people dance to the curated beats in their respective spaces.
Strapped.TO has sought out a way to both support the community and continue the party’s momentum, as it celebrated its first anniversary on August 9th. The organization also wanted to provide people with ways to connect with each other while having something to look forward to. I spoke to Marisa Grant, founder of Strapped.TO, and they told me that organizing at the beginning of the pandemic started out with some personal reflections. “I thought about what I would need in these times. So, I started listing down things.” Programming evolved from their original concept of Strapped TV with a scheduled list of events for people to tune into that targeted different social dynamics like mental wellness, dance parties, movie nights, and fashion. It was an experimental test to understand how people might enjoy viewing and to build a schedule of low-key events to combat the saturation of Zoom events that popped up during the summer.
The virtual event also is a way to be more accessible, especially to those who may not have been previously able to join physically due to the inaccessibility of the space. Venues, lack of transportation, crowding that can trigger anxiety in some people, and a combination of other barriers can prevent attendance. Virtual events allow people to tune in from their own location and decide to turn their cameras on or off. They also let people control the volume of the music streams and choose to view the flashing lights of the performer in full view or minimized. However, even with the move to virtual platforms, some barriers still exist. Black and brown content creators are frequently shadowbanned on social media, which limits their viewership or removes their content altogether.
Successful virtual events are all about placemaking and creating comfortable and inviting spaces for the people they are designed to serve. The Strapped.TO programming is a way to support the most marginalized people of the community. With the pandemic restrictions in place, it has been challenging for those who work in the gig economy. Grant expressed the desire to fulfill the needs of those who have partaken in the parties, including DJs, drag performers, strippers, and others:
“I still have a bunch of people that I need to pay, like, I have a bunch of DJs that I had in mind for things, I see them making posts, looking for funds, and like, there’s just so much community need, because the people I work with work in the gig economy. I’m using drag kings, I’m using burlesque performers, I’m working with strippers and different people, and they are all people that rely on gigs, which our events, like what I make, to support themselves. So, I felt like it was my responsibility to find a way to still make it work.”
The core of Strapped.TO’s project is to cultivate a space where people of different backgrounds and cultures could speak comfortably, openly, and honestly while connecting over shared experiences. “I was just looking for ways to create an environment that people can feel safe in and be social and still connect with their community.” Grant’s hopes were for Black queer people and other people of colour to have a space where those hosting the events looked like those they were trying to reach. “I’m always creating events and having hosts that look like the people I’m trying to reach to gain that following and to gain those people to come to the events.”
While there are unique challenges in bringing people together who all feel welcome, Grant’s hopes people curate that in the space:
“They’re able to speak openly, honestly. They’re able to interact with people, and they are able to feel safe. They see people that look like them. They have people there that share experiences with them — especially being queer and a person of colour. Our experience is so different. We have so many different barriers. We have a lot of people that can’t come out or be as open as some other people in other cultures can be. So having space where there’s just that underlying understanding is so beautiful and so comforting. And I just hope that anyone who enters any event that I attend, I mean that I create, feels this way too.”
For me, as an American transplant who eagerly sought out a Black queer community upon reaching Toronto, Strapped’s parties have provided a wealth of connections and memories. They have allowed me to connect with others outside our shared queer identities. They serve as a place where we can finally be our authentic selves, cruising by ourselves or partying with one’s chosen family. These moments have helped me flesh out a sense of belonging and have allowed me to feel more at home within myself, as I learn and evolve within this larger city. Although Toronto appears to be large and intimidating on the surface, it’s the shared moments within these community spaces that break down the walls of isolation. I feel a sense of ease and amazement when I bear witness to the incredible creativity and artistry of Strapped’s productions. Virtual programming has allowed me to maintain that link to the city while supporting creators and causes that arose from widespread efforts to address rampant anti-Blackness in the Toronto context.
With the post-pandemic world still clouded with uncertainty regarding large social gatherings, the Black queer community’s mental health will continue to be a pressing issue. However, some aspects of virtual party programming will still be around to stay, especially as audiences grow outside of Toronto and the GTA.
This piece is a collaboration between nuance and Mapping Black Futures.
Nuance is a publication that focuses on underrepresented perspectives in sex, sexuality, and sexual health, by and for, young immigrant artists in Toronto. We are thrilled to be partnering with Mapping Black Future to elevate the stories of young Black artists in Toronto exploring how their sexualities and identities are shaped by and shape the city.
Introduction to Writing Black Futures
Mapping Black Futures began with the goal of exploring how young Black people make sense of who they are, the communities they belong or wish to be part of, and their relationships to space — specifically the various social and urban geographies that make up Toronto. Initially, this project began as a virtual place making and storytelling project, which launched in 2020. It consists of a virtual community and map, built by young Black people for young Black people and the communities they belonged to. Since then, the project has grown to include this collaboration with Nuance magazine, with talented young Black writers who, inspired by the themes explored in Mapping Black Futures, have written essays about Blackness, sexuality, embodiment, and space. We are excited to enter this new phase of our work through these pieces.
- Strapped.TO: This party series creates an atmosphere for queer women and non binary people of colour to take up space.
- Maggie’s Toronto: Supports local sex workers through legal advocacy, political organizing, peer support, and education.
Queering Urban Justice: Queer of Colour Formations in Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2018. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/utoronto/detail.action?docID=5473893
Das, S, Farber, R. User‐generated online queer media and the politics of queer visibility. Sociology Compass. 2020; 14:e12824. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1111/soc4.12824