On July Fourth, A Performance Art Piece Reflects On Pulse

After the shooting of nearly 50 people, many of them LGBTQ, at the Orlando nightclub Pulse, the LGBTQ community is still mourning, while reflecting on what it means to live in a culture where access to guns is easy and discriminative violence is everywhere. This community is no stranger to violence; nightclubs and bars that have served as havens for LGBTQ people have been targeted with violence throughout U.S. history.

K.T. Billey — poet, literary critic, and assistant editor at Asymptote — said she felt compelled to do something to acknowledge a culture in which marginalized communities live in constant fear. So Billey, who identifies as a queer pansexual woman, decided to express her feelings through performance art.

In her performances, called “Open Carry,” she wears a bulletproof vest covered with an LGBT pride flag and texts every single person in her address book with the message “Get home safe?” After each text, she tweets, “Has anyone seen [name of Pulse victim]”? (All families are informed beforehand that she will be doing this, and she doesn’t tag any names on social media.) A follow-up text asks if recipients would be comfortable with a screenshot of their responses, which she then posts online in what she calls a “visual community of vigilance.”

One performance already happened during New York Pride celebrations; another is slated for today, July 4 — a sadly fitting holiday on which to express frustration about a country that does far too little to protect its marginalized communities.

K.T. had planned on holding the initial New York Pride performance Saturday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Everybooty party, but decided it would be better to perform it on a Sunday afternoon at The Warren on Christopher Street, while Pride celebrations were still happening. She felt this would allow her performance to receive the right kind of attention, but would also be less likely to be make people feel unsafe.

The July 4 performance will happen at the Whitney Museum of American Art at noon EST. Thordarson is not doing this with permission from the museum. (Despite what the photos show, she’ll be wearing a top, shorts, and sneakers with a vest over the outfit, and a pride flag pinned to the vest.)

I spoke with K.T. about what compelled her to create this performance, the lack of safety for those in the LGBTQ community, and what makes Pride so beautiful.

Casey Quinlan: If you don’t mind my asking, how did you personally react to and process the Orlando shooting?

K.T. Billey: My older brother is a gay man and weeks earlier, he and his boyfriend were in Florida and went to Pulse. So I already had this backstory, with my brother commenting on this space and how it was special.

I think a lot of people were sick and heartbroken, but also not that surprised, and that was what bothered me — that element of not being that surprised, both at the community targeted and the gun violence.

Casey: It seems so natural to ask each other the question, ‘Did you get home safe?’ But it seems like you’re trying to communicate to a wider audience that this concern isn’t universal, and that certain people are more afraid for their safety than others — is that part of the message you’re trying to convey?

K.T.: I’m talking about the right to basic safety. Before you can bear arms, you have to have arms; you have to be alive. This originated with my reaction to Orlando, which involved people texting me to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing with all of this?’ which is interesting because it’s not about the physical; it’s about the emotional.

So that’s what started this idea . . . What should we do, wear a bulletproof vest all the time?

It started with checking in with all of my queer friends, actually queer women, but then I realized that I don’t want to limit it to that, because I’ve also [checked in on] my friends who identify as straight or women in general — and then there’s one of my friends who is worried about her black nephew being on the street. So it became a thing where I want to highlight the queer community as vulnerable, but also be like, ‘No, at the end of the day, it’s about the right to safety in a public place, and it [involves] everybody.’

I mean, I’ve had partners who are white straight men, and I text them to see if they got home okay and I see their surprise of like, ‘Oh,’ and that made me want to text those people even more to say, ‘Hey, this is some people’s everyday life,’ and maybe that would get some gears turning of understanding what that feels like.

Casey: How did you decide you wanted the bulletproof vest to be part of this? Other than communicating fear of gun violence, what other messages does it send — that it’s a physical manifestation of how LGBT people and others feel constricted every day when they have to constantly worry about saying the wrong thing, acting the wrong way?

K.T.: I bought it off Craigslist from a man who is easily three times my body size, and he was laughing at me when I put it on and said, ‘They do make female body armor, and it’s supposed to be one size fits all’ and I said, ‘Yeah I know,’ but I liked the contradiction because it was more of a contrast since I am a pretty slight woman, so I have this vulnerability with this thing that is uncomfortable.

I went to the parade on Sunday with the flags and actually had a chilling moment putting the vest on in the bathroom where I was like, fuck. It was really intense, because it made me realize there is that moment of preparation with people who are about to engage in violent acts . . . and I creeped myself out, suiting up for something that was not that at all, but realizing that was how thought-out that was.

kt lead

Casey: Why did you decide not to do this performance during Saturday night at Pride?

K.T.: I don’t think that art is necessarily the first priority. I was more worried about the whole community, and that’s partly where this came from. I was angry because I was really scared, like maybe I should rethink my pride plans. The thought crossed my mind to say to my brother, please stay in and watch a movie, because I was scared, and that fear makes me angry and I know it won’t help — you’ve got to go out anyway and do your thing. On one hand, you’re thinking New York is different or better, but on the other hand, if somebody wants to target a community and make a statement, they would do it at one of the places I visit. It’s upsetting, it’s scary, and the last thing I wanted to do was scare people who had decided to come out anyway and celebrate.

Casey: How did your family and friends react when they learned you were going to do this?

K.T.: What I think is so beautiful about Pride, and why I am as excited as I am about this project, is that there is this kind of resiliency that is really astounding and inspiring, and it sounds a little cheesy, but it really is the backbone of so much . . . In the gay community or the queer community or any marginalized community, I understand the impatience with allies of not wanting to explain what it feels like or to take on that burden. But in my experience, it’s very worthwhile, and maybe I’m lucky to be surrounded by straight people or white men who are open to learning. I mean, I’ve been involved in [talking about] gender and politics for a long time, and I think this is something that is so basic. I haven’t encountered any demographic that doesn’t get that we all need basic things. It’s really that simple.