Ultra-red, founded in 1994, has developed protocols for sound investigations of our lived experience. These protocols are derived from a methodology based on collective listening: we listen collectively and then share what we hear through a series of prompts, listening again, to what others have heard, and building dialogue and perhaps community in the process. In this second of two phenomenal sessions with Ultra-red, we met with Michael Roberson, who presented on Vogue’ology, a collaboration between the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School, which includes the Ballroom Archive and Oral History Project, and Ultra-red.
What did you hear
What did you see
What did you feel
I heard a man speak, and I saw him sweat from a light fever in a crowded room, and felt that I wanted to know who he was and what moved him to meet with us and to teach us.
Michael Roberson, of Ultra-red, converted the 5th F1oor conference room in Knox Hall into a sacred space during his visit as part of the OHMA Workshop series on Thursday, November 2nd. His riveting presentation had everyone there sitting at the edge of our feelings, all of them.
After an intimate conversation with the OHMA 2017/2018 cohort, during which Michael generously shared with us his early life, stories about his beloved mother and his journey, we filed into the larger seminar room. During our conversation, he touched on a range of themes including kinship, church, and justice. He invited us to consider what it is means to be condemned as an abomination for that which exists in your very DNA, by the body that claims to represent the very God that created all of us. He dropped this succinct and very heavy knowledge on us in a way that made it impossible to ignore. I eagerly anticipated more of what felt like part history lesson, part political analysis, part memoir and part sermon but complete truth, as we moved into the conference room.
YouTube is my pedagogy, Michael had told us. I wasn’t really sure what that meant until he shared with us several revelatory YouTube videos. The order in which they were presented had its own internal logic and momentum. The first brought in the innumerable queer and trans people, their photos and names printed on the screen, who have passed but who remain in community. They remain in memory, photos and video. Each are remembered with love and tenderness. Beautiful, fierce, trans women performing and transforming us as we enter into one of those justice spaces that Michael talked about, allowing us to dialogue with them, through him. It was clear that he was communing with each of the women in the videos. It was also clear that their existence meant something profound to him: that they were anything but an abomination. His opening up invited us into dialogue with them and with their meaning. Existence is resistance.
What did you hear
What did you see
What did you feel
Ultra-red’s methodology asks us these three questions, as complex as a haiku. As Michael guided us, I closed my eyes as I listened closely. I heard fury, and pain, I saw beauty, and love and felt strength and goosebumps. My skin reacted to Sylvia Rivera’s anger from a stage erected in Washington Square Park. Her fury at the betrayal of white middle class lesbians who turned their backs on trans women who too were raped by men was scathing. Sylvia Rivera demanded that they see that she is no less of a woman and she condemned them for refusing to. She demanded that they see her poverty and their own racism and privilege. That they see, hear and feel that every second that she is alive she is in danger and that their privilege puts her in danger. That gay power is infused, as all struggles are, with all of the complex intersections of race, gender, sexual identity, class, migration status and ability. My mind travelled to the conversations had among homeless queer and cis-gendered folks in 2004, around whether trans women and trans men should force homeless service providers to acknowledge the gender identity on their ID’s for bed and bathroom assignments. I remembered ten years later being in coalition spaces with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, working to end police brutality in multiple, intersecting communities. There was more awareness that we are in this struggle together, at least in those spaces: hearing trans women testify that the police illegally searched them, and when they found condoms in their purses, used those as evidence to charge them with prostitution. I have witnessed the courage with which mostly black and brown trans women have transformed our social justice movements and therefore the world that we live in. Even within social movements those with privilege set the agendas for what to struggle for and how to engage in those struggles. What is so important about Michael Roberson’s work is that he brings the beauty and resilience of queer and trans women into the room as undeniable evidence of the need to make space. Not merely because queer and trans women “deserve inclusion,” but because our movements are incomplete and suffer from the continued marginalization of queer and trans women.
Michael did indeed create a “justice space” for us, even as he reminded us that “justice making is messy”. With his unapologetic demand that the world see, hear and feel Queer and Trans people of color, Michael also talked about forgiveness. The support of the Black Church and the use of the pulpit to denigrate and invisibilize Black and Latinx queer and trans bodies co-exist in this struggle, and in Michael as he embodies this struggle.
As there was no civil rights movement without gospel, Michael teaches us that there was no gay liberation movement without House music because the sounds of freedom are the sounds of the creative celebration of life and love that arose from the House music scene. Queer and trans folks of all genders continue to fight for their survival within social movements and society more broadly. The work of Ultra-red is necessary for those of us outside of the Ballroom community to step in closer and to feel those creative sources of power embodied in the stories, dance, fashion, protest and insight of queer and trans people of color.
To learn more about UltraRed, please visit their Website at: http://www.ultrared.org/ index.html
Lynn Lewis comes to OHMA after a decade working with Picture the Homeless. In her oral history work, Lynn has focused on the stories of this organization, interviewing staff and members on their experiences.