Queer Space and COVID Crisis : Today and Tomorrow
How a Pandemic Forges Innovation and Examination
by Karleigh Webb
The third week of March 2020 was a week where it seemed the ground truly shifted under our collective feet. A St. Patrick’s Day that may normally see revelry after a workday instead saw empty roads, empty places, and a near-dystopian silence.
It’s a silence that the co-owner of a 44-year Connecticut LGBTQ institution says is etched in his memory, along with harsh thoughts about having let go a lot of staff to stay alive.
“When it all started, we thought it was just going be one week or two weeks,” Chez Est co-owner John Pepe started. “and now we are six months into it. It’s now just me and my husband doing everything. It’s a lot more work now.”
Such stanzas became commonplace in the narrative of these unsettled times. The pandemic would sent many ambitious plans for the year scrambling. “March 17th hit us like a ton of bricks,” said Katia Capieziello, the owner of Trevi Lounge in Fairfield. “Prior to COVID, we had our fourth year with Fairfield Pride lined up. We were putting together big shows and plays during the summer. As these months went by, it’s like it takes everything out of you. It takes away your drive because now you are living to pay your bills, and you’re not able to support the community the way you really want to.”
“I feel like living and working in COVID has been a constant state of exhaustion,” New Haven Pride Center Executive Director Patrick Dunn stated. “There is in the back of my mind this constant nagging feeling and stress of ‘what if the Center closes?’. If something happens and we run out of money and the community loses something our community needs.”
Dunn’s fears are justified when you consider the preliminary impacts that COVID-19 has had on LGBTQ communities.
On March 20, the Human Rights Campaign put out an early statistical sketch on potential effects of the pandemic on LGBTQ communities. It found that more than 5 million LGBTQ workers are in sectors were the virus is a high-risk threat. Such numbers work in contact with a Williams Institute study that shows more than 1 in 5 of LGBTQ adults overall are living at or below the federal poverty line, and 1 in 10 are unemployed.
The New Haven Pride Center also put together out its own survey, and the painted a confirming picture of those numbers. A majority of those surveyed cited food insecurity a prime need. The survey noted that nearly 60 of those surveyed cited it as their top need. Health care access and securing unemployment benefits followed close behind.
Imaging and Leading During A Lockdown
“March was a scary chaotic hell,” said Kamora Herrington, the founder of Kamora’s Cultural Corner. “But once I heard that the people I loved and cared for couldn’t care for themselves that’s when the creativity kicked in.”
As a Black-led and queer-centered multicultural creative arts space, KCC stands at the intersection of many vulnerable communities dealing with the pandemic. Those fact added to the urgency to strategize and innovate for Herrington, a long-time Hartford activist. Among the first initiatives involved direct mutual aid and fundraising for the artists and performers that have used their space as a means to showcase their work and have seen many income sources dry up.
While spaces Trevi and Chez Est were closed down in the first three months of emergency and many bunkered in, KCC turned to streaming technology and turned their open mic nights, for example, into virtual performances.
In the summer months, a great deal of programming headed outdoors, including a weekly art sale and bazaar centered around community talent being able showcase and sell their works.
They also expanded much of their pre-pandemic education and organizing, into local and global online spaces where people and groups could learn, network and build synergies. Their efforts stepped forward as the protests against police brutality stepped locally and nationally from May into the summer months. The KCC aided organizing for a number of actions and demonstration across Hartford and surrounding areas, including sponsoring demonstration as far away was Windsor and Somers.
“We set up spaces for organizing to happen organically,” Herrington noted. “Through a lot of awfulness, a lot of greatness can happen through the outline spaces and lot of different means to look at issues in new ways.”
New ways also took hold as New Haven Pride Center closed their physical operations on March 23rd.. After being forced to physically shut down the center had their first online streaming program, centering around women in politics, four days later. Since then, NHPC has put on more than 50 online forums, events, discussions, and seminars in addition to maintaining their regular support group schedule. All of them with social interaction via video conference software/apps such as Zoom and Streamyard. A system of “check ins” to members of the community was established as a means for those may need additional support or just space to hear another human voice to stave off growing isolation.
The word “isolation” was an inspiring catalyst for the Pride Center’s efforts. Isolation was seen as a creeping threat as viral as COVID, and Dunn stated that it was NHPC’s marketing and development coordinator, Maia Leonardo, who made a statement why it was such threat.
“The defining moment of COVID response for us was when Maia wrote the line ‘homophobia and transphobia thrive in isolation’,’ Dunn recalled. “It was this ‘a-ha’ moment for all of us in that we have a responsibility to make sure our community does not feel alone. How do we do that?”
One way was the online engagement, but material needs also rose as a challenge to be faced. The center’s case management services saw a marked rise in utilization through the rise of pandemic. A larger need for aid in regard to programs such as applications for social services such as unemployment benefits drove the increase. In May an emergency food drive was started. In fifteen weeks over the summer months, over 45,000 pounds of food was distributed to over 200 people per week, many of whom would have otherwise gone without.
“COVID is shining a light on the real systemic issues,” Dunn noted. “All these people, many for the first time, have been in a position where they need SNAP benefits, or they need unemployment benefits and the system wasn’t built for the volume and it falls apart.”
Preparation To Make A Pivot
As the community centers regrouped, the traditional watering-hole mainstays were closed due to the COVID restrictions in place. Yet neither the respective owners of Chez Est or Trevi were dormant, even if the early period was demoralizing. As the state slowly began to reopen in June and July, each had retooled to regroup and reset.
Capieziello and Trevi played to a strength when they reopened by using their outdoor space to have limited live events such as their bingo night and shows. They also expanded food options to enable opening back up under tighter restrictions, all well fighting to keep their well-known “no cover charge” tradition alive despite the hard times.
“It’s been challenging toward a way of thinking, especially in regaining the trust of your customers and letting the see that we are still open,” she noted. “This is going to be our new normal for a while, but we’ll be able to utilize what we have going forward and have more attractions in a safe way.”
Pepe went full bore toward reinvention and turned the old lounge into a restaurant space when many said it was a fool’s errand. Chez also added a coffee bar in an effort to expand their customer reach. Due to regulations, the revamped venue is open Wednesday thru Sunday, and inside the rule is simple. as Pepe noted, “If you’re standing up, your mask should be up.”
The efforts to reopen seeks to reverse the trend were an estimated 50% of revenue was lost due to the lockdowns. There is also urgency to address two other critical issues: Getting a skittish clientele to come out, even in masks, and perhaps bring new visitors into the fold.
“I see people on a daily, and for many it’s their first time back out again and the choose the Chez, and I’m grateful for that,” Pepe noted. “I have customers who say, ‘thank you for what you are doing’. They are my world. Next year Chez turns 45 and I will not let it fail.”
Hope Amid The Chaos
All sides have a common belief that the idea “of getting back to normal” must give way to the reality that the chaos of COVID will be part of wherever is defined as normal for the months.
The chaos has taken a great deal away already. Many lives lost, civic trust in our public institutions diminished, and it shut down the traditional pride month completely. The crisis even forced one of the iconic gay bars in the nation, San Francisco’s The Stud, to close after 55 years because their revenue collapsed amid pandemic lockdowns. Such news would unnerve a John Pepe or Katia Capieziello, and from community already feeling a siege from many directions amid the social, economic, and political tenor of this crisis and this year.
Dunn notes the danger not only as a community leader, but also a lauded drag performer in Connecticut. “That is scary to me, the loss of a queer space,” he noted. “There is a level of responsibility to raise up these spaces, especially here in Connecticut where there is only 3.9 percent of us. For example, yes, a John and Luis Pepe own Chez Est, but as a community we own these spaces and they belong to us as a community. They are our safe spaces.”
Such statements speak of resilience even in this difficult moment. All expressed a national hope that this pandemic may also spark a LGBTQ “homecoming” in physical presence and spirit.
Pepe notes he is seeing this as his establish tries to get back up to speed. “I do see a return of the younger generation,” he notes. “I’ve seen the shift in the clientele, and it is more people, especially non-binary and genderfluid people, all the colors looking for a place to go.”
For Herrington, the importance of the spirit part of the equations is a key takeaway to move forward with. Even in the crisis and with effective structures in place, attention must be paid to building up each other as much as we seek to build up our institutions.
“I think in some ways the queer community has been doing some reckoning,” Herrington said. “Some of us are choosing to step back into this and asking what it looks like. For example, how the Pride Center figured out how to create art exhibit online, but also acknowledged that there will still people who will not have access. As we step into this new world we need to continue to acknowledge, understand, and think about how to deal with and address these issues.”