Posted by: maxvoltage | April 9, 2012

policy change follow-up

At Friday’s Homomentum, I announced a policy change for Pants-Off Productions, around the screening process of performance pieces coming to the stage.  I had received feedback from audience members about past content that hadn’t met our anti-oppression standards, and thus want to be as transparent as possible about changes moving forward.

But really, this is the tip of the iceburg.  This shift has been one of the many catalysts in my life, toward continually upping the bar for the work I put on stage.  Most shows, we get to bask in the sweet glitter magic of queer performances, and leave the fucked up world outside.  But it’s not always so simple, and the work that goes into making sure the performance experience is radical magic, has been a life-long pursuit.

I wanted to spend some time elaborating, on where I’m coming from, and let you in on the vision I have for this creative space we share together.  The decisions I make effect what acts you see on-stage.  Performers and communities members, you decide whether or not to opt-in, to participate, to attend Pants-Off events, and in doing so, are all part of this space we are creating together.  So I want to let you in, and tell you what I vision and why.

When I was a child I loved art and performance and music. My brother and I would put on shows, recruit the neighbor kids, any holiday was an excuse for a performance. I have attempted for quite some time to not be an artist. After all, its an extremely illogical profession. How will I ever make a living? But alas, we don’t get to choose our passions, they choose us.

But you know what sucks? The world is a really unfair place. I was blessed with a loving, supportive childhood and somehow missed the memo on how fucked up the world can truly be. But then I discovered my own queerness, and the whole world changed in a moment.

Suddenly I began to see the truths of the world. It’s amazing how we are able to buy into the lies we are told, as long as we are benefiting enough from them. I experienced blatant discrimination and it shifted my life trajectory. I abandoned my engineering degree, guaranteed job with Intel, my class-ensuring path. Because I knew that I just knew I couldn’t sit in a cubicle and be a cog in the machine of an unfair world.

So I learned about this unfair world, about how homophobia, sexism, racism, classism, how they are built into our systems. How they play out in our world and in our every day lives. I started to own my own privilege, and try to listen to others with different experiences, to understand how the world treats them.

My female body and my genderqueerness rarely allowed me access into mainstream art forms. But my genderqueerness opened up the Drag King world to me, where I finally had space to step onto a stage, and be a queer artist. Through drag, i began creating space for myself, and other queer art stage-orphans.

So this is why I do it. Because I can’t not. Because being an artist is part of who I am. I am an optimist and a dreamer. I crave a stage, and an audience, for myself and others who rarely get a stage, a voice. And if that means I have to build that stage from scratch, that is what I do, and will continue to do.

I believe deeply in my heart that the world should be less unfair. Less mean and violent and oppressive. I have been accused more than one time of “censorship.” But the truth is, when it is my stage, I decide where to draw the line. I have spent my life building this. The time and work and financial debt is on my shoulders. As are the final decisions. So it is time for me to step into my role fully.

Issues of racism and oppression are not cut and dry. We are all socialized with so many fucked up notions. But we do decide whether or not to do the work to unlearn them. It’s up to us to choose whether or not to do the work to try to make the world less unfair.

I don’t have all the answers. But my goal is to continually strive toward a better understanding. Constantly trying to better articulate the line between radical art, and art that re-enforces the oppressive dynamics of the world. Chances are, there will rarely be easy answers or easy solutions. What I ask is for a willingness to engage in the conversations. What I am creating is not just an event, just a stage. Together, we can create a magical world, where we can strive for better. Where we can learn and grow, have the difficult conversations, and deconstruct the idea that only certain privileged bodies get to be artists. Get to be seen. Us queer outsiders have important creative shit to say, and it is my goal to get us heard.

There are so many movements before us that stopped short, didn’t do the hardest work. It’s easy enough to yell at your oppressors, but how do we fight our own privilege? How do we acknowledge it, and unlearn prejudices, do the work without beating ourselves up over our inherent participation in the very system that beats us down?

Here is the peace I have chosen to make with myself and the world. I am white, able-bodied, thin, and come from upper-middle class privilege. I acknowledge that it is easier for me to walk around in the world than it is for many of the people I love. I choose not to throw that away or pretend it doesn’t exist. I choose to use my privilege to try to make the world a little less unfair. To be the best ally I can be to people of color and others with less privilege than I hold. I choose to create a space where we do this hard work together. I choose to step up and hold other people accountable, even when it sucks and is hard. I choose to prioritize my politics, ethics and morals over profits or popularity.

Our community brings together so much difference that we are often forced to have the really hard conversation, and do that work. Of acknowledging privilege, of unlearning prejudices. And while it can be infuriatingly difficult at times, it is also one of our greatest strengths. As queers, we band together because we have felt the weight of the unfairness of the world. Let’s use these lessons we’ve learned together to help create a better world. Create a creative, magical space that is as free from the unfair oppressive dynamics of the world as our complex human selves can possibly make it.

That is my vision.  I hope that you will share in it.

As for the logistics moving forward…. For the last two seasons, I have had all performers sign a contract agreeing to adhere to the radical anti-oppression politics of Pants-Off.  But there is always grey area, and once on-stage, performers’ good intentions don’t always shine through.  So I have added an additional gatekeeping step.  Tech rehearsal is now also a Full Dress Rehearsal, and an ally will watch the entire show to make sure that if there’s oppressive material or misappropriation in the piece, it gets adjusted or doesn’t make it on stage.  Homomentum (Science/Fiction) was our Beta test with this system, and it went swimmingly!  I’m looking forward to continuing to learn, engage, improve and make the world a more awesome, radical glitter-filled place.****

***UPDATE: So, after getting feedback on the gatekeeping step, I am questioning the effectiveness of the system.  It requires a lot of extra work and stress the day of the show.  And I don’t want my performers to feel stressed or undermined, that is not my intention.  I am going to put that idea on the back-burner for now, and am interested in brainstorming other ideas for future seasons, and planning a mediated conversation this summer.  If you would like to participate in this conversation, about what we’d like our queer performance space to be, and the best ways to be accountable to our community, while also making space for risk-taking artistic expression, let me know.  Love & Compassion, Max



  1. So proud!

  2. Thanks for posting this, Max. I would appreciate some additional context about what triggered this move… I agree with a lot of aspects of what you’re saying, but I feel like there’s missing information. Was there a specific piece or pieces in one of the shows that directly contradicted your already-existing policies? I’d advocate against forcing people to make conjectures about the *why* of this, and move beyond theoretically-structured language. Thanks!

  3. Hey thanks for reading & responding Mel. I’m not interested in singling anyone out so I’m choosing not to discuss specific acts. Over the years I have gotten feedback about a few acts, and each time my policy has been to engage the performers in a conversation about their piece. But I get wanting to know more, and I don’t want to leave performers guessing or second-guessing where the line is. Sometimes, I disagree with the feedback I get from audience members about where they perceive the line to be. But my goal is to take feedback seriously, and try to engage in conversations to the best of my abilities. Perhaps one solution might be to create a rubric, or find other ways to articulate where the line is, without having to vilify and single out artists.

  4. I think this is a great invitation to a conversation that our queer community has been lacking and that we could all learn a lot from! Thanks for framing your intentions and putting this out there as a dialogue that isn’t cut and dry. I also really appreciate the way you’ve located yourself in terms of privilege and political goals, including veering away from fingerpointing and blacklisting. Super responsible step in the right direction! I applaud you for getting some movement about these issues and also dreaming a mediated discussion for later this year. Stoked!

  5. Hey there.

    I appreciate this as an opp for everyone to further dialogue on this. I also get not wanting to single out prior acts.

    Maybe what would be constructive is for us to discuss, as a community, cultural appropriation and the difference between 1) “perverting”/queering our own traditional cultures in performance, 2) paying homage to other cultural art forms not our own and 3) appropriating cultures not our own. I also want to acknowledge that the difference between #2 and #3 can sometimes be pretty blatant, but is often not cut and dry, especially when it comes to performance/art forms. Given that so many queer icons are massive appropriators (Madonna, Gwen Stefani, the list is long), they are not really the best examples and arbiters of community standards on this. That said, some things really are more cut and dry, at least in terms of costuming:

    You can’t and shouldn’t be expected to predict everything under the sun that can be seen as racially/culturally appropriative, but it might be productive to name specific theoretical or real examples of what’s welcome and what’s not for community performers to consider.

    Thanks for the care and concern to make Homomentum a place where we can hopefully push boundaries without making it a haven for unquestioned exoticism or racism.

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