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Photograph: Courtesy Criminal Queerness Festival

The Criminal Queerness Festival provides an artistic platform for global LGBTQ+ solidarity

"These works forge further connections and dialogue between white and BIPOC queer communities."

Written by
Adam Ashraf El-Sayigh

Adam A. Elsayigh is an Egyptian playwright, dramaturg, producer, educator and translator. Through his producing and creative practices, Adam interrogates issues of immigration, colonialism and the experience of queerness in the Middle East.

In 2017, I started writing a play titled Drowning in Cairo. The play was based on real life stories and people I had connected with living as a gay man in Cairo, Egypt. Drowning in Cairo dramatizes the lives of three Egyptian men who were arrested on the Queen Boat in 2001, a real-life raid on a gay nightlife location in Cairo. Telling the story of the men’s lives from 1997 and 2017, the play reveals how they come to be shaped by the homophobia that queer people are so often placed within. That homophobic violence is evident in both the 69 countries that continue to criminalize homosexuality, as well as with BIPOC queer individuals here in the U.S. BIPOC queer experience here in the U.S. is unique in its intersectional oppression, for both people’s queerness and their ethnicity.

I soon realized that there was no space for a play like mine. LGBTQ+ stories are actively censored in Egypt through systems of authoritarian government. On the other hand, as a new immigrant here in the U.S., I didn’t feel like the American theater was interested in making space for queer plays beyond the “LGBTQ+ theater canon” which was comprised of primarily white plays like The Boys in the Band, The Laramie Project and Angels in America. While these stories were each beautiful in their own right, they all reflected a white experience that failed to grasp the even more challenging experiences of BIPOC queer individuals. Many other gay writers and theater-makers have critiqued how white this gay canon is. For instance, when Angels in America, The Boys in the Band, and Torch Song were all in the same Broadway season two years ago, playwright Robert O’Hara said, “There’s too many white gay people, particularly white gay men and their struggle being white and gay and male. Do we really need that many? To some people, that’s diversity. But to me, that’s just more white folks onstage.”

Soon after that, I shared my frustrations, as well as a copy of Drowning in Cairo, with National Queer Theater’s Founding Artistic Director, Adam Odsess-Rubin. We quickly began to dream up an annual festival of plays that would tell stories from communities where being queer is either criminalized or repressed. The Criminal Queerness Festival had its first season during Pride 2019. This year, we came back for a second iteration through a virtual partnership with Dixon Place. Through the festival’s collaboration with artists telling stories from Tanzania, Venezuela, India, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, China, and Pakistan, The Criminal Queerness Festival has highlighted a variety of queer stories from international, immigrant, and BIPOC perspectives.

One of this year's offerings, Amahl Khouri’s She, He, Me, is a play about the trials of genderqueer Arabs. She, He, Me follows the true stories of three Arab characters who challenge gender norms. Randa is an Algerian transwoman who is expelled under the threat of death from her homeland because of her LGBTQ+ activism there. Omar is a Jordanian gay man who suffers social dysphoria in response to toxic masculinity. Rok is a Lebanese transman trying to convince his very conservative religious mother that her daughter is actually a boy. Through humor and horror, the three characters come up against the state, society, the family and also themselves. In presenting stories like She, He, Me, CQF humanizes BIPOC stories that have been historically underrepresented. These works forge further connections and dialogue between white and BIPOC queer communities, and allow us to enact the values of collaboration and solidarity which will bring society towards a more equitable future for all queer communities.

Even as an immigrant, queer BIPOC artist and co-founder of this event, I have learned a lot through living with these stories about how oppression exists in different contexts globally. I have learned that solidarity between white and BIPOC queer communities is not only a local but a global issue as BIPOC communities are also often immigrant communities. The stories we present, and what they show us about resilient human experiences, are reminders of what we gain from thinking about Pride and queer liberation together rather than apart. In the festival, we curate conversations that allow us to question how we should use the knowledge of how solidarity can exist between white and BIPOC queer people to disrupt systems of anti-queer violence.

Often, there's an impulse to explain why all of this matters; why hearing stories from BIPOC perspectives is important for us (read: white people.) But that's the wrong question to be asking here. It assumes that theater audiences are white and always will be. It assumes that our stories are only valuable if they pass through and are interesting for a white gaze. CQF matters because representation matters. Telling stories from BIPOC experiences matters because seeing ourselves represented and knowing that our stories contain the humanity to influence and impact how we think about LGBTQ+ issues (which white gay men have had for decades) is itself valuable. If white queer audiences are interested in seeing how our humanity can reflect on larger queer experiences, then that’s great too.

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