The Future is a Thing of the Past: Critical Reflections on Queer Mentorship and Arts Organizing During Covid-19

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a spray painted graffiti mask and the series title.

Jase Falk

August 4, 2020

In Summer 2019, Winnipeg-based multi-media performance artist Davis Plett and I began “Trans Hive,” a peer-based all transgender arts residency program. As there are few established transgender artists in Winnipeg, Davis and I had found it difficult to access trans mentors with whom we could explore the interrelatedness of our queer/trans identities and our artistic practices, so we founded Trans Hive as a response to this lack. In the spring of 2020, a prominent local white queer artist and professor (who will go unnamed here) was revealed to have created a series of portraits of himself putting on blackface and a number of his former students began speaking out about experiences of racism in his classes. This incident, while shocking and dismaying, sadly lined up with discussions our collective has had about our own experiences of different queer mentors who we felt failed us. To us it seemed like there was a trend of established queer artists promoting themselves as “subversive” and “radical” while their actions towards younger, and often more marginalized, queers have been harmful. Processing this event with the Trans Hive collective members over Zoom during the pandemic got me thinking about how whiteness operates within queer spaces and what it means to be failed by a queer mentor when there are already so few queer mentors out there.

Though Trans Hive is an artist collective, our meetings have always felt more about a shared sense of solidarity between trans people as many of us experience social isolation in an ongoing way. Since the pandemic, our collective’s process has slowed. It has felt more important to check in with how each of us is coping with the present rather than scheme up plans for the future. The importance of seeing one another was framed by how isolated many of us were even before the pandemic. Being trans in public can be a constant challenge. In my personal life, because of frequent misgendering and acts of transphobia, I tend to avoid pursuing jobs that involve interacting with too many people and often choose to stay home rather than go out to social events. Being in the trans-only space of Trans Hive feels like a bit of a relief as I can let my guard down. The possibility of losing this community as we scrambled to see if it still made sense to continue doing arts organizing during the pandemic made me realize just how fragile many social supports for trans people are.

In our collective’s conversations about how to engage this new temporality of life in the pandemic, Trans Hive has chosen to continue meeting, but to focus more on our collective wellbeing rather than our artistic output. This has challenged me to rethink much of what I’d previously thought about queer theory, particularly José Muñoz’s articulation of queer futurity as “an anticipatory illumination of a queer world” (49). Many longings for the future now just feel like concealed attempts to get back to an idealized notion of the recent past. In other arts communities, I’ve heard a lot of talk about new ways to display and share art during this time when galleries and theatres are closed. While these conversations can be important, I sometimes sense in them a desire to “get back to normal.” But it was during that “normal” that queer mentors failed us, and systemic racism often went unchecked in queer and arts communities. Why would we want to return to that? I believe this time of COVID-19 has presented queer and arts organizing spaces with an opportunity to let go of their expectations to push careers forward and find new ways of exhibiting work and instead to grapple with the ways racism is entrenched within these spaces and center the work and calls to action of queer artists of colour. I believe this might mean letting go of our attachment to futurity, as I do not know that we are currently able to imagine a future outside of what currently exists.

In thinking about queer mentorship and how mentors often act as guides who open up new horizons as we learn new skills or professionalize, perhaps the idealization of aspirational figures needs to be rethought. There is a danger to idealizing mentor figures who we presume hold knowledge or skills that we want since idealization can result in not noticing a mentor’s shortcomings and, in turn, being idealized can make one forget to self-reflect and feel justified in their position of privilege within a social hierarchy. The horizon of queer futurity can function in a similar way—as an object of longing and idealization, it can foreclose self-reflection in the present. Contrary to Muñoz’s argument that “queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future,” (1) I argue that queer communities must first make themselves adequate to the world they often claim to desire and must question how triumphal futurity in the midst of a pandemic might beget violence through the refusal to confront the manifestations of systemic oppression within queer communities.

I have found it helpful to take a realistic look at Trans Hive and not think of it as any more or less radical than it is. I fear that one day I will end up like the mentors who have disappointed me, and so many others. Rather than positioning myself against the queer mentors who I feel have failed me, I am coming to understand their failures as failures of the communities I am a part of and not something that is separate from me. While there may be an “anticipatory illumination” of a queer future in the present, there are also violences present, which cannot be neatly swept backwards into the past. The current pandemic has caused arts organizations to have to rethink their approaches to sharing and creating work and thus is a significant rupture in the normal order of things. Perhaps an opportunity exists here for queer arts communities to centre the most marginalized in their communities and prioritize care and reckoning with their own complicity with systemic oppression rather than artistic output.

I hope that rather than trying to strive for a semblance of normalcy, queer and arts communities can slow down the urge for productivity and focus instead on thinking through how white supremacy, colonial ideologies, ableism and other forms of systemic oppression reproduce themselves within our communities. If queer and arts communities do not attend to their own embeddedness within colonial and white supremacist ideologies and work hard to address this, any imagining of the future will simply be a reiteration of the present and our failings will be pushed deeper into the closet, becoming all the more painful for everyone when they are inevitably dragged out.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York University Press, 2009.

Jase Falk is a white non-binary transfeminine settler based out of Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory. They are a recent graduate of the English honours program at University of Winnipeg and are currently pursuing an MA in Gender Studies at Queen’s University. They are also a published poet whose writing has been nominated for a National Magazine Award and they are a co-founder of Trans Hive, a peer-based residency program for transgender artists.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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