On a hot, muggy New York City summer evening on the street in front of the Stonewall Inn, the historic homebase for LGBQTIA+ protest and liberation, you can almost smell the sweat dripping off the twirling bodies. They strut, twerk, wiggle, and drop in a transcendent fervor. Brightly colored garments brush up on melanated skin as attendees dance in protest: voguing as resistance. Leading this liberation brigade is a magnificent presence in a pink power suit. This is Qween Jean: A daughter of Ayiti (Haiti), chosen descendant of Marsha P. Johnson, mother of Black Trans Liberation (BTL), theatrical costume designer extraordinaire, and community organizer of social justice movement work.
When asked about her leadership style, Qween giggles, takes a deep breath, and tells me, “a leader has to be able to love. Even in painful times. Even in painful decisions. A leader has to be able to assess and respond, and not react when things go down. And ultimately, a leader is someone who has to work very hard to get people to see a new vision, a new way, a new light, a new horizon.”
The celebrations, actions, dinners, vigils, and protests Qween Jean organizes are just as vibrant, intentional, and detailed as the costumes she designs for the theatre. (A winner of several Obies for her work at most of the major New York nonprofits, she’s also designed shows at American Repertory Theater, Trinity Rep, and Chautauqua Theater Co.) The looks are coordinated, the altars gorgeous, the energy electric. The artistry in the stagecraft is as deep as the care and organization at the rally. She co founded BTL, which aims to end homelessness within the transgender population, and has led efforts on behalf of sex workers, queer Muslims, Black & Asian solidarity, and more. Artists have a unique way of bringing people together; organizers know how to build power with people to make material change. To have both within one person makes Qween a weapon of mass liberatory creation.
While she dresses others for the limelight, the frontline is her mainstage. On the eve of Pride 2023 at a Trans Revolution rally in Greenwich Village, Qween Jean was arrested, ostensibly for using a bullhorn without a permit, but really for just being herself. Her protest is performance and her performance is protest. I ask her thoughts on what performance artist and fellow Black Trans woman z tye richardson says about a professional artist with her lived experience—that she’s “put on a pedestal in certain spaces, while buried deep in others.” Qween thinks hard about this one, and finally responds: “These institutions want to put us on a pedestal to show off their trans visibility and representation, without investing in trans vitality. They need to seek and invest in collective elevation. This past Pride, I was very adamant about working with folks that have been showing up—I did my research to see how long they’ve been showing up for trans folks. We’re on the frontlines of their liberation too. We’ve been calling for a reimagination of public safety for all of us.”
Sam Shepard graced the first cover of American Theatre magazine in 1984, cigarette hanging off his lips, cowboy hat poised on his scruffy hair—a gesture of bad-boy Americana glory. Today on the cover of the first American Theatre in print after more than three years, we see Qween Jean, a vision of grace and peace, in a field, at ease—an image of ancestor- and community-supported glory. All presence, boldness, and gorgeous coffee brown skin. Her style and manner of expression bring to mind divas and icon of days gone by, with a modern twist. I ask how she cultivates this strength, peace, and self-care amid the turmoil of the time.
“I used to try to separate movement work and costuming, but they’re all connected and coincide with each other,” Qween says. “I try to balance those responsibilities with rest. Recognizing that as a people in this industry, with all the forces of capitalism, that we feel like we don’t deserve to rest. That is something we have to unlearn and fight against. I try to take those moments as often as I can with family, with friends, my support system, who keep me accountable on the right path toward my liberation.”
She adds that, post-COVID lockdown, “We have recognized and honor the value of family, the value of time and being able to be present, and to not feel ashamed around saying no. Every Wednesday, we have our weekly Black Trans Liberation fellowship, so Wednesday nights I have to step away from tech and be present.”
She calls the present a “moment of awakening” in which “we’re creating a new landscape that honors and values the integrity of all people, not just the people at the top, the investors, the producers, but also the makers, the creators, the storytellers, that their existence has the same amount of currency.”
I ask how she arrived here, in this way of moving and being—has she always been like this?
“Hell yes,” she says, then adds, “I’ve grown deeper and more confident in my voice. Grown a real sense of assurance within my purpose. I am deeply seated in my purpose.” Citing Reggie Ray, a Black man who in August wielded a folding chair as a weapon against a racist attack on an Alabama dock, she says, “I take that seat everywhere. I will pull up on you to fight systemic oppression and racism. That’s where I’m currently residing. I feel very enlightened in this moment. It’s very easy to stay enraged, and while it’s so valid, it doesn’t help move us forward. In this moment, I’m trying to fill our pockets up with hope, especially in this moment of ongoing crisis.
“As trans and queer people we have the most to lose, so we are actively resisting to protect our human rights. Inside of that fight our community will continue to rise, and no legislation can validate our existence.”
Rad Pereira (they/them) is a queer, trans (im)migrant artist and cultural worker building consciousness between healing justice, system change, reindigenization and queer futures based between Lenapehoking (Brooklyn) and Haudenosaunee territory (upstate NY). The book they co-wrote Meeting the Moment: Socially Engaged Performance, 1965-2020, By Those Who Lived It with Jan Cohen-Cruz is available through New Village Press.
For more information on how to support trans and non-binary liberation, check out these organizations: Black Trans Liberation, Breaking the Binary Theatre, Colectivo Intercultural TRANSgrediendo, G.L.I.T.S. Inc, The Okra Project, See Lighting Foundation, For the Gworls, Bridges4Life, Black Trans Travel Fund, Trans Asylias, KC TransFormations, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, New Pride Agenda.
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