Did For All Queens' philosophy change over the years?
Our very first idea was to host RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties. But then we saw so many fake ‘vogue’ workshops pop up all over Brussels and realised that the drag scene in Antwerp was extremely old fashioned. So we claimed our own space within those existing scenes, to educate people about their origins while celebrating the art of ballroom and drag.
When we started, our members were all people of colour, today we are strictly Sub-Saharan black. Our profile has become more specific. This sort of happened by coincidence, but it makes sense that you choose to connect with people you feel safe around. There is great power in narrowing things down: 'what is the reality in which I exist and how can I operate from within that space?' Of course, there are differences between us; different countries and other walks of life. But the connection of being Sub-Saharan Africans living in diaspora is strong and has become a clear focus within our work, next to speaking from a femme perspective.
There is great power in narrowing things down: 'what is the reality in which I exist and how can I operate from within that space?'
Can you talk us through the process and collaboration of making this film?
It was pretty similar to every other collaboration with a predominantly white institution. Kaaitheater showed the willingness to work with us, but there was also labour to be done by us to work together. I think most people don’t realise this is hard work which has an emotional and physical impact on us. Institutions still start from ‘giving us a platform', which comes from a saviour mentality: ‘Let’s give these poor souls a few of our resources for one night’. That is extremely frustrating, because we do have a platform, but we don’t have access to the money to be able to execute our ideas.
We tried to work with a POC-owned production company for example, which proved to be almost impossible. Many companies and organisations have POC employees but the majority of who’s in charge is still white, cisgender and straight. This makes it difficult for us to not make it sound like we are begging for help. It’s exactly this power dynamic that is so problematic and keeps us in the same position.
With Kaaitheater there was a certain level of transparency about these issues which led to a more equal conversation: we need their space and money, they need us for their programme. They said ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ which - eventually but sadly - is refreshing to experience in the system we operate in.
What is the relation between the live balls you host and the film?
It was not our intention to show or recreate the atmosphere of a ball in the movie. There are so many different elements to a ball and the whole culture around it. Starting from my perspective, the film shows backstage footage, afterparties, the conversations and gossip afterwards, family feeling… and that is what I wanted to capture. I have such an amazing ballroom family and there is a lot of respect for the elders in our community who have been out there doing this for way longer than we have.
The film shows my admiration for the scene: even though I am now part of the culture I am still such a fan and can’t believe I get to experience it with so many beautiful, talented people. We wanted to go beyond the hype of vogueing as a dance style and show the richness of the culture as a whole. The style of the film is very conversational rather than educational, for example, we don’t explain runway categories like Sex Siren but you hear different people talking about what the category means to them.
How do you feel about TV shows like Pose which show ballroom culture to a big audience?
I love it! It’s like seeing your friends on TV. All the legends and icons that appear in Pose are people I have been looking up to for such a long time and seeing them in such a big production is incredible. But whether it is so accurate, I have no idea because it is not my reality that is portrayed. I am not a trans woman living in New York in the eighties. Sometimes some elders explain how things ‘really’ were back then, but the medium of television calls for a certain simplification to make the theme accessible for a lot of people. The question about ‘underground’ and ‘mainstream’ gets misinterpreted if you ask me: underground to me equals having no money. So keeping something underground means denying someone - or a group of people - access to money. Who wouldn’t love to work on their craft 24/7 and get paid for it properly? That being said, commercialisation can be a vehicle for appropriation, but if it leads to more people getting access to money and resources, I can only be supportive of it.
There is a rather strong narrative about how struggling financially makes people more creative. I have a feeling you disagree with that image.
I don't believe art can only be good if there's a struggle behind it
Completely. That is just romanticizing poverty, which I do not support. I also don’t believe art can only be good if there’s a struggle behind it, I think art is strong when there is any sort of story behind it that you can somehow feel through the work. Is it true that you learn a lot about yourself when you go through a difficult phase? Sure! But the way you get to know yourself when things are going well is just as valuable. It’s all about balance.