By Jay Sea
The Bay Area’s biggest annual drag festival, Oaklash, made its feature debut online this year via the streaming platform Twitch, showcasing a long awaited partnership with disability justice leaders in the form of an interactive panel forum, producing a paradigm changing conversation for the LGBTQ communities.
Long has access been neglected when it comes to living as a disabled, queer artist/perfomer. At every level of society today disability justice has more space that it should be occupying, and in 2020 amidst a global pandemic on the rise, the queer and disabled artist communities in the Bay came together (virtually) to put on a production that has adapted to today’s crisis.
Normal was obliterated in March 2020 and so far adapt has seemed to become the word of the year. And this year, the organizers of Oaklash decided to do something differently. Via Twitch, an online live streaming platform popular among gamers and social media pop culture, the entire four day event was recorded and broadcasted live at multiple locations across the Bay, but also featured contributing LGBTQ artists live streaming from all over the world.
“We learned a lot this year doing our event online. Number one is that digital events are an amazing way to bring our work to new audiences and to make our programming more accessible,” said Mama Celeste (@mamacelestefanclub), one of the main organizers and board members of the Bay Area non-profit collective known as Oaklash.
New audiences and accessibility came to the forefront for a significant portion of the event with its own time slot in the lineup titled, “Spill the Disibili-TEA!”. Host Alex Locust, local Bay Area disability activist, led the forum segment as they explored issues which not only dealt with being queer and disabled, but also as an artist/performer, as well as a patron of the arts trying to access “nightlife”.
It was the entire concept of nightlife specifically that came under particular scrutiny during conversation with the panel. The topic was brought up in the discussion that queer nightlife has a history of being a secret, safe space where gender-non-conforming folks can come and gather. But for disabled people living in an ableist society, a simple night out with friends is actually a hidden, harrowing gauntlet from beginning to end.
“It is the elements of spontaneity and anonymity that are so enjoyable [to Queer nightlife] and which make queer community so attractive, but for us disabled folks those two elements are the least likely to be experienced in a typical urban nightlife setting,” Locust said.
Memories of hardship came up as panelists shared their stories of resilience and determination to just experience nightlife, all while being queer and disabled. Queer artists spoke about how bravely going out into nightlife while disabled was a dangerous navigation of hostile space.
Originally, Oaklash intended to conduct the disability segment during last year’s festival. However due to logistics issues, it was scheduled for the 2020 edition and when the unthinkable happened and pandemic struck the globe, Oaklash went viral out of necessity, making the streaming feature accessible to anyone, anywhere with an internet connection. It was only natural that this time the topic of accessibility would gain more attention than years past.
Lola Ursula, panelist, spoke about the difference COVID created and said, “We have time now to sit and reflect, Community can be so much bigger.”
Disabled or not we all now are limited to nightlife, and for some able bodied people this is probably the first time in their lives where accessibility is prevented.
“Anyone in nightlife can use this as a training,” said Oaklash organizer and Bay Area artist, Nicki Jizz (@nicki_jizz). “COVID made it [Oaklash] accessible out of necessity, so yes accessibility came to the forefront” they said, “partnering with the disabled panel was an eye opening experience.”
The panel also explored issues not only related to disabled patrons trying to access nightlife pre-COVID, but for queer, disabled artists trying to get booked on a stage in this town. “Access can’t only prioritize spectators, it also has to be for disabled performers,” Jizz said.
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, only the “bare minimum” is outlined to make a space accessible and enforcement of compliance is not required, which makes nightlife an enter at your own risk scenario as described by Locust. “Disabled people have power, folks need to acknowledge that power and erase the invisibility of powerful, disabled people. Turn to them, they have the power to empower everyone.”