How grassroots queer arts collectives spark community joy

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      Dimple Takhtani found Vancouver pretty lonely when they moved to the city in 2020. It was the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, after all. The gender non-conforming media artist decided to put what they wanted to see out into the world, and started the Queer Art Exchange as a digital place for people to share their creative work. 

      “I didn’t know any queer poets, and it was a pandemic, and it was hard to hit up open mics,” the artist, who goes by Nhylar, tells the Straight over the phone. “I started a virtual page, and then it turned into a virtual community and became a virtual art showcase.” 

      The grassroots initiative started doing physical events as the city opened up, starting with an event celebrating queer South Asian art at Dosa on Davie Street and expanding to other get-togethers through the year. Recently it hosted a Sunday Chillin’ day in Jonathan Rogers Park that included crafting, a pop-up market, and a clothing swap—creating artsy real-world spaces for queer people to hang out and produce art together.

      “That’s what you’ve got to do sometimes: if it doesn’t exist, make it happen,” Nhylar reflects.

      Nhylar was also involved in setting up the Transgender Expressions Haven, a trans and non-binary art organization that started by throwing basement suite drag parties, created an online art gallery, and is now running Hot Trans Summer events alongside Vancouver Pride. Co-founder Angelic Goldsky says that art provides a powerful avenue for all kinds of positive community work. 

      “The Haven has been a place where our focus is celebrating and uplifting transgender creative power in all forms,” they say. “A big part of our work, too, is thinking about ways that people can access spiritual and emotional healing through creative play, or through ceremony, or through partying.”

      Creating grassroots societies to support and uplift queer and trans artists is “anti-violence work, it is suicide prevention work,” Goldsky says, but it’s also a chance to give people a place where their work doesn’t need to be explained to an audience who aren’t familiar with queer or trans themes.

      “A lot of the experience people have with performing or exhibiting is often done within a context that is not trans. So there’s a lot of work that might be lost in the translation or the legibility of a work,” they say. “It’s important for us to create space where it’s like, ‘Oh, we already have an understanding’—or maybe we have an agreed non-understanding.” 

      When most queer and trans community gatherings are parties or vigils, LGBTQ2S+ events are often heightened embodiments of either joy or grief, Goldsky says. Art events give people a space to exist in a more neutral emotional state—not just trans joy or trans grief, but trans weirdness, trans confusion, trans anger.

      “There is so much we can be that isn’t just one of these two heightened extremes we’ve been allowed,” they say. 

      Kay Sargeant, who is also involved with Haven and runs comedy nights, says taking the love and support into different kinds of art forms is invigorating. 

      "People want you to fail in comedy," she says: regular rooms can be intimidating, or hoping new acts bomb. "That's exactly the opposite of the kind of space I want to curate... we clap for anyone, no matter what happens, right? And so that's kind of the same Haven energy of trying to create a loving space where people can share joy, have fun, laugh a little bit."

      While the Haven is more structured, many other queer arts events take place through individual organizing. Chimgee Mendee runs the Instagram page hotmothertruckers, which collates primarily QTBIPOC (queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of colour) events. 

      “This is what I write about a lot in my captions; hotmothertruckers is really a love letter to QTBIPOC [artists, organizers and communities] in Vancouver,” she says. When she started going to queer events, “where people care and create these spaces and cultures of intentional care, then I started to feel like I belonged in this city.”

      Mendee flexes her digital art skills in the postings, and has also organized an art meet-up, encouraging members of her community to meet and visit events in-person. Her first trip to Gallery Gachet led to the artistic director giving the group a curated tour of the exhibit, and she hopes to run more in the future. 

      “When you see these artists’ exhibits, you understand so much more about each other and you’re able to see and feel those connections and have that art resonate with you,” she says. “When you’re in art spaces, you’re seeing this expression all around you and it offers you this opportunity to see where you lie within that.”