Gay artists speak out on Orlando massacre

Singer, songwriter and activist Toshi Reagon will perform at the Out in the Tropics series
Singer, songwriter and activist Toshi Reagon will perform at the Out in the Tropics series

In the wake of the tragic and horrifying massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, people are grappling with sadness, anger and fear, reaching for understanding and hope. That struggle is particularly acute for the artists and organizers of Out in the Tropics, a 7-year-old performance series showcasing LGBTQ artists and themes this week, and for gay artists.

Not only does the slaughter of 49 men and women by a homophobic shooter last weekend hit them with visceral personal force, it challenges them to respond to an event that has left them, like it has for so many people, stunned.

“I am f------ speechless right now,” songwriter and activist Toshi Reagon, who performs Thursday at the Gleason Room at the Fillmore Miami Beach for Out in the Tropics, said in an email interview Monday. “I can’t think about what I will sing … I am having a day of mourning. I am stopping … I am beyond a normal level of sadness.”

Longtime Miami performer, teacher and producer Octavio Campos, also reached on Monday, began weeping when asked about the shooting.

“This changes everything for me,” Campos said. “I don’t know how to begin to tell you how angry I am.”

But artists have a unique ability to articulate and channel emotions at moments like this, says Tim Miller, a performer, teacher and gay cultural activist since 1980. That year, he presented a festival of gay performance at PS 122, the venue he co-founded in New York’s East Village and which has been a leading space for contemporary work.

“Artists are first responders,” Miller said Monday from his home in Los Angeles. “They’re not able to change what happens politically, but they can change it psychically and poetically.”

He cited Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose poetic response to the shooting on the Tony Awards telecast Sunday night, invoking hope in the face of despair, lit up social media with the line “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love.”

“Art spaces are absolutely essential ways for queer people to gather,” Miller said. “If people have never thought of going to a gay cultural event, that would be a way to respond to the terrible events of [Orlando.]”

Fundarte director Ever Chavez said Out in the Tropics would be dedicated to the victims at Pulse and that half of ticket proceeds would go to their families.

The themes explored in the festival — which includes La otra voz, a Spanish play about an affair between two men, on Friday; and flamenco choreographer/dancers Juan Carlos Lerida and Belen Maya in pieces on male and female identity on Saturday — are more important than ever, even if they don’t directly address the shooting, Chavez said.

“In the long term, people will understand better,” Chavez says. “Our little grain of sand is that we are presenting good work. The only thing we can do is continue doing what we do, so we can develop a better world.

“If we do not become part of the solution, there is really no point in all the effort that goes into creating socially conscious programming,” Chavez said.

The Orlando attack came as a particular shock given that LGBTQ people have increasingly become part of the American mainstream, particularly after the legalization of same-sex marriage last year.

But there has also been a political and legal backlash to those changes, with some states passing laws that seek to restrict gay marriage and a fierce debate over transgender rights. Miller points out that there have been numerous acts of violence against gay bars for decades, including the 1973 arson of a gay club in New Orleans that killed 32 people; a 1980 incident in which a mentally ill man opened fire on a New York bar on the West Side Highway in 1980, killing two and wounding six; and other attacks as recently as 2014. A few hours after the Orlando attack, police in Los Angeles arrested a man on his way to the LA Pride Festival with three assault rifles and explosive materials.

“It’s not theoretical, this lack of safety,” says Miller, whose first high school boyfriend and later his partner in the ’80s were each brutally attacked on the street. “It’s stuff that happens all the time.”

Although Chavez confessed to feeling worried about the future, he said they would not add additional security for the event. “We are not afraid,” he wrote in an email Monday. “We are sad and outraged.”

Reagon, a vociferous advocate for gay, black and civil rights whose mother is Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of the renowned social-activist singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, lashed out at politicians.

“Everyone in the U.S. government has to take responsibility for this, everyone that has a vote to create legislation,” she wrote. “This is on all of them. Especially the ones that have spent the last eight years … creating legislation against LGBTQ people and not doing [anything] about guns. … This is no longer random. It is systemic.”

The arts world and nightlife have long been a haven for LGBTQ people shut out of mainstream life and culture, arenas where they could openly express what they thought and be who they were. “Outside, you are hated and politicized,” author Justin Torres writes in an eloquent tribute, “In praise of Latin night at the Queer Club,” in the Washington Post. “Inside, you are free.”

Campos, who will perform a new solo piece, America’s Next President, in Miami in October, said he would focus on working with LGBTQ teenagers struggling to come out.

“I’m really focusing on the new generation of performers, the 19- or 20-year-old from Hialeah,” he said. “They’re the ones who really have to fight.”

Gay artists may be struggling with how to react to the toxic and bewildering mix of homophobia, violence, religious extremism, fear, Islamophobia, gun policy, emotion and politics that has surrounded the Orlando killings. But they are resolute that they will respond.

“I don’t know if there is a way to explain it,” Reagon said. “There will be many artistic responses to this tragedy. Art is our outpouring, our cry, our solution-making tool.”

If you go

What: Out in the Tropics

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Where: The Gleason Room at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; and Miami Beach Botanical Garden, 2000 Convention Center Dr., Miami Beach

Info: Tickets and schedule at fundarte.us.