If you have had a chance to check out Caldwell Linker’s book of photos, All Through the Night, you may have recognized Joe Hall on the cover. In addition to being a fantastic dancer and subject for photographs, Joe is the Program Director for the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, where he helps a wide variety of local and national artists to showcase their work on a public platform. I hope that you will appreciate our discussion about Caldwell’s photo exhibition, his performance in the “Trans-Q Live!” event at the Warhol Museum this past September, and the important social issues that affect the queer communities of Pittsburgh!
How did you first become acquainted with the Pittsburgh queer scene?
I moved to Pittsburgh around the same time Caldwell did, which I believe was in 2007. When I first moved to Pittsburgh, I was still very new to being gay and being out. It was always a struggle to be comfortable with my identity, which was marginalized. My roommates introduced me to what was happening in the queer scene. I am known in the scene for dancing. If you’ve seen me at a dance party or event, I have probably hit you with my arms or legs!
How do you know Caldwell, and how has your relationship developed over the years?
My roommates knew Caldwell and eventually introduced us. Caldwell was always at anything that was queer and always had a camera. I work at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, and Caldwell started working there for a while – so at one point I was Caldwell’s boss! Our relationship has been kind of different in a few ways – friends, boss/employee, photographer/subject, etc.
How do you think Caldwell’s photos reflect the queer community in Pittsburgh?
Caldwell has definitely been documenting one section of the queer community here in Pittsburgh. The people in this particular community think they are a little bit outside of the mainstream of the larger gay community, and Caldwell is a part of that community. I think Caldwell documents it in a very real way. I’m in a lot of the pictures in the exhibition, and I think that’s an accurate depiction of a night out here!
Can you tell us more about your contribution to the “Trans-Q Live!” performance at the Warhol Museum?
I absolutely love to dance. It reminds me of church. I grew up in the church, and for me, dancing is church. Dancing provides a certain freedom. As a part of working in performing arts, we program a lot of dance. Some of the choreographers I work with want to put me in their piece. So, I worked on my Trans-Q performance with a really awesome choreographer/dancer named Jasmine Hearn, a queer person of color.
I love the ballroom scene, which I think has infiltrated gay/queer culture and mainstream culture – we’ve seen it from Madonna to Beyoncé and in between. There’s a lot of terminology that is taken from the ballroom scene, like “realness” and “fierce.” I think that when more people know the culture of the ballroom scene, they realize that so much movement, fashion, or language has been appropriated from there, even though many folks don’t credit them. But I also realize that I am not really in the ballroom scene. So, when I am taking on that language and that persona – how am I appropriating it? What does it mean to be a black gay person who is not necessarily sharing that same culture, but is still learning from it or taking from it? In my performance, I explore what that means for me, but also the idea of that ballroom scene being commodified into our culture.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about queer culture today?
There’s this assumption that we are all really concerned about marriage. Some folks are, and that’s cool. But a lot of us, including me, are not partnered. For the first few years I lived here, I was harassed on a daily basis; I was attacked. Personally, I would just like to walk down the street and not be harassed – let alone have the right to marry! I think there are folks who might not understand that a lot of our struggles – unemployment, harassment, limited access to education and healthcare, etc. – are issues that cross with straight people. We have all of those challenges, plus we can’t get married. And then once you tack on different minority statuses, there are even more battles.
How inclusive is the Pittsburgh queer scene to people of color, and in what ways is the community diversifying?
Like any community, the queer community represents the larger local community. I think Pittsburgh as a whole has a severe amount of work to do [in terms of fostering racial diversity and justice]. Some people may say Pittsburgh is getting better about this because there are more people of color doing something about these issues. Raquel Rodriguez and Ayannah Moore host a local podcast, Queer & Brown in Steeltown; they are interviewing black and brown people and really telling their stories.
I support the work of emerging leaders in the community – the many people who are staying here and doing something about the race problem. Operation Sappho, a queer dance party event group, is now run by Ginger Takahashi, who came to us from New York and has been really attuned to some of the race issues in the community. She is inviting a lot more people of color to DJ at the Sappho events – I have DJ’d sometimes. And queer women of color organized this growing group called Pittsburgh for Trayvon; it has 14 awesome, dynamic demands for the city of Pittsburgh!
In addition to supporting these emerging leaders, how do you seek to facilitate more diverse programs and events in Pittsburgh?
I work in the arts, and we have constant conversations about attracting diverse audiences. I believe that if there is not a mix of ethnicities among the planning or programming staff in an arts organization, then you will not see people of these diverse races in your audience. I now feel like there’s more of a mix of black and brown people planning those events in the arts and queer communities, so you see more people of those races showing up. At the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, I help program a lot of events involving queer and racially diverse artists.
To learn more about events that Joe is planning at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, please visit their website, www.kelly-strayhorn.org.