Radical Hospitality and the Beauty of Black Queer Kinship

*This post is part of our online forum to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film, Tongues Untied.

(Craig Blankenhorn/Pose/FX)

It was sometime last year, mid-August, that my mom, who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer, woke me up and asked to see my best friend, Jahqwahn (Jah). She had spent plenty of time getting to know Jah, whether it was talking to them during our daily Facetime calls or when they came home with me during holiday break in college. Still, it remained unclear to me why she requested they come to Atlanta the very next day. Jah arrived from Cleveland and stayed with us for two weeks, upon my mom’s request. Each day we would get up, make breakfast, take my mom to her treatment, eat dinner, and watch movies. It was Jah’s presence, their selflessness, the intention with which they would ask, “Ma, how you doin’ this morning?” that made the emotional and psychological weight of my mom’s diagnosis more bearable. When my mom passed in September, Jah was there the very next day, yet again, and supported me the entire week of the funeral.

As I wrestled with what to offer in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied, my own experiences with grief, loss, and the persistence of friendship led me to reflect on the ways Black people, and Black queer people especially, forge kinships in the face of hardship. I believe Marlon Riggs’s film offers a beautiful portrayal of the beauty of Black queer kinship that reminds me of my own. Jahqwahn has been my Black queer kin since we were sophomores in college. We’ve cried. We’ve fought. We experienced our first Pride together. I’m so grateful that we’ve chosen one another.

Marlon Riggs’s 1989 film, Tongues Untied, offers a glimpse into the complexity of living a life that rests at the intersection of Blackness and queerness. The film illuminates the realities of internal confliction, social ostracization, and structural violence that often accompany this position in society. In addition, Riggs showcases how those who identify as both Black and gay still manage to find ways to build communities and alternative family structures as survival mechanisms. Riggs’s portrayal of queer kinship formations also reinforces that Black queer people are deserving of happiness, support, and love. Throughout the film, Riggs uses personal narratives, interviews, and poetry to draw attention to the experiences of intraracial homophobia, exclusion, and familial rejection and the larger culture of ballroom that was partially created as a result of this exclusion.

Though Riggs does not go into great detail about ballroom culture, I am interested in thinking about how Black queer kinship formations and alternative family structures borne out of necessity and in the face of disavowal might engage a “radical hospitality,” particularly through the concept of “houses,” which Pepper LaBeija from the legendary House of LaBeija defined as, “families for those who don’t have families.”

To work through this, I would like to turn to FX’s Pose to examine how Mother Blanca Evangelista’s establishment of her House of Evangelista exists as a space in which a culture of radical hospitality is initiated and maintained by Blanca and hinges on her initial refusal to turn away those in need, or as she says, “The House of Evangelista welcomes any lost soul.” The culture that she establishes in the house is one that all of her children become committed to and assist in maintaining. I suggest that the culture of radical hospitality that Mother Blanca engages, and that might be located in the houses of ballroom culture and Black queer and queer of color communities writ large, is one that in many ways requires a rupturing of the identification of the “stranger.” The radicalism of the hospitality deployed by Blanca lies in her “come one, come all” approach that breaks down the binary between strange and familiar as commonly understood. The familiarity that makes room for folks to join her house does not come from already established interpersonal relationships but shared experiences of societal marginalization and rejection.

The culture of radical hospitality cultivated by Mother Blanca is made possible by a repetition of gestures of welcoming into her house that are a result of her ability to recognize the position of extreme precarity and vulnerability that being a Black or Brown queer person can result in, as she herself had also been in this position. My conceptualization of radical hospitality in the context of Black queer and queer of color communities and kinship formations suggests that there is an alternative form of recognition and acceptance that takes place, one in which the recognition that occurs between community members is one that is partially rooted in recognizing how the evils of homophobia and transphobia can leave one in precarious conditions. And in turn, there is a commitment to one’s survival, safety, health, and well-being that may be provided by becoming part of a house, for example.

To examine the type of recognition I am referring to, I would like to look closely at Blanca’s initial interaction with Damon, who eventually becomes the first member of her house. Prior to their meeting, the viewer sees Damon being thrown out of his family’s house after coming out to his father as both gay and a dancer. While dancing in NYC’s Central Park, Damon is approached by Blanca who puts some change in his tip jar and compliments his dance skills. She asks, “So, how does someone as talented as you wind up dancing for a whole bunch of junkies?” The question, which goes verbally unanswered, in many ways seems rhetorical. The viewer knows that it was Damon’s passion for dance and his queerness that landed him in the park, but we can also assume that Blanca knew, too. Here I suggest that it was Blanca’s knowledge of the potential outcomes of being a young, Black, gay dancer that did not require a response from Damon and instead allowed her to introduce him to the idea of joining a house, which she defines as, “the family you get to choose.”

After Blanca takes Damon to his first ball, the viewer sees them sitting together in the corner of a restaurant sharing a meal. During this moment, Blanca shares with Damon her own experience with being ostracized from her family after coming out to her mother as a woman. This moment illuminates how Blanca’s own experience with being rejected by her family is what allowed her to not need an answer from Damon in the park, and it grounds the alternative recognition that I suggest is part of the radical hospitality that she deploys in her house.

As the first episode continues to unfold, the viewer sees a similar encounter take place between Mother Blanca and Lil Papi. Following the House of Evangelista’s failed challenge to the House of Abundance, Lil Papi approaches Blanca outside of the ballroom and tells her that he wants to join her house. After asking if he was living on the streets, to which Lil Papi answers, “yeah, mostly,” Mother Blanca says to him, “Go collect your things and come right back here. The House of Evangelista welcomes any lost soul.” Again, a gesture of welcoming is offered by Blanca that is rooted in her knowledge and ability to recognize what it means to be a young queer person of color and the conditions that can occur as a result. Furthermore, Blanca’s encounters with Damon and Lil Papi show how Black queer and queer of color kinship formations require a rupturing or breaking down of the “stranger” because although Blanca did not know either of them previously, their survival and safety depended on her ability to recognize their shared experience of social ostracization and rejection, and welcome them into her house.

“Houses are homes to little boys and girls who never had one, and they keep coming, everyday, just as sure as the sun rises.” — PrayTell

In revisiting Riggs’s Tongues Untied, I was drawn to his very intentional display of Black gay intimacies, communal gatherings, and cultural expressions because though he was grappling with incredibly difficult truths around structural violence and rejection, he was just as committed to showcasing how folks within these communities find joy and love in spite of this. The door that he opens to show us the intention and care with which folks within these communities connect with one another to ensure one another’s safety and survival is what led me to write about Pose and to interrogate what kinds of alternative modes of recognition and acceptance take place within Black queer and queer of color communities.

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Emerald Rutledge

Emerald Rutledge is an English PhD student at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include 20th Century African American literature, Black queer literature, Black queer theory, and Black feminisms. Follow her on Twitter @emeraldfaith.