While the rallying cry "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it" has been in currency at protests since at least the early '90s, that degree of openness hasn't been available to everyone in the LGBTQ community. But if two young Chicago artists have their way, at least a few more real-life stories about queerness will take shape on stage next year.
Choreographer Kiefer Otto and singer/songwriter Courtney Robinson ( who performs under the stage name Odea ) met at Columbia College Chicago and quickly became friends and roommates. A couple of years later, they decided to explore a collaboration outside of school.
Odea said, "Kiefer asked me 'What do you want it to be about?' And what I thought aboutand what came out right away"was 'I want it to be about queer visibility in a straight world.'"
That was the seed for a storytelling music and dance performance piece, Queer Visibility in a Straight World, that Otto and Odea are just now beginning to work on. They're launching a Kickstarter on May 1 and the first piece they put together, Empty Room, premiered in February with Simantikos Dance Chicago.
They've also put together a website ( QueerVisibility.net ) where a video of Empty Room, choreographed by Otto to a song by Odea, can be viewed. ( Benjamin Curtis-Beard filmed and directed the video. )
In the song, Odea sings about the experience of "drowning in a sea of love, but still can't have our own without a fight." In an interview, she said, "I grew up in the church, and that was very difficult for me because being visible was 'You may not be accepted.'"
But she also said "We definitely don't want [the show] to only be about people who are struggling. We understand that there are struggles. But we also want to connect with a larger community and present this in a way that shows the joys of being in a community."
When asked about using the term "queer," Odea said, "I understand that some people may have reservations about it. Especially older people, because they went through a time when they were called that. We wanted to use that word as an opportunity to take it back."
Otto added, "I think that for me personally, if it had been Gay Visibility in a Straight World, it would have been different. We wanted to be able to include everybody in the community and that word is now being reclaimed and includes everybody on the spectrum."
The story-gathering process is in its early stages. But Otto has enlisted the assistance of his partner, who is a speech and language pathologist. "He's helping us figure out how to have the dialogue and ask certain questions and how to facilitate those conversations."
They are also reaching out to various LGBTQ youth centers and organizations, though they emphasize that they're not only interested in youth stories. Said Otto, "We're trying to find a few organizations that can be a safe space for the people telling their stories, so we can meet them where they're at."
Otto cited longtime San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode, whose self-titled performance group has long specialized in combining spoken word, song and visual imagery with movement, as an influence: "In general, with body movement, I'm trying to learn about that person and how they're telling their story. So if they're timid and talking like this [and here he closes his arms and bends forward in a protective posture], that would play a part in it."
Similarly, Odea told Windy City Times, "I really want to hear the words they're saying and be able to use them and spin them directly into the song. It's listening to what they're saying and more importantly, paying attention to the energy behind what they're saying."
They also hope that hearing these stories ( which may, in the future, live on in digital form on the website ) will foster understanding from those outside the queer community. "Just having people gain insight is a step," said Odea. "I think people just don't know about it because they don't interact with [queer] people."
"It's a way of telling history," added Otto. "The public schools we went to for sure didn't teach anything about queer history, gay history, trans history. And I don't think it happens very often now."
As they gather stories, raise funds and scout locations for the show next June, Otto and Odea keep their hopes high that Queer Visibility in a Straight World will "grow into something bigger," as Odea put it. "We don't know what that is yet. For now, we're planning the show for next year. And after the writing process is done and after we've talked to everyone, we'll have all these people who shared their stories there and can honor their presence."