Holding Space: An open call for support of women-centered spaces

Recently, Elements Organization co-executive director Shayna S. Israel, secretary Kim Watson and a group of friends headed to New York for an end-of-summer road trip. The group planned to head to the Village — New York City’s LGBTQ mecca — and bar crawl through what they expected to be a plethora of lesbian clubs. “This was the famed ‘Village,’ said Watson. “My friends and I were looking forward to dancing and meeting all the beautiful queer womyn that the Big Apple had to offer. We were expecting to do it on their turf.”

The adventurous group made its first stop at Cubby Hole on West 12th Street. The name was not misleading. The bar took up most of the venue. This is no hyperbole: The venue was only as wide as the bar itself. Members of the group, feeling somewhat less adventurous, mumbled, “Is this it? … I thought there was a least a dance floor … Wow, this is tiny!”

Watson, Israel and friends soon discovered, after commiserating with others in the bar, that there was another queer womyn’s bar a few blocks down on Hudson Street. However, the other bar, Henrietta on the Hudson, was the only alternate option. Also gleaned from the comments of others, there seemed to be a general feeling — perhaps an “understanding” — that there were only two options because queer womyn, specifically queer womyn of color, did not patronize community bars and clubs.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time Watson and Israel had encountered this. According to Israel, “The Annual LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference began from a summer of attending various parties with a rotating group of 15-20 queer womyn of color. We would meet for Sunday brunch, sober, but often sobbing from deep pains of isolation. What we cultivated was a firm determination to obtain connection with other self-identified queer womyn of color in healthy and expanded spaces of engagement. There was so much hurt at the table. There were expressions of grief, longings for models for healthy romantic and familial relationships, body image issues, health concerns, feelings of injustice … ”

What Israel and these other womyn felt was that all of these issues would not be able to be covered in the club or at a meal the next morning. There was a need to encounter each other in more diverse and meaningful ways.

Thus, the same group of 15-20 launched the first-ever LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference in Philadelphia. In order to create a space of unity for practitioners, academics, artists, organizations and community members, “we started to mobilize our community,” said Adrienne Williams, Elements Organization co-executive director. “Every other Sunday, we met at the Tree House living room in West Philadelphia with flip charts, markers, laptops, books, cell phones and, occasionally, beer. We knew this conference had to be birthed out of the things we wished to see in our futures: joy, diligence, health, wellness, love … ”

In 2009, over 150 womyn, ages 16-65-plus, from across the country gathered in Philadelphia for the first conference. The umbrella theme for that year, “Breathing Fire: Channeling the Power Within,” was to capture the igniting force that brought the conference to life. That force was the firm belief that an organized body of womyn of color could take charge in ensuring the welfare of their community, leverage their resources and power a movement.

Three years later, Elements Organization, host of the third annual LGBTQ Womyn of Color Conference “Fertile Ground: Womyn Revealed, Revived, Renewed,” is still looking to develop and foster community. Since the first conference, there have been a variety of organizations doing amazing work. Elements has teamed up with Sisters United (COLOURS-sponsored support group for transwomyn), Stimulus Productions, Philly A List, More Than Just Friends (support group for former addicts), Women United, Mary Douglass, Maroon Eyes, SILK, African-American Lesbian Meet-up Group, Hotpot (organization of Queer Asian and Pacific Islander women, trans, gender-variant and gender queer/nonconforming-identified folks), and the list continues.

“We know that advances are being made; however, an encounter like the New York City trip, and knowing that very few queer womyn-owned spaces exist in Philadelphia, lets us know that our conference is still needed,” said Watson. “This year’s conference is about more than saying, ‘Hey, we have no clubs.’ It’s about saying, ‘Hey, respect the work that we’re doing to build community. Respect our needs. Respect and hold our space.’”

“Fertile Ground” conference, Oct. 7-9, features international lecturer and poet Sonia Sanchez as keynote speaker. Additional highlights include art and education panels and lifestyle workshops offered in addition to the annual themes of relationships, sexuality and sexual practices, gender expression, social justice, spirituality and wellness.

The conference is co-sponsored by Women’s and LGBT Studies at Temple University and will be held in its Student Center, 1755 N. 13th St.

For more information on the conference, to register or to volunteer, visit www.ourelements.org or follow @elementsorg on Twitter.