Palestinian performer previously barred from Tabu speaks about Gaza, performing and what’s next

Leila Delicious, a burlesque artist, stands mostly nude during a recent performance at an unnamed venue, holding a sign that reads, “Our generation will free Palestine.” Her face and hair are covered by a scarf.
Leila Delicious, a burlesque artist, stands mostly nude during a recent performance at an unnamed venue, holding a sign that reads, “Our generation will free Palestine.”

Conversations about Gayborhood censorship and freedom of expression dominated the last few weeks of 2023 after Leila Delicious — a queer, Palestinian artist — was barred from entering or performing at Tabu due to a sign she’d hoped to include in her act.

The sign read, “Our generation will free Palestine” with “Biden, demand a ceasefire. If you support genocide, you Isreal dumb! @joebiden @potus do the right thing” on the back.

Tabu labeled Leila and her sign as antisemitic in the venue’s public response to the incident. Leila crafted a statement with the help of a lawyer, and 68 nightlife performers signed on — calling for the venue to change their approach to censorship and supporting artists. After a week of discourse and attempts to talk with the bar’s owners, some protested in the streets and many continue to refuse to perform or attend events at Tabu. 

Although Leila’s statement was made available to the public and multiple media outlets covered the incident, she was never interviewed about her experience — but Leila recently caught up with PGN to talk about how her personal and professional life has changed.

On developing community
Leila and other artists have vowed to boycott the establishment until there is a change of ownership, a new leadership structure and specific safeguards put in place to protect and affirm Black and Brown performers.

“In a lot of ways, it was really awe-inspiring to see so many performers and the Philadelphia queer community talking about Palestine in a way that they hadn’t before,” Leila Delicious recently told PGN. “That’s not entirely my goal as a performer, but a big part of it is bringing Palestine into the room and into queer spaces.”

Leila feels that the incident sparked a new interest in focusing on safety and affirmation for Black and Brown people and underlined that the community has finally started to recognize and harness their own power. She believes the momentum is going strong on people demanding change for Black and Brown performers in Philadelphia.

However, she’s worried the energy and attention allies are giving to the plight of Palestinian people could fizzle out.

“I am unsure of how permanent a change this is,” she noted, underlining that people often respond quickly and passionately to trends but waver in their commitment to causes over time.

“No part of this is a trend that we can forget about or that we can move on from,” she emphasized. “Every decision that we make about this community and about the spaces that we perform in shapes the future of this community.”

On seeking safety
In the weeks following the incident, Leila was excited to receive more bookings than usual and joined shows with other artists who wanted to support her act throughout Philadelphia and New York. She appreciates those who were sincerely interested in offering her space to express herself. But she now recognizes that other venues and promoters simply wanted to profit off of the controversy.

Some performers and patrons have remained at Tabu, leading to a palpable schism in the community. She has empathy for people who have felt pressured to stay to avoid a loss of income, but she’s also skeptical about how they intend to build a healthier community without walking away.

“It takes a lot of mental energy to try and decipher who I’m safe around and who I’m not,” she said, noting that she is intentionally keeping distance from those who still support Tabu or perform there. 

“Nothing that happened to me at Tabu was an isolated incident both in regards to how Palestinians in the US,” she said, pointing to the violence Palestinian people have endured recently — including the violent murder of a child. “And in regards to how Tabu has treated Black and Brown performers in the past.”

“None of what happened at Tabu happened in a vacuum,” she emphasized.

“In fact, I shouldn’t have been performing at Tabu in the first place after everything that they had done to other Black and Brown performers — and it shouldn’t have taken an incident with a light-skinned person like myself for people to start taking this boycott seriously,” she added, noting that she’s since reflected on her own unintentional tolerance of problematic behavior.

To those who aren’t yet paying attention to the needs and concerns of more marginalized people in the LGBTQ+ community, “I think I would want them to reflect on what collective liberation really means to them,” she said, asking if queer people can truly be liberated if people with other marginalized experiences aren’t free as well.

“When you say queer community, what does that mean to you? Does that mean an all white, cis male environment? If you are continuing to support these businesses that do not support the artists that make their businesses money, then what kind of queer community are you creating in Philadelphia?” Leila added, urging people to recognize the implications of censorship. “Who is allowed to perform and feel themselves in these spaces — and who is being taken advantage of and being silenced and being defamed even by these businesses?”

On performing
Leila has felt exploited at times by audiences who want to sexualize her as a Palestinian performer but don’t actually support Palestinian people as a whole. She has an easier time trusting people who supported her before the incident — giving priority to her connections with those who offered her space to perform before she became a trendy news story.

“I’m happy to perform at shows and I love performing at shows, but as a Palestinian during a genocide, I think it’s really important for me to prioritize my own safety and prioritize my own comfort,” she said, noting that being on stage is an especially vulnerable experience.

Although she hasn’t cut public shows out of her schedule completely (she’s performing in Belgium in October!), she’s much more careful about choosing when to participate and has shifted to focus mostly on private opportunities. This means that she isn’t making as much money as she once was, but she’s much more comfortable.

“I performed at my friend’s wedding two weeks ago, and that was really reassuring — and a beautiful, very queer Arab environment,” she said.

On Gaza
“Growing up as a Palestinian, these are the stories that you hear as a kid — about an ancestral land that belongs to our family that we’re never going to be able to see again, particularly in Gaza,” she said.

“We’ve been seeing this genocide unfold for 75 years. I’ve seen this genocide unfold throughout my whole life,” said Leila, whose family is from Gaza. Israel’s ongoing military campaign has killed over 30,000 people since October.

“How much of the weight of the genocide do I have to hold in any given room when other people aren’t holding it?” she said, noting that she’s terrified that people will stop talking about or caring about Palestine.

Leila is worried about what she called “soft Zionism,” which she said includes the choice to avoid discussions or remain neutral on topics related to the occupation or slaughter of Palestinian people.

“How are we holding ourselves and each other accountable?” she asked. “When we’re silent and neutral, where does that come from — and who benefits from it?”

On moving forward
As one of few openly Palestinian nightlife performers in the area, Leila became a default spokesperson on related topics, which she said was both an honor and felt like a lot of pressure. She underlined that people currently living in Gaza and other queer and trans people in the diaspora deserve space to tell their own stories too.

“I think it was a moment of me redefining what my role is in the nightlife community and also in the movement for Palestinian liberation,” she said, noting that she took intentional time to consider how to contribute in a tangible way outside of performing, social media and protests.

Leila decided to focus on helping others heal. She plans to start graduate school in the fall and will eventually become a movement and dance therapist. She hopes to support Palestinian refugees with this work, supporting their efforts to both process their trauma and connect with their heritage through movement.

“I don’t know what the word is, but it has carried me through difficult times,” she added about her experience with movement and dance, which she called a therapeutic gift to herself.

“I’m investing my time in getting through the day and making sure that my community and myself are cared for,” she said about her more recent approaches to community and performing. 

“And I’m investing my future into making sure that Palestinians can exist — and not just exist but thrive,” she underlined.

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