Erin Lynn, July 2020
The LGBTQ2S+ community has always faced marginalization and vulnerability, and when economic recessions hit, they disproportionately affect queer communities. For this reason, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on LGBTQ2S+ communities and individuals should be explored. The ongoing pandemic has hurt many small businesses and artists, who have smaller safety nets than large businesses and individuals working in stable, nine-to-five jobs. The intersections of independent artists and queer individuals within the context of COVID-19 within my community, Ottawa, will be discussed in this case study. Drawing on the experiences of KJ Forman and S Irving, two local queer artists, I will analyze the struggles that they have faced, how they have adapted as artists, and how their experience relate to Ottawa’s queer community at large.
Unlike the queer communities of other major Canadian cities, Ottawa’s LGBTQ2S+ community is relatively undeveloped. Both KJ and S describe Ottawa’s queer community as small. KJ describes the community to feel small and tight-knit, and that everybody seems to know each other within the community. S explains that in his experience, the community seems to be in large part, closeted, which he believes is tied to federal politics in Ottawa, where there are many rumours as to which political staffers are queer.
Background on the artists: KJ and S
KJ Forman (they/them) is a queer, nonbinary freelance artist, who runs Lucky Little Queer, where they sell their art through prints, t-shirts, and other mediums. They have a background in social work, and use their platform (@luckylittlequeer on Instagram) to promote mental health alongside their artwork. KJ explains that they have struggled with incorporating their queer identity into their art. In the past, they felt as though their work must be explicitly queer, but has since expanded their work into ideas that they are inspired by. They explain that queer people and queer artists tend to be “reduced to that identity, and other aspects of [themselves] tend to be lost.” However, KJ affirms that queer artists have a broad range of experiences, which makes their work, including their own, inherently queer.
S (he/him) is the keyboardist for a nine-person band in Ottawa. S also composes music for theatre productions, and is involved in queer community-involvement organizations such as Rainbow Haven and Fierté Agricole. S’s band have raised money for a variety of causes in the city, particularly for queer refugee causes. S’s band is an ethnically diverse and are one of Ottawa’s prominent “overtly queer” acts. Three members of the group, including S, identify as gay. S defines the band’s queerness by their connections to Ottawa’s LGBTQ2S+ community, rather than the art that they create. S’s band uses their differences to define their identity, which makes them inherently queer.
The role of art in queer communities
Art plays a large role in queer communities, as art has shaped queer culture. S explains that there is a strong association between art and the queer community, and he believes that this is due to the freedom of expression that art allows. He argues that for repressed queer people who felt repressed as children, art gives them a means of self-expression. Furthermore, S notes that queer culture represents the expression that art can foster. For example, drag culture is based on confidence and nerve, traits that queer youth often lack.
In KJ’s experience, art has always been a form of healing. They explain that they have been interested in art since childhood. As a child, KJ was a victim of sexual abuse, and their experience with this trauma and their art allowed them to express their emotions in a way that they otherwise could not. Later on, when struggling with coming-out, KJ found that art allowed them to process their feelings. In general, KJ believes that art is a good way to connect with others, as one can understand how someone experiences life through their art. Therefore, the role of art in queer communities is to encourage self-expression, and to build community based on shared lived experiences.
The struggles of being an LGBTQ2S+ artist during COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt small businesses and artists alike, and both KJ and S highlight the ways in which they have been impacted. KJ mentions that their mental health has also suffered in the past few months due to the isolation that COVID-19 has caused, which has hurt their inspiration, and caused them to feel distant from their community. S mentions that managing his band has become increasingly difficult due to the band’s size, and the lack of opportunities to write music together.
Both highlighted the loss of revenue that they have suffered due to the closure of public events. In KJ’s case, since pride events have been cancelled, they were not able to attend a market in Toronto, or profit from being a vendor at Capital Pride in Ottawa. Similarly, S explains that his band earns most of their revenue between May and October, but due to the pandemic, all these bookings have been cancelled. Consequently, both artists have reoriented their work. S and his band chose to work on writing and producing new music. He explains that there have been many struggles in this process. For example, he has had to learn how to be his own audio engineer, and the band has struggled to find venues for their upcoming music video, due to the restrictions that the pandemic has caused. KJ has also reoriented their work and skillset over the past few months. KJ has been receiving fewer commissions, and as a result, has had to expand their artistic skillset, for example, to logo design, to be able to find work. Despite the struggles that both these artists have faced during COVID-19, this case study will demonstrate how they have adapted to these unprecedented circumstances, and how their experiences relate to Ottawa’s queer community as a whole.
The role of social media for artists during COVID-19
Social media plays a large role in marketing one’s business and/or art, and both KJ and S have used social media in their careers. According to KJ, they owe their career to their Instagram presence, and have made many close friends through interactions on social media. At the beginning of the pandemic, KJ felt strong support from their community, as many bought their art and shared their work on social media, recognizing that small businesses and artists such as KJ should be supported during COVID-19. However, as the pandemic has evolved, they have noticed that this has decreased, as many are facing increasing financial instability.
As well, KJ hosted their first online workshop over Zoom, where they led a discussion about mental health during the pandemic while them and their attendees coloured their downloadable colouring pages, in the hopes of allowing attendees to talk openly about their feelings and to create a sense of community online. KJ has hosted such workshops in-person in the past, and found that the virtual sessions brought their own strengths and challenges. While they preferred leading the workshop from the comfort of their own home, hosting them online made it more difficult for attendees to have side conversations and build personal connections.KJ also mentioned that online art markets have been formed during the pandemic, which is a promising alternative to in-person markets. They explain that markets are a great way for them to meet new people and earn revenue as an artist, but their plans to attend a market in Toronto was cancelled due to the pandemic. KJ mentions that Flamingo Market, for example, has created an online market which includes LGBTQ2S+ artists from across Canada (https://flamingomarket.ca/).
S explains that due to COVID-19, his band is at a standstill, as they cannot perform, and recording music has been challenging to coordinate between all nine band members. He explains that the band is using social media to maintain their local presence, as their options are “social media or nothing” given the current climate. They released what S calls a “covideo,” a music video which band members recorded on their phone to their new song. S also mentions that a member of the Ottawa gay community committed suicide during the pandemic, and the community organized a funeral over Zoom to celebrate his life, due to the restrictions on public gatherings. As well, a Facebook group was created to honour his memory. S explains that by using social media to gather the queer community during a tragedy, this allowed for a large celebration of life that may not have been possible during the pandemic.
Thus, both S and KJ highlight how social media has become an instrument to maintain their presence, and to connect with their audience during the COVID-19 pandemic. While both mentioned the struggles that come along with social media, they also identified how platforms such as Zooms have become a means of community-building during a period where many are living in isolation.
The importance of public spaces for the queer community in Ottawa
Public spaces are essential to cultivate community-building for LGBTQ2S+ individuals. In S’s experience, LGBTQ2S+ bars and clubs are a mainstay of the Ottawa queer community, particularly for their drag shows. However, he recognizes that not all queer people feel safe in these establishments. As well, S notes that the number of queer spaces in Ottawa (notably, gay campgrounds and bars) have decreased, and existing LGBTQ2S+ spaces have become less subversive. Drag, for example, has become mainstream, with Rupaul’s Drag Race attracting straight viewers to the art form.
KJ explains that Ottawa’s queer community would benefit from more public spaces, in particular for queer individuals who do not feel safe in bars and clubs. They explain that as a queer non-binary person, they do not feel safe in these environments. KJ mentions that Little Jo Berry’s, a vegan café dedicated to queer inclusivity, is the only space of its kind in the city: they offer a queer-friendly, sober space, inclusive to all queer identities, as well as people of colour and all body types. KJ would love to see more sober spaces like Little Jo Berry’s in Ottawa, and dreams of opening their own shop selling local queer art within a coffee shop, to provide an inclusive brick-and-mortar place for queer folks to meet.
S explains that with public spaces closed due to COVID-19, he worries about young teenagers who have recently come out of the closet, and cannot rely on queer public spaces for support, especially if they feel unsafe or unwelcome in their homes. He relates this to the work he has done with Fierté Agricole, a special interest group in Quebec which seeks to increase visibility and inclusion for queer farmers. These farmers often face isolation, since most queer individuals live in metropolitan areas, and queer community-building is often ignored – S describes this as “metronormativity.” Fierté Agricole holds social events and conferences for farmers, creating public spaces for community-building. As well, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, queer farmers have found other queer people in their community. Thus, S suggests that online interactions can potentially fill the void of public areas for those who cannot access brick-and-mortar queer spaces. However, as both KJ and S explain, having public spaces dedicated to queer communities is essential to creating accepting, positive and safe spaces for LGBTQ2S+ individuals. With the restrictions that COVID-19 has created, the lack of public spaces bears a risk to the health of Ottawa’s queer community.
In relation to queer public spaces, S discusses the future of live performance. His band relies on booking live performances to gain revenue, however due to COVID-19, these bookings have been cancelled. S hopes that house concerts will become more prominent in the city, and cites the era of salons in Europe, when individuals would gather in each others’ homes to discuss art and philosophy, as historical precedent. He also mentions that more intimate gatherings could be more inclusive for queer individuals who prefer more private social activities to spaces such as large concerts or clubs. Thus, the future of queer public spaces may become “semi-private,” as S suggests, evolving into more closely-knit community-based events.
Both S and KJ have highlighted the struggles that they have faced as queer artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the ways that they have adapted to this new reality. Notably, KJ’s community care workshop, S’s band’s “covideo”, and S’s experience attending a funeral over Zoom demonstrate the ways in which queer artists, and the queer community as a whole, have reoriented their ways of life to maintain their communities. As well, the importance of public spaces demonstrates the specific needs of queer individuals within Ottawa, and the need to form alternative spaces, especially during the pandemic. Overall, queer communities in Ottawa and around the world must be supported during difficult times. S hopes that when the dust of COVID-19 settles, that there will be more openness and acceptance toward the queer community, within the queer community, and in societies at large.
- What role do the arts play in building and supporting the communities you are a part of?
- What kinds of public spaces are available to your communities? Are there challenges bringing people together in those spaces? How might those public spaces become spaces to support mobilization?