All We’ve Got and the quest for queer spaces, the personal exploration of Alexis Clements

Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn whose “working biography” is far too vast to be told briefly. Her latest achievement is the movie “All We’ve Got“, a personal exploration of queer women’s lives and of spaces they have occupied, funded, created. Places that because of gentrification and other factors are closing, but also artistic, political and intersectional spaces that are thriving against all odds.

Through her artistic expertise, Alexis Clements chooses the genres of the documentary to examine the impact these spaces are having on the LGBTQI community and vice-versa interrogating and challenging discourses and narratives. “All We’ve Got” is already premiered in New York and it has had screenings in Madrid, Buenos Aires – At the MALBA, the most important contemporary art museum – and San Francisco. This summer it will be screened in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, and we wish for it to be screened soon in Italy. Meanwhile, Sguardi di Confine has brought to Italy the exclusive words of this movie’s talented maker. “All’We’ve Got” is released by Women Make Movies.

Leggi qui l’intervista in italiano

Your documentary “All we’ve got” is inspired by your play, “Unknown”, in the synopsis it is possible to read that the play: “Asks how we come to know a person as something more than the role they play in our lives or the labels society applies to them” The life of an individual is usually intertwined with history and defined by it, but at the same time, life is paradoxically personal and subjective. Was  it  one of your aims to try to interrogate this paradox through different media? 

«The process of coming to terms with one’s sexuality, at least in the US, as I’ve experienced it, and as some of the people I’ve spoken to have experienced it, involves being marked with a label. For some people, their identity might have been full of other labels – Black, immigrant, disabled. For many white people, they often were able to live without the imposition of such labels, up until they “come out,” if they choose to identify as LGBTQ publicly or with the people they know.

The flip side of that, is that labels, particularly LGBTQ labels, also come with unspoken promise that there is a community of other people out there that you now belong to. You go to the gay bar, or the lesbian bookstore, or the trans meetup group, to find other people who have that same label. But of course, sharing a label like lesbian or trans, or even Black or disabled, doesn’t mean that you necessarily have much of anything in common with a group of other people who have that same label, even though you’re encouraged to be together because of it.

I experienced both of those things: having a new label applied to me, and feeling like what I should do with that label is seek out other people who shared it. And I also found that being a room with people who shared that label didn’t necessarily mean that I actually was in community with those people. At the same time I did end up building a lot of new friendships by virtue of the fact that I was spending a lot of time in LGBTQ spaces.

This may all sound obvious, and for other people who grappled with aspects of their identities earlier in their lives, they may have different feelings because they grew up with those labels. But for me, I didn’t come to terms with my sexuality until my late 20s, and so I experienced this particular paradoxical moment as an adult and it still fascinates me. Identity is a cultural obsession in the US. Identities are commodified, scrutinized, weaponized, and both over- and under-emphasized in countless ways. I don’t know how they function in other countries and settings as well, but I’m excited to learn how they operate in other cultural ecosystems.

In the US, I think identity, and assuming or taking on particular identities, is tied to a deep and often unfulfilled desire for meaning and belonging, which I think relates to the fact that so many people in this country have legacies of displacement in their families and communities, and there’s also a simultaneous pressure to assimilate. I think for some people, they find meaning in their LGBTQ identities and communities that they don’t find elsewhere, even when there is that false promise inherent in these broad labels.

All of which is to say, I think there are so many angles to examine on this question, and so I’ve explored it through both the play and the film in different ways, and I think I’ll probably keep asking questions about it, because it’s such a big topic!»

Why the title “All we’ve got”? 

«In English the phrase “all we’ve got” can have a bit of a negative connotation – like, we don’t have much, so we’ll make due with what we have. But it also has a literal meaning of abundance, as in, look at everything we have. I love the double meaning.

My sense is that LGBTQ women have grown very accustomed to the idea that we don’t have much. There’s never been very much in terms of organized physical spaces intended for queer women. And those spaces are very precarious; they’ve always been very precarious. So when another bar closes, I think, for some people, there’s a sense that it was inevitable, that our spaces will always keep closing.

I wanted to acknowledge that feeling, while also challenging it. We actually also have a lot, especially considering the hurdles we face. And the work that LGBTQ women have done, particularly when it comes to social justice organizing across history, has been remarkable. We are a force, a remarkable and powerful force that has shifted society. It may seem on the surface, and in the popular press, that we aren’t present that much, but that isn’t true at all.

So my hope is people see both meanings in the title.»

During an interview, you talked about your trip across the country as a “ Queer Pilgrimage”.  In the early ’70s this was almost a rite of passage for queer people. Did you get the chance to discover something more about yourself in your journey and besides that, which one is for you the most memorable episodes while shooting the documentary?

«There were so many amazing moments on the road! There was very late and very drunk night at Alibis, the bar in Oklahoma, that involved playing darts and doing body shots and literally crawling into bed afterwards. There was getting woken up by chickens at the Casa de Cuentos at the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas, and getting to spend time in the women’s ceramic studio there. There was getting driven around in the truck of a woman named Shewolf, who was an accomplished woodworker who used to be a cattle rancher and who had started a women’s land decades ago and was keeping the ethos of communal support alive by creating a group of fellow lesbian elders who go to one group member’s house each week to help out with tasks that person can’t do on their own. There was the earthquake in California after a long and wonderful taco dinner with a group of college students that we interviewed there. It’s the accumulation of all of that, really, and more. I learned so much in this process, and I’m so thankful for the time and energy people gave to us. Everyone was incredibly generous

All We've Got Alexis Clements-documentario luoghi Queer LGBTI donne lesbiche

In “All we’ve got” one of the main issues is gentrification and you were writing about the “Soho Effect” already back in 2010. Has it always been a concern of yours this link between economy and society, the impact of gentrification and its consequences? Why does it strike you so much on a personal level?

«Wow, you really did your research!!

When I wrote about the “Soho Effect” back in 2010, I was interested in challenging the narrative again, around loose. I wrote that essay after a theater had closed, and in a sort of similar way, people have a narrative around the loss of arts spaces. Specific to that essay, though, there’s also a kind of colonialist bent to the narrative–people claiming they were the “first” to arrive and that they created something that wasn’t there before, and now it’s gone. When I was asked to write about the theater closing I didn’t really want to engage in those narratives, I wanted to look beyond one person’s experience, one generation’s experience. And I suppose that’s part of what I tried to do with “All We’ve Got”–to try to see a bigger picture, to step back from a micro focus on one individual space, and ask questions about many spaces. What patterns are there, what lessons can be learned from the spaces that don’t fit the narrative.

And it’s personal because, as an artist and a queer person, and a white woman with a college education who is not living in the place where I was born, I am inevitably also part of gentrification. I am moving and living in spaces where economic displacement is happening right now and I want to understand how I and others can work to reduce the impact of our movements.

On another level, I am the child of a military family in the US. My father was drafted into the military and we moved around a lot. So staying in one place was not a choice for me or my family. We had to move for my father’s work. We could not build a community or build a strong relationship with place. And I know many others who have for many reasons did not have a choice about having to move, which I think is becoming more common. And certainly there’s are enormous populations of people who have been forced to move because of climate disasters, wars, violence, and economic displacement.

All of that means, it has left me with lot of questions about narratives of home or place, about who can claim a space and how, about what it means to be rooted. And I think those questions are only going to grow in the future, as more and more people are forced to move for so many reasons.»

Historically the city was the place to which queer people “escaped”. TV series such as Pose or the Tales of the City, or The L Word, for example, give an account of queer city life in different decades. Do you think that fiction both in TV and literature has had a role in spreading the idea that city equals queer life and countryside equals oppression? Do you think that “All we’ve got” or the genres of the documentary could help people see from a different perspective? 

«There are so many fantastic books to read on this subject that really dig these questions. Two that I would recommend right away are Christine Handhardt’s Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence and Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America by Mary Gray. Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination also examines a lot of what you’re asking in that question.

Of course on the surface and for many people that city/country divide is real. Where I live in Brooklyn there are tons of queer people of many ages who came to New York from all over the country and the world to be here, often not just to find a sense of freedom as queer people, but also to pursue careers in the arts or cultural sector. 

But that’s the big, easy story to tell, and the repetitive and easily accessible story that popular culture loves. And that’s, of course, not really how life works. Rural communities are not inherently backward, and urban areas are not inherently progressive. And there’s a huge swath of life that happens in between those two environments–according to the 2017 American Housing Survey, 52% of Americans live in the suburbs, the vast in between where a lot of young people grow up. 

Another writer who I’m getting to know better who digs into the more subtle narratives and the ways in which place shapes us, is Japonica Brown-Saracino, whose book How Places Make Us: Novel LBQ Identities in Four Small Cities I have started to read but haven’t finished yet.

I hope that I helped complicate those popular narratives a little bit in All We’ve Got, it’s certainly part of what drove me to make it. But a film is really an extended essay rather than a full-length book. There’s so much I couldn’t include and so much more to say on the topic, which is why my instinct is to respond with book titles.

The reality is that there is so little easy to find media about queer women. There’s just nowhere near enough to get into the enormous variety of lives that LGBTQI women live.»

You said in other interviews that your documentary  focuses not only on queer bars but  also spaces: political, artistic, intersectional. If it wasn’t for all the people working actively in these spaces, we couldn’t imagine our history. Do you think it’s a responsibility of the younger generation to preserve these places and how can they learn to do so it?

«I don’t like the frame of “responsibility”–not just because it’s a turn off to be told it’s your job to hold, carry someone else’s history, but also because I think if something no longer holds meaning in a society, then it’s not necessarily anyone’s responsibility to maintain it.

What I think is actually really interesting is that there’s this huge narrative in the culture right now about lesbian “erasure,” which, by and large, is coming from lesbians who are my elders. They feel that their culture is being overlooked and under-recognized. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that the contributions of LGBTQ women are not included enough in published histories, in museums, in film, etc, etc. It’s part of what made me make the film, because I wanted to create media about LGBTQ women and their histories because I was having such a hard time finding it myself.

But that’s not actually a new phenomenon. There’s not a sudden shift that has made the situation worse. Lesbian only became a popular term in the 20th century, and didn’t become strongly associated with a political identity until 1970s.

What’s happened is that it’s now possible for queer women to identify in so many more ways. For most of the second half of the 20th Century, if you were female-identified and you were exploring a non-hetero sexuality or a non-confirming gender and wanted to go hang out with other people doing something similar, you would likely end up in a lesbian-centered space because those were the only places to go. And there was enormous pressure to conform in those spaces, whether it was to butch-femme roles, or pressure to assimilate into middle class norms of being able to pass for straight, or being told you weren’t radical enough or didn’t have the right haircut to be a lesbian feminist. Not to mention the racial dynamics. Audre Lorde speaks about all of this in a few sections of her book Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

Today, at least in some places in the US, that pressure to conform is lifting a bit, or there are a bigger variety of identities you can confirm to! That’s not erasure, that’s growth. That’s building on queer legacies of refusing to conform to heternormativity and the rigid gender roles it requires, taking those legacies further. It’s something to celebrate.

And what I think the people claiming that there is such a thing as lesbian erasure miss, because they don’t have the vantage point I have as a volunteer at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, is that young people are absolutely fascinated by queer history. There is a constant flow of young people coming into the Archives, to visit, to attend events to research.

In other words, that history is absolutely still relevant and meaningful. I don’t think people are maintaining it out of a sense of responsibility, I think they are maintaining it because they care about it, because it giving them a sense of purpose and belonging. it shows them that the history they’re hearing out in the world is incomplete and provides avenues for them to tell more complex histories, and to build new ones. And that’s why we should maintain the history, not because we have some misplaced idea that we have to bear a previous generation’s burdens.»

The evolution of technology brought us the internet, the virtual space par excellence. It can be a cause of the alienation from physical spaces but it turns out to be useful because thanks to it we can access queer culture more easily. Is virtual space a topic of discussion in the documentary? 

«I touch on the influence of the web very briefly in the film, to note that it has changed spaces that used to primarily function as a place for people to meet in order to find others to date, and also to note that it is a powerful tool for helping people find others in order to meet up in person. But I don’t spend any time thinking about virtual meeting places. Because I’m very interested in this documentary in the political impact of queer spaces and communities, ultimately that relies on people showing up in person. I do think there is utility in meeting people online and sharing things online, but I don’t think real change comes without showing up in person.»

Is there a song among the soundtrack of the documentary that you are particularly fond of, or a song in general that will remind you of your film?   

«Because I didn’t have any major funding for this project, I was reliant on the generosity of many people to include things like music and archival materials in the film. And one of the artists who extended their generosity is the remarkable musician and writer, Lourdes Pérez, who allowed me to use an excerpt of her and Irene Farrera performing Pérez’s song “Luisa Capetillo.”

Capetillo was a Puerto Rican labor and women’s rights activist and writer, whom I learned about after listening to the song. In the excerpt of the song that you hear at the opening of the chapter in the film about the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas–the space in which Pérez and Ferrera perform the song in the video that you see–you hear just a taste of Capetillo’s intriguing legacy. Specifically, if you understand a bit of Spanish, you learn that she was arrested for walking in the streets wearing pants, which was illegal for women in the early 1900s in Puerto Rico. In fact, she broke many barriers in her life, from her dress, to whom and how she loved, to social norms around religion, and of course around worker’s and women’s rights.

There’s something really beautiful about the fact that Pérez and Ferrera, two Latina lesbians, are carrying forward the story of a queer icon through their music, using their music to challenge histories that refuse to remember people like Capetillo. It’s also just a great song!». 

All Weve Got, Trailer from Alexis Clements on Vimeo.

Copyright © 2016 Sguardi di Confine è un marchio di Beatmark Communication di Valentina Colombo – All rights Reserved – p. iva 03404200127 – Testata registrata presso il Tribunale di Busto Arsizio n. 447/2016 – Direttore Responsabile: Valentina Colombo