The Essence of Queerness Celebrates Black Queer Womanhood In All Forms


The Essence of Queerness, an OutMusuem exhibit curated by Outfest’s programming fellow Tishon Pugh streaming for free on Outfest+, focuses on the nuances and depth of Black queer womanhood.

By Kelsey Brown

September, 5, 2023

A Black transgender woman with long black hair lays down partially covered by a flower bed. Flowers and other plants spring out from the ground on and around her. A still from Gbenga Komolafe’s Winter Insect, Summer Flower, courtesy of the filmmaking team.

Camryn Garrett is a lifelong lover of rom-coms and chick-flicks. But as a queer Black woman, it was rare for Garrett to see love stories that reflected her world in mainstream media. 

As a recent graduate from New York University, Garrett, 23, has published three novels and is reclaiming rom-coms with It Had To Be You, Garrett’s film debut as a part of The Essence of Queerness, a new exhibition from Outfest’s OutMuseum. The film, which Garrett describes as a “bisexual love triangle” was inspired by Garrett’s prolonged sexuality crisis being unsure of whether she identified as bisexual or lesbian. 

“The main character has this self doubt about how lovable she [is] based on ideas that we’ve told Black women, especially Black plus-sized women,” Garrett says. “We really wanted to highlight love between two Black women. It’s so important and powerful.”

The Essence of Queerness was curated by Tishon Pugh as part of Outfest’s programming fellowship, in conjunction with the Programmers of Color Collective. As a Black queer woman, Pugh knew she wanted her exhibition to focus on the nuances and depth of Black queer womanhood.

The exhibition features four short films ranging from poetic pieces that explore vulnerability like Tatiana Garnett’s these hands lay open, to Tee Jaehyung Park and Gbenga Komolafe’s film Winter Insect, Summer Flower, an abstract and artistic journey that uses stunning visuals and visceral shots to follows a trans woman’s journey through seasons. The exhibition continues with Matt Nadel and Megan Plotka’s documentary CANS Can’t Stand, which follows Black trans women activists in Louisiana fighting to repeal the state’s Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) law, and Garrett’s It Had To Be You

A headshot of Tishon Pugh, a Black woman with long black hair wearing round purple glasses. Courtesy of Pugh.

Pugh was intentional in crafting the exhibit to show the multifaceted and varied experiences of Black queer womanhood. She hopes that people not only enjoy watching the joy in the films, but the mundane moments as well. She emphasizes that there is beauty in simple moments like intimate moments with friends and routine trips to the grocery store. When needed, Pugh says, these same women will be able to demand their justice and look good while doing it. 

“A lot of times as Black women, we have to save the world,” Pugh says. “We have to do it on our own. We have to be strong. But at the same time, we’re the last to be thought of. We can take care of everybody else, but no one can take care of us. I want to show people that we can take care of each other, and it doesn’t have to look a certain way.” 

As a first time programmer, prior to the programming fellowship with Outfest, Pugh’s programming experience was limited to curating films at home based on her moods. Now, Pugh is becoming the programming coordinator for the New Orleans Film Festival, where she will work full time focusing on documentary features and animated shorts. 

Pugh wanted to feature Garrett’s film It Had To Be You in the exhibition because she felt it was a coming-of-age film her younger self needed. Garrett created the short film while still attending NYU and working with a crew made up predominantly of students. For Garrett, the experience of kindly commanding a set and being supported by other Black queer creatives who believed in her vision, was empowering. 

Growing up, the queer representation Garrett saw in mainstream media was dominated by whiteness. Garrett mentioned the joy of not only being able to enjoy and appreciate other Black queer creatives and creations—mentioning Janelle Monae, Lil Nas X, and Moonlight—but also the joy of being able to also create her own as well. 

A Black woman stretches upward in a post with one arm in the sky. Behind her, the sunset peaks through her sillouette. A still from Tatiana Garnett’s these hands lay open. Courtsey of the filmmakers.

While working on the film while attending NYU, a professor expressed confusion on how the main character was interested in a guy and then wanted to date a girl. This question is exactly why diverse representation of sexual orientation needs to exist—because queer people exist. 

Garrett spoke to how empowering it is to exist without having to choose. She mentioned in high school a teacher who said Moonlight only won awards because of the gay content, saying it wasn’t a typical Black film. This frustrated Garrett, who didn’t see the need to separate the two. 

“It’s the instinct of a lot of people to separate identities,” Garrett says. “If you’re Black, queer and a woman, you have to pick, or one is more important than the other. It is so freeing to see someone who exists as a bunch of different things—like a Black queer femme. To see them exist—they don’t have to choose, they don’t have to elevate one identity over the other. It is all a part of them and it’s all integral to the art they create. That’s really important to me—knowing that you do not have to pick your Blackness over your queerness.” 

The exhibition is a celebration of the distinct and unique expressions of Black queer womanhood, championing the notion that there is no one way to exist, to express self, or to be with community. The Essence of Queerness is an ode that there’s beauty and space for all of it. 

You can stream these films now along with a conversation with some of the filmmakers for free here on Outfest+ as part of the OutMuseum until September 15, 2023.

Kelsey Brown (she/her) is a journalist who recently graduated from California State University, Long Beach. As a queer person, uplifting marginalized voices is fundamental to her work. 

Brown is also a 2023 Outfest Inclusive Press Fellow. Learn more about the program here.


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