“I’ve never had sex with a straight man, but I know I never want to. I know this because I’ve had sex with their ex-girlfriends,” Jes Tom said to the crowd of about a hundred, mostly women, who were cracking up at The Bell House in Brooklyn. The vibe was intimate, and the crowd was ready to take it in. “One time I had sex with a woman who had only ever slept with men before me," Tom went on, "And after she came, she was like, ‘Oh my god, what did you just do?’ And I was like, 'Respect you?'" The room erupted again in laughter.
With the room filled with all this queer glee, it’s hard to imagine that it was a much more somber topic that brought everyone together that night: domestic violence. Queer Asian American comedian Tom was the opening act for “Our Bodies, Our Stories: A Feminist Storytelling Fundraiser,” put on by Sakhi, a non-profit organization dedicated to serving South Asian women who are at risk or survivors of domestic violence. By providing support specific to every single South Asian language and offering English and financial literacy classes, Sakhi helps reach South Asian women who may be immigrants and who may not feel empowered to approach a mainstream organization for help. Rather than focusing on the abuse itself for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Sakhi chose a different, intersectional perspective.
“The point of the event was to showcase that domestic violence does not occur in a vacuum,” Sakhi outreach advocate Senti Sojwal told me in an email. “It is useless to discuss this issue without also discussing and highlighting the larger issues of patriarchy, bodily autonomy, and sexism that give birth to and perpetuate gender-based violence.”
The evening, hosted by musician Kiran Gandhi—a.k.a. Madame Gandhi—consisted of eight performers sharing stories, poetry, comedy, and music that explored femininity, sexuality, and identity. “We [wanted] to show how these issues are all related, and why an intersectional approach to problems of gender-based violence is of tantamount importance,” Sojwal said.
While Tom took a much more light-hearted approach to dating while queer, as did Mariah MacCarthy, who shared a story about having group sex while pregnant, others gave us a spectrum of comedy and melancholy. Corinne Kai, a “budding sex educator,” gave a beautiful homage to femmes while sporting a Crave Vesper—that is, a sleek vibrator necklace. Black spoken-word artist Nicole Shante White took a more somber tone reciting her poems about loneliness, lovers, stretch marks, and what home isn't, and South Asian trans poet Janani Balasubramanian recited two poems including "Whalesong": "We are no angels, even the dolphins, but there are only so many times we can sing the word loss and hear the echo tell us it’s a lie."
Riti Sachdeva channeled the fierceness of the Hindu goddess Kali in her spoken word performance, and Diana Oh belted feminist lyrics like “My freedom won't be a sacrifice for this life you deny” as she shredded on her ukulele in lingerie. It was about as diverse and queer as such an evening could get, allowing the audience to rejoice in and take solace in these stories.
“I think one of the things I was most grateful for was feeling like I related to many walks of life,” Kiran Gandhi told me over the phone. “We often don’t know how to express those things or talk about those things and they did, which was really badass.” Gandhi, herself had the room dancing to lyrics like “I own my own body, and no I’m not afraid / And I own my own voice, and no I am not afraid” alongside her producer and beats curator Alexia Riner.
“It takes bravery to be honest about when you’re not doing that well,” Gandhi said. “Society and this Facebook narcism that we live in, everything is about how much you’re crushing it, and how awesome life is, and how beautiful you are, and how easy life is, and how many likes you have, how many followers. So it’s creating narrower spaces for vulnerability to exist.”
In the context of domestic abuse—which too often we assume is something that happens to “others,” and detach from its interaction with concepts like body autonomy and integrity, LGBTQ, feminism, and identity—vulnerability can be mistaken for weakness. But here it was clear that vulnerability is what empowers us. “Seeing someone else be their authentic selves hopefully will encourage the audience members to do the same,” Gandhi said.