Alexis Clements’ Unknown Play Project

Writer Alexis Clements is currently underway on a documentary film on women’s spaces. Remember those? Well they still do exist and they still are very much apart of our cultural his/herstory.

Writer Alexis Clements is currently underway on a documentary film on women’s spaces. Remember those? Well they still do exist and they still are very much apart of our cultural his/herstory. If you came of age in the aughts you may wonder why? Lets let Alexis explain:

Vp: Why do you think its important to preserve or at least tell the stories of the history of women’s space?
Alexis: It’s incredibly important to preserve and publish the stories of women’s spaces, because without those records, they literally cease to exist, not just physically, but in the larger world. Queer women’s spaces have long been invisible in the wider culture, and even to lesbians and queer women themselves. I know that when I was younger, I literally couldn’t see lesbians in the culture. They weren’t showing up in newspapers, they weren’t showing up in the books I was told to read in school, they weren’t showing up in the movies I was watching. I didn’t know where to find them. That’s partly because of the particulars of my upbringing, but it’s also because lesbians literally didn’t appear in the vast majority of media I was consuming as a young person, except in salacious talk show segments or derogatory headlines.

But of course there were queer women in the world, producing their own media, carving out and maintaining spaces, claiming their own ways of being in the world whether or not the wider culture acknowledged them. There is this incredibly powerful and multi-faceted legacy that a lot of people continue to work hard to preserve and highlight.

One of the things that’s adds to the sense of invisibility is that many of the spaces where lesbians and queer women gathered and continue to gather aren’t explicitly women’s or queer spaces. For example, feminist bookstores have a long and rich history of providing important space for lesbians to gather, find and share stories, and host events. But the queerness of many feminist bookstores isn’t always put forward.

Also, many spaces where queer women gather are personal spaces – literally people’s homes. Two particularly poignant examples of that, past and present, both of which will be in the documentary are the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, which literally began and lived within the home of two of its co-founders (Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle) for years, and more recently the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) in Toronto, Canada. FAG is not a space that is exclusive to queer people or only to female-identified people, but many queer women are part of the space in different ways and the initial space for FAG is a small building in the backyard of its co-founders Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell.

Why people gather in homes and personal spaces has a lot to do with the accessibility or inaccessibility of other spaces in terms of economics, in terms of who makes decisions when the space is shared with people other than queer women, in terms of safety, and also, I think, just in terms of ease and comfort.

All of that contributes to these spaces being illegible for many people in the larger culture. And this is true of many of groups of people in the US, not just queer women.

Are you covering Mich Fest and if so how are you navigating the issues of transwomen in that particular womyn’s space?
I will not be conducting interviews at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival for this documentary, though I’m sure the topic will be raised in other spaces. There are a variety of reasons for that, and this decision was reached after much discussion and conversation. For me, one of the principal reasons that I am not going to focus on Michigan is because it takes up so much of the conversation about lesbian space right now that it actually seems to drive a lot of people’s perceptions of what lesbian or queer women’s space is, even though it is only one such space. Granted it is an important one, and a lot of people go there, but the current, and even the past controversies that have happened at Michigan seem to have given a lot of people the idea that what’s happening at Michigan is the same as what is happening in every other lesbian space. To some extent there may be elements of truth in that, but in other ways, it’s not the case. Part of my goal for this documentary, in whatever way I can, is to challenge people’s assumptions about what lesbian space is, what that means, who is and isn’t included in it, and so I’ve made a choice to visit some spaces that are a little less well-known as well as some that are not as obviously “queer” in an effort to expand the conversation a little bit.

All that said, the question of trans* women’s presence in lesbian and queer women’s space will definitely come up in the doc as it and other questions, such as questions about class and race, have long been part of the conversation of what defines space. No two organizations are exactly alike when it comes to how they do or do not define the boundaries of their space. That’s part of what is so fascinating to me about the project – as someone who participates in a handful of different spaces that define themselves very differently, and who has participated in organizing events for lesbians and queer folks over the past couple of years, I am CONSTANTLY asking myself questions about who is included, who isn’t, what it means to be inclusive, what it means to live up to intentions to be more inclusive, and why acknowledging difference is so important, even within spaces whether people seemingly have shared experiences. Those questions and those experiences are precisely why I took on this project.

How much of the film is complete, how much is left to go and how hard is it to fund and create your own project like this?
We’ve already done a few shoots here in New York, a couple at the Lesbian Herstory Archives and one at WOW Cafe Theater. And we’re hoping to do a couple more shoots here before we leave for our road trip in August – some follow-ups at WOW, and an interview with a woman who has devoted a couple of years work and faced a lot of challenges to create and maintain a space for young queer women of color here in the city.

In August we’re going to spend 3.5 weeks on the road traveling to a cross section of very different spaces to capture footage and interviews. My goal is not only to speak with people, but also literally to create video portraits of the physical spaces – so people can see what they look like and get some small sense of what it feels like to be present within them.

Following that we’ll do a few additional spaces in the fall and started editing the film together. So we’re still nearer to the beginning of the project than the end.

Getting support for a project like this is always a challenge, as any media maker focusing on a subject that the wider world defines as a niche or special interest topic knows. But I don’t see it that way – I don’t see this as a film that is solely for lesbians and queer women. I see this subject matter as one specific example of the way in which any group of people that faces marginalization maintains space for itself. That’s not to say every group makes the same choices, far from it. But these stories evoke much bigger questions about whose stories get told, how we demonstrate and maintain our own power despite those who seek to deny that we have any, and the consequences of cultural erasure. Those aren’t lesbian or queer issues, those are human issues driven by individual human stories.

Besides being queer is there anything in particular that drew you to this topic in the first place? Personal anecdote?

My father was in the Army. He was drafted, along with his brother, in the 1970s. That meant we moved a fair amount when I was young. And even when we stopped moving so much I ended up switching schools every couple of years for a few different reasons. Then during college and after I just accelerated the moving, hopping around a fair amount through my mid-20s. Because of that, the whole notion of “community” was and still is a little strange to me. I still approach it with the sense of being an outsider, even though I’ve now lived in New York for almost 8 years and have participated in a handful of small communities in a variety of ways.

When I first stepped foot into the Archives, just as I was coming to terms with my sexuality, I remember feeling very much in awe of it, particularly as a voracious reader and inveterate nerd. Here were all these stories and books and films and objects, all the things I had never seen or touched before that I had longed to see for years. And here also was this incredibly idiosyncratic group of people who were devoted to maintaining it. Instantly I was like, is this what people mean by community? Is this a place where I might fit in?

But of course, very quickly it became obvious that it’s all a bit more complicated than that. Life! A couple of years after that first encounter and doing some casual volunteering there, I took a class at the Archives taught by Flavia Rando, and it was just fantastic – a small intergenerational group of people, some of whom didn’t identify as lesbian or as women. And like any really good learning experience it pushed me to ask a lot more questions – how do I relate to the word “lesbian,” is that a comfortable fit, does “woman” even feel comfortable, what about “queer.” None of them felt quite right, but I started to pay attention to the why I decided to use different words in different settings.

Why do I feel comfortable at the Archives? Why do other people not feel comfortable there? Why do I sometimes want to be in lesbian space, sometimes in queer space, and sometimes sprawled out on my couch watching shitty TV that is totally oblivious of any of these concerns?

When I was part of the committee that organized the Audre Lorde & Adrienne Rich Marathon Reading at the Archives in 2012 we had a lot of conversations about how to bring together different groups of people. The minutiae of event organizing touches on enormous questions – and saying you want to create an event that is inclusive across race, class, and identity is one thing, but actually pulling it off is something else entirely. I learned sooo much from that experience and others following it.

All of that is on my mind as I take on this documentary and other things besides. But I’ll stop there as I think I’ve already talked quite a bit!!


Help support the Unknown Play Project, on the fundraising site.