Don’t miss our 2018-2019 LGBTQ programming including Taylor Mac and Gina Chavez

This article by Jake Stepansky originally appeared in Inside Arts Fall 2018 issue.

Although it may come as a surprise to some,  — famous for Mormons and industrial banking — was the setting for a powerful lesson about equity, diversity and inclusion in the arts. “As with most communities that have a very strong dominant culture, there is then also a very strong counterculture,” says Brooke Horejsi, the assistant dean for Art and Creative Engagement in the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. “That very much exists [in Salt Lake City], and it’s growing.” Despite this vibrant counter-community of diversity, Horejsi says, “a lot of the cultural organizations and spaces that support cultural organizations were geared towards the small segment of the community that was very white and Western in their genre or the way they approach creativity.” More recently, that has started to change. Several years ago, Horejsi helped launch UtahPresents, a mission driven approach to multi-disciplinary work at the University of Utah. As its executive director, Horejsi has championed a programming ethos centered around “holding up and supporting a diverse range of artists and creative voices.” She has drawn from lessons learned and relationships built during her time as a member of the inaugural cohort of the APAP Leadership Fellows Program, even presenting a chunk of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music after seeing the performer on an LFP cohort field trip.

It’s no surprise, then, that Horejsi found a kindred spirit in Beatrice Thomas, whose work as a multidisciplinary artist, cultural producer, consultant and agent for change centers on advancing representation for people of color and LGBTQ communities onstage and off. Born from this partnership was an exuberant and acclaimed presentation at UtahPresents of The Singing Bois, a “genderqueer pop group redefining the boy band as a space for anti-racist and feminist action.”

The Singing Bois are helmed by Bay area-based sound designer and performer T. Carlis Roberts, who spoke, along with Thomas and Horejsi, to a cadre of APAP members at an April webinar on equity and inclusion. The webinar was a part of a series curated by the Leadership Fellows Program in an effort to continue the conversations begun at the annual APAP conference in January 2018,and to explore the difficult and necessary work of creating artistic spaces that foster inclusivity in an authentic way.

For Roberts and the other founding members, creating The Singing Bois was an act of community-building as much as act of creative expression. “Being in very gendered music spaces and very binary spaces meant that parts of our identities or practice were falling on opposite sides of this binary or just not fitting in at all to those gendered frameworks,” says Roberts. “We came together in conversation and also started to share music with each another and figure out how we wanted to bring together these conversations with the music that we loved and wanted to create a bigger space for ourselves within.”

It was out of these conversations that The Singing Bois — a group of masculine-of-center artists (assigned female at birth, but living and presenting in masculine ways, shapes and forms) who perform soul, R&B, rock and pop covers and originals — developed a sizeable following in the Bay area. However, as the group attempted to expand its reach, the members ran into the institutional barriers and knowledge gaps that often face artists of color and LGBTQ artists.

That’s where Thomas came in. After developing a relationship with Roberts grounded in sharing industry best practices, Thomas connected Horejsi to The Singing Bois, who soon found themselves in Salt Lake City at the beginning of an extraordinary whirlwind of art-making and relationship building. Fortunately, Horejsiand the team at UtahPresents — which, remember, was just getting its sea legs at this point — had taken steps to ensure that the group would feel supported and prepared every step of the way.

“Knowing we had the upcoming programming with the Singing Bois, we very intentionally centered our [annual] staff retreat around a local organization that works around equity and inclusion,” Horejsi says. “It wasn’t because we had had something happen that we needed to resolve; it was because everyone needs to be engaging in those conversations. When you look at a team, the real challenge is that often the leader is engaging in those conversations about equity and inclusion, but my house managers or production managers — that’s not an everyday part of their world. Making sure that we intentionally brought the team together to have everyone be part of that conversations and learning was part of preparing [for the Singing Bois].And it’s an ongoing thing!”

Roberts makes it clear that this experience was special because of the proactiveness, not just the openness, of the UtahPresents team. “Something that we felt in a really powerful way that allowed us to hit the ground running doing better work in Utah was that there had been this proactive asking of us: What do you need? What do you prefer in terms of being addressed?,” Roberts explains. “[Proactiveness] is always what a presenter is thinking about, but maybe just more artistically and technically — but [they should be] actually extending that to the other needs artists might have entering this space. It’s great to be able to show up and just do my work and not worry about, you know, where do I go to use the bathroom, but actually to have someone say, ‘Here’s what the options are’ and that not even being something that I need to ask.”

The presentation at UtahPresents was a resounding success. In the coming months, Thomas and Roberts will be collaborating on the next chapter of The Singing Bois’ story. They’ve got their eyes set on a world tour, hoping to find massive and receptive audiences in Asia and beyond.

But that’s not the only goal. “We started off saying, ‘We’re going to bring conversation that’s happening about these issues in the Bay area outwards,’” says Roberts. “But we’ve been realizing that there’s actually a lot for us to take in about how these conversations are happening in local spaces. For us — both for audiences and for other artists — we’re looking forward to continuing to extend this queer and trans network that we are a part of here and that we are really working actively to build.” They — like the webinar series — are just looking to keep the conversation going.

Jake Stepansky is a theater-maker and arts advocate with a passion for making work that sands down boundaries between creator and audience. He recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in psychology and theater, dance and media. He is the general manager of Forklift Danceworks in Austin, Texas.

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR First, I have done my best in this article to summarize the key highlights from the Inclusion Without Boundaries webinar hosted by APAP in April 2018, but there is so much deeply important content in the discussion that I recommend readers listen to the entire webinar and many others at Webinar-Archives.

Second, you’ll notice that this article is packed with lengthy quotes — many more than I’d typically use. This is intentional. As a white cisgender male reporting a narrative that centers on artists of color and queer/trans artists, my goal is to use this platform to feature the voices of the thoughtful folks who led the webinar discussed in this article. As such, I’ve used direct transcriptions of the participants’ language as much as possible to centralize their voices and their telling.

Third, as I’ve reported on this story, I’ve been repeatedly confronted by my own privilege as a white cisgender male, not realizing the extent to which I was blind to the structural inequities of the presenting industry. That’s no excuse — but I put it out there as a wake-up call and a reminder to listen and to learn. I know that I’ll be taking the lessons I’ve learned from this webinar into my own work as an arts administrator — and I’m committed to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion mission of striving toward an inclusive, proactive and informed life.

Fourth and finally, take a minute to visit The Singing Bois at Watch one of their videos — or all of them, as I did. My favorite: Jason Mraz’s I’m Yours on kazoos. KAZOOS! And if you’re a presenter — in the U.S. or beyond — take a moment to consider how you might employ the lessons of this story to find artists who might be a part of your next season’s programming regardless of where you live in the country or in the world. — Jake Stepansky