A Brooklyn photo exhibit highlighting Black women in the LGBT community has gotten people in the New York borough (and beyond) talking. “You May Sit Beside Me: Visual Narratives of Black Women and Queer Identities,” an exhibition of intimate photographs accompanied by spirited conversations that explore the complexities of living as queer Black women, features stunning almost life-size portraits by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn. The series which opened March 30 is hosted at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Plaza’s Skylight Gallery. Earlier this month, protesters placed fliers in the building that detailed religious arguments against being gay and why it is supposedly foreign to African American culture.
“People have all kinds of perspectives and beliefs about everything so I knew people would have an opinion about the show,” says Barrayn, the photographer and curator of the exhibit. “Then I thought maybe [these protestors] saw the show and got some information or got a seed planted.”
“I think a lot of [anti-gay] people don’t even interact with the LGBT community,” Barrayn continues. “Their opinions are based on speculation. At very minimum, I hope the people that created the fliers went up there [to the gallery] and got something from the exhibit.”
New York City Council Member Robert E. Cornegy Jr. (whose district office is located in Bed-Stuy) issued a statement in support of the exhibition and against perpetuating hate saying, “The Black community and Bedford-Stuyvesant are made richer and stronger by our internal diversity. We differ in religious beliefs, cultural identities, sexual orientation and gender expression and this is nothing new. Denying this diversity or attempting to draw lines of exclusion based on those differences weakens our community as a whole. Moreover, this kind of rhetoric and action places young people and other members of our community at risk.”
Cornegy personally visited the exhibit and commended both the creator and the Restoration Plaza president. He even encouraged community members to “open their minds and hearts to embrace this work.”
“People are engaging with the show,” shares Barrayn. And that’s evident in the various responses it has been eliciting.
“They’ve been really curious,” she continues, explaining how sometimes she simply stands in the gallery and observes the reactions of folks that enter the space. “People will come in. They’ll see beautiful pictures of Black women, then they start reading. I’ll see the tone shift. Some people get really excited; some get taken aback.”
“It’s amazing to me what is threatening to people. Some of the men are like, ‘Oh, I like this.’ Others are very threatened by it, asking why is this worthy of being channeled into art or why do we need to engage with it. People want Black queer women to be invisible.”
Even among allies and LGBT community members, “You May Sit Beside Me” has encouraged an enriching exchange. The exhibit is accompanied by two public programs — the first was an intimate roundtable talk that featured two of the women photographed. Most striking to Barrayn is even the diversity that exists among queer people. Individuals shared everything from coming out stories (or lack thereof) to information like what terms like “cisgender” mean.
“People were talking freely and learning things — and that was the point,” adds Barryn. “I’m glad because once you put it in people’s face, they’re pushed to question themselves and ask why they feel a particular way. The response has been very positive and…I wouldn’t say ‘negative’ but people are struggling with it. I just want people to engage.”
“You May Sit Beside Me” is on display until Saturday, May 24. The exhibit features ELIXHER founder and editor-in-chief Kimberley McLeod. Gallery Hours are: Wednesday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m., Saturday, 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public.