The long walk to equality

Musician and singer Sabrina Chap talks to Karren Ablaze! about putting the joy in the fight for LGBT rights and how same-sex marriage is by no means the end of the road

, 31 May 2013

Sabrina Chap is a lady of gargantuan talent. This Brooklyn-based songwriter has been playing piano since the age of five, and these days produces songs that are pristinely intelligent, deeply moving and deliciously funny. She plays hot jazz, making it sound ruder than it ever was. She’s edited a very useful book, called Live Through This, about the relationship between creativity and self-destruction. She’s written and produced a bunch of plays. And now she’s created an anthem for the fight for LGBT equality, in the form of the title track of her most recent long player, We Are the Parade.

Initially, this song was Sabrina’s response to California’s Proposition 8, the constitutional amendment passed in 2008 that took away the right of same sex couples in that state to marry, but it turns out that it is about a lot more than just that.

She tells me that, prior to the appearance of Proposition 8, she hadn’t thought too much about the issue. “I rarely date, and don’t think about marriage personally. But, when California denied marriage equality, it just floored me. I mean, San Francisco is like the gayest city in the world! The west coast had always seemed so forward thinking – how in the hell could they deny gay marriage? It seemed outrageous…”

How then to approach a situation where homophobia and ignorance have (temporarily) won out?

It’s a hateful action to deny gay people their right to be married. Initially, I wanted to respond with outrage and anger. But then I thought that by responding with hate and anger wouldn’t be the smartest thing, mostly because hate is an emotion that separates. I wanted the song to unite, not divide. So I thought about how wonderful the queer scene is – what joy it is borne out of. I couldn’t understand how the world could deny the validity of that joy, and realized that our joy might be our strongest weapon. I thought, “I’d rather combat them with joy.” And the most joyous thing that came to mind was of course the gay pride parades. The parades have become a bit corporate in New York, and are not seen as politicizing as they once were, but they are still a political act that is joyous.

I also thought about how hard it is to be visibly gay, and how each time you step out as a visible queer, whether you think it is or not, it is a protest. It takes courage. I wanted to equate the joyous protests of the gay pride parades with the bravery that it takes to be an out queer and show that together, we’re strong. And also, together we’ll get to the point of having equal rights. It will happen for sure.

A few hours after we spoke, Sabrina contacted me to say that a friend of hers had been gay-bashed in London

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 14 countries and in 12 States in the US, and in the UK equal marriage rights could soon become a reality with the Cameron-backed Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. But, while celebrations might be just around the corner, it is crucial that the battle doesn’t stop there. Homophobic, bi-phobic and trans-phobic violence are on the rise in Europe and poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and mental health issues are increasing among LBGT communities in the UK.

A few hours after we spoke, Sabrina contacted me to say that a friend of hers had been gay-bashed in London, on his birthday night out. “The reality of what can happen to queers when they’re out and about simply enjoying their birthdays, the reality of the courage it still takes to be out, is why I did the song.”

It is hard to find a response to homophobic malice, yet ‘We Are The Parade’ is huge and full of love, a reminder to be bigger than the haters. But is there a risk that equal marriage becomes a carpet under which all these other realities, like violence and economic exclusion, are brushed – exactly the issues that affect the poorer and younger members of LGBT communities?

Gay marriage itself is not my biggest concern – it’s what it stands for. So many people, even queers, think that the fight for marriage equality is such a small fight, when the actuality is that it’s important because it’s just another step in the law recognizing gay equality – that gay people are as equal and deserve the same rights, as everyone else.

It is weird that as queers we’re fighting to get into an institution, when we’ve had to spend our lives not getting institutionalised! I forget who pointed out that the biggest fights in the queer scene seem to be about getting entry both into the army and the institution of marriage, which when you think about it, can seem pretty bleak. The truth is, these fights are fights to integrate into a heterosexist society. And smart queers everywhere know that. But laws that equalize marriage rights are a step in the right direction of demanding equality.

We have to remind ourselves of the joy, that we – together – are the parade

Sabrina explains that, while the track ‘We Are The Parade’ stemmed from her thoughts about Proposition 8, it’s as much about the necessity of gay equality in all spheres:

And the fact that we have to remind ourselves of the joy, that we – together – are the parade. We have to be reminded of that because the fact is, when we step out onto the streets, we are quite alone. And that can be scary.

Remembering that there is a community of vibrant, dazzling geniuses who are guiding us is the only way we can walk forward with pride and not in fear or hate. It’s images like [a photo of her friend who was attacked] that I am more interested in fighting against. Gay marriage is only one sequin on the fabulous gown of gay equality.

Here, Sabrina expresses the hope that the passing of marriage equality legislation will pave the way for more important laws that demand recognition, protection and equality for queers everywhere: “It’s the bigger fight I have my eye on.”

And she adds: “We shouldn’t live thinking that we’re alone in this fight until then. We don’t need to live in anger that they’re denying our rights, although that’s the instinctual response. I think that joy is a much more effective response, and one that’s much more sustainable in the long run.”

That’s our Sabrina Chap: changing the world with exuberance and sass.

Thanks to Petra Davis for assistance with research.

ADDENDUM: Message from Sabrina!

To kick off Gay Pride- you can buy a digital copy of WE ARE THE PARADE for only £4.74!! Just go to http://sabrinachap.bandcamp.com/ and put in the discount code – marriageequality. Share away!!!

Image description: Cover of Sabrina Chap’s We are the Parade! This shows Sabrina (or possibly another woman in majorette-style clothing) looking jubilant, in marching band gear and red lipstick, holding a drumstick. The album/single title and her name are on the front-facing drum on her right. The first item is written in large blue, pink and yellow letters, while the second is written in black joined-up sentence case.

Video description: Sabrina Chap sings in the middle of a New York street. She has a Majorette look and wears red lipstick, a black hat, a red buttoned top and a black and white striped skirt with black tights and lace-up boots. She carries and twirls a baton. There is a zebra crossing and busy traffic behind her. This is intercut with scenes of celebration, colourful banners, parading and love at New York Gay Pride 2012.

From 1.16, Sabrina can also be seen as part of the parade. From 2.07, a band (with trombones, cymbals, trumpets and drums) joins the parade. At 2.26, a bike rides past Sabrina in her lone scene and people (as well as traffic) become more apparent. At 2.35, a dance troupe appear in the parade scene.

The video ends with two people waving rainbow flags and holding up a white sign with ‘Gay Pride!’ written in coloured block lettering.

Karren Ablaze! is the author of The City Is Ablaze!, The Story of a Post-Punk Popzine 1984-1994. She currently lives in Spain

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