Exploring queerness in the Magic City

Exploring queerness in the Magic City

By Harper Harwell

Lights, camera, drag.

University of Alabama at Birmingham students scurry around the outdoor amphitheater in final attempts to perfect their makeup and costumes as the start of the “Fairies and Fright” drag ball looms just minutes away. The air is frenzied with excitement and nerves; students flit from group to group, laughing and preparing themselves to put on a fabulous show for the campus community.

Local drag performer Kameron Baldwin, known as KamKam when performing, is resplendent in a sheer black, bedazzled leotard and thigh-high heeled boots. They are getting ready to kick off the show and wow the crowd with a performance of their own.

“The queer community as a whole always made me feel so loved and welcomed. Being an openly black, non-binary person, it’s usually hard to fit into mainstream society, but one thing I love about my community here is that we uplift each other and there’s love to go around for everyone. It’s a beautiful feeling to know that your peers have your back,” KamKam said.

This drag show is one way that queer UAB students can express their identities in a safe space. Members of the LGBTQ+ community who live in the south can sometimes struggle to find a space in which they feel fully supported and accepted for their personal and sexual identities.

However, despite its location, Birmingham was deemed an extremely safe, welcoming place for members of the LGBTQ+ community to visit and live. The Magic City was given a 100% score in its Municipal Equality Index in assessing LGBTQ+ quality of life by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. This ranking is based on various factors of queer relations in the city, including law enforcement, leadership for queer equality and city employment policies. Birmingham is the only city in the state to receive  a score of 100, with the next highest being a 40 for Montgomery.

This score reflects a few of the various aspects of queerness in Birmingham, but it is important to explore other areas of queer culture and how they add to the safety, joy and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals who call the Magic City their home.

Governmental practices both in the state of Alabama and the United States as a whole have extensive effects on the LGBTQ+ community in Birmingham in ways many people are unaware of. Sylvia Swayne, the first transgender woman to run for Alabama State Representative, hopes to change and implement certain bills with the goal of bringing more support and aid to queer people, who are negatively affected by laws passed by state and national governments. Her experience and identity as a member of the queer community play an important role in how she advocates with her political campaign.

Swayne said that she knew at a very young age that her physical identity as a male did not match her personal identity, which she felt represented a female.

 “Growing up, I did not feel like I was supposed to be a boy. The way that my five-year-old brain comprehended it was that I was born a girl, but my parents wanted a boy, so they made me into a boy. I always thought I was supposed to be a girl,” Swayne shared.

Growing up primarily in the Southeast, it took Swayne until early adulthood to begin the transition from a man to a woman. Up until this point, she was not provided with the language or representation to feel safe in exploring her true identity.

 “The unfortunate reality is that, especially when I was younger, the representation wasn’t there; I didn’t see the potential to thrive as a transgender person,” Swayne commented. “Even when I learned what a transgender person or woman was, I didn’t see that being a viable life for myself.”

Due to the lack of transgender support and representation, Swayne did not begin her medical transition until she was 22 years old. Swayne owes the success and ease of the change to the resources Birmingham has.

“My entire transition has been while living in Birmingham. Birmingham has a ton of resources; I am a product of the Birmingham AIDS Outreach, Magic City Wellness Center and the Magic City Acceptance Center,” Swayne said. “I am a success story of Birmingham. I am proud to be the woman I am today and it’s because of Birmingham.”

Though her queer identity is not the only thing pushing Swayne to run for state representative, it certainly plays an important role in her journey for political leadership. She explained how not feeling welcome in her transgender identity for a large portion of her life provided  her motivations for representing the state she feels is her home.

“The state continues to leave people behind and not support them with resources and tools,” Swayne said. “After years of wanting to leave Alabama, of feeling like I didn’t belong, and finally getting to a place where I do feel like I’m part of this state and I see an Alabama that’s not represented in the capital, I have the opportunity to try and change it.”

Acting as a spokesperson for the transgender and queer community is one of the ways Swayne hopes to bring about the changes she and other queer Birmingham residents are wanting to see.

“What I plan to do for the community is be a person who has a seat at the table, building relationships with the people making these anti-trans bills, or who may not be making the bills but are voting on the bills, showing them who the trans community is with my story and letting them know that we are just as much a part of Alabama, and these bills do not help anyone,” Swayne explained.

Swayne shared a few of the obstacles queer individuals are currently facing at a state governmental level, though there are countless examples in Alabama and the country in its entirety.

“There are so many things in our education system, our healthcare system that limit the LGBTQ+ community. We are one of the states that don’t have statewide protections in terms of housing and employment discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community,” Swayne shared. “A lot of the issues that we’re facing as a state do just disproportionately affect LGBTQ+ people.”

Swayne feels proud to represent and uplift both members of the queer community and non-members through her campaign. She feels that only through collective support and cooperation can Alabama become more welcoming and inviting for people of all different identities.

“You don’t have to be even an ally to the LGBTQ+ community to get on board with our campaign. It’s not just the LGBTQ+ community that’s propping me up in this election, it’s people that understand that we’re not going to get through the obstacles in our way in Alabama without working together,” Swayne commented. “When I say I’m here for everybody, I really do mean I’m here for everybody. It’s not to be a representative for everybody; I can’t represent everybody as one person, but what I can do is work alongside folks in the community and push that forward. We all lose when we don’t work together.

Birmingham law enforcement, which was considered in the city’s assessment for the LGBTQ+ Municipal Equality Index, is dedicated to making the queer community feel safe and supported. The Birmingham Police Department recently created a position specifically for aiding and protecting members of the queer community called the LGBTQ+ Liaison. Special Victims Unit Sergeant Heather Campbell has been with the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) for 18 years and became the LGBTQ+ liaison two years ago. She felt led to take the position as the liaison because of what she had seen queer law enforcement officers and Birmingham residents go through.

“I really felt passionate about it because in the police department, it was very seldom that you saw someone get treated equally,” Campbell said. “I saw the changes that they were trying to make, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Campbell explained the motivations behind the LGBTQ+ Liaison position being established in 2016 and what she hopes to provide with her role at the BPD.

“We started noticing an influx in certain crimes that involved the gay community, so we wanted to make sure they were protected,” Campbell explained. “We’re trying to give hope where there wasn’t hope before. Safety is a priority in my book; if I get a call today that says someone isn’t safe, I do everything I can to help them.”

Campbell expressed that most of the Birmingham community is fairly accepting and supportive of queer individuals, but there are still challenges that come with her position as the LGBTQ+ Liaison.

“Most of the community understands, but you have that one small percentage that is very ‘conservative,’” Cambell shared. “My biggest hurdle is getting people to understand the priority that we need to work on to make everybody feel equal and safe. We’re all people.”

Within the police department itself, Campbell explained how she and other officers are trying to increase awareness and respect for queer individuals and their personal identities.

“We have training classes that we put everyone through; every single person here has to go through them. If they don’t [agree], we try to urge them to not have judgement when they go out on calls,” Campbell said. “If you feel this certain way, that’s fine, but you represent the police department, and the police department believes in this. We’re not trying to discredit how you feel as a person but be respectful when you’re out on these calls.”

Campbell shared an example of when her officers failed to be respectful of a queer person’s identity and how she helped them become more aware of making LGBTQ+ individuals feel safe.

“I’ve had a couple calls where the victim was transgender and the officers on the scene didn’t realize that they were transitioning; they used the wrong pronouns and couldn’t understand why the victim was offended,” Campbell explained. “Now, when they go out on calls, they ask about preferred pronouns. It makes me feel good, like they actually care.”

Thankfully, most of the BPD workers are supportive of queer culture and identity. Campbell shared that the chief of the department is included in those who are dedicated to protecting queer individuals both within the workplace and around Birmingham itself.

“The police department recognizes our own queer officers during Pride Month; they’re doing things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Campbell said. “The chief is behind everything. Whatever I want to do, whatever I feel we need to do; I’ll run it by him just so he knows, but they’re all behind us.”

Though Campbell’s officers and coworkers are improving their understanding of LGBTQ+ identities, she still encounters people in Birmingham who do not support the queer community and are vocal with their opinions against it. She recalls a situation where an individual attended a Pride celebration in Birmingham and harassed a queer person who was partaking in the festivities.

“During Pride, we had one incident where somebody threw coffee on someone in front of their kid, and I wasn’t okay with that, so I kicked them out of Pride,” Campbell shared. “You’re inside of Pride, in their comfort zone and their celebration. It would be like us going to your family reunion and hating you because you’re straight and throwing coffee on you. How would you feel?”

Overall, Campbell hopes to communicate to the LGBTQ+ community in Birmingham that the police department is devoted to the safety, comfort and support of queer individuals.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a straight person, lesbian, gay; it doesn’t matter, you treat everyone with respect, no matter what they are or who they are,” Campbell maintained. “I just want the community to know that there’s hope. I want them to feel safe in the city of Birmingham. There is hope, there is back up, and we’re here. We will do everything we can to make someone feel safe.”

Tony Rodio is the resident DJ and event promoter for Paper Doll Bar, located in downtown Birmingham. His experience as a DJ and passion for music allow him to be exposed to groups and cultures that he supports and celebrates but is not necessarily a part of himself. The LGBTQ+ community in Birmingham is one of those groups.

Rodio is fully accepting of queer individuals, which he directly attributes to the music scene and how it exposed him to LGBTQ+ culture.

“My entire adult life since a teenager, I have been drawn to dance music which, back when I was younger, meant you had to either go to a gay bar or some kind of alternative club and that’s why I’m completely comfortable in that world and have grown to love that world, because I’ve seen the genuine, creative souls that come out of (it),” Rodio shared. “And I’ve always been a very open-minded person. I’d never judge anyone for something like sexual preference.”

Rodio has been DJing at parties and events for 20 years, with 12 of those years including professional gigs. He shared that some of his favorite events to play at are Milk & Honey and the Garden Party, both queer-affirming, all-inclusive events held in Birmingham a few times a year.

“For me personally, one of the reasons these are my favorite events to be involved in is because the atmosphere is so joyous,” Rodio said. “I’ve always said the Garden Party is one of my favorite events to be involved in because everyone comes out; you get to see, in my opinion, the most diverse parts of Birmingham in one place. Everyone that comes leaves happy, having had a good time; it’s just always positivity and joy.”

He pointed out the distinct atmosphere at queer-centered events and how they differ from others.

“Whether it’s just a DJ playing some great house music or a drag performer lip-syncing Mariah Carey or whatever, it makes people happy,” Rodio said. “You don’t see that all the time; a lot of the time, if it’s just a regular show at Saturn, you might see people enjoying it, but you don’t see them joyous. It’s a different type of energy.”

Rodio is glad that the queer community in Birmingham is prominent and proud, and he is dedicated to providing safe events for LGBTQ+ individuals.

“Part of that came from a personal incident that happened with me and one of my favorite DJ’s that happens to be gay,” Rodio shared. “We were at a music venue in the bathroom together and he got cornered by some conservative white guys and they kind of cornered him and started asking him very offensive questions and I step back and go ‘I can’t believe this is still going on in 2023.’ It made me even more want to just throw the doors open to the city and go look this community is here, they’re involved in everything, and we’re going to support them whether you like it or not.”

Paper Doll Bar is a space in Birmingham where queer individuals can feel open and free to be fully themselves. This bar is an established safe place for LGBTQ+ people, not because of their queer-affirming events, but from the inclusive and inviting atmosphere of the people who go and work there.       

“One of the owners [of Paper Doll] is gay and always wants to make sure that anyone in the community knows that Paper Doll is an all-inclusive space,” Rodio said. “Paper Doll has never promoted themselves as this but if you do a search for gay bars in Birmingham, Paper Doll is the number one result.”

Rodio hopes to continue organizing and promoting spaces and events for queer individuals to feel fully welcomed and accepted in. As the event promoter at Paper Doll, he wants to make the Magic City an even better place to live for those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

“Were wanting to keep doing bigger and more. I feel like things have been wonderful for the community not just to have a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to come and let their hair down and have fun, but also to show the rest of the community what Birmingham really is, what it looks like,” Rodio said. “See you on the dance floor.”