A group well-known to Madison’s queer community for its DIY parties, concerts, and arts events that put a premium on inclusivity and activism is shutting down.
Sarah Akawa and Joey Bee, two DJs and event organizers who founded the group five years ago, announced the closure of Queer Pressure in a Facebook post last week.
“Your humble QP organizers are needing to focus their energies on new projects and making space for new ideas,” Akawa and Bee wrote. “In order to facilitate this growth, we’ve decided to end Queer Pressure on a high note — so we can all move forward with the happiest of memories into new experiences and bright futures.”
Bee and Akawa — also known by their DJ monikers DJ Boyfrrriend and Saint Saunter — declined to comment further on the closure. They would not say if there are any final Queer Pressure events in the works, although there is nothing currently listed on the group’s calendar. Akawa did share that she is still helping organize a summertime festival called Hot Summer Gays, which was also the name of an event series previously organized through Queer Pressure.
Queer Pressure fans said that in the wake of the group's exit, they feel a mix of gratitude, sadness, and concern about a potential gap in queer-focused nightlife in Madison.
“I totally understand and support the organizers doing other things, (and) I’m so grateful that it has been around,” said Misian Taylor, a regular attendee of Queer Pressure events. “But I feel bad losing something that’s been so good for Madison.”
Akawa and Bee launched Queer Pressure in 2014 as an underground entertainment collective to rectify flaws they saw in Madison’s entertainment landscape. In interviews they gave to the Cap Times in 2016, the two said that the clubs and events they went to — even those specifically for queer audiences, like Plan B (now called Prism) or Sotto — at times felt unsafe and exclusionary for women, non-binary people, transgender people, people of color, people with disabilities, and those who wanted a sober space.
“I wanted to throw a party that I wasn't seeing,” Bee said in 2016. “I wanted to go to a party that I couldn't find.”
“I don't want to go to a club where the majority of the staff is primarily white dudes,” Akawa said. "Especially when you're trying to have a lesbian night, or a woman's night.”
Queer Pressure events, held in locations ranging from basements to train cars to the Majestic Theatre, were often exclusively for queer-identifying crowds. They typically featured “sober spaces” for those who didn’t drink, and bathrooms that were designated as gender-neutral. Events put a premium on accessibility, with organizers making sure the spaces had basic amenities like ramps, and also highlighted hip-hop and genres of music they felt weren’t given their due in Madison clubs.
Programming was also often political, highlighting art or music by activists, and that tackled topics from oppression to capitalism.
Queer Pressure fans say the collective succeeded in creating something previously missing in Madison. Kyla Harper said that as a trans woman, she doesn’t always feel safe going out to Madison clubs or bars. That wasn’t the case with Queer Pressure parties.
“It’s a place where I could go, dance, share a drink, and not worry about my safety — not worry about the environment I was in. It was a very supportive environment,” she said.
Taylor said they still have vivid memories of the first party they went to organized by Joey Bee — a precursor to Queer Pressure known as Loose Cannon — in the Dragonfly Lounge on East Washington Avenue.
“I walked in, and just everybody was there. There were black people. There were people with body hair, and their body hair was out. There were queer people who felt safe enough to make out on the dance floor,” Taylor said.
“There aren’t enough spaces that are just for us,” they added. “It was notorious that when you went out dancing to Plan B, there would be straight men who would try to grind on you. And it just sucked. That didn't happen to me at Queer Pressure events.”
Z! Haukeness, a racial justice and social justice activist in Madison, recently nominated Akawa and Bee for a LGBTQ Queer and Trans Advocacy Award through the nonprofit Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice for their work on Queer Pressure. They said that they always appreciated the bluntness with which the group carved out a space that aimed to be positive, safe and explicitly for queer people.
“In the events invite, there was always a message — 'No racism, no transphobia. We will not tolerate that,'” they said. “It was really effective. We really appreciated it.”
“Having that kind of space is really important and special and liberating,” they added.
Cooper Talbot, a DJ and host of the WORT-FM radio show “Her Infinite Variety,” was a semi-regular Queer Pressure attendee, and performed as a DJ at some Queer Pressure events. She said that the events worked in large part due to the “conscious” and “genuine” efforts Bee and Akawa made to be inclusive -- she noted that the events were especially important for people who are trans, or who use non-binary pronouns.
“They could be who they were. They felt very comfortable and accepted,” she said.
Now, with Queer Pressure gone, Talbot said she’s worried that there isn't enough out there to fill the void.
“There are (queer-focused) pop ups here and there, but they lack the wokeness … It’s just a cute place to drink,” Talbot said. “I don’t think that there’s anything else out there. That’s what’s so disappointing.”
In their statement, Queer Pressure’s organizers said that they were hopeful that “the foundations Queer Pressure laid … will continue to inspire magical spaces, events, political action, and community building.”
Haukeness said that their optimistic that others in town will step up to fill the gap.
“I think people will continue to make stuff happen,” they said. “People will be creative and survive.”
Taylor said that they're “worried” about Queer Pressure’s departure. However, they also think a foundation for similar events exists.
“We already have queer spaces, and we already have dance spaces,” they said. “We just have to tweak them, and make them better, and make them more intentional about how we use them.”