“Can I ask for your business advice on something?” my artist friend Charlie texted me. “Of course,” I responded without a second thought. It was about our mutual friend Denise who only recently started hanging out with us. “She wrote me to ask if she could ‘pick my brain’ about her art project. I define this as consulting and it will take multiple sessions. How can I tell her that I will need to charge her for this? I don’t work for free!” I was aghast. Aside from the fact that ‘picking someone’s brain’ over coffee seems a far cry from consulting, Charlie had just spent the better part of a year scrounging free labour from everyone he sat next to on a train and talking about his “no-budget” project. So much for queer solidarity.
What even is queer solidarity? It’s complicated, to say the least. Don’t people ask each other for help based on other relational values all the time? Well, no other group of people has organised around the vague identity known as queer. It’s not as if we’re all working in the same field of interest or all into model trains. Queer community, as well as the “chosen family” term that gets thrown around so much with it, is bound by loose affiliations of sexuality and gender identity. The community is based on our marginalisation, and we have historically supported each other outside of established structures. Banding together is what we do. Here, we’ve created online platforms like Queer Exchange Berlin, to foster those unique bonds only queers have.
“Remember the days when we’d just jump into someone’s project at the drop of a hat?” my friend, London-based authoress and former Berliner Lauren John Joseph, mused over a scotch with me one evening. “You’d just do it, no questions asked. Nowadays it’s all about money.” I offered back the example of the years of free service I did for Queer Film Klub – a monthly night in a Neukölln leftist bar of two films with an introduction and a bit of history. A few friends and I put that together out of love. It was great to get queers together over common interests, many of them shy in typical bar situations.
I get it, we’ve gone through Generation Praktikum. Exploitation sucks and it’s rampant. The idea that anyone should put maximum effort in for minimum to no financial compensation is a travesty. Lara, one of the collaborators who worked all those years for free on Queer Film Klub, also recently chimed in on the money thing: “It’s so embarrassing when you see these posts on Queer Exchange Berlin asking for free things that are clearly paid jobs… if you need full-on, house call IT support, pay for it, damn it!” I laughed because it’s called “Exchange” after all, but she’s also right… there’s a limit.
But no one was asking Charlie to do in-house IT or clean some Spießer’s toilet for free. A fellow queer artist, 20 years his junior I might add, was asking for some advice, some minor mentorship. I agree that no one should be expected to work for free, but let’s not lose our sense of camaraderie. It’s important that we be more willing to help each other out than be suspicious of exploitation. What’s the point of being a community then?
So what advice did I ultimately give Charlie? I was so stunned as he talked of the demands of free labour on him that I just sat there and let him keep texting. Until I had to go… I had to get ready to do a volunteer bar shift at Charlie’s underground queer cabaret.