I always want to hear the stories from more people around the globe on how fashion intersects with their queer identity.
Though we invite a lot of guest contributors, we often hit a problem when assuming that everyone expresses themselves best through writing and that everyone speaks English. 6.7% of the world population has a college degree, and approximately 9% of the world speaks English as their first language. Perhaps some of the most inspiring and important stories are the ones from people who haven't gotten a chance to tell them. It wasn't until my friend and Qwear Contributor Eeri gave me the idea to speak to people directly that I knew I had to spend more time interviewing, less time pretending that the tiny demographic of which I am a part can raise all queer voices.
Last week I got to try out this new method of communication for the first time by talking to clothing designer and circus performer Rivolta Sata. (They are actually an excellent writer as well, but I still felt this series would be great for them.) Rivolta and I originally met when we were both modeling at dapperQ's 5 year anniversary show, and later reconnected over a mutual interest in clothing and identity.
On the morning that I spoke to them, Rivolta had gotten pulled over by the cops on their way home from work. Living in Rural Pennsylvania as a dark-skinned individual who usually wears a headscarf, this is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence. I spoke with them just as they were on their last leg of their trip after a full night dealing with a racist penal system, and was inspired by their cheerful and uplifting voice as they described their work in the circus, clothing design, their favorite festivals from their home in Gambia, and their anthropological research.
Sat Feb 14th 9:05 AM
Sonny: Hey! How are you?
Rivolta: I’ve had kind of a crazy night! I got pulled over by the cops in the middle of nowhere in New Jersey and they only just took my car away. I just got my car back and I’m driving home. I’m really worn out but I’m trying to stay positive.
Sonny: That’s quite a night! When did that happen?
Rivolta: It’s been since like, 1 am.
Sonny: Where are you driving to?
Rivolta: I’m driving home. I was still driving back from work.
Sonny: Oh! So you’re still driving home now?
Rivolta: Yeah, I work like an hour and a half away. You know I’m a circus performer?
Sonny: No, I didn’t!
Rivolta: Oh! Well, yeah, I perform in Atlantic City and New York and stuff. I was driving home from work and they caught me.
Sonny: No way! I juggle!
Rivolta: Wow, I’m very bad at juggling! I do aerials and fire. I can juggle 3 balls a couple tosses and I’m not sure if I get bored of it… or I’m just bad at it. One of them.
Sonny: Wow, have you been studying for the circus since you were little, then?
Rivolta: Um, I started doing it when I was 13. I was working for an entertainment company and they were like, wow, you’re really flexible. I did martial arts, and then I started doing acro and tumbling and face painting at queer parties. Then I started doing fire stuff and aerials.
Sonny: I know you design clothing too. Can you tell us more about your fashion line, Poison Fashion Designs?
Rivolta: Yeah, I started it when I was 16. I was bored during the summer so I decided to design some clothes. I had my first showcase a couple months after. I use West African, Indonesian Java Wax, and South American fabrics with Western designs.
Sonny: Where do you live and where are you from?
Rivolta: I live in the middle of nowhere, specifically it’s called Lyon Station, PA. It’s pretty much a college town. Predominantly Catholic, white demographic. I was born in DC but raised in West Africa. I lived in West Africa for 12 years of my life. I’d spend half the year there and half the year in DC. All my secondary schooling was in West Africa, my first year of college was in West Africa.
Sonny: Where in West Africa?
Rivolta: Gambia. And now I’m in Pennsylvania for school at Kutztown University. I’m in my last semester studying Marine Science and Anthropology.
Sonny: Can you describe your clothing style?
Rivolta: My clothing style ranges from being very androgynous but like more street than formal/dapper. I also grew up listening to a lot of rock music so I have some funk aesthetic to my style but then I also like to wear a lot of traditional clothing from my culture and I mix it all together… I like a lot of black and leather! (Laughs)
Sonny: Can you tell us more about your cultural background?
Rivolta: My father Black American. My mother's father is West African, her mother is Surinamese. When people ask me what I am I usually say Gambian — that’s where I grew up and it’s the language I speak with my family. It’s what I identify with and what I was raised around.
Sonny: Any favorite cultural traditions from your background?
Rivolta: I’m Muslim and West African, so there’s a lot of overlap. We have people who dress up in really big Masquerades of like horns on their head and the heads of different animals, and they decorate them. We dance in the street and sing and people give us money. It’s really fun and I love it! As a performer and someone who really loves fashion design, seeing every year at the Masquerades the costumes that they make is really cool. They always have a whole different style.
Sonny: Have the communities you’ve lived in in America and Gambia made space for queer identities? Were you able to come out?
Rivolta: I’ve never had to come out to anyone, I kind of just exist. People never really ask me, I think people just assume that I’m a straight person. I kind of just do my own thing and never let people pick and choose who I am and ask me who I am and what I am. I don’t feel like I really need to answer those questions.
Sonny: So you’ve been generally comfortable wherever you are, but not everyone knows you’re queer?
Rivolta: Well, I don’t feel safe, but I’m comfortable and proud of what I am and who I am. If people have a problem with it I don’t really think twice about it. That has everything to do with them and nothing to do with me.
Sonny: So you were saying being open with your identity is really just a matter of safety for you?
Rivolta: Yeah, if it’s a place that’s unsafe for me, like if someone is going to kill me or physically harm me, it never really comes up in a conversation. People will be uncomfortable, but I never really pay attention to it. You know, you’re never really aware of yourself until you need to be.
Sonny: I know most queer people have experienced needing to monitor their safety to some degree. Any stories you’d like to share?
Rivolta: I have a lot more to worry about that just being queer. I wear a headscarf usually and I have to worry about that, and I live in a place that’s predominantly white. They know that I’m not “one of them” and I have to worry about how people are going to interact with me. Like, just the interaction from this morning. This cop was not trying to talk to me, not trying to make any eye contact. I’m young and I’m in the middle of the forest, and he’s not trying to help me. I had my scarf on and he asked me to take it off. I had something on my legs because I’m anemic and I’m cold all the time and he told me to take it off because he thought I had weapons on me. I have to deal with this stuff regularly.
Sonny: If you feel comfortable doing so, can you tell us the whole story about last night and the cops?
Rivolta: I was driving home and I got pulled over. They were asking for my license and my registration, etc. So I gave it to them. They were gone in the back for like 30 minutes, and when they came out they were like, “you know what took us so long?” I was like, I have no idea. They were like, “your license is suspended.” I was like, “no, I paid for it. I have the receipt on my phone. I can show it to you.” He was like, “no no, it’s fine. I already called in the car, they’re towing your car.” I told them I payed for it again and he said “it’s not showing up in the system.”
I was like, I live about 2 hours away from here and we’re in the middle of the forrest. What do you suggest that I do? He’s like, “I don’t know, you’re gonna have to call someone and figure it out.” I’m like, the closest person I know that could come get me lives like 6 hours away and they don’t drive. They were like, “Call a cab” and I was like, the closest cab company is 30 miles away.
They just weren’t trying to help me. I felt like I was being attacked. I feel like if I looked differently it would have gone a different way. He like, banged on my door when he was walking over, like really hostile. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning, we’re in the middle of nowhere, I don’t trust you, I don’t know you. He didn’t even try to make me feel somewhat comfortable or safe.
Sonny: I’m so sorry you went through that!
Rivolta: I’m sorry I went through it too! (laughs)
Sonny: So this kind of thing happens frequently to you?
Rivolta: I’ve been stopped for the stupidest things. My license got suspended because I got a warrant for driving 6 miles over the speed limit. That was a $170 something ticket.
Sonny: Aren’t you allowed to go 5 miles over the speed limit?
Rivolta: I’m pretty sure. The thing is, people were speeding past me. I was in the slow lane. I get stopped at least once a week or once every two weeks.
Sonny: That’s a lot!
Rivolta: Especially when I have my Keffiyeh scarf on, oh yeah. It’s the star that a lot of people in the Free Palestine movement wear around their neck. But I’ve always worn it on my scarf — I went to Islamic school for 11 years, and there’s always been an aesthetic that I’ve taken from it.
Sonny: Out of the places you've lived, is there one place you feel safest?
Rivolta: I don’t know! Growing up I worried about being safe in Gambia, but living there, I felt safe. I felt safe until I don’t feel safe. Everything’s laid back and relaxed, and everything’s perfect until it isn’t perfect. It’s kind of a weird concept. In America I definitely feel very targeted. I have to worry about my religious representation, my skin representation. There are so many things I have to worry about. Back home I’m just worried about one thing, here I’m worried about 3 different things.
Sonny: Can you think of a time when you were being objectified because of your culture by the queer community?
Rivolta: I definitely have a lot of situations where people are like, you know, “Oh wow, you’re from Africa? But you don’t really look African.” It’s like… ok. And then I’ll be wearing traditional clothes and they’ll be like, “Can I wear it?” And I’m like, “Well, no. It’s on my body right now.”
Sonny: Wait, so let me make sure I understand. Grown adults in the queer community are asking you if they can try on your clothes, as if it’s a costume?
Rivolta: Yeah, and if my hair is covered they’ll ask what’s under it. They’ll also ask me if they can take it off and try it on.
Sonny: How often does that happen?
Rivolta: It’s happened throughout growing up. I’ve always had that situation where people are like, “Oh I love your scarf! What’s under it?” Hair…? Even in Elementary school. I had friends who... it was clearly innocent... but they’d take off my head scarf and put it on.
Sonny: The teachers wouldn’t stop them?
Rivolta: It usually happened during lunch time. They weren’t teasing or anything, but they just thought we were friends and it was okay.
Sonny: Can you think of a time when the queer community was respecting and honoring your culture?
Rivolta: I guess just individuals, or people, organizations that are for resistance and expressing yourself and getting your story out there. Like, you’re asking questions. It’s really important for people to ask questions and share information. I feel like it’s very honoring when people ask and want to know more.
Sonny: So, asking questions is a good place to start.
Rivolta: Asking questions, doing your own research. I don’t like it when people are like, “they don’t know any better.” I’m sorry, so much is at your fingertips. It’s important to ask questions, inform yourself.
Sonny: Use Google!
Rivolta: Yeah, you can learn so many things on your own. Of course it’s better to get first hand experience, but I know a lot of people get really afraid to ask. They don’t want to offend people or come off as ignorant. So you can do your own research. Googling, picking up a book. God forbid you go to a library and look it up.
Rivolta: I mean, I study anthropology so if I want to know about a culture; what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, I literally will like go to the library and check out 5 books on that culture. I mean, I don’t know everything about it, but it’s a start.
As Qwear's Founding Editor, Sonny’s work centers around envisioning a future in which the clothing people wear does not dictate their chances of survival. Sonny was awarded 2015 dapperQ of the Year and was the first trans blogger to be sponsored by Topman. In March 2016, Sonny spoke at South by South West's first official queer fashion panel.