The transformative power of storytelling, in all of its forms, is no secret. But what if the stories we hear most don’t reflect the diversity of our community? And what if the stories that need to be told don’t reach those who need to hear them?
We chatted with Todd Coulter, member of The Yard coworking space in Gowanus, Brooklyn and creative entrepreneur within the LGBTQ community, to hear how he’s paving the way for LGBTQ voices in the arts.
Todd Coulter, Executive Director, Founder, and President of the Board at NOGO Arts
With a professional background in teaching theater and dance often through gender and queer studies, Todd Coulter decided to launch NOGO Arts. NOGO Arts supports and showcases creative projects by LGBTQ artists. Understanding the expectations and limitations placed on him as a gay man, Todd’s mission is to help underrepresented voices access space and support to express their stories without restriction.
What inspired you to launch NOGO Arts?
My background is in academia, so I had been teaching for quite a while. I usually taught gender studies and queer studies related to performance. I was teaching at small liberal arts schools and was very struck by the lack of visibility for minority populations on these campuses in spite of the schools’ progressive sensibility. When I came back to New York, there was a much larger population of LGBTQ artists and far more opportunities, but I was struck by the fact that there weren’t specific niche organizations that concentrated on the arts and humanities for LGBTQ communities. My husband put the spark in my brain to start a nonprofit and give back in a way more than the occasional donation. It’s largely a lot of work I was doing as a professor but without the overhead of the bureaucracy.
I didn’t realize the entrepreneurial spirit was in me.
I’m planning budgets, applying for grants, creating content. I think there’s this spirit that’s not often addressed that should be in order to help these artists make a go at it. The ultimate goal of NOGO is to give LGBTQ artists the room to present their work the way they want to without having to fit a pre-established structure.
Our first call for submissions is up right now with a showcase in November at Triskelion Arts in Greenpoint. The working theme is trans visibility. The goal is to draw attention to people creating projects in the trans community. We don’t want them to exist artistically in pre-existing containers; if they have an idea, we can work with them and make it work. Our major goal is to make sure we’re presenting or producing bodies of work that we don’t often see or choose not to see. For this showcase, we’ll work with established trans artists to provide the presenting artists with feedback.
I’m not trans, so I don’t think it’s viable for me to say, “yes, no, yes, no.”
So, why LGBTQ arts, specifically?
The LGBTQ is important to me because of the expectations others put on me. When I was living in Maine, the legislature had passed marriage equality, but there was a People’s Referendum that Fall, so it was overturned and marriage equality was taken away. Afterwards, I had people saying, “Don’t be too upset; it was really close”, and they would ask me how I campaigned for it. There were so many of these micro moments spurred by people’s assumptions of what I should be doing as a gay man. Some people, when they found out I was gay, stopped talking to me entirely.
Why? Who knows.
What was your sense of community like growing up?
Moving around a whole bunch, for me, was just the norm. I was dancing and doing music as a kid, so people often said I was probably gay. I played in the youth symphonies in Seattle and Denver, and those moments meant a lot to me. Knowing that I was going to do this thing every weekend created this sense of belonging in a group yet having individuality.
I remember I was living in LA in first or second grade when the AIDs crisis was happening. As children, we created a mythology of what that was; if you do anything with a boy you’ll get red spots on your body and a van will come take you away. Boys came up with scary things, and I had a fear of being the one taken away in those vans. That’s where my queerness, or fear of queerness, came out.
College is where I solidified my sense of community. It’s when I came out. Don’t undervalue the realness of being in college. The heartaches and the triumphs are very real. I realized, looking back on it, that the people most morally supportive of me, which I might’ve taken for granted the most, were the three gay professors I had in grad school. I mean, there was a sense of ease and calm with them. I didn’t realize in the moment that these professors were really supportive of me and that the queer community has become more and more supportive of me over time.
They were the ones checking in, asking, “How are you doing, are you doing ok?”.
What does NOGO stand for?
Theoretically, North Gowanus. It’s an inside joke. Our apartment is on the border of Park Slope, Boerum Hill, and Gowanus. We decided to call the neighborhood NOGO, and the name stuck.
How do your experiences influence your creative voice?
The theme of identity has been very strong in all of my work as I’ve grown into my identity. The book I wrote is about identity. Transcultural Aesthetics in the Plays of Gao Xingjian. Gao Xingjian was a Chinese National who immigrated to France. He became a French citizen and worked between the two cultures, playing this brilliant game of not being positioned as any one thing. He’s purposefully slippery. His tactics are very queer, as he’s refusing to be labeled, refusing to be identified. Also, the piece I made last year was looking at gay male identity in acts of intimacy and how they can disrupt public spaces. It was a hybrid dance-theater piece.
How do you share your story through sharing others’ stories?
I’m trying to get out of the way. I’ve had lots of opportunities to tell my story. Hari Zayid, who led a panel on the intersectionality of the black lives matter movement and trans identity, said something to the effect of, “As minorities or double minorities effectively, we should not be doubly burdened for trying to dismantle the systems that punish us as we fight for equality. We need to fight for the privilege or access to use them as many others have.” I hope NOGO can help LGBTQ artists do this kind of work.
Can you speak on queerness in Gowanus?
Where the arts are, there will be queer people.
This piece is Part One in the Stories That Need to be Told series on Strengthening LGBTQ Voices in the Arts. Check out Part Two featuring EV Fitzgerald, Performer, Creative Entrepreneur, and Computer Science Teacher.