The U.S.-based Black and trans advocacy group Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI) has released its second annual Black History Month Honours series and Toronto queer-events producer Marisa Rosa Grant is among the honourees this year.
The list recognizes Black trans people across North America working to uplift and advocate for the community. This year, it focuses on “Leaders of the New School — those of the younger generation who are making exceptional contributions in their community and/or craft.”
“I am ecstatic … I had a moment where I was probably just crying for a straight 30 minutes because I could not believe the email,” said Grant. “Especially in newly coming into my identity, identifying as a gender nonconforming person, being non-binary which is on the trans spectrum — it’s just so validating for my own personal identity as well.”
Grant, 28, is being recognized for their work in supporting queer, trans, Black and BIPOC community members, artists and sex workers – among the most marginalized people in Canada and around the world.
“When [people] are talking about Black lives matter, I hope they are also including Black trans lives, or I don’t want any part of it,” they said of their mission.
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Pre-pandemic, Grant organized events under the banner “Strapped,” curating spaces geared specifically towards queer and non-binary people of colour, attended by hundreds since its launch in 2019.
“It was just this really beautiful, welcoming space that I created because I didn’t see anything like this,” they said. “You can go to a lot of events, but a lot of them are very white and I wanted to change that. I wanted to add something new to the mix — I wanted to make a party that I could see myself going to.”
With COVID-19 restrictions, the live events industry was almost entirely shut down, leaving Strapped regulars disappointed and Grant looking for ways to keep the party going.
Like millions of others, they soon went virtual, turning to Zoom to organize events for the community they had built, including DJ dance parties, yoga classes, movie screenings and more.
Grant says they’ve been busier than ever and are reaching even more people than before, including those that could not attend their events in person.
“I’m reaching people that had social anxiety and couldn’t go to party spaces or people [for whom] it’s not … physically accessible to attend events.”
While experimenting with different types of virtual events to gauge audience interest, Grant hit upon the idea for a virtual strip club. They soon tied up with Maggie’s Toronto — one of Canada’s oldest by and for sex worker support organizations — to launch “The Strap House” specifically for those shows, with strictly Black and queer performers.
All proceeds from ticket sales go toward paying the performers, providing a source of income that was taken away when strip clubs in Toronto were closed due to the pandemic. Proceeds from an upcoming adult film festival will also go toward paying content creators and supporting the Maggie’s Toronto Black Sex Worker Emergency Survival Fund.
“The government … they don’t consider sex work as work and that’s the problem,” said Grant. “Not only are we being able to provide entertainment to people and also promoting [that they] stay inside, but we’re also helping Black and trans folks who are most impacted — especially by the pandemic and just generally impacted by discrimination.”
Ellie Ade Kur, board member at Maggie’s Toronto and co-founder of The Strap House, says the collaboration was meant to be — she’s been a fan of Grant’s live events from day one and the non-judgmental, welcoming environment they created.
She explains that the pandemic has hurt sex workers in all parts of the industry including those that work on the street, in massage parlours or in strip clubs.
“But for Black providers, I think that there is a bit of a unique, extra hurdle [in that] it was already very difficult to get hired, to be taken seriously in a lot of spaces,” she said. “In terms of what it means to be a Black stripper in the city, it’s not uncommon to go to clubs here and be told, ‘Oh, we already have one of you. We already have a black girl here. Put a wig, on, change your name, look less black’.”
Ade Kur says given the kind of discrimination rampant in the industry, an online platform like The Strap House is a vital alternative outlet.
“To have a club that’s very much unapologetically Black and celebratory of that, I think is very powerful,” she said. “It provides black providers a space where our creativity is very much celebrated and embraced.”
Grant adds that working together has been seamless.
“We’re organized and we have the same goal. We just know that we want these folks to get the funds that they deserve and we’re going to create this space for them,” they said.
When it comes to being recognized for their work, Grant says the honour from MPJI is particularly meaningful. They say growing up in Brampton and going to Catholic school meant never being taught Black history in school, especially not Black queer history.
“I wish I was learning about Marsha P. Johnson. We never had those opportunities. So to now receive this honour from someone that I had to dig deep to look and learn about … a group that I looked up to so much for the work that they’re doing … it’s just such a great big honor,” they said, adding that explaining the commendation to their parents “who are very straight, was very fun.”
“These spaces that Strapped has created even outside of The Strap House have been so crucial,” said Ellie. “For young, Black people looking to explore their sexuality and find their community in a really meaningful way, that’s life-changing and it’s also life-saving too. So we’re all just so proud [of Marisa].”