Feature

#SpheresOfQueer: Chester Martinez talks childhood trauma, dancing his way to world stages, and wearing his ‘queer’ on his sequinned sleeve

It’s been two months since we launched #SpheresOfQueer, a supposed-to-be bi-weekly feature highlighting the trillion types of queer folk who roam the planet just like everybody else.

I got distracted, I admit, but I figured that #AfricanPride month is as good a time as any to put spark and flint to the conversation. Episode two highlights the beautifully androgynous Chester Martinez.

Chester Martinez is a remarkable dancer and performance artist. From music videos to theatre, fashion to fabulosity, Martinez slays all day.

I’ve seen him all over the scene, and I’ve even collaborated on a project and shoot with him led by New York-based poet and queer activist, Alok Vaid-Menon. But I’ve never really known the person behind the makeup.

He comes from two very small towns in the Western Cape — Mamre (his mom’s family) and Saldanha Bay (his father’s family). His dad suffered from alcoholism and his mom was bi-polar, but misdiagnosed as having clinical depression. When she fell pregnant, the two families forced them to get married.

Between his dad’s alcoholism and his mother’s mental health, he became two very different children, “My mom was very liberal in the sense that we could talk about everything under the sun. She wanted me to grow up with an open-minded world view, being open to different realities. My dad was liberal in the sense that he let me drink from age five, and get up to a lot of adult shit that children shouldn’t be doing.”

I can’t hide my concern when he says, “My world literally fell apart. Essentially I very quickly had to grow up on my own. I became the son to my dad and an angel to my mom and that split within myself led to a very dark period in my life where I ended up a borderline child alcoholic at age 11.”

His independence and understanding of self at such a young age is uncanny, “At age 13 I came out of this dark time of losing myself. I needed some kind of direction and purpose, so I started doing ballroom dancing, and it was just a snowball effect which was essentially the start of my career as a dancer.”

He’s about to unpack his career when I interject, because I want to know more about his queer identity, “When people ask me how I identify, I wanna say, ‘I identify as Chester.’ But now queer is the term I prefer to use to describe myself because I’ve always been ‘other’. Even within the queer community, I’ve always been ‘other’, existing outside of most labels.”

While he understands people’s need to identify with something, he adds, “For me the thing that has been the most consistent in my life is my fluidity, my ability to cross the spectrum. When I educate people on queerness, we must look at the root of the word: queer, which means other. It’s not always pertaining to our sexuality. It’s not always pertaining to our gender identity.”

I find his a very refreshing perspective. And I wonder at what point he started entertaining queer ideas and tendencies, “I was six, being called a moffie purely ‘cause I wasn’t trying to be like the other boys. I think that because you start getting teased, you start repressing your nature. So I became really good at people-pleasing, a chameleon of a kid. It’s an inherently queer ability  — shape-shifting. It’s what’s allowed me to survive.”

Every time I see Martinez, he looks 50 shades of slay, so we talk wardrobe and style, “Going through adolescence that’s very much what fashion became for me [a defence mechanism]. It was my armour, like I could put on a don’t-fuck-with-me outfit, and you weren’t gonna fuck with me. I learnt very early on that people don’t like what they don’t understand, so they give it space. Obviously as you grow older and you mature, it becomes part of your identity. You understand the language of your clothing and what you are saying with it.”

We return to Martinez, aged 13, the point where he turned from darkness to dance. In no time he was winning trophies and joining various dance academies. He came across So You Think You Can Dance (USA) and it sparked an insatiable hunger, “I was watching these American dancers like Travis Wall and Benji Schwimmer, and I was like holy shit, this incredible! This is the world I want to live in. That’s what saved me — connecting with that art and knowing it was what my soul was called to do.”

We talk about his experience as a queer performer in the art world and what he says surprises me, “You’d think [they’d be more accepting]. Cape Town’s art world exists in a very binary, very outdated space. We are not progressing with the world so our consumers are still very much in a boys-wear-blue-girls-wear-pink mentality which limits artists from really pushing boundaries. But it’s completely different finding yourself in New York or London where queerness thrives because it’s at the heart of the art scene.”

“One of the first big gay parties that I went to after school was the All White Party in De Waterkant [what I like to call the gaybourhood] and I was like ‘yas, I’m finally free!’ But almost immediately, I experienced the toxicity within that community and that scene. Existing in those spaces had me feeling like a piece of meat — that predatory energy. And that wasn’t how I wanted to be pursued.”

He rolls his eyes when I ask about the realities he’s had to face as a queer artist in South Africa, “Unemployment! Bitch, I am very good at what I do, and I’ve worked very hard to be able to do what I do, but I was not being booked before I’d worked in London. We should be able to thrive and develop as artists [in South Africa].”

He concedes and admits that we’re walking into a more receptive phase as a country, that we’re talking about it, that we’re listening and being genuinely interested to learn, Now they have the sense to want to understand the weirdness. [As far as art goes] queer people are not a niche market. We’re the pioneers of everything that people see in art!”

Lesson two: don’t confuse confidence for cockiness — you’ve earned it; you’re worth it.

Check out #SpheresOfQueer Ep. 1 with Lo-Ghost’s Shannon Devy here.