Above: Absolute Divinity” by Laurel Charleston on SuperRare

Who wins in web3?: Queer creators, bias, and the blockchain

Oli Scialdone interviews queer creators working in Web3 and considers whether there is less gatekeeping for queer people in the crypto world.

May 15, 2023 Art / Artist Conversations

10 months ago

Early September, 65 degrees and sunny: a perfect morning to cross Broadway into Bed-Stuy and gaze at the homey brownstones on the way to meet a new friend for coffee. We first connected a couple weeks prior, when my partner and I went to Ginger’s–at the time, it was Brooklyn’s only lesbian bar. We had been lamenting the homogeneous look of the crowd when we noticed him1 and his companions–two classic butches and a Wednesday Adams type femme–cutting through a sea of designer-branded jackets and ribbed white tank tops. I was too shy to say hi, but lucky for me, he came over and introduced himself. “I follow you on TikTok,” he said. “I like your takes.”

When we met for coffee, he introduced me to the barista, a friend of his. A butch whose relationship to gender was not far from mine, my new friend had worked in coffee shops and bars in Brooklyn since he moved here. He was also a photographer, and while I was very out of practice, I have a background in photography and cinematography–given my role at SuperRare, the conversation naturally shifted to NFTs.

“When they were getting big, I thought about doing NFTs with my photos,” he told me. “But after looking at everything, it seemed like a lot.”

He wasn’t wrong about that. As a working queer creative, he’d need to take time away from his day job, his photography work, and his side gigs to learn how to set up a wallet, to acquire cryptocurrency, and to research which platforms were best suited to host his art. Then, he’d need to figure out how to market his photography to a new audience, convince his existing audience to learn how to set up a wallet and buy crypto, and help them navigate a cryptoart marketplace. On top of that? Ethereum gas fees2 were another barrier of entry, making it difficult for new crypto artists to afford to mint, and for existing fans to afford to buy.

I always see people talking about egalitarianism and democracy when it comes to Web3, especially cryptoart, but is this reality? Or just hope and perception? It’s a narrative told time and time again: Artists can now bypass gallery gatekeepers, sell the type of work that doesn’t fit the trad art mold, and earn royalties. The scene defocuses Western art, allowing artists from the East and Global South to connect with collectors who may never have found them otherwise. It affords autonomy to artists. All of these things are true, but other problems haven’t gone away. Not to utilize a cliché, but we live in a society; too many people already start off with the disadvantages built in.

Our Bath” by Dawnia Darkstone on SuperRare

Let’s talk numbers

According to data aggregated and analyzed by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Queer people were more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic than their cishet counterparts (24% reported job loss versus 18% across the board, with the disparity being even more startling among black and latino queer people), and “while the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in increasing unemployment and decreasing incomes among LGBTQ+ workers, these disparities have been building in recent decades in the United States.” The lesbian wage premium fell from 10% in 2000 to 0% in 2018, and in 2019, 31% of queer black households and 24% of queer latino households reported earning less than $25,000 annually, compared to 24% and 15% for black and latino households where income earners are not queer.

Three of the five industries with the highest rates of queer workers (restaurants and food service, K-12 education, and retail) were also among ones hit hardest by the pandemic, and workers in those fields already earn lower wages in comparison to workers in other lines of employment. Additionally, housing security remains a significant concern among queer people, who are less confident in their abilities to pay monthly living expenses than cishet people, with trans people being significantly more vulnerable than cis queer people in that respect.3 Queer people are also more likely to rent their dwellings (41%) as opposed to cishet people (25%), leaving them more vulnerable in the face of lifted eviction moratoriums. And that doesn’t even cover the sweeping waves of anti-LGBTQ legislation. Over the last three years, already statistically unstable living situations for many queer people in the United States have gone from precarious to terrifying, with no immediate signs of change.

In my own experience, I’ve noticed that looking like the archetype of a classic dyke and being trans in a way that’s difficult to hide has made certain employers–the ones who traditionally pay higher wages–write me off. Even after I earned a master’s degree4, published consistently, and applied all wide-eyed and ready to entry-level editorial positions, I still spent years working in retail, struggling to push my wages above $35k, with student loans and rent piling up. All things considered, I wouldn’t have sunk my cash into crypto or NFTs either.

I don’t want to waste my word count talking about the representation of marginalized people in Web3 or telling you about how tech is classically a cishet white boys club, and how Web3 is no exception. If you gave me 1 wei for every article I’ve already read on the topic, I could pay off what I owe the Department of Education twice over. This isn’t to say these issues aren’t important or worthy of coverage. But the question I want to ask is: Who’s really getting the spoils of Web3?

Communities around blockchain-based assets do seem to have opened some opportunities. While it is true that a majority of cryptocurrency holders are men5, black and hispanic people actually hold crypto at higher rates than Americans on average. Plenty of factors contribute to why, but one of the biggest is that people don’t want to (or can’t) buy into financial systems that have historically excluded them. Of course, this also means that during crashes like the recent bear market, these are the people hit the hardest. In that sense, while crypto has helped create new wealth for traditionally marginalized peoples, it has also made them the most susceptible to plummeting markets. Is something really an opportunity if what drove you to it was necessity? If you’re more likely to get fucked over than someone else, just by virtue of ethnicity or race? It’s definitely more complicated than crypto = salvation.

So, what’s the solution? There doesn’t appear to be a good one yet.

We help ourselves

Strippaverse team at its drop party. Courtesy of Bee Davies

Returning to my community of queer people in Brooklyn, in September 2022, a friend put an event on my rader. Hosted by an organization called Qrypto Queer, it was a beginner crypto workshop for queer people. After digging a little further, I realized the org was founded by Bee Davies, known for her NFT web series “Hivemind” and her Web3 production company, Hive Global Media. The organization aims to usher queer people into Web3 by providing educational resources and spaces to connect. I remembered hearing some buzz around the series–a thriller starring Davies herself and including a cast of mostly queer people and people of color, it stood out as something new in a sea of unremarkable NFT projects. When I asked to schedule an interview, she had already flown back west, but I snagged some time with her for a conversation over video.

Qrypto Queer held its first major event last summer as an auxiliary to NFT.NYC; over 100 people showed up. Maybe it came at just the right time. This fall, I stumbled across an event hosted by “The Lesbian Bar Project” in partnership with Jägermeister, describing itself as “an educational and interactive bar experience in Decentraland showcasing archival and historic images of lesbian bars from the Library of Congress.” I wondered if the metaverse foray would isolate its audience, or if it came on the heels of wider adoption. Queer people haven’t been the most crypto-curious. In fact, most queer people I know are crypto-hostile, or really, that’s how it used to be. More recently, it left me shocked when I described my job to a group of new queer friends, and they seemed interested, not angry. Maybe queer people wanted crypto now. Maybe they read a story about FEWOCiOUS, or caught this interview with Laurel Charleston and wondered, what’s SuperRare?

Absolute Divinity” by Laurel Charleston on SuperRare

Davies explained that the initial Qrypto Queer concept came from her own experiences with isolation at tech and NFT conferences. Even in a women’s NFT group, something still didn’t quite click for her. “There’s a lot of women’s groups now, and that’s so amazing,” Davies said. “I started to see more and more popping up, and felt like my energy could be better utilized creating a space for the LGBTQ community.” She knew that plenty of queer people already existed in tech, that organizations like Lesbians Who Tech held annual conferences,6 but those spaces didn’t make room for the crypto savvy. She had the privilege of time and education, and wanted to share the knowledge she learned in the NFT and tech spaces with her own community. And while she acknowledges that as a cis white person, she can’t represent all queer people, “activism has always been in the back of my mind in this space, and in focusing on groups who need their voices elevated the most.”

Ultimately, she wants to see queer generational wealth grow, but testing the Web3 waters in queer spaces remains tricky. “I have found a lot more resistance probably within the queer community, and that’s because they’re such great activists and they’re quick to question things.” Sustainability is a strong contributing factor when it comes to friction, but she thinks that since the Ethereum merge, things may start to shift. As more queer people enter the space, those on the outside might begin to finally see themselves reflected in Web3, and maybe that will be enough to entice them.

“I think socioeconomic status is the biggest one,” Davies said when I asked about barriers to entry. The perception, in her observation, is that you already need ETH to play the crypto game, but she hopes to mitigate this by airdropping people starter NFTs in conjunction with “Hivemind.” Your ETH will always just be worth whatever the price of ETH is, but an NFT is worth whatever someone else feels like paying for it, which could eventually be a lot.

I first interviewed Davies several months ago, and when we caught up recently, I got to speak with her about a newer project as she was coming off Outer Edge (previously NFT LA). “Strippaverse,” a metaverse wrapped in a film, is a psychological thriller about a game dev who founds a virtual strip club for extra cash, but whose world is rocked when a fan starts to stalk her. Its focus is on flipping the script, putting power back into the hands of queer people and women, allowing them to express their sexualities and commodify their bodies on their terms, as opposed to the patriarchy. Strippaverse itself is a safe and private place for women and queer people to be themselves. And, true to ethos, funding from the project is going back into the wallets of sex workers.

Strippaverse metaverse. Courtesy Bee Davies.

In the meantime, Davies is keeping all Qrypto Queer workshops free with the option to donate, and has opened a workshop space in LA for creators to drop in, ask questions, and learn. She doesn’t want queer people to be left behind in this new and growing ecosystem. “As long as we have the right people leading this community and supporting them, we’re gonna make it, and for the right reasons,” she said.

I agreed with her and appreciated her optimism. But I also found myself feeling cynical. How can we ensure the right people are leading the space? How can we ensure they’re here for the right reasons? Who determines how they are being educated? And when marginalized people enter the space, after education, after support from their communities, how realistic is it to think, for example, that queer artists and creators will be able to sell their work successfully, without experiencing prejudice or bias?

I’ve asked these questions before in writing, in Twitter spaces, among colleagues and friends. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Dawnia Darkstone, better known online as Letsglitchit, over Twitter DM. A legend in the glitch art scene who is recognized just as much for her work as she is for her technical contributions to the medium, Dawnia is also among some of the most high profile trans artists in crypto. Initially involved in art spaces on Tumblr and Facebook, she began working with NFTs following connections she made as an administrator and curator for the Glitch Artists Collective, which is likely the biggest online community dedicated to glitch art. “So many people involved with glitch art are queer/trans or otherwise fairly open to such things,” she emphasized when I asked her about her experiences in the NFT space, acknowledging that coming from the glitch art scene made her move to the blockchain smoother in comparison to queer and trans artists working in other styles and communities. Kate the Cursed had entered the space a few months before, and her presence at that time meant a lot.

But a few prominent figures weren’t evidence that trans crypto artists had it easy. The number of trans artists who find widespread recognition in the NFT space versus the number of quality trans artists I’m aware of is disproportionately small, and the most important factor stopping them from breaking through the noise is obvious to those in the know. “It’s the fact that we’re trans,” Dawnia told me. Despite stereotypes about the demographics of the arts, as a formal industry the field has systematically excluded those who aren’t cisgender, heterosexual white men. “Adding magic internet money to the equation doesn’t change this formula, there’s still so much work that needs to be done. I know personally that many marginalized people have taken to anonymous artsonas as a means to counteract this, which is perhaps easier in the cryptosphere. This is obviously not a fix for the problem though. We shouldn’t have to hide who we are to reach the top.”

Liquid Codex” by Dawnia Darkstone on SuperRare

Dawnia mints on Ethereum and Tezos–I’ve noticed that queer artists seem to gravitate towards Tezos in greater numbers, and she said she’s observed that, too. The same goes for glitch artists, she told me. We can only guess why–likely the cost of entry was a factor at the beginning, and perhaps before the Ethereum merge, concerns around sustainability played a role. Whatever it is, queer crypto artists have flocked there. Of course, plenty of queer artists still mint on Ethereum-built platforms, but you can’t deny that the culture is different. Dawnia sells consistently on the Tezos marketplace Objkt.com, for example, but around the time I first spoke to her, she had only sold one piece of art on SuperRare. Her genesis on the marketplace, “Liquid Codex,” which was displayed on the big, bright screens of both Times Square and Shibuya Crossing–moments any artist would kill for–had only received one offer, and an offer under 0.3 ETH, at that. Like I said, I’m cynical.

“I think we might be circling back around to the beginning of our conversation,” Dawnia said when I asked where she thought the disparity between blockchains came from. “Not to toot my own horn too much, but it’s hard to imagine a cishet white man with my amount of accolades performing as poorly on Ethereum.” I don’t think she’s wrong.

Between our interview and publishing, “Liquid Codex” sold for a little over 3.6 ETH. But it took almost a whole year after minting to even receive a second offer.

Ultimately, Dawnia knows that the issue goes beyond cryptoart, beyond blockchain, beyond the web. Really, that’s the point. She thinks that for now, further decentralization will help, as will ensuring that people from marginalized backgrounds find their ways into positions of influence, especially when it comes to curation. Like Davies, she’s optimistic–as the world changes, the crypto world changes with it. She’s observed the distribution of crypto wealth start to shift, especially with initiatives founded by queer people in the space, like aGENDAdao and the Queer Museum of Digital Art. But, “we can have progressive platforms with inclusion initiatives and so forth, but as long as the people collecting art are stuck in the same traditional art world buying patterns of ‘this artist is a woman/trans/queer/a POC and their art won’t resell well on secondary,’ it won’t amount to much.” And there is certainly hope for actionable change. For example, Dawnia recently co-curated the second iteration of Sotheby’s landmark glitch art auction, “Glitch: Beyond Binary.” The initial plans for the auction were scrapped after community outcry over the lack of artists who were either women or non-men; Patrick Amadon even pulled out of the auction in protest. To hold institutions accountable, people need to be willing to make noise.

Integration does not need to mean assimilation

The bathroom at Cubbyhole, one of NYC’s last-standing lesbian bars. Photo by the author.

It’s become increasingly important for the crypto space to veer queerer and for queer communities to adapt. The isolation Davies felt in the NFT space is one I hear repeated by queer crypto creators time and time again. And Dawnia’s experience with IRL queer community is one many crypto queers are familiar with, too. When she began minting, she also began to lose friends: “There were so many hit-pieces about crypto-NFTs around that time and I feel like so many queer folks, who had months prior decried the ‘plastic straws’ debacle as corporations shifting the blame of systemic issues to the average consumer, latched onto them. I felt really betrayed, to be honest.” The hypocrisy was apparent. If she instead took a job with one of the corporations mostly responsible for the destruction of the planet, she knows the response would have been different. “I would have been met with congratulations, or at worst ‘you have to do what ya gotta do to survive in this capitalist system.’”

In queer spaces, we often talk about joy. The joy of community, friendship, love, gender euphoria. That joy is genuine, but the emphasis is often just as much a coping mechanism. Queer people are not homogenous, and even in our own spaces, isolation is king. People who live in smaller communities get hit the hardest, but even someone like myself, living where I do, knowing that I could probably go a week without interacting with a cishet person if I really tried, can struggle with finding community. Being the only trans person in a room of cis queers, for example. There are a million variations, coming down to gender, sexuality, race, religion, politics, economic class–you name it. It’s hard to encounter queer people who are queer in exactly the way that you are. That’s why so many of us already turn to online spaces for community, to meet people who understand us. It’s such a lonely lifestyle is a classic line used to scare us into rescinding our truths, dangling the ultimatum of rejection over our heads. You want to be queer? Sure. But you’ll be alone and you’ll be sad. Good luck.

It’s not accurate to solely characterize queerness as loneliness. Finding your people is hard, but when you do, they’re your family. It’s complicated, and as queer creators in the NFT space experience isolation from two sides, change becomes essential on each end. “I’ve not received much flack for it in a while,” Dawia said, which eased my mind. “I’m not sure if this means attitudes are changing or attention spans are just short, or if I successfully weeded out the detractors.” If NFT art can succeed on one of its central tenets, building community through peer to peer connective webs, perhaps it can cut through some of the early vitriol and skepticism.

So who wins in Web3? In many instances to date, it’s the people who have always won. But values are changing, and while people in the NFT space are responsible for uplifting their own communities, the real driver of progress comes from outside, and it’s not impossible. I think back to “The Lesbian Bar Project’s” Decentraland event, this merging of spaces that until recently have felt antithetical. Bars hold a specific place in the hearts of queer people, in our histories. In the United States, lesbian bars are disappearing. I mentioned earlier that Ginger’s was the only lesbian bar in Brooklyn–a second opened in my neighborhood just this month. In Manhattan, there are two. One in Queens hosts pop-up events, and it’s been trying to fund a permanent space for the better part of two years. With so few places to gather, what’s been the community’s response? To adapt. One of the most popular lesbian spots in Brooklyn is a weekly party hosted at a straight bar in Williamsburg, one with a big backyard and a clientele that usually conjures too many images of college for my taste. But every Wednesday night, it’s transformed into a sapphic haven. In my own neighborhood, there are few queer bars proper, but because a high population of queer people call it home, most bars are queer bars as long as the right people show up, and the cishets are so used to it by now that they barely blink when we roll in. A dedicated space has value, absolutely. But in the absence of what we need, we’re pretty skilled at crafting alternatives, as long as we’re not meeting hostility on the outside.

And hostility absolutely still exists in the space. Ask anyone who’s both trans and in Web3. Once, after reading a Twitter thread by Klara Vollstaedt, I checked to see if any of my Web3 colleagues followed noted transphobes like Matt Walsh or the dedicated anti-queer hate account Libs of Tiktok.

I unfollowed a lot of people after that.

Want the NFT space to be better? Good. Then go help move the needle of society, because that’s the surest way to make it happen. It’s a monumental task, but when you scale it down, maybe it’s just as simple as being a straight and cisgender person at a Brooklyn bar who doesn’t see anything threatening about the presence of queer people. Maybe it’s as easy as recognizing the humanity in someone else and sticking up for them when they’re vulnerable. Maybe it’s buying work from queer artists and supporting mutual aid DAOs. Maybe it’s banding together for mutual support. We always say we’re a community, after all–let’s act like it.

Footnotes:

1.Yes, he/him lesbians exist. No, I am not doing pronoun discourse. Go read Stone Butch Blues.

2. Hopefully, this will change soon.

3. An estimated 40% of homeless youth are also queer, and around 80% of queer homeless youth report that they became homeless after being forced from their homes or running away from their families.

4. I had to put myself in debt for life by earning a master’s degree to find an entry level job in a professional field–that should tell you something about what it’s like out here.

5. I can’t find any reputable data on the number of LGBTQ people in Web3, be it about cryptocurrency holders, crypto artists, NFT holders, etc. I would like to make the case that there is a need in Web3 for data on the participation of LGBTQ people.

6. Their 2022 speaker list included the likes of Roxane Gay, Rosie O’Donnell, and Cameron Esposito among other celebrities and tech world business figures, but no one it seemed from the crypto world.

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Oliver Scialdone

Oliver Scialdone is a queer writer and artist based in Brooklyn, NY. They earned a dual-MFA from The New School, and their work can be found in Peach Mag, ImageOut Write, and elsewhere. They used to host the reading series Satellite Lit and they're the Associate Editor at SuperRare Magazine.

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