“For a good four hours, come and be free.”
That’s what The Black Pearl Experience co-founders Latoya Watson and Darrah Dunn want for the attendees of their social events — freedom to dance, drink, socialize and come as they are. In the spaces they create, they hope to foster joy, connections and a sense of belonging for the Black queer community.
The Black Pearl Experience was formed in 2021 and has hosted 10 events in Cincinnati since then. On the upcoming slate: a Juneteenth celebration on June 19 at Somerset, Pride Night on June 25 at The Mockbee and Pride Sunday Funday on June 26 at Queen City Radio.
Upon moving to Cincinnati, Watson and Dunn realized that there was a lack of establishments specifically formed for Black queer women. Watson had attended the University of Cincinnati and lived in Washington, D.C., for several years before returning three years ago with her partner; Dunn grew up in Detroit and moved to Cincinnati a decade ago with her wife.
“In D.C., just like Detroit, the music and art scene for Black Queer women is booming. We can go anywhere. There are places for us, there are places carved out for us to exist,” Watson tells CityBeat. “So when I moved to Cincinnati, I noticed that that wasn’t a thing here, and the gay spaces that we had – as much as they were trying – weren’t catered to Queer women specifically.”
Dunn shared similar experiences. She came out at 17 years old, and she says being able to go places specifically for Black queer women in Detroit now makes her appreciate what she had when she had it.
Although D.C. and Detroit seem to offer more social outlets for Queer women than Cincinnati does, statistics still show a declining presence of establishments for their community nationwide. The Lesbian Bar Project, comprised of documentarians and film producers like LGBTQ+ activist and comedian Lea DeLaria, reports there were an estimated 200 lesbian bars open in the U.S. in the late 1980s, but as of today, there are only 21. The Black Pearl Experience cites this statistic on its website and indicates that Cincinnati has no lesbian bars and no venues that center Black queer women or people who identify as women/non-binary.
The Lesbian Bar Project produced a short documentary that explores the history and significance of these spaces (the film is available at lesbianbarproject.com). In it, interviewees describe how bars offer a safe space and home-like community for queer people.
“When thinking about why we need to preserve lesbian spaces, it really is about recognizing that a lesbian exists and there’s really great pride in lesbian identity,” Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, a librarian who volunteers at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, says in the film.
Dunn says being in social spaces not specifically geared towards the Black queer experience brings about feelings of alienation.
“It feels like, in a sense, you don’t exist. It’s kinda like an out-of-body experience,” Dunn says.
Watson, who describes a similar feeling as Dunn, recalls how different it was when she immersed herself in Black queer spaces years ago.
“I really came to be myself in D.C. because I didn’t know how I should dress or how I should talk or how I should present myself in the world,” Watson says. “It wasn’t until I started going to these social spaces and meeting all these folks that just come from so many different places and they’re their authentic selves, that I started becoming more authentically me.”
Watson and Dunn take these insights into deep consideration for their events. Dunn uses sage to cleanse herself, Watson and the overall space to clear negative energy. They prefer booking venues that have gender-neutral restrooms and provide free condoms, tampons, pads and hygiene products that are sold by a woman of color. Watson also makes a point to greet and welcome event attendees, called “Pearls.”
Dunn, who goes by DJ Rah D professionally, spins house, disco, hip-hop, techno and R&B music, playing well-known artists like Janet Jackson and Juvenile while taking into account the styles of music that may be specific to the Pearls in attendance.
“Knowing we’ve got a couple people from New Orleans, I’ll play bounce music. So, I do try to make sure I curate the music and make sure I play stuff that we can relate to and also play things that people aren’t so familiar with,” Dunn says.
Watson and Dunn say folks have traveled from Dayton, Columbus, Cleveland, Kentucky, D.C., Atlanta and even Los Angeles to attend Black Pearl Experience events — which, they say, points to a widely felt need for such places. They find their attendance growing with each event they host, too.
Loren McCauley of Cincinnati has gone to almost every Black Pearl Experience event and says her “jaw hit the floor” when she learned about them.
“I went to school in Chicago, and that is where I really became comfortable in my identity being a queer Black woman,” McCauley says. “In cities like Chicago, D.C., New York and the like, it feels easier to find spaces and communities that you can relate to. Those spaces aided in my self discovery and who I am today.”
Asha White, a Cincinnati-based artist and longtime friend of Watson’s, reflects on how this plays out in Cincinnati.
“Cincinnati is a small, segregated, conservative city,” White says. “Prior to the Black Pearl Experience, Black Queer people were off in their own separate space, in small communities. Black Pearl is community. It is a place for us to find friends, family, possibly romance in a small town. It brings us together in a place of acceptance and not just during Pride month.”
In December, the Black Pearl Experience hosted “Holiday Szn Day Party” at Tiki Tiki Bang Bang, one of the bars owned by local company Gorilla Cinema. Katie Treviño, Gorilla Cinema owner and founder, says her team “fell in love” with the Pearls. The business is in talks with The Black Pearl Experience to host more events at Gorilla’s establishments.
“I think my favorite thing about them is a quality women tend to have by nature,” Treviño says of Watson and Dunn. “If you don’t see it — make it. These are the type of people who change the world. They both moved to Cincinnati from other, larger cities and they didn’t see events for people who looked like them. So they created some.”
It sounds simple but not everyone is brave enough to take a step like that.”
Learn more about The Black Pearl Experience at blackpearlexperience.com.