At Home in Casa Brandon

Just as there is a scene for every kind of person in Buenos Aires, there is a neighborhood for every kind of person as well. Then there are certain scenes, and neighborhoods, that seem to be for everyone – Casa Brandon is that kind of scene, and Villa Crespo, the neighborhood that hosts it, is that kind of neighborhood. Well, according to Nutra, one of my new friends from Casa Brandon, Villa Crespo is for “gays, Jews, and old people,” but that might be as close to “everyone” as you will get in one neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and it says a lot about the environment in which Casa Brandon grew.

Casa Brandon, as I understood it, was a gay bar. I had never been told it was strictly a gay bar — it is a community center above all else — but my brain’s refusal to understand it as anything other than a gay bar probably says something about some misconceptions that exist about the gay community. The space was started as a space for the LGBT community to feel at home, but in the process, became a home for artists, musicians, writers, social activists — anyone with something to share. In the process, a bar popped up on the second floor. But to call it a bar is to misunderstand its main functions and ignores what makes it so unique.

Casa Brandon celebrated it 11th anniversary the night I walked in for the first time. They have come a long way since they, a group of about 30 friends led by Lisa Kerner and Jorgelina De Simone, worked out of a small office in Palermo organizing LGBT parties and activities in clubs around Buenos Aires. When they started organizing parties, clubs were still hesitant to embrace the gay community, but as society became gradually more tolerant, the parties became huge draws not just for gays, but for anyone looking to have a good night out in Buenos Aires. In 2005, they scraped up the money to buy the house they are located in now – a house that, despite the rainbow-painted walls and disco lamps, feels like it houses a family. The space allowed them to maintain a gallery, a bar, and host activities like poetry readings, pin-hole photography workshops, film festivals, singing classes and concerts.

Upon sitting down with my friends and our litros of Heineken, I got the impression that I would need to start mingling and stop taking pictures like a tourist in the Recoleta Cemetery to fully experience Casa Brandon. As a fledgling journalist, I was nervous to approach strangers in an attempt to interview them, but as soon as I approached one group of smiling friends, I knew it would be anything but an interview. They wanted to know everything about ME — where I was from, what I was doing here, why I spoke Spanish. And of course, the conversation switched to English immediately, as they all wanted to practice.

The group had found the Casa in different ways – there were a brother and a sister, and the sister had come to know the Casa through their pin-hole photography workshop. Two of the others, a heterosexual couple, were “sort of dating,” a title that both of them embraced with surprising ease and a few laughs. They were from the neighborhood, and came back after wandering in sometime in the past year. I had expected these people to be activists huddled in a circle, debating the term “gender” and organizing their next gay pride march. Turns out they were really just a group of friends, two of them (I think) were gay and three of them straight, and upon sitting down with them, I became just another friend.

The brother, Juan, shared his glass with me as we poured litro after litro and went back and forth between casual conversation and a discussion about Argentina’s unique forms of social activism, the intensity of the conversation matching the energy of Casa Brandon. We agreed that there seemed to be a generation of young Argentines who found art to be the most effective form of self-expression in a society whose official political mechanisms allow little participation from the public. It’s hard not to compare this with the United States, where political and social movements are realms of their own that fit into a red, white and blue box labeled “activism,” rarely mixing so seamlessly with art or casual social encounters.

Casa Brandon. Photo by Gretchen Gardner

The art gallery in Casa Brandon is in the first floor and is the first thing one sees upon walking in, not the bar. A photographer named Raquel Chavez’s series of lightbox photographs, called Iluminados, was hung around the entrance in three pairs. One model had parsley stuffed in her face, another was devouring what appeared to be a heart, and the third’s face was wrapped in cellophane. The pieces looked at you, and it was almost like you couldn’t help but think about who you were when admiring them because of their intensity and the context – what do these people at Casa Brandon want me to feel when I come in here? Am I the kind of person they want in here?

It was my own insecurity speaking to me, I think, because they don’t really care why you come. They seem to figure that every kind of person will walk into Casa Brandon and take what they want from it. If you want, walk right past the art and have a beer. Or come in on a weekday and sign up for the singing classes with Paula Maffia or learn about “queer theory” with Moira Perez — no academic formation required, they want a “varied and heterogenous group.” There’s also zen yoga twice a week with Malala Gian, acting class with Serrana Diaz and Sofia Wilhelmi, creative writing with Valeria Iglesias, and a course on 20th century art with Mene Savasta Alsina. Got another idea? Prove you have the organizational skills, energy, and background to make it happen, and Casa Brandon will probably offer you the space for it.

The introspection I felt while admiring the photography in the entrance is not meant to intimidate, but to encourage questioning and reinforce the idea that here, you are welcomed, but welcomed with the expectations that you will be an active part of this loving community. If you give the impression that you are here to sit down somewhere comfortable, have a drink, and then leave, you might feel uncomfortable, but wouldn’t you feel uncomfortable doing that to a group of friends? Just as a good friend encourages self-expression, loves you for identifying with him or her, and wants you to realize your dreams, so does Casa Brandon. It’s surprising how hard it is to pull that off, but they do it.

The bar is named after Brandon Teena, a transsexual teenager who was raped and murdered because of his sexual orientation in Nebraska in 1993, and whose story inspired the movie Boys Don’t Cry. The Casa’s founders are members of the Federación Argentina de Lesbianas Gays Bisexuales y Trans, Argentina’s largest advocacy group for LGBTQ rights, and they maintain a strong presence in all formal LGBTQ activism. But Casa Brandon does not push any type of message or agenda on its visitors. In Buenos Aires, social activism comes out of not only shared concern, but friendship, passion, and human connection. Buenos Aires is a city that understands that encouraging freedom of expression and open discourse through music, film, or a night of beer and cigarettes with friends is just as important as lobbying for progressive legislation and elected officials.

I will admit, my conversation with my new friends was more about getting to know each other than dissecting the importance of Casa Brandon in the LGBTQ community. They were happy to answer my questions, loved that I had walked over with a notebook and pen, and told me I was a great journalist as I struggled to keep our focus on their impressions of the Casa and the activities it organizes. But that’s what makes it to so great. After 11 years, Casa Brandon is about much more than all things gay and activist. It has become a space where all thoughts, people, and forms of expression are encouraged with a smile, a beer, and an invitation to sit down and absorb the onda.

Casa Brandon. Photo by Gretchen Gardner.

 

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