O’Shae Sibley Vigil Shows a Community Fighting for Justice

The pavement of Avenue P became a dance floor last Friday night, August 4, when hundreds of New Yorkers came together to pay tribute to O’Shae Sibley, the 28-year-old dancer who was fatally stabbed in Midwood, Brooklyn, on July 29. Crowds of mourners gathered at the Mobil gas station where Sibley, a Black gay man, was murdered in what authorities have characterized as a hate crime.

“It was a coldblooded murder on the streets of New York City — in Brooklyn,” Elisa Crespo told Hyperallergic. Crespo is the director of New Pride Agenda, one of the groups that worked together to organize Friday’s memorial. “It’s New York; It’s 2023. I think even now, people are asking, ‘How is this possible?’”

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“It could have been so many of us,” Crespo added. She said the organizers — New Pride Agenda, Black Trans Liberation, Destination Tomorrow, Ballroom We Care, House Lives Matter, and Qween Jean — wanted to hold an event at the station to send a clear message that this type of violence is not tolerated. They decided to hold the vigil on Friday at 6pm.

Qween Jean speaks to the crowd behind a photograph of Sibley.

Sibley and his friends were returning from a day at the beach when they stopped at the Coney Island Avenue and Avenue P Mobil station to fill up on gas. They were just a few blocks away from the home of friend Otis Pena, whose birthday they were celebrating on the scorching July day. In the parking lot, the group danced and vogued to Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.” Then, several men emerged from the gas station and began to spew racist and homophobic slurs. Sibley advocated for himself and his friends, and after a brief verbal altercation that was caught on security footage, 17-year-old local high school student Dmitry Popov stabbed Sibley in the heart. Sibley was rushed to the hospital but did not survive. Popov, who turned himself in almost a week later, has been charged with second-degree murder in a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon. He pled not guilty.

The horrifying killing sent a shockwave through New York City, reverberating with particular force through the Black queer community. Local photographer Alexey Kim, who runs the studio Sidewalkkilla, captured New Yorkers’ collective rage in a series of powerful images of Sibley’s memorial. Standing in the shadow of the Mobil sign that towered over Sibley the night he was killed, Kim shows what it means to continue onward. His striking photographs convey anger and loss alongside a unified commitment to stand unafraid in the face of deadly hatred.

Kim, who frequently photographs New York’s Ballroom scene — where Sibley danced with Kiki House of Old Navy and House of D’Mure-Versailles — had planned to visit his mother in Florida last weekend but decided to stay in the city to attend the memorial. He told Hyperallergic he recognized faces as soon as he got off the train in Midwood on Friday evening.

Kim tries to separate his personal feelings from his work as a photojournalist, but this was impossible at Sibley’s memorial. The incident reminded him that he and his friends could face the same violence for something as innocuous as wearing makeup or a crop top.

“We live in the best city in the world to be yourself, and yet there is still a danger in being yourself,” the photographer said. “We’re just tired of fighting to be seen or received as people.” In Kim’s images, mourners dance, listen, and chant as they hold each other, cry, and laugh. Faces in Kim’s photographs reveal people in the throws of grief and others in bouts of joy, often standing together in the same frame, capturing a dozen individual portraits with a single click of the shutter.

At the start of the memorial, costume designer and activist Qween Jean led around 100 people in call and response, chanting “Black lives” to an echoing “Matter,” “Say his name” to “O’Shae Sibley,” and “Who protects us?” to “We protect us.” She delivered an impassioned speech, pointing out that the bystanders — “full-bodied men” — did not intervene to stop Popov, calling attention to police’s disregard for protecting the Black queer community, and speaking to the trauma and tragedy inflicted on Sibley’s family and friends.

A tribute artwork created by Jennifer White-Johnson (image courtesy the artist)

“O’Shae Sibley should be here,” Qween Jean yelled into the megaphone. “We are done dying in silence. We are done being killed by homophobia. We are done being killed by transphobia. We are done being killed for the color of our skin.” She directed the assembled crowd to the following day’s vigil and march at the LGBTQ+ Center in Chelsea. A headshot of Sibley rested at Qween Jean’s feet as she spoke beneath the Mobil sign.

Jennifer White-Johnson is one of many artists who created work to honor Sibley. She used the same photograph Qween Jean held to create a tribute collage, which she posted on social media. White-Johnson frames Sibley with rays of sun, flowers, and gold in front of a shimmering pink background. He smiles warmly at the viewer.

Another artist, Kendrick Daye, didn’t know Sibley personally but shared mutual friends in the Ballroom scene. He created a mixed-media collage to honor Sibley, which he printed onto posters for the memorial. In the pastel-colored work, Sibley dances atop a pink cloud, stretched up and outward as he reaches for the sky. A golden halo surrounds his face.

Qween Jean spoke at the memorial and led the group in prayer.

Before Sibley moved to New York, he was a member of Philadelphia’s Philadanco troupe. Last year, he performed in artist Jacolby Satterwhite’s video work “An Eclectic Dance to the Music of Time” (2022), which was exhibited at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.

Vogueing — the dance style Sibley performed in the gas station parking lot minutes before his death — is an essential part of Ballroom culture. Black and Latino people developed the art form in 1980s Harlem, and the practice has continued to serve as a community pillar in queer spaces in New York City. Crespo said she and other leaders who organized the memorial had all grown up in the Ballroom scene.

“It’s a tight-knit community and we have each other’s backs,” she said.

Dancing on the street at Friday night’s memorial

A moment of silence followed the evening’s speeches, then the group of mourners — which had grown from around 100 people standing on the sidewalk to a couple hundred overflowing onto the street — began vogueing and dancing.

“It’s easy in moments like this to self-censor ourselves,” Daye, who attended the memorial, told Hyperallergic. “But a proper way to honor O’Shae and queer people that have also lost their lives to homophobic and transphobic violence is to continue to live out loud.”

“A situation like what happened to O’Shae could have easily been me or one of my friends,” the artist said, explaining that harassment is a possibility and reality for himself and people he knows. “Being visibly queer in this world, even in a ‘liberal’ city like New York, is like walking outside with a target on your head.”

Kim noted that Sibley, who was beloved by his friends and chosen family, was dancing as an expression of his happiness. “It was really heartbreaking and resonated with people — ‘Damn, we can’t even show our queer joy in public without being targeted,” Kim said.

But on Friday night, New Yorkers moved their bodies freely as fellow mourners cheered them on.

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At the end of the night, the group marched to the Kings Highway subway station, where Qween Jean led the group in prayer.

“Being Black and queer in America always feels like you’re being left behind — culturally, economically — in every way, really, ” said Daye. “It felt really good to be reminded that my community always has and always will have the ability to show up for each other.”

Hundreds of people gathered at Friday night’s memorial for O’Shae Sibley.
Speeches before the vigil and dancing
O’Shae Sibley was vogueing in a gas station parking lot when a group of men began launching racist and homophobic slurs at him and his friends.
Two of Kendrick Day’s collages on signs at the memorial. (photo by Caroll Andrewsk, courtesy Kendrick Daye)

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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