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At Bay Area Queer Zine Fest, Grown-Up Punks Lift Up a New Generation

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A crowd of young queer people browses through zines displayed at tables.
A scene from the first Bay Area Queer Zine Fest in 2017. After going digital during the pandemic, the event is back with a hybrid format.  (L. Herrada-Rios)

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ince 2017, the Bay Area Queer Zine Fest (BAQZF) has been a gathering space for self-proclaimed weirdos, punks and outcasts to exchange handmade art and find community.

For many, zines are a particularly liberating medium: Whether photocopied and stapled or screen-printed and bound, these self-made booklets can contain the most intimate recesses of a zinester’s mind. There’s a rush of adrenaline as creators and readers meet over folding tables and chat about their nerdiest passions. Once an artist parts ways with a zine, they go home with the satisfaction of knowing that in the corner of someone’s room exists a small, tangible piece of them.

The BAQZF returns Nov. 12-19 with its first array of in-person programming since the pandemic started. For organizers, this year is about continuing to amplify queer and trans artists of color while uplifting a younger generation of zine makers. As more young people get acquainted with this long-standing medium, the punks who are now grown up are leading an effort to support, mentor and learn from these new voices.

Historians trace zines back to 1930, and the artform expanded greatly in the 1990s with an explosion of feminist, punk, political and queer D.I.Y. publications. Unbound by the pressures of commercial publishing, zine makers documented and printed their thoughts on their own terms. Zine fests where creators could meet and sell art became more popular over the years, but artist Maira McDermott yearned for an event made for and by queer people.

In 2017, McDermott founded the Bay Area Queer Zine Fest, which debuted at Oakland’s East Bay Community Space. The 40 participating artists’ work covered topics like mixed-race identity, gender, sexuality and mental health. Alien and star balloons decorated the intimate venue, and artists beamed as people approached their tables to ask about their creations.

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Traction for the fest grew over the next three years, but the pandemic forced BAQZF organizers to pivot online in 2021. This year, the organizing committee decided to keep some virtual components to allow for greater accessibility for people with disabilities. They also expanded the fest to include an in-person zine swap and reading at Crisis Club Gallery on Nov. 12 and 13, as well as a youth zine workshop on Saturday Nov. 19 at Rock Paper Scissors Collective. In addition, there will be a virtual panel on zine politics, the date of which hasn’t yet been announced, and “virtual tabling” all week with artists’ shop links and bios.

The panel and youth zine workshop are new introductions to the fest. BAQZF organizer L. Herrada-Rios, who is in their 30s, says that the event’s mission quickly grew beyond connecting with their peers. “As time has gone on, I see this as something really important for younger people, especially in a time when queer and trans identities are being targeted,” says the artist.

The youth workshop will be facilitated by organizer Niko Nada, who led their first youth zine workshop by accident. “I’m pretty sure it was just at one of the fests I was tabling,” says Nada. “And I sat in the kids’ corner because they had all the crayons.”

Nada grew up in Redwood City, where they often felt out of place for being “too weird or too queer or too Brown in certain settings.” In the 2000s, Nada befriended pen pals on MySpace, exchanging letters and small handmade books. When they realized there was a word for what they were doing — zine making — they felt like they had entered an underground “secret circle” that granted them the sense of belonging they’d been craving. Now, Nada is passionate about recreating that feeling for younger artists and facilitating spaces where teenagers can be messy and expressive without judgment.

“There’s weirdo kids everywhere, you know?” says Nada. “And some of them are in environments that uplift them and some of them are not. And I just want to know that I’ve put my energy towards making it a little easier for them to find a safe space and figure their shit out.”

During these workshops, Nada provides attendees with paper, pencils, stamps and stickers, and walks them through putting together a mini eight-fold zine. But beyond that, there is no instruction or lecturing. “I am in no way telling people that I know the type of art that needs to be in the world,” says Nada. “I just want to remind people that they’re capable of making art and that it can be in the world if they want it to be.”

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ines unlocked a sense of freedom and possibility for high school student Kavya Jolly. At 16 years old, he is the youngest BAQZF organizer, a role he says alleviates his stress from homework, AP classes, extracurriculars and the SAT. His brows unfurl and his expression relaxes when he discusses his first zine, a biting political satire on communism written in bright red ink that he made during a workshop hosted by McDermott and Nada earlier in the year.

Living in the quiet suburbs of Fremont, Jolly normally finds it difficult to connect with peers over the things he cares about: his queerness, radical politics, zine making and art. When he first met Nada and McDermott, he was awestruck.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, these people are so cool,’” Jolly gushes. “I wanted to be them. I think they’re both just really great representations of how zine culture really stresses being your authentic self, and doing what you want to do, and pursuing what you want to pursue.” To Jolly, the two provided more than a creative outlet — they embodied a future that was colorful, alternative and openly queer, something that Jolly aspires to but finds difficult to embrace in his current situation.

“I guess my authentic self would be someone who just kind of does whatever they want — which is really hard when you’re 16,” says Jolly. “I’m really excited to be able to hopefully find a community of other people [at the Bay Area Queer Zine Fest] that are like me and who want to talk about things that are usually frowned upon or want to pursue things that are usually discouraged in society.”

Artist María Valle works on a new print. (Courtesy of the artist)

Similarly, zine making helped artist María Valle explore their emerging queerness. After graduating high school during the pandemic, Valle felt stuck: Drawing was once expansive and free-flowing, but they struggled to put anything down on the page. Slowly, they began to express their conflicted feelings about their identity through sculpting, painting and zines. “I think that I’m no longer scared to make art that is messy or that appears ugly, because so much of queer art tends to be like that — and that can be really powerful,” says Valle.

In August, Valle joined the Queer Ancestors Project, an organization dedicated to providing young queer artists with free printmaking workshops, community building and resources about queer history. Valle will represent Queer Ancestors Project at BAQZF, sharing zines that incorporate some of their recent prints. Their work often includes flower and star motifs, symbolizing new pathways that form in the interconnectedness between queer individuals and their ancestors. In a panel discussion on the politics of zine making, they will also discuss the art form’s rich history and persistent punk essence.

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ike Jolly and Valle, cartoonist and BAQZF tabler Avy Jetter searches for authenticity, vulnerability and representation through her own creativity. Some of her recent zines have covered her journey with grief and the toll that racial microaggressions have had on her health.

She studied painting at California College of the Arts in the ’80s but didn’t get into comic book making until a decade ago, when she was in her 40s. In 2012, Jetter created the horror comic Nuthin’ Good Ever Happens at 4 a.m. featuring an all Black and brown cast. The story is centered in Oakland, with characters that resemble Jetter’s childhood friends and settings adapted from her observations of the city. She stresses the importance of creating visibility around narratives like her own — even in stories that are bizarre, fictional and seemingly out of reach.

“If your future dystopian world doesn’t include any Black people, Brown people, Asian people, disabled people — is that a world you want to live in in the future?” says Jetter. “I always think our art reflects our life. How do people see themselves in the movies you make, the stories you tell? We all should have our voices heard. We have to tell our own stories, because who else will?”

In 2016, she began making personal zines that brought her own story and reflections on race, loss and mental health to the forefront. Prior to this, she’d had no interest in being so personal in her work. She was comfortable in the dark, gory landscapes of her comic. But after losing two of her brothers during the pandemic, she turned towards zine making to process her grief and share those difficult emotions with the hope that others could find compassion for themselves in their own lives.

“Art sustains me. It heals me,” says Jetter. “It helps me grow as a person and understand stuff outside of art.”

This ability to process, reframe and ponder complicated subjects through art is not dissimilar to the way Jolly thinks about his trans identity and politics through satirical commentary, or the way that Valle communicates their coming out process through environmental printmaking. Though their styles and levels of experience are varied, each artist’s work contributes to a zine archive that is expanding with each generation.

“You can learn from someone who is doing what you’re doing,” Jetter says.

A portrait by Avy Jetter. (Courtesy of the artist)

Ultimately, a zine holds specific moments — exhalations, stray thoughts and cathartic declarations — and preserves them into small, readable capsules. Describing zines as “blips in time” and “bookmarks” of their life, Nada champions the zine as an ever evolving entity. It’s a practice and a medium, comfort and reclamation.

“There’s no reason that zines will ever fall out of fashion, you know? It’s not a trend,” Nada says. “You can make a zine about pit stops to take on your road trips, you can make a zine about food recipes. It encompasses everything but at the same time, is so simple, so direct. It existed before me and it’ll exist after me, and I appreciate that.”

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The Bay Area Queer Zine Fest takes place Nov. 12-19, kicking off with a zine swap on Saturday Nov. 12 at the Crisis Club Gallery in Oakland. Attendance is free. Find more information about tablers and events here.

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