QUEERS BUILT THIS is a project about the ways that queerness inspires us to invent. This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In November 1970, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, along with a rotating group of friends, transformed a dilapidated apartment in Greenwich Village into STAR House, a sanctuary for young trans girls with nowhere else to go. Rivera and Johnson became the “mothers” of the house, doing sex work to pay rent and put food on the table for the many girls who came and went. The pair had a clear vision: a world in which young trans women of color could live safely.
Fifty years later, just down the street at the Stonewall Inn, hundreds of people gathered on June 2 to address, in a sense, the same things that Johnson and Rivera had fought for: justice for Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and countless other Black trans people who have died in the hands of the police.
Among the speakers at the protest was Mariah Lopez, a trans activist who was taken in by Sylvia Rivera at another house run by and for trans women in 2001. “I ask all of you, post-COVID, to abandon the infrastructure and establishment that is Pride—demand that they return to the roots that never really took hold,” Lopez yelled to the crowd. “What do you think Pride would look like if Sylvia and Marsha and trans women and TGNC folks designed it?”
As Mariah Lopez asserted, this year, it’s particularly urgent that we overhaul what Pride looks like. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the typical corporate marches and mimosa-filled drag brunches are cancelled, creating space for reflection on what Pride is actually for—a question that, as evidenced in Nico Lang’s story on the history of police and corporations at Pride parades, organizers have long debated. The confluence of a reckoning with systemic racism and Pride month has led many to declare that Pride is entirely cancelled this year. But this belies a lack of queer political imagination. In fact, LGBTQ liberation has always been intersectional—even if it hasn’t historically been practiced or documented as such.
As historian Kevin Mumford explained to Michelle Garcia in her piece for this package, the people who wrote LGBTQ history as we know it were nearly all white. As a result, the dominant narrative misses the myriad ways in which the Civil Rights Movement and Gay Liberation Movement intersected, particularly for people—including Marsha P. Johnson—who were caught between the causes of both. “Just 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, these huge, explosive riots two years before [the Stonewall uprising] made a difference in the area,” said Mumford, referring to the Newark race riots of 1967. “It became a full-blown tactic to make your point, to make change, precisely because of African-American rioting.” When Johnson fought back at Stonewall, she was no less Black than she was trans.
In part, what Lopez is demanding—and more broadly, what the present moment is calling for—is that we envision new, more just ways of living in the world, even if they've previously felt impossible. QUEERS BUILT THIS is about the many ways that LGBTQ people consistently do, and have done, just that. Queer people, and particularly queer people of color, have long been expressing unrepresented identities without blueprints, creating networks of mutual safety and care in the face of violence, and amplifying their own perspectives when no one else would. Our multimedia project tells the stories behind such instances of queer ingenuity—past and present—and the ways they’ve changed what we value in the world.
First, through a gallery of ephemera sourced from LGBTQ archives, libraries, and collections, we look back at products of 20th century queer DIY culture in the U.S. Among them: Transvestia, the first long-running publication to cover trans issues from a trans perspective; Unbound Feet, a groundbreaking collective of Asian-American lesbian performers; the National Coalition of Black Gays’ Third World Conference, which was the first event to bring groups of LGBTQ people of color from across the U.S. together to build coalitions. What’s represented in the Queers Built This gallery is just a tiny sliver of the enormous amount of material out there. Notably, though, this selection and the pool it came from are still lacking: Archival LGBTQ media is overwhelmingly white, with certain groups, including disabled andIndigenous communities and Native Americans, among others, left almost entirely unrepresented.
Next, Queers Built This highlights people working in the queer DIY tradition today, many of whom use the internet as a platform to share resources, push for awareness, and build networks of shared values and mutual aid. Artists Yetunde Olagbaju, Mimi Zhu, Broobs, and Jeffrey Cheung created downloadable posters and zines that allow us to share a sense of togetherness this Pride, wherever we are. In a forthcoming video, the collective Queer Appalachia discusses using Instagram and live-streamed telethons to call out coastal elitism and classism within LGBTQ media. Throughout June, we’ll continue to run similar stories. Those will include a wild, unfiltered email exchange between Vaginal Davis and Brontez Purnell—two icons in Black, queer, punk performance—that offers a peek into joyous connection across geography and generation.
Finally, the Queers Built This events series looks ahead, featuring live-streamed workshops and conversations that invite us to rethink the tradition of Pride by looking back at its roots. On June 17, we will learn about restorative justice and LGBTQ inmate solidarity with Black and Pink, rural mutual aid with Queer Appalachia, and self-publishing with GenderFail. On June 24, we’ll hear from adrienne maree brown and Jenna Wortham about strategies for a more caring future. Through these events, we’ll also raise money for several LGBTQ organizations that are currently making real change happen: the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Black and Pink, and the Ali Forney Center.
What Johnson and Rivera offered through STAR House is not much different from what these groups and organizations are doing today, and what many queer people have been doing recently in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the last week, I’ve seen queer people organizing themselves to offer community meals, protest supplies, free design and printing, guided meditations, healing services, and a huge amount of knowledge- and skill-sharing. At a painful and dark time, it’s a vision of what Pride—and queer culture in general—could and should look like, and has looked like before: LGBTQ people coming together in support of the most persecuted among us, working to tear down oppressive systems and build something new.