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Strengthening Representation of LGBTQIA People of Color

By Mason Smith, San Francisco Public Library

Opened in 1996 following the extensive renovation of San Francisco’s Main Library, the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center is a first-of-its-kind-in-the-country gateway to the San Francisco Public Library’s broader collections documenting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual history and culture, with a particular emphasis on the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite growing spaces of online scholarship, the presence of LGBTQIA archives have remained an essential source of information to document the lived experiences of gender non-conforming and same-gender attracted people while providing archivists, artists and students from all over the world glimpses into queer and trans existence at particular moments across history. Although one might assume archives of LGBTQIA experiences are abundant in 21st-century America, fewer than 200 queer archives exist in the United States, which makes the work we do all the more imperative.

For LGBTQIA people of color, scholarship and representation of our stories is even more scarce. Historically speaking, LGBTQIA scholarship has focused on non-people of color — when many people think of gay and lesbian archives, the names Harvey Milk, Barbara Grier, Alice B. Toklas or Harry Hay will likely spring to mind. Thanks to a transformative residency program launched by San Francisco Public Library and Radar Productions, a local organization supporting queer artists and audiences, that paradigm is shifting in the Bay Area, raising familiarity with names like Sylvester, Storme DeLarverie, Hector Xtravaganza and Gladys Bentley.

When people of color who have historically been deprived of our histories are given the opportunity to examine legacy, systems of oppression and the intersections of “personal” and “political,” we can begin to create works inspired by research which is not only deeply personal but gives exposure to figures audiences might otherwise never hear about.

Initially founded circa 2003 in San Francisco by Michelle Tea, and directed since 2015 by Juliana Delgado-Lopera, Radar Productions currently serves a bon vivant and highly esteemed community of writers of color as one of the most prestigious LGBTQIA literary organizations in the United States. Throughout the last 16 and a half years, Radar’s smorgasbord of literary events and programming has continued to engage both domestic and international audiences in community-building conversations on social equity, literature and the arts. In January 2018, San Francisco Public Library partnered with Radar Productions to launch a new and notable residency program, Show Us Your Spines. We hope to add to the future of LGBTQIA archives through this program by offering four hand-selected artists of color – from across the gender and sexuality spectrums – a paid opportunity to spend one month exploring the enchanting and often underreported histories of queer and trans people of Asian, Black, Latino, Arab and Pacific Islander heritage.

Now, when people of color who have historically been deprived of our histories are given the opportunity to examine legacy, systems of oppression and the intersections of “personal” and “political,” we can begin to create works inspired by research which is not only deeply personal but gives exposure to figures audiences might otherwise never hear about. SUYS gives voice to emerging and established LGBTQIA writers whose post-residency offerings challenge mainstream concepts of culture, feminism, gender and race. During the one to six visits of their residencies, artists create works inspired by our collections, which are then read (or performed) the following month in the library.

By drawing influences from the Hormel Center’s collection of nearly 10,000 texts, countless films and dozens of photograph collections, artists utilize books, zines, music, films, photographs and manuscripts selected for them by Friends of the SFPL Fellow and Radar Alum, Mason J. to create stories that span the globe and investigate topics of interest to today’s queer and trans communities. With a love of literacy and the written word, and driven by their insatiable curiosity, our residents have ranged in age from 22 to 57+. They identify as genderqueer, cisgender (their assigned birth gender), transgender (their self-determined gender), men and women, non-binary genders outside of male and female or gender non-conforming in appearance. Their narratives have tackled the prison industrial complex, survival economies, immigrant narratives, mental health and pivotal moments in queer history such as Screaming Queens, which chronicles the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riots; Black & HIV Positive social movements of the 80s and 90s, via the Rafiki House Weekend Training Guide; and the Two-Spirit adventures of our Native American protagonists in the fiction fan-favorite “There There.”

To the QTPOC of the Bay Area and beyond who do not have a large community that supports us, the work of the SUYS residents helps spread a vital message that – despite what academia has taught us — many of us share interpersonal or creative commonalities with some of the most significant figures in history. Discovering these truths and legacies is one of the many things that allow us to reify that – despite ongoing trends of homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia and racism – we are valid and have always existed in queer history whether we were represented adequately in academic canon or not. However, don’t just take my word for it. After being asked about their experience as a SUYS resident, Kevin Simmonds explained, “I often feel invisible in SF. And I often wonder if my work is considered relevant. This residency acknowledged me and my work and that was affirming and inspiring. The residency also gave me permission to create various pieces I wouldn’t have otherwise.” Another resident, Dena Rod, remarked, “Besides working with the great historical materials in the archive, I really appreciated the depth and scope of the collection. The larger context of queer history through primary sources gave me an intimate appreciation and knowledge for how ordinary people lived and worked despite the limitations of their respective time periods. Additionally, I really enjoyed getting to know the fellows and librarians in the archives, and it gave me a sense of belonging to the [SFPL] community on a deeper level than I had before.”

The work of the SUYS residents helps spread a vital message that — despite what academia has taught us — many of us share interpersonal or creative commonalities with some of the most significant figures in history.

As a free and public event series at the San Francisco Public Library, SUYS serves many low-income residents who might not otherwise have access to fine arts programming. Furthermore, by creating a library and archives residency to engage QTPOC writers and artists with queer and trans collections, we can provide QTPOC literary artists the opportunity to explore and create art that is reflective of global QTPOC roots. In addition to providing a space to share art by queer people of color, audiences also see their lives and history reflected. We believe that providing this space can and does help QTPOC feel seen and reflected, overall improving our mental health and willingness to submit our materials to the archives for posterity. In our first year, we provided 24 LGBTQ artists of color stipends ranging from $350-500 to create art that addresses Black Lesbian history, Afro-Surrealism, Two-Spirit discourse, Gay Asian masculinity, drag history, the prison industrial complex or immigrant narratives.

In doing this work at SFPL, we hope other libraries can follow our lead and begin to strengthen QTPOC representation in their archival collections and consider putting efforts into local outreach to impart the necessity of LGBTQIA histories upon emerging queer communities of color. This kind of work ensures there’s always an open seat at the library for anyone who’d like to learn about how our rainbow and gender expansive alphabet soup came to be and the ways in which it will continue to evolve as a community of changemakers and beacon for education, equity and resilience.

Mason Smith is the Outreach and Social Media Fellow at San Francisco Public Library's James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center.