How Should We Remember the Stonewall Uprising?
In his new show, artist Chris Vargas of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art skewers the politics of LGBTQ memorialization.
Courtesy the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art.
In Greenwich Village’s Christopher Park, there is a sculpture of two gay couples. A pair of women lounge on a bench while two men stand, embracing. These life-sized statues, tucked within an isosceles of trees and red brick, are bronze but painted white by the artist George Segal to resemble the original plaster from which he cast the figures. The white paint also mirrors the race of the people being commemorated.
Across the street from the fabled Stonewall Inn, these sculptures are part of the Stonewall National Monument preserved by the National Park Service to memorialize the most well known—but not the first—queer protest: the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. And they are a site of contention over the subjects and stories included in collective queer historical memory.
In August 2015, an anonymous person adorned Segal’s figures with wigs, bras, and black and brown paint to summon the presence of “Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major, Storme DeLarverie and all the other Black and Brown people who led the movement,” according to the person behind the protest. The media called it “vandalism,” but the activist considered it “rectification.”
This challenge to the way we document queer history is the launching off point for Consciousness Razing: The Stonewall Re-Memorialization Project, at the New Museum in New York City through January 2019. On the fifth floor, the executive director of the Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) and the show’s primary artist, Chris Vargas, has constructed a to-scale model of Christopher Park populated with 12 speculative monuments made by different artists working in various mediums (poetry, sculpture, visual arts, music) and representing various identities (generation, gender, race).
“As Stonewall’s 50th anniversary approaches in the summer of 2019, the history of Stonewall is getting pinned down and concretized,” Vargas tells me. In response, Vargas assembles these monument-makers as a challenge to how we remember Stonewall—and, as a platform in which to excavate the buried role of queer and trans people of color in the event.
For most of the artists involved, undoing the white-washing and cis-washing of the memorial doesn't mean simply inserting bodies of certain marginalized people into the same sterile mnemonic mold. Rather, it means inventing a whole new grammar for commemoration—one that exposes a biased politics of remembering.
Artist and Stonewall veteran Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s proposed monument, for instance, is of three palm-sized gold-foiled rats studded with jewel eyes, huddling side by side. The monument’s plaque features a 1989 poem by Lanigan-Schmidt that refers to him and his sisters (as all the queers were known then, and now) as “Street Rats,” signifying the denigrated social position to which many out gays, lesbians, transsexuals, cross-dressers, and queens were subjected at the time. Figuring the participants as gold rats rather than fleshy humans, Lanigan-Schmidt frames Stonewall within a kind of animistic mythology that explodes the factuality required for history writing—at least as we have known it.
Meanwhile, Chris Bogia’s monument steers even further from realism, remembering Stonewall for its shapes and colors. A rectangular wood-grained frame, referencing the Stonewall Inn’s facade, holds abstracted forms that evoke teal pumps, cherry-red lips, and brown hands. With its abstract poeticism, Bogia’s monument speculates an object that pulses with the memory of an event, while challenging the problems of pegging a history to a particular person or group of people.
The proposed monuments in Consciousness Razing are additions to Vargas’ ongoing queer history series, dubbed Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects—a name that riffs on attempts by the Smithsonian and the British Museum to present a definitive history by compiling one hundred artifacts. Unlike these major museums, Vargas edges shy of a complete 100 to remind us that queer and trans histories will never have quite enough documentation to claim objective legitimacy in the eyes of institutional powers.
For Vargas, the framing of a history’s lead characters, in particular, is always an interpretive act. How could it not be: events are just frenzies of people coinciding. In the case of Stonewall, the question of who started the uprising is perpetually contentious—speculated both by Hollywood movies such as Stonewall and indies like Happy Birthday, Marsha!. Vargas recognizes and accepts that we will probably never know who actually threw the first stiletto, shot glass, or brick.
Similarly, we’ll never truly know the identity labels and social positions of those involved, as language and politics have changed so dramatically since. Vargas notes that many people—such as Marsha P. Johnson—who are today considered to be part of the transgender lineage “wouldn’t [have] name[d] themselves as such or didn’t have access to that same language.” Often times, a behavior and sensibility that we might consider to fit today’s definition of “transgender” predates the 1990s, when the word entered popular vernacular (though the word itself was invented in the 60s and 70s). But disregarding the similarities of experience between non-identifiers like Marsha and contemporary identifying transgender women misses the reality of gender transgression. This is not to say that everyone who confounds gender should be retroactively called “transgender.” Rather, scattered moments of gender norm violations are historically particular, but all resonate with the deliciousness of a social taboo that ties them together.
This ambivalence regarding qualifiers of transness drives Vargas’ interest in historical memory, as well as its institution par excellence: the museum. “At an institution, you have an inside and an outside. And I never want to be in a position to police what’s inside and outside my museum,” Vargas tells me. That problem of the museum—that some things are privileged with preservation while others are permitted to whither with time—is “the exact reason why I don’t want to make the museum. Because then I would have to define what the parameters of what is trans.”
Vargas has a wry, at times self-deprecating, sense of humor. So, it’s apt that, in 2013, he chose to create what he considers simultaneously impossible and imperative: a museum for trans history. His “Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art (MOTHA),” which houses Consciousness Razing as a project, is a semi-fictional roving institution that has exhibited at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery and Los Angeles’ ONE Archive. “Dedicated to moving the hirstory and art of transgender people to the center of public life,” Vargas explains, MOTHA is a sincere exploration of a history that is under-considered by mainstream museums. It is also, however, a critique in the form of institutional drag. MOTHA masks itself in the makeup of the museum—storied artifacts, informative plaques, intelligent lighting. But only to expose museums’ failings.
Like any good comedy queen, MOTHA is funny—a quality that Vargas says he uses to disarm viewers. On the MOTHA promotional poster, for instance, assorted non-humans—a Teletubby, a seahorse, and Peanuts’s Peppermint Patty—star alongside Marsha P. Johnson, the first popular American transsexual woman Christine Jorgensen, and actress Laverne Cox. The expansive inclusion of people who escape clear “transgender” classification but present a trans-ish sensibility tickles not only the stern proclamation of transgender existence, but also the nose-raised attitude of museum curation.
Similarly, the title of Vargas’ latest work—“Consciousness Razing”—is cleverly punny. On one hand, it riffs on the second-wave feminist activist staple of “consciousness raising” groups, where women gathered to generate new ways of understanding a patriarchal society. On the other hand, it suggests that our current understanding of the world must be razed—undone, destroyed. The homophonic title embodies the paradoxical stakes of Consciousness Razing: the monuments, histories, institutions, and vocabularies that currently stand are untenable, yet those that are to come will be radically insufficient.