Queer Artists Visualize Chosen Ancestors

  • by Alex Madison
  • Wednesday February 7, 2018
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For many queer and trans people, learning about LGBTQ history was not a part of their growing up. The Queer Ancestors Project, currently on exhibit at Strut, the men's health center in the Castro, is a way to celebrate the stories of resistance and perseverance of LGBTQ figures past and present.

"A lot of us growing up, we didn't have the opportunity to learn about that part of our history," said Katie Gilmartin, founder and director of the project. "Being able to see how queer and trans people throughout history have experienced oppression and engaged in fabulous, creative acts of resistance is so important."

Gilmartin commented on the particular importance of the exhibit this year considering the political climate that is advancing policies that roll back LGBTQ rights.

"Our history is really, really important, especially these days with what's going on politically," she added.

The project gives young, Bay Area artists the chance to participate in a free, 18-week program at SOMArts in which they create art surrounding their chosen ancestor. This year, nine artists created prints celebrating the lives of Sylvia Rivera, Jose Sarria, Georgina Beyer, Lou Sullivan, and more.

"It's very moving to see the way the artists forge a relationship with their ancestor and the radically different ways they express their connection," Gilmartin said.

The seventh annual exhibit opened last month, making history as the largest turnout for a third-floor Strut show and welcoming almost 450 people. Speakers included Native-American and LGBTQ activist Landa Lakes, author Juliana Delgado, and Daniel Boa of the GLBT Historical Society. The audience was highly diverse with people of all generations and identities, Gilmartin said.

The night was a special moment for participating artist Princesa Venegas, who identifies as a queer, nonbinary person and prefers gender-neutral pronouns. Instead of celebrating queer and trans folk when they are ostracized or deceased, Venegas said they wanted to spread words of wisdom of future ancestors or trans women of color living in today's society.

Venegas created prints that contained the words of Bay Area trans women of color. One print with words from Davia Spain, a multidisciplinary artist reads, "Trust your intuitional knowledge. Never fear abnormality and be selective with the ones you keep close to you."

Another print with words from Orchid Bakla, a trans, Latino woman, reads in bright pink lettering, "Know history, know self. No history, no self."

Venegas explained that one must know their history to know one's self.

For Venegas, the 18-week program was an extremely powerful experience. They talked about the time spent at SOMArts, as being more than just a time to create art, but one to heal, talk, and bond with other queer and trans young people.

"It was a very beautiful experience," Venegas said. "It really made you think about what you want to preserve, what you want to carry forward and what stories we want to tell."

Another artist in the program, Ben Panico, a trans man who considers himself pansexual, connected to his chosen ancestors through words as well. Panico created portrait prints of Sullivan, a trans man and founder of FTM International, and Georgina Beyer, a New Zealand politician who is the world's first openly transsexual mayor and member of parliament.

Through many days researching at the GLBT Historical Society, Panico discovered Sullivan's diary. As one of the first trans men to identify as gay, Sullivan worked to distinguish gender identity from sexual orientation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and is largely responsible for the modern understanding of these topics as being unrelated.

"He was a powerful force in bringing together trans men both in San Francisco and around the country," he said of Sullivan, who died in 1991 of AIDS-related complications. "A lot of the time when people talk about trans history, they talk about trans women so it was really cool for me and others to be able to learn about the history of trans men."

Panico said he was proud that his artwork, along with the other artists', "inspired conversations about queer and trans history."

The exhibit will be up through the spring. The artists will unite once more for a closing party May 19 from 7:30 to 10 p.m. at Strut. The event is free and open to the public. The night will include readings from works created by writers of the newly formed Queer Ancestors Project Writes program.

The writing program offers free workshops that explore the same mission as the visual QAP for writers age 18-24 now until June 11. Applications are still being accepted through the end of February at bit.ly/2B4LEWg.

Supporters of both programs include the Horizons Foundation, Southern Exposure, and the San Francisco Arts Commission.

The QAP exhibition is on display on the first and third floors of Strut, 470 Castro Street. Hours are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed Sunday.