“Sometimes you have to create your own history.”
– The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1997)
Louis Hughes looks spectacular on the Senator Theater stage, wearing a brilliant white dashiki. It’s ‘80s night at the Stoop Storytelling series, and Louis stands in front of a packed theater in Baltimore to tell a part of his story—specifically his perspective on living through the rise of HIV, his participation in the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, the groundbreaking longitudinal gay men’s health study at Hopkins (which is still ongoing), and his perspective on building organizations supporting gay and black populations in Baltimore for more than forty years.
I’m in the audience to cheer him on. I nominated him as a speaker to the Stoop Storytelling organizers, and they welcomed him eagerly. I’d been lucky to meet Louis a few years earlier, as I was beginning to assemble an installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art which was focused on the domestic sphere of the Baltimore LGBT community. It’s thrilling to see him welcomed with thunderous applause. I remember how things used to be.
The dim lighting in the theater makes it a little hard for me to get a decent image of Louis on stage with my phone, but I take a few snaps anyway, posting the best to Instagram.
It’s intermission, and Louis is being lauded. There’s a nurse who just retired after devoting thirty years of her career to caring for patients with HIV. She expresses apprehension about leaving her job: “The doctors and the nurses who are coming in now, they have no idea what it was like. They have no sense of the history.” She’s going to continue to offer her advisory services for time, she says. “When I go, there’s going to be no one left who has this knowledge. The institutional memory is gone. I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember,” she says. “I worry about what the loss of this memory will mean.”
“Oh, I remember,” I said.
I’m not sure when, exactly, I “came of age,” but I started college in the late 1980s, starting to come out as queer and trans as Ronald Reagan was finally getting around to acknowledging that AIDS was a public health crisis. I had every reason to believe that I wasn’t going to live very long. The sex panic of the ‘80s seemed to target me directly as I began to come to understand what it meant to be a queer trans woman. Femininity was brutally punished in people like me, and the atmosphere of blunt hatred and cruel humor that permeated the common discourse around HIV and homosexuality was inescapable.
Coming out of the closet is always hard, especially when, as was true for me, the family religion had little compassion for gay people. At the time, there was no common discourse around transsexuality or transgenderism. My secret felt monolithic, unscalable. The idea of connecting sexually with anyone seemed impossible, and I internalized the cultural message that I wasn’t worthy of love and intimacy. I barely had the language to explain myself to myself, much less to help someone understand how to navigate my body. I kept to myself, the easiest way to minimize my considerable risk.
I’d been shocked awake in my first year of college, raising my consciousness via feminism and an interdisciplinary class on HIV and the history of plagues, taught by an epidemiologist who was working directly with the virus. Our copies of And the Band Played On were hot off the press. My Beautiful Laundrette offered me my first images of gay intimacy. I couldn’t believe my eyes: living, breathing gayness was finally visible. It was riveting, even though it was so far removed from my context.
In short order, we were given The Boys in the Band, contextualized as a complicated historical document. “This is what it was like before the closet doors were blown open,” my professor advocated. I surely wasn’t the only student in the theater still sequestered in her own closet that night, but still the film seemed like ancient history. And then came Parting Glances, which was shocking for its depictions of gay men in community, and particularly of men with HIV. The film’s lack of despair and hopelessness still stands out, thirty years on. Its humanity was invigorating, catalyzing. I came out of the class measurably less fearful of the disease, and of what I was up against in the culture.
My first overt political action was to participate in a reading of the names on the steps of the college chapel on World AIDS Day 1988. As I read the names, I wondered so much about these people—who they were, who they wanted to be. I wondered how long it would be until I might be reading the names of people I knew, how long it might be until someone was reading my name.
But reading those names catalyzed me into coming out, to connecting with a small handful of other queers on campus bold enough to come out, making ourselves visible and vulnerable. Faceless cowards vandalized our event flyers, then our vehicles, then our dorm rooms. Some of us were followed by cars on campus. A professor had a cross burned on her lawn. We started organizing, creating “The Coalition to End Homophobia.” We got t-shirts emblazoned with big pink triangles on the front. On the back, the shirts read, “Sometimes It Pays To Be Indiscreet.” It was terrifying, but we weren’t backing down.
The administration wasn’t much help. We were told by a dean we were the first gay students to attend their century-old college. How is an institution supposed to remember something it never knew in the first place?
Years later, the name-reading rituals continue, but now we are reading the names of mass shooting victims, and we are reading the names of murdered trans people, a list overwhelmingly comprised of trans women of color. HIV remains at crisis levels in the community, but the more urgent concern is murder. So much unnecessary death, so much preventable violence against the vulnerable. In this way, it feels like nothing has changed, and in fact, the brutality of the current moment feels like a cultural regression has occurred.
As the ‘90s rolled on and HIV treatments became more effective, the focus shifted and I found myself programming a wider variety of queer community events: vigils and legislative responses. I was becoming an activist.
The New Queer Cinema revolution of the ‘90s finally put gay actors in gay roles and increasingly placed tools of production in queer hands, but not before the disease had claimed so many artists: Marlon Riggs, Derek Jarman, Jack Smith. David Wojnarowicz. Arthur Russell. Jobriath. Freddie Mercury. I think a lot about how AIDS ravaged an entire generation of artists, limiting access to crucial memory and leaving a lot of us without mentors and guides. The loss of historical perspective is always worrisome in any circumstance, but queer communities seem especially vulnerable to ahistoricity.
I tried to interpolate myself into the furious films of Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. The California punk rock aesthetic of The Living End appealed to me, but its nihilism and its lack of focus on women left me cold. Poison terrified me: I saw myself only in the ‘Horror’ chapter as I fretted about my future navigating medical transition. The films addressing trans and lesbian characters were period pieces, or tragedies, or both: Entre Nous, Desert Hearts, The World According to Garp. I don’t know exactly what sort of representation I was looking for in those days, but I wasn’t finding it.
Then came The Watermelon Woman. Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature didn’t play my town in its initial run, so I wound up creating and programming a screening series so that I could see it.
The Watermelon Woman is a mock documentary starring Dunye as a filmmaker exploring the hidden lesbian history of a black entertainer and early Hollywood actor. Even now, the microbudget feature is incredibly convincing, making me believe that the invented title character is drawn from history, until the end intertitle that bursts the bubble: “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is fiction.”
We who live with suppressed stories (including those of us living with immunosuppressed stories) know this how this works. We have to dig to find our role models and icons to find hope. We read between the lines to find our stories until, of course, we are well-versed enough to lay it all out on the page.
It’s 2016, and I’m installing some of Louis’ personal artifacts in an installation at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibit is an investigation into the mundane, ordinary, domestic aspects of what it is to be LGBTQIA in the city of Baltimore. Part of the exhibit is a “video quilt,” an evolving, crowd-sourced community portrait. Any and all LGBTQIA Baltimoreans are invited to submit their photos and home videos to populate the quilt. The images are projected in a grid on a hanging quilt.
“Do you think you have any video?” I ask, and Louis shakes his head. “No, I never had anything like that.” He tells me that downsizing over the years has left him with fewer and fewer things; everything he has left is imbued with meaning. A lot of what he has left is going on display in the museum.
Louis provides me all of what he has: photo albums of his family stretching back to the mid-19th century, just after slavery had been abolished. His yearbooks, in which he is pictured alongside his classmates depicted in Hidden Figures. Louis is a co-founder of Baltimore’s gay community center and of Chase Brexton, the gay-focused health clinic that became a key resource for HIV treatment in Baltimore.
I’ve begged the community for images stretching back as far they can find. I get a tiny handful of still snapshots from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I get a banker box of photo albums from one longtime lesbian community organizer. I get to delve into the archives of the community center, finding hosts of images untraceable to their subjects and photographers for permission.
The question of what happens to our personal archives looms. A lot of us have grown up distrustful of institutions. A lot of us came up distrustful of each other in our communities. Where do our archives go when we pass? Who then gets to interpret our stories?
I lay out the images in the grid. Cell phone video of a gay man playing with his toddler nephew, and of a friend finishing his David Wojnarowicz tattoo. From the ‘80s or ‘90s, camcorder footage of a trans woman playing catch on a beach; meanwhile two trans men from this year make crème brûlée. But most of the images are still static: Lesbian Avengers pose to intimidate. Another dyke leans laughing out of a U-Haul. A gay marriage is performed on a Baltimore city corner. A queer couple and their children have a holiday dinner. This shapes up to be a collection of images of queer life as I’ve always seen it, and it becomes clear that I’m not alone in this.
“I felt seen in a way I rarely do,” wrote Kate Drabinski in the Baltimore City Paper in a review of the exhibition. “This is a much bigger quilt than what you're seeing, that the scenes are many, and each one is just a snapshot of a life that has its own twisting array of scenes. For a group of people often denied their complex personhood, reduced to simply ‘being’ their sexuality, this is a big deal.”
One of my contributors submits some of his ‘80s candid stills, showing himself in loving contact with another man. They have similar mustaches and coy smiles. I ask the contributor, who seems single, to sign a release to use the images. He signs, and a few days later he responds to tell me that he’s been in touch with his ex, who has also signed a release, and this is when I realize that I had begun to construct an assumption that because he was no longer in the picture, and because the images were so loving, that perhaps he had passed, perhaps from HIV. This story I told myself was based in a reasonable assumption, but it was a warning that even with pure intentions, my assumptions and biases exist, and they can still deeply undercut the stories I hope to tell.
Back in my undergraduate quagmire, a semester after our Coalition was told that we were literally the pioneers of gay identity at the school, a gay alum came to campus to talk about his own battles with HIV. He’d graduated twenty years earlier, a classmate of the very administrator that had flattered us so. We pioneers watched her closely throughout the event, while she did everything she could to maintain her tenuous control over her domain without conceding her recalcitrant homophobia.
When it was over, we retreated to the office we shared with the Womens’ Center, MEChA, and the Black Student Union. We plotted our next events. We already knew we weren’t the first lesbians and gays to attend the school. We had evidence! Our office had a shelf full of photo albums from the past. The names and the narratives behind the fading stills weren’t readily available. We were left to make up our own stories from these images, to imagine what it had to have been like then if it was still so hard to be heard.
This institution, which we all paid for, was incapable of telling its truth, because it didn’t know its truth. Its forgetting and its deliberate disposals conspired to slow progress. We learned that lesson the hard way, and it would be far from the last time that institutional failures would floor me.
My favorite of Louis’ stories is his coming-out story, in which he comes out to his mother in 1974. Soon after, she introduces her son to the performer Sylvester, who would become an iconic disco star just a few years later. I can’t do the story justice; it’s Louis’ to tell.
I have rarely met a person so consistently gentle and warm as Louis Hughes; he can talk to anyone, and so as the BMA exhibit rolled towards closure, we set aside an afternoon open house for Louis to present his archives and tell his stories. The turnout was modest, but he wasn’t dissuaded, sharing his stories with every patron who would listen. In many ways, I think this is the best sort of community activism. Of course, I wished for a larger attendance. In a just world, Louis would fill theaters every time he speaks—but then again, in a just world, Louis may not have nearly as many stories of struggle to share.
It’s Oscar season, winter 2017, and Louis sends me a text: “Moonlight won the Oscar. I’m so happy.” I can only imagine what it’s like for him to see this happen in his lifetime.
“It’s about time,” I write back.
“Call your old friend sometime,” Louis writes back, and now it’s up to me to respond. And I do, when I can. It’s up to me to maintain the connection and carry his legacy forward.
Rahne Alexander is a multimedia artist, producer, musician, and performer. Her video art has been screened in galleries and festivals across the country, and she is an alumna of Signal Culture and the Experimental Television Center. Queer Interiors, a year-long collaborative multimedia installation was commissioned by the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2016. A component of this installation, The Baltimore LGBTQI+ Home Movie Quilt, was awarded a Saul Zaentz Innovation in Film and Media Fund fellowship. She has appeared in numerous films and videos, including Hit and Stay, Riot Acts: Flaunting Gender Deviance in Music Performance, Milo's Misfits, and Her Room. Rahne performs and records with several bands, including Santa Librada, Guided By Wire, 50’♀, Flaming Creatures, and the Degenerettes. She is occasional comedian and essayist, with publication credits ranging from the Baltimore City Paper to the Lambda Literary Award-winning anthology Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica, and the 2018 Lammy-nominated Resilience Anthology, to date the largest-ever anthology of trans women and AMAB non-binary writers. She is a former organizer for the Transmodern Festival and the Maryland Film Festival, where she served five years in charge of operations and development. Rahne has since lent her organizational and development assistance to several organizations, including Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, Venus Theater, and Wide Angle Youth Media. rahne.com