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Queering History: Creating Archives, Community, and Openness

When we go through the timeline of Queer history in Rhode Island, we can’t help but notice the lack of evidence for many events. Queer history is happening, but some stories are lost or forgotten. I am a storyteller. There are stories beneath the surface that I can’t find, but when I do, they will be some of the best ever told.

The Queer Reflections Lab: Where Have We Gone From Here was born out of a need to document and collect stories. This project brings together community collaborators from the Queer worlds of Providence journalism, archiving, art, and community-building to collectively investigate stories, archives, and ephemera pertaining to Queer people of color’s history in RI. As collaborators, this writer, Selene Means, Janaya Kizzie, Kotone Deguchi, Virginia Thomas, Gem Marley, and Julio Berroa share the same vision.

As the facilitator of The Queer Reflections Lab (QRL), Selene Means is excited to be given an opportunity to uplift the community that he knows has stories and history that we need to learn from, lest we repeat the same mistakes. Means told Options “I hope we can move forward with experiments of new forms of Pride and that Queer people of color in Providence feel like they are not invisible and we can create change in our own ways.”

There’s a meta layer to this: We don’t even know what stories we forget because there’s no documentation or stories told. For example, Rhode Island Pride had two listening sessions for the community on February 28, 2019, and May 9, 2019. The only documentation of the February 28 listening session is a single Facebook post by Rhode Island Pride. The second session documentation was created by Means, the facilitator of this project, who filmed the session and saved it for a rainy day.

RI Pride comes up in many conversations about RI LGBTQ history, with some finding it lacking in telling these stories. Julio Berroa doesn’t mince words about it: “Rhode Island Pride has built its culture on not being transparent with the community.” Berroa has been very open about their accusations of harm Rhode Island Pride has caused the community and them personally.

RI Pride is seen as the main event for the community due to its massive size, but not many people know what lurks beyond the surface. Berroa is just one of multiple sources in the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community who told Options they do not feel protected or welcome in RI Pride spaces. Option Magazine reached out to RI Pride leadership to be interviewed about the success of last year’s Pride and if they would be open to discussing questions brought up by the community and did not receive a response.

Justice Gaines facilitated both RI Pride listening sessions. However, Gaines believes it is time we give less of our attention to Pride and more to creating smaller communities. “How much do we actually want to give to RI Pride?” is the question Gaines asks. They believe we should begin to shift our focus to smaller, more welcoming groups.

QRL doesn’t define ourselves in relation to RI Pride or our oppression. There is more than one goal of the Queer Reflections Lab: We want to archive, create, and store history; create open, safe, and sometimes sober spaces; and we want to remind our community that there are BIPOC people in the room. Accountability is definitely owed to the community as a whole from RI Pride, but at the same time, we are getting ready to begin breaking apart one large piece into smaller, easily accessible ones. This is what the QRL aims to do.

With this project, we are floating down many avenues, and chasing historical rabbit holes through archival work. QRL will be centering Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (QTBIPOC) experiences locally in Providence and aims to make the process as participatory as possible. I am eager to create work that helps more people find their community and previous communities we may not have been taught about.

Berroa points out that one important solution is to have more healing spaces. They argue that we need them and we also need spaces that aren’t all drinking and partying. Berroa points out that the important aspect of having these spaces is for people to know that these spaces exist. There are many Queer organizations and people who provide and create these spaces but don’t get the press that larger organizations do. Berroa and others are looking for the day our community starts to uplift these spaces so the underrepresented side of the community will find it easier to create and join spaces as they please.

That day came when Means brought this writer, Janaya Kizzie, Kotone Deguchi, Virginia Thomas, Gem Marley, and Julio Berroa together to create something out of the things that were mentioned but not documented. How does it help us think more carefully about what a truly radical Queer community should look like? What are we trying to say and do with this project?

Our aim is to create a resource that counteracts the historical erasure of the QTBIPOC community so that we have a place for people to turn to when they want more information. We will know how to access these archives we create and share what’s in them, ensuring we have opportunities to be heard and find community. We want to see our community move forward, thriving with the knowledge of our resilience and creativity. I’m excited to collaborate with community members doing the work.

Knowledge is what takes us from the past into the future and keeps us learning. Kotone Deguchi is always learning: learning how to learn and learning that they can learn things outside of their field. They are a facilitator who is comfortable being a sounding board, giving feedback, and sharing ideas with the group as a whole.

Deguchi is particularly interested in dissolving the division between “you are the audience, and we are the storytellers.” They added that: “We are not here to get on a podium and spew ideas. QRL is here to collect and archive your stories, the stories of the community.”

However, as Justice Gaines explains, we aim to “focus on and cultivate what kind of space we want to build.” Gaines joined us one afternoon to share ideas and provide insight on what communities we can hope to create. We cannot build a single space for the entirety of the Queer community, but we can act as a stepping stone to creating small communities for everyone, instead of one big community that has morphed and changed so much over the years, it is now unrecognizable.

Being able to tell untold and underrepresented stories is what excites Gem Marley about QRL, “I want to create space for other stories to be told, heard, and appreciated in ways they haven’t before.” This is a large aspect of what we are trying to do. There are stories that are being told, but where are they? Virginia Thomas is an educator and historian. In her own words, “history does no good locked away in archives.” There is much more to this project than storytelling. It is also about collecting and archiving those stories for history. Yet and still, there’s more.

We are excited to have the space and time to experiment with ways of telling history. Learning from collaborating with community members who are doing the work, finding problems, introducing solutions, and sharing their stories is what this is all about. These are stories from those who have been harmed by the white supremacy that exists in LGBTQ+ spaces, and we are ready to bring those to light.

This project can help bring a level of transparency not only to the harm done but the stories that were stifled. This project aims to bring those stories out and create a footprint that anyone can access freely. As Janaya Kizzie explains, “this is a chance to document Queer stories in a way that is uniquely ours and inspires future discourse, activity, and further creative documentation.”

Kizzie is ready to see our community move forward, thriving with the knowledge of our resilience and creativity. QRL is not just for us, the collaborators. It is for the past, present, and future of the Queer community. It’s shedding a light on QTBIPOC groups, who are often left out of conversations.

Collaboration is the largest tool in the QRL toolbox. We are all collaborators, but again, no podium can be found. This is not an exclusive club; we have welcomed more collaborators to discuss and share their stories. As part of those discussions, QRL held public meetings where community members shared their thoughts. One speaker, who only gave their first name, Koach, like Berroa, is interested in spaces where folks can be sober, supported, and everyone understands that we all come from trauma.

There need to be spaces where we can share that if we’d please, but spaces where we can be away from it when we need to. Another member who was at the event who only gave the name, Lotus, spoke about how they would love to create gazeless spaces; explaining that sometimes, it’s terrifying to be public: “I'm craving spaces of complexity, stop canceling each other, and to connect with our bodies, which creates capacity for complexity.”

The Queer Reflections Lab is still in its early stages, but every day, it continues to blossom and grow new stems that also blossom, and so on. As part of the Interlace Grant, there are steps we must take, but rest assured, these steps will only benefit the improvement and growth of the community. In the meantime, you may find one or many of us reaching out. Stay tuned for more Queer Reflections Lab at Options Magazine.


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