Objects That Tell the History of LGBTQ+ Resistance

One of the most notable objects in LGBTQ+ resistance movements may or may not have existed: a donut thrown in a riot in May 1959 at Cooper Do-nuts in Los Angeles. Cooper was a 24-hour cafeteria “wedged between a male hustler bar called Harold’s (‘no queens allowed’) and the queens’ venue for picking up tricks, the Waldorf,” writes Morgan M. Page in Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects, a new book edited by David Evans Frantz, Christina Linden, and Chris E. Vargas.

A decade before Stonewall, John Rechy, a novelist and “hustler icon,” was taken outside the donut shop by police. But before he and others could be arrested, the Cooper patrons broke out in rebellion, as Page vividly describes:

Stir sticks, papers, and, yes, doughnuts were pelted at the police with such force that the cops were forced to retreat…. They poured out into the streets, joined by those leaving Harold’s and the Waldorf at closing time. They surrounded the police, who locked themselves in their cruiser and called for backup. Queens, hustlers — mostly Black and Latine — shook the police car and attempted to flip it over. Additional police blocked off each end of the Main Street drag. The details are lost to time, but Rechy says, ‘It was quelled. It was quelled.’”

Page shares this story to note that there are no records amongst LA police or newspapers, only the oral history of Rechy and others. (“But either way,” she writes, “it makes for a fabulous story!”) And, of course, it’s a reminder that Stonewall was just one of many riots that made up a continuum of resistance, celebration, and oppression, rather than a solitary milestone marking a before and after.

The donut story makes for a fitting opening object in Trans Hirstory, laying the groundwork for a book that Vargas recognizes is “inherently incomplete.” “Our history is still being written and will continue to be for every trans generation moving forward,” she writes. “History is dynamic and alive, and it absolutely should be.”

The book is the product of MOTHA, the Museum of Trans Hirstory & Art, founded by Vargas, an artist, in 2013. MOTHA has shown the exhibition version of Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects in various venues, such as the New Museum and the Oakland Museum of Art, between 2015 and 2019. The book, fittingly, serves less as a catalog and more as a continuation, taking the affordances of the format to show us illustrations, photos, and other modes of expression beyond physical objects.

One entry by ballroom scholar and media producer Sydney Baloue captures “the read of the century” by Crystal LaBeija, mother of ballroom culture, after being awarded third runner-up in the 1967 Academy Miss All-America Camp Beauty Pageant. Another entry from Annalee Newitz tells the story of artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s algorithmically-generated faces of Cheslea Manning. In one poignant entry about Monica Helms’s Transgender Pride Flag, designed in 1999, Helms admits hesitation about donating the historic flag to the National Museum of American History: “It was something that was with me for a long time. At least I know it’s going to be taken very good care of and people for generations will be able to see it.” Indeed, the flag — though not currently on display at the museum — is now available to billions as an emoji 🏳️‍⚧️.

In some object entries, we hear directly from the maker. Vincent Chong’s “Teal at 98.6°F” (2022) is a painting of a pendant of Kwun Yum (Cantonese for Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion) resting on a chest. Chong writes tenderly about how identity protects us in the face of violence: “Transcending gender identity, Kwun Yum appears in whatever form is necessary to help people in need: sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes androgynous. According to scholar Hsiao-Lan Hu, ‘Identity-shifting is done not to avoid certain identities, but to serve the need at the moment.’”

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a book and exhibition series like Trans Hirstory in a time of historic attacks against trans and LGBTQ+ rights both in the United States and around the world. We are often taught to think that social progress moves in a straight line toward a better world, but the reality is that it more often looks like a cruller donut, with intersecting cycles of hope and despair, of integration and exclusion.

The book takes us through a range of histories through the lens of different scholars, writers, and artists, demonstrating the sheer multiplicity of trans experience at a time when, as editor Linden notes, a “growing proportion of young people today identify as queer in some sense, and many of these as other than cis.” These objects in turn act as portals that fill in gaps in popular history and remind us that there is so much more we will never know.

And like any good object history, Trans Hirstory challenges the very idea of history as a mode of study that has a singular and comprehensive perspective or that can even have a fixed period of time as its reference point. We see objects from the 21st century and the 1st, a reminder that trans people have always existed. “It is important to understand that there were very different frameworks in the past,” Linden reminds us, “and there will, in all certainty, be different ones in the future.”

I flipped the book open to “Oneiric encounter with a two-thousand-year-old Indigenous clay being,” a letter to an anthropomorphic figure from the La Tolita culture in the region we now call Ecuador. Archaeologist Gabby Omoni Hartemann writes beautifully to the figure, which has no apparent gender by today’s standards:

“You know, the fact that you display characteristics that are both understood as masculine and feminine in this time and place not only confuses [archaeologists], it scares them. It reminds them of the ancientness of people like me….

After a silent prayer thanking you for your existence, I gathered courage and asked you: what are you, after all? Behind your tiny ceramic eyelids, I thought I saw a spark. I heard a whisper in my ear made of flesh: “I am like you. Timeless. Untranslatable. Ancestral. An ancient reminder of your eternal existence.”

Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects (2024), edited by David Evans Frantz, Christina Linden, and Chris E. Vargas and published by Hermer Publishers, is available for purchase online and in bookstores.

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