When Nasir Anthony Montalvo first moved to Kansas City over a year ago, one of their first priorities was to join the local black and queer community. But when they searched online, only a few organizations came up.
This intrigued Montalvo, so they began researching the impact of black and queer people in Kansas City’s history. They found a collaborator in UMKC’s Gay and Lesbian Archives of Mid-America and curator Stuart Hinds.
“I felt I had to do something to help the community and, in doing so, find it myself,” Montalvo says. “I thought the information was amazing, rich, even if there was only a small part of black queer history there. So much of Kansas City’s history is about white queer history, but I felt the need to share it.
The result of Montalvo’s research was a series of three articles published through The Kansas City Defender.
They told the stories of Edye Gregory and Ray Rondell, the first documented black drag queens in Kansas City; the story of Men of All Colors Together, an organization that fights against racism among gays; and a gay and lesbian variety show that aired on cable in the 1990s and featured Lea Hopkins, a Kansas City organizer who founded the city’s first Gay Pride Parade in 1979.
Hinds says she’s excited about how Montalvo’s research is filling in the gaps in GLAMA’s collections, which are mostly received through donations.
“These relationships are built on trust,” says Hinds. “It can be difficult to establish that trust with communities that have experienced a variety of marginalizations and are perhaps reluctant to hand over any of that documentation.”
Montalvo has decided to broaden his research by building three different exhibitions on the themes to be set up in different businesses in the city: PH Coffee, Café Corazón and BLK + BRWN Bookstore. Overall, their project is called “Black/Queer Kansas City”.
“Along with the things written and the things I have to say, I have to engage in action as well as part of my praxis,” says Montalvo. “So I felt the need to turn these digital pieces into something physical, something people could come see and share with the larger Kansas City community.”
Montalvo doesn’t just want to teach the past, it wants to provide visitors with the knowledge to combat the problems that still afflict the LGBTQ community today: internal racism, threats against drag performers and the continuous struggle for visibility.
“These identities aren’t compartmentalized,” Montalvo says. “It’s not like Kansas City, there are queers, there are blacks, there are Latinos and natives (separately). People can embody many identities at once. I feel like the things I was writing about or the things these people were fighting against are still happening to this day.
In choosing exhibition venues across the city, Montalvo wanted to embrace intersectionality within the queer community. They chose PH Coffee in the historic Northeast to tear down harmful misconceptions about the neighborhood and expose outsiders to the area’s rich history.
The Café Corazón at the crossroads was chosen out of solidarity between the black and Latino communities, as well as to honor Montalvo’s identity. And Montalvo chose BLK + BRWN Bookstore in Westport, which will host part three of the exhibit, to show support for black-owned businesses.
To capture a personal vibe, Montalvo says he designed the displays as a wall of family photos or a scrapbook. It’s a way to give the figures and groups featured in the exhibition a public acceptance they didn’t have before.
Where GLAMA lacked information, Montalvo sourced exhibition materials through Facebook groups such as KC’s Cabaret/Pegasus Memories.
Montalvo hopes the exhibition will serve to remind people that even small and seemingly insignificant objects, such as a flyer or a group photo, can help reconstruct the history of a community.
Montalvo also wanted to offer something people could take home with them, so they partnered with Oddities Prints to make Edye Gregory, Quience Sykes and Lea Hopkins prints available for purchase.
While Hopkins is still alive and organizing in Kansas City, the rest of the exhibit serves as a memorial to Kansas citizens who have since died and were otherwise forgotten.
“Most of the black queer Kansas Citians I talked about died of AIDS or old age, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do the exhibit,” Montalvo says. “Many queer people in the 1990s and 1980s died of AIDS and were not given proper recognition or burial by their families.”
Hinds hopes that exposing these stories to a wider audience will encourage more people to donate to GLAMA.
“Any energy that may be spent highlighting these stories and helping unravel them translates, I believe, into helping establish that trust,” Hinds says. “People see, ‘Oh, these stories are there. Perhaps they might want this story or documentation of this event or from this organization.’ Anything that can be done to help establish those relationships is golden in my view.
The “Black/Queer Kansas City” exhibits at PH Coffee and Café Corazón will open on February 27. The exhibition at BLK + BRWN will open on March 1st. All three exhibitions will close on March 4th. More details are available here.