Queering Family Values
By Charmaine Renee
As we honor Pride throughout the month of June, we are excited to share this post from queer artist Charmaine Renee about their most recent project- a quilt documenting the histories of Midwestern queer people. Charmaine first got in contact with us because they were interested in using items from our collections for the quilt. Check out the end of this post for links to these items!
The first place I lived on my own was a run-down warehouse. I rented a studio room for $250/month. I bought a futon and moved into a room with no water access. I was 19 and running on fear and survival instincts. This was how I thought I would stay alive as a young queer kid who most certainly did not fit into “traditional” family values.
As queers, we often mother ourselves. We comfort and nourish ourselves to heal the punished parts of us.
Like many, I grew up in a Tea Party Republican, Evangelical household. I heard Rush Limbaugh every weekday from noon to 3pm and it always began with the National Anthem and he always started talking at 12:06pm. I learned at a young age that gayness was something to sneer at, it was sinful, inherently perverted. Children should not be exposed because queers are dangerous. AIDS is a punishment from god.
As a young college kid I saw Paris is Burning and it gave me the foundation of how I hold my queer family now and honor the wisdom of elder queers. Each House had a mother who took care of her children. They were not related and many times did not have a large age gap but there was care and respect and love. I wanted to be a mother like that. The instinct to host and care for those around me was taught by my mother and is compounded by my queerness and the survival tactic of making those around me comfortable with my existence. Beyond the significant social and cultural barriers to finding queer community throughout history, there is no ancestry or bloodline, language changes with the generations, and identities evolve. We can exist because of those who came before us.
Not all of us have that proverbial “gay uncle” – some of us are that gay uncle and lesbian aunt. Many Queer folk can relate to being the only publicly out Queer person in their immediate and extended family. We oftentimes must make our own family and passing stories down through generations becomes much more difficult. Through many conversations and intimate family dinners, I’ve begun to unearth and stitch together the overlooked history of Midwestern Queers. Much of this history has been gathered by individuals and donated to various archives; other stories have been recorded and archived by me. Their stories have become part of my quilts.
Quilts are made for all sorts of reasons. Some are made as decoration or symbols of class and comfort, others (and the ones I’m most interested in) are made out of scraps for warmth. Quilts tell stories of necessity, family, and tradition. Quilting is commonly understood as craft and “women’s work”. More broadly, the labor traditionally assigned to women is building and sustaining a family, which includes keeping the family warm and comforted. Queer families assemble folks who have been cut from their families of origin and discarded as scraps. Each member of the family is chosen. Each piece adds warmth and safety. In queer family structure there is not a clear prescription of who “wears the pants” – because there are no “pants” or “skirts.” Family roles are adjusted around need and ability.
So often young queer people are prohibited from taking part in family traditions based around religion, heterosexuality, and keeping things “normal”. We then seek to create our own traditions but there are not readily available resources or imagery to conjure up what a happy Queer family could look like. In order to build a future and to imagine a lasting happiness, having a mental archive of possibilities is necessary. We build our own answers and sustain our own lives. The collection of materials and histories I’ve gathered from my own family and Midwestern archives, (Thank you Gay Ohio History Initiative Collection!) show the stories of a Midwestern Queer; one who has always created comfort within our uncomfortable histories.
Quilting is a tradition for many, but the particular tradition that I am honoring is The AIDS Memorial Quilt. The Memorial Quilt began in 1985 by San Francisco gay rights activist Cleve Jones to memorialize the thousands that were lost to AIDS. Each panel is hand sewn and has the name of someone who has died of AIDS. The AIDS quilt commemorates people who were thrown away by the government. Today there are over 48,000 panels. This is a radical sharing of pain, loss, and joy about people who were not necessarily able to make the choice to be seen.
The AIDS epidemic outed a generation; it disrupted the passing of knowledge, resistance, and joy from future queers. Community was necessary for survival. Family was made through struggle, immense loss, and need. This suturing together of people, stories, and familial identity continues today, and more pressingly during the COVID pandemic. Who is “in the family”? Disenfranchised people find out quickly when we cannot rely on the government for protection/safety/basic human needs (see the Reagan & Trump administrations).
The pink triangle, highlighted as the main pattern on this Quilt, originated during the Holocaust when gay men were forced to wear inverted pink triangles. This triangle has been reclaimed and treasured for the past 40 years including by the activist organization Act Up, which formed in the 1980s in response to the United States government’s negligence during the AIDs crisis. It seems fitting then, that in a Pandemic where the government has been negligent, the symbol is the visual foundation of the quilt. We are sewing into, pressing, and printing ourselves on top of our history. This is the beginning of how the quilt acts as an archive. These pieced-together quilts celebrate repair and re-purpose, not dwelling in the damage that has been done but creating a unique and thriving future.
While designed by me, this 40 foot quilt was crafted by a community of queer folks. It is filled with materials that were donated and stitched with many hands. In the quilt are images from various midwestern archives printed onto denim and sewn into the quilt. These images are reduced/simplified and without a background.
There are also paintings of my family within the inverted triangles. These paintings and the screen printed archived images sewn into the quilt are images of queers existing without acknowledging the viewer. They are not looking at the camera, not existing on display for the viewer. These images capture moments of queer people resting safely and contentedly in shared space. Theirs and others’ moments will be gathered as this quilt grows to hold more of our stories.
The quilt will be displayed for the first time August 23- September 10 at Purdue University’s Rueff Galleries. This will be the first iteration of many.
If you would like to add your story, please contact us at [email protected]
***Charmaine (Charlie) Renee, Graduate Student, Visual and Performing Arts, Purdue University.
Charlie is a midwestern femme, queer mom, and interdisciplinary artist whose work revolves around the intersection of a queer midwest identity. In their work, midwestern mothering and queer domesticity are translated into comfort constructions, quilts, everyday objects, as well as practical and local collaborations with ACE Food Pantry and Purdue Student Farms.
Check out the links below to see the items that Charmaine selected from our collections for the quilt:
Deaf marchers in Gay Pride Parade
ACT UP protestors at Columbus Dispatch
Ohio Gay Rights Coalition at 1979 March on Washington
1979 March on Washington