“The Obama Portraits Tour” and “Black American Portraits” exhibits at LACMA not only celebrate portraiture, but also queer Black artists and subjects.
In the West Coast presentation of “The Obama Portraits Tour,” Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama and Amy Sherald’s Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama are on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Jan. 2.
Wiley, who identifies as gay, was the first Black artist to paint an official presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery when Obama selected him in 2018.
Wiley’s “Portrait of a Young Man,” his eagerly anticipated reimagining of Gainsborough’s iconic 1770 painting “The Blue Boy,” is on display at The Huntington. Wiley’s work, which takes the name that Thomas Gainsborough initially used, incorporates the Grand Manner portraiture technique and style, but in a contemporary setting.
“The Portrait Gallery’s official portraits of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald are powerful works of art,” Michael Govan, LACMA CEO, said in a statement. “The colors and styles of the paintings are a fresh departure from the history of presidential portraiture, and these have become two of the most recognized artworks in the world.”
To complement “The Obama Portraits Tour,” “Black American Portraits” is an exhibit that reframes portraiture to center Black American subjects, sitters, and spaces. It features 140 works mainly drawn from the museum’s permanent collection.
The picture above it showed several Black men who had been lynched.
Another photo asked what someone should do if their girlfriend was having an affair with a Black man. The answer, according to the caption, was to break “a tail light on his car so the police will stop him and shoot him.”
Someone else sent a picture of a candy cane, a Christmas tree ornament, a star for the top of the tree and an “enslaved person.”
“Which one doesn’t belong?” the caption asked.
“You don’t hang the star,” someone wrote back.
The comments represent a sliver of a trove of racist text messages exchanged by more than a dozen current and former Torrance police officers and recruits.
Through interviews with sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, public records requests and a review of district attorney’s office records, The Times examined some of the contents of the until-now secret texts and identified a dozen Torrance police officers under investigation for exchanging them.
The broad scope of the racist text conversations, which prosecutors said went on for years, has created a crisis for the Torrance Police Department and could jeopardize hundreds of criminal cases in which the officers either testified or made arrests. California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said Wednesday his office will investigate the department in the wake of the scandal.
The officers’ comments spared no color or creed: They joked about “gassing” Jewish people, assaulting members of the LGBTQ community, using violence against suspects and lying during an investigation into a police shooting, according to district attorney’s office records reviewed by The Times.
Frequently, hateful comments were targeted at Black people. Officers called Black men “savages,”and several variations of the N-word, according to documents reviewed by The Times. The officers also shared instructions on how to tie a noose and a picture of a stuffed animal being lynched inside Torrance’s police headquarters, according to the documents.
While no officers currently face criminal charges in direct relation to the text messages, the racist exchanges have led to the dismissal of at least 85 criminal cases involving the officers implicated in the scandal. County prosecutors had tossed 35 felony cases as of mid-November, and the Torrance city attorney’s office has dismissed an additional 50, officials said.
In total, the officers were listed as potential witnesses in nearly 1,400 cases in the last decade, according to district attorney’s records The Times obtained through a public records request. The officers did not necessarily testify in each case, so it’s unclear how many of those cases could be affected.
Still, in the span of one week in November, the Los Angeles County public defender’s office received about 300 letters from prosecutors disclosing potential misconduct by officers implicated in the scandal, said Judith Green, an office spokeswoman.
Prosecutors are reviewing dozens of additional cases linked to the officers, said Diana Teran, a special advisor to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón. The review will prioritize active cases in which a defendant is still in custody and one of the officers implicated in the scandal was a “material witness.”
“So that could be, for example, a single police officer is in a patrol car and sees an individual on the sidewalk and then says he had a bulge in his pocket and then pats him down and then recovers a gun,” Teran said. “Without that officer, you couldn’t prove that case.”
Since 2013, the group of officers identified by The Times has been involved in at least seven serious use-of-force incidents in Torrance and Long Beach, including three that ended in the deaths of Black and Latino men, according to police use-of-force records and court filings. Although the officers’ actions were found to be justified in each case, experts say those cases should be reexamined in the context of the hateful messages.
“What those text messages revealed was an extraordinarily hostile attitude toward people of color, people who are nonbinary, people who have different sexual orientations,” said Walter Katz, a former independent police auditor in California who now serves as a vice president of criminal justice for research firm Arnold Ventures. “I don’t know that we can take anything they’ve said at face value.”
Two of the officers under investigation as part of the scandal — Anthony Chavez and Matthew Concannon — are also under investigation for the controversial 2018 slaying of Christopher DeAndre Mitchell, a Black car theft suspect they fatally shot while he was holding an air rifle. Chavez and Concannon were cleared of wrongdoing by former Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, but the case is one of several that Gascón has hired a special prosecutor to review for possible criminal charges.
Several of the officers have also been named as defendants in lawsuits alleging excessive force, false arrest and wrongful death, court filings show. In some of those cases, the plaintiffs are members of the same ethnic groups the officers espoused hatred for in the texts.
In addition to Weldin, Tomsic and Chandler, The Times has reviewed district attorney’s records detailing racist texts or images shared by six other police officers: Blake Williams, Brian Kawamoto, Joshua Satterfield, Omar Alonso, Christopher Allen-Young and Long Beach Police Officer Maxwell Schroeder, who is a former Torrance police recruit.
Concannon, Chavez and fellow Torrance Police Officers Andrew Kissinger and Enrique Villegas are also under investigation as part of the scandal, according to three people with direct knowledge of the case and a review of district attorney’s records. The Times did not independently view documentation of racist text messages sent by any of those four officers, though the newspaper did review a document that showed Concannon sent messages that are part of the investigation.
The identities of all 13 officers named in this article were confirmed by three people with direct knowledge of the case and by reviewing district attorney’s records that detailed some of the officers’ comments. Those people spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could candidly discuss an ongoing investigation.
The text messages were not on one continuous thread, according to two of the sources.Additional officers received the texts but did not interact with them in any way, so they are not considered under investigation,those sources said.
The exact number of officers involved in the scandal is unclear. Sgt. Mark Ponegalek, a Torrance police spokesman, could not confirm or deny the identities of the officers involved, but said 15 have been placed on administrative leave in relation to the scandal.
That number did not include Tomsic, Weldin, or Schroeder, he said. The Times identified 13 officers in its investigation, including Tomsic, Weldin and Schroeder, meaning there are an additional five Torrance officers under investigation whose identities remain unknown to the public.
A Long Beach police spokesman said Schroeder was assigned to desk duty pending the outcome of an internal investigation, but would not say why.
The officers either declined to comment through their attorneys or did not respond to messages left by The Times at their homes or through their union, the Torrance Police Officers Assn., which represents rank-and-file officers. An attorney for the union said the officers were barred from commenting on the investigation.
“The current administrative investigations are confidential. As such, we do not have access to facts of the underlying investigation, or the alleged inappropriate materials. We expect that as police officers, our members should be treated like any other citizen — considered innocent until proven guilty,” the union said in a statement. “Our members have a right to due process and should be protected from illegal and unnecessary intrusion into their private lives.”
The text messages might have remained hidden if not for the alleged bizarre actions of Tomsic and Weldin in January 2020.
The two officers responded to a report of mail theft in the South Bay city and directed a car linked to the crime to be towed from the scene, authorities said. The pair allegedly spray-painted a swastika and a “happy face” inside the vehicle, according to a criminal complaint.
District attorney’s records reviewed by The Times showed Tomsic sent a slew of racist images and messages, including a picture of former President Reagan feeding a monkey with a caption stating Reagan “used to babysit [former President] Obama.”
Another picture he sent referred to an “African American baby” as a “Pet Niguana,” according to the records, and he also sent a message mocking the fact that he was the subject of a racial profiling complaint.
“So we totally racially profiled his ass, haha … Shopping at 7/11 while Black, he didn’t know the rules lol,” Tomsic wrote, according to the records.
Torrance police officials acquired evidence of the text message threads during their investigation of Weldin and Tomsic, according to Ponegalek, though he declined to give a specific timeline of when they obtained the data.
Gascón said he first became aware of the situation in July, when he was given a briefing about the pending vandalism charges.
“I questioned whether there was any other things that would lead us to believe that this is not sort of a single crime event,” he said. “I actually made some comments about how, generally, when someone does this kind of stuff, there are bigger patterns of behavior. So, I started asking if we had checked for text messages.”
Within weeks, Torrance police provided the district attorney’s office with more than 200 gigabytes of data, which showed the officers had been exchanging racist messages since at least 2018, according to Teran, the advisor to the district attorney. Gascón praised Torrance Police Chief Jeremiah Hart for moving quickly to provide information to prosecutors, noting he met resistance from police leaders when investigating similar scandals involving racist text messages among San Francisco officers.
Gascón said the texts are proof that some Torrance officers hate the communities they were hired to serve.
“It creates a tremendous amount of concern for me. We have a group of officers who, apparently in addition to harboring very biased and racist beliefs, also may be engaging in inappropriate force that could be illegal in some cases,” he said.
In the texts, the officers showed little concern about getting caught and even less about the citizens they were assigned to protect, routinely joking about using force and mocking internal affairs.
“We had to [expletive] her up because we knew he wouldn’t,” one officer wrote in one exchange about an altercation with a female suspect. “Don’t ask me where that lump on her forehead came from though.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to do things your own damn self,” Kawamoto replied, later adding a comment that he wanted to “always make Torrance great again,” a reference to former President Trump’s ubiquitous political slogan.
Kawamoto also referred to Black men as “savages” in the texts, according to district attorney’s records reviewed by The Times.
In another message reviewed by The Times, Alonso complained about the idea of having to work with a gay officer, and said he’d “straight punch” a member of the LGBTQ community, using a common slur for gay men.
Usually, conversations always seemed to circle back to vile insults or depictions of violence against Black people. After one officer shared a news article about someone being arrested for urinating on a Black child and calling them the N-word, Satterfield replied, “what’s the crime?” according to district attorney’s records reviewed by The Times.
From 2016 to 2019, Torrance police upheld just three citizen allegations of police misconduct and zero allegations of racial profiling made against officers, according to data submitted to the California attorney general’s office. Katz, the former independent police auditor, described those statistics as “concerningly low.”
“If citizen complaints are not taken seriously, it does increase the sense of impunity that officers who are inclined toward misconduct have,” he said.
Ponegalek argued that The Times’ analysis was incomplete, as it did not include statistics involving complaints filed by other officers. Torrance police sustained 35 out of 43 internally generated complaints of officer misconduct from 2016 to 2020, Ponegalek said. The department has also hired an outside law firm to conduct a review of the scandal, he said.
Many of the officers under investigation as part of the scandal also have use-of-force histories involving the communities for which they expressed hatred.
Schroeder used a carotid restraint hold — sometimes referred to as a blood choke — to subdue a homeless Black man in a park in November 2018, according to Long Beach police records The Times obtained through a public records request. Schroeder initiated contact with the man because he was sleeping in a park after it closed, the records show, and used the choke to take him down after an altercation.
Long Beach police officials determined the use of force was justified, the records show. The homeless man was booked on suspicion of resisting arrest, being in the park after dark and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to a Long Beach police spokesman. Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert did not respond to repeated calls and e-mails seeking information about the criminal case against the homeless man.
According to the district attorney’s records reviewed by The Times, Schroeder sent one message in the texts reading “No Jews, No Blacks,” and made racist remarks about a child eating a watermelon.
Several of the Torrance officers under investigation as part of the scandal have also used serious or deadly force against Black and Latino men while on duty in recent years, according to district attorney’s records.
One year later, Tomsic was one of several officers involved in a deadly altercation with Deautry Ross in the Del Amo Fashion Center, according to district attorney’s records. The officers were responding to calls from a mall employee who said Ross was walking through the building with a knife, muttering to himself. Ross fled from Torrance police when they responded, and became violent when they tried to arrest him, district attorney’s records show.
During the struggle, Tomsic said, Ross tried to gain control of his gun, according to a district attorney’s office memo clearing the officers of criminal liability. The officers hit Ross with a Taser and handcuffed him, but he continued to struggle, according to the report, which then described two officers kneeling on Ross’ shoulders.
Another officer then sat on Ross’ legs before others were able to “bind Ross’ arms and legs with a hobble restraint.”
Minutes later, firefighters on scene noted Ross’ pulse was beginning to weaken. He eventually went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later. A knife was recovered at the scene.
Medical examiners ruled Ross died of cardiac arrest resulting from methamphetamine use and his struggle with the officers, according to autopsy records.
The most controversial incident involving officers linked to the racist text scandal is the 2018 shooting death of Christopher DeAndre Mitchell. The incident sparked significant protests — including one inside Torrance’s City Council chambers that led demonstrators to file excessive-force lawsuits against several of the officers The Times identified in this article — and remains under review by Gascón.
Mitchell, who was Black, was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle when he pulled into a Ralphs parking lot in Torrance in December 2018, according to a district attorney’s office memo clearing the officers of wrongdoing. Concannon and Chavez pulled in behind him, exited their vehicle and yelled “police!” Mitchell initially placed his hands on the steering wheel, according to the memo, but when the officers approached him, they noticed his hands move toward his lap where Concannon saw what he believed to be a firearm.
The officers repeatedly ordered Mitchell to get out of the car, but he did not comply, according to the report. The officers described the weapon, later determined to be a “break barrel air rifle,” as “pinched” between Mitchell’s legs, though neither alleged he grabbed it or pointed it at them before they opened fire.
Lacey cleared the officers of wrongdoing in all three deaths, but Gascón has reopened the investigation into Mitchell’s killing . He declined to offer a timetable on that review and would not say whether the officers involvement in the text scandal would affect that probe.
Katz said the text messages call into question the credibility of the officers’ accounts of any past use-of-force incidents involving Black or Latino suspects.
In the Mitchell case, that could be especially concerning. According to district attorney’s records reviewed by The Times, Concannon once sent a troubling text message referring to a deposition he gave in an “officer-involved shooting.”
“They believed our lies. Good job sticking to the script,” he wrote. “LMAO, that’s what they call a W.”
According to a Times review of public records, Concannon has shot only one person during his career: Christopher DeAndre Mitchell.
With more than two dozen states poised to ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court gives them the OK next year, California clinics and their allies in the state Legislature on Wednesday revealed a plan to make the state a “sanctuary” for those seeking reproductive care, including possibly paying for travel, lodging and procedures for people from other states.
The California Future of Abortion Council, made up of more than 40 abortion providers and advocacy groups, released a list of 45 recommendations for the state to consider if the high court overturns Roe v. Wade — the 48-year-old decision that forbids states from outlawing abortion.
The recommendations are not just a liberal fantasy. Some of the state’s most important policymakers helped write them, including Toni Atkins, the San Diego Democrat who leads the state Senate and attended multiple meetings.
“We’ll be a sanctuary,” Newsom said, adding he’s aware patients will likely travel to California from other states to seek abortions. “We are looking at ways to support that inevitability and looking at ways to expand our protections.”
Abortion, perhaps more than any other issue, has divided the country for decades along mostly traditional partisan lines. A new decision overturning Roe v. Wade, which could come next summer, would be the culmination of more than 40 years of conservative activism. But Wednesday’s report offers a first glimpse of how Democratic-dominated states could respond and how the debate over abortion access would change.
California already pays for abortions for many low-income residents through the state’s Medicaid program. And California is one of six states that require private insurance companies to cover abortions, although many patients still end up paying deductibles and co-payments.
But money won’t be a problem for state-funded abortion services for patients from other states. California’s coffers have soared throughout the pandemic, fueling a record budget surplus this year. Next year, the state’s independent Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts California will have a surplus of about $31 billion.
California’s affiliates of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, got a sneak preview of how people might seek abortions outside their home states this year when a Texas law that outlawed abortion after six weeks of pregnancy was allowed to take effect. California clinics reported a slight increase in patients from Texas.
Now, California abortion providers are asking California to make it easier for those people to get to the state.
The report recommends funding — including public spending — to support patients seeking abortion for travel expenses such as gas, lodging, transportation and child care. It asks lawmakers to reimburse abortion providers for services to those who can’t afford to pay — including those who travel to California from other states whose income is low enough that they would qualify for state-funded abortions under Medicaid if they lived there.
It’s unclear about how many people would come to California for abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned. California does not collect or report abortion statistics. The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, said 132,680 abortions were performed in California in 2017, or about 15% of all abortions nationally. That number includes people from out of state as well as teenagers, who are not required to have their parents’ permission for an abortion in California.
Planned Parenthood, which accounts for about half of California’s abortion clinics, said it served 7,000 people from other states last year.
A huge influx of people from other states “will definitely destabilize the abortion provider network,” said Fabiola Carrion, interim director for reproductive and sexual health at the national Health Law Program. She said out-of-state abortions would also likely be later term procedures, which are more complicated and expensive.
The report asks lawmakers to help clinics increase their workforce to prepare for more patients by giving scholarships to medical students who pledge to offer abortion services in rural areas, help them pay off their student loans and assist with their monthly liability insurance premiums.
“We’re looking at how to build capacity and build workforce,” said Jodi Hicks, CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California. “It will take a partnership and investment with the state.”
Abortion opponents in California, meanwhile, are also preparing for a potential surge of patients from other states seeking the procedure — only they hope to convince them not to do it.
Jonathan Keller, president and CEO of the California Family Council, said California has about 160 pregnancy resource centers whose aim is to convince women not to get abortions. He said about half of those centers are medical clinics, while the rest are faith-based counseling centers.
Many of the centers are located near abortion clinics in an attempt to entice people to seek their counseling before opting to end pregnancies. Keller said many are already planning on increasing their staffing if California gets an increase of patients.
n honor of World AIDS Day, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Crystal Mason, an AIDS activist who worked with the direct-action group ACT UP/ San Francisco in the early 1990s. Mason, whose current project is an art, care and community-expanding network called Queering Dreams that they recently cofounded with Jason Wyman, also worked with the San Francisco AIDS Project as a case worker in the 1990s.
Mason was one of 23 ACT UP veterans who sat for an oral history as part of the GLBT Historical Society’s ACT UP Oral History Project, which was completed last year and is available here. In their oral history, Mason offered their thoughts on the importance of intersectional identity and why ACT UP had limited success integrating those perspectives as an activist organization. We invited Mason to discuss some of the issues they raised in their oral history and reflect on what they learned as an activist of color thirty years ago.
In your oral history, you mention that even from attending your first ACT UP protests, you were living in Washington D.C., before you came to San Francisco, you were interested in how AIDS was affecting poor people, marginalized people and people of color.
CM: Yes, and in fact shortly after I moved to San Francisco I accidentally wandered into the Castro Sweep [a brutal police crackdown on AIDS activists in the Castro in October 1989] on my way home from work! I was taken by how physical it was. People were really willing to put their bodies, their physical selves, on the line, against police brutality. So right there, you’ve got the intersection of AIDS with policing and incarceration. That interested me, and I started attending ACT UP meetings. And I feel like part of my role during my work with ACT UP was to keep bringing up the fact that HIV was affecting other populations beyond what was commonly seen in the media and understood by the American public, which was largely gay white men.
I remember being in a meeting, trying to reach consensus, and I can’t remember what we were discussing—perhaps homelessness, and one guy got impatient and snapped, “While we’re sitting here discussing this, dozens of people have died.” And I said, “In my community people have been dying all this time—and for a hell of a lot longer.” So there was always that tension. It is true that there were some activists from earlier political movements who had been involved with larger social issues. There were also people who began their ACT UP work with a pretty narrow focus. And there were those who did eventually came to appreciate and align themselves with a larger worldview. But it was always a bit of a struggle.
In your oral history, you really insist on the fact that intersectionality informs priorities and that over time, ACT UP/SF deemphasized these. You mention specifically women and people of color.
CM: I did spend a lot of time on women’s issues, which many of the men were receptive to. AIDS did not affect women the same way, and for a long time that just wasn’t accounted for. Women who clearly had the disease couldn’t get a diagnosis, which meant they couldn’t access Medical, social security, treatment studies, and so on. But ACT UP was not successful in terms of issues that affected people of color and the most marginalized. There was a time, for example, when we focused on universal access to healthcare and health insurance, which would have made treatment more available to marginalized people, such as the homeless, people with mental-health problems, or low-income people. Ultimately when the focus became centered narrowly around “let’s get drugs into bodies,” these larger issues were deprioritized, and it turns out that they weren’t necessarily talking about poor bodies, brown bodies, Black bodies, homeless bodies…
And I really wonder how different things might be if we had centered intersectionality and been more strident about equity issues. Today many white gay people see HIV as a manageable disease, but it is still booming in the Black community. And it’s not just people of color; when I was a case worker at the SF AIDS Foundation, it was poor people and people with drug problems. Having mental-health problems or being homeless would automatically disqualify you from access to treatment and coverage. I’ve realized that over and over—in the women’s suffrage movement or the labor movement and today with voting rights—the notion of “urgency” has ended up deprioritizing marginalized communities. And this is going to keep happening until we create movements where the goal is really to create a better life for the most marginalized, including Black people, transgender folks, incarcerated people and sex workers.
What advice would you have for students, historians and members of the public who are interested in learning about ACT UP and AIDS activism today?
CM: I think that ACT UP in some ways was very successful and remains worth emulating. We were strident, even when we didn’t have social support. We were just one in a long line of movements that were more vilified than celebrated at the time. There’s such a thing as “respectability politics,” and a lot of LGBTQ people were not happy when we were out there protesting during Pride parades. But I’d also say to folks, be willing to look at what fell by the wayside. Yes there is a moral arc of history, and yes, it does bend. But that arc doesn’t bend without us. And when I say “us,” I mean all of us, we have to stop creating movements for change with this addiction to centering whiteness.
Black people and poor people and trans people are still fighting for a place at the table. Those who are at the table can’t speak for those who aren’t. What we can do is make space for other voices. And hand the microphone over from time to time. When we get in certain rooms, we have to demand that other people also get into that room. Not to see ourselves as singular, but realize our connections to the whole.
Crystal Mason (they/them) is an activist who recently cofounded “Queering Dreams,” anart, care, and community-expanding network that uses the power of art to envision liberation from capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression.
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Back in May, we ran a story about a digitized collection we made available this spring: the Daniel A. Smith and Queer Blue Light Videotape Collection. This remarkable collection consists of nearly 100 half-inch videotapes recorded by the Queer Blue Light (QBL) Collective, a grassroots guerilla project that documented the politics and culture of the local LGBTQ community in the 1970s. The footage was all shot on a Sony Portapak, one of the first self-contained videotape recorders from the late 1960s.
While the majority of the tapes document the activities of the QBL Collective, they also include footage by QBL members of friends relaxing together and living everyday life. In her article in May, our project archivist Megan Needels was especially taken with a tape that depicted an informal dinner party that recorded what she described as “pure queer joy.” We’re delighted to bring you a follow up to this story: an interview with John Carr. Carr held the party at his apartment on Castro and Market Streets on February 29, 1980—it was a “Leap Day” party. Thirty-five years later, while attending the Frameline Festival, Carr recognized himself in footage licensed from the society by documentary filmmaker Stu Maddox for his 2015 documentary Reel in the Closet. Carr connected with Maddox and went on to donate three of his own Portapak videotapes to the GLBT Historical Society as the John Carr Videotapes.
How did you find out that the QBL tapes existed and that some of your own Portapak tapes might be readable?
JC: I knew the tapes existed because Dan Smith was a friend. His partner in QBL was Earl Galvin, who was my boyfriend at the time. Somehow, some of the tapes he made of parties at my flat ended up in the QBL collection. He had given three others to me. I did not know that the GLBT Historical Society now had the QBL tapes until I saw myself in Reel in the Closet in 2015. Stu Maddux told me about John Raines, a digital media whiz, who then digitized the other three tapes I had. Seeing those tapes again opened up a huge lost world, because it was 35 years since the tapes had been made and there was no equipment to play them on anymore. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone in terms of my life at that time. 1980 was a year before AIDS started. I lost count of how many friends I lost to AIDS, and several of the people in the tapes had died, but some that were possibly still alive, so I searched for them, found some on Facebook and brought them back into my life.
What do you remember about this 1980 Leap Day Party?
JC: That party really showcased my friends, I think. Most of them were single and cruising others at the party, even sort of flirting with the camera. Haha! And the novelty of home video—people being on camera like that—was brand new at that time. [The Sony Portapak] was a cumbersome piece of equipment. The battery only lasted 20 minutes and the tape 30 minutes, so you knew you had to change either the tape or battery or both if you had a long program that you wanted to record! (Laughs). We were just having fun, Earl brought it over for the parties, and we got high and had a good time. I had just escaped from a toxic relationship and took that apartment, so I was a single person again, and February 29 was a Leap Day so it was a good time to have a first party, and I was finally ready to have some people over.
What feelings do you experience, seeing yourself in the footage?
JC: Seeing the people in the tapes alive again reminded me that you forget a lot in 35+ years. It reminded me of the wonderful times we had, which I held in a kind of generic way in my head but this was a specific moment, and it was delightful to see. Going through HIV a lot of people went home, and you may not have known where they went, they just disappeared. They may have died.
San Francisco was such a focal point, a meeting place, back in those days, I arrived here in 1975. It was quite a magic time to be here and everyone was coming from somewhere else, but all of them had a coming-out story. That’s what I remember most about that time: we were dealing with a very diverse group of people who had some very similar things in common, they were running from or running to something. And boy, when they got here it all just exploded in so many ways, the exploring of their intellectual, their sexual and personal lives just happened. It was so repressed up to that point.
One thing that comes up for me strongly is, “Wow, there are people who are interested in this!” Now, as people make ephemeral recordings of their daily lives, they tend to think that future generations aren’t going to be interested in this, so it surprised me that there are people who are interested. And so, I say, please folks: If you have any of this stuff and you’re getting up there in years or whatever, consider donating it to the GLBT Historical Society, don’t toss it out. Give them a chance because you won’t know what’s important to future generations. Your life is important whether you’re here or gone, so let other people see into your life.
John Carr grew up in Colorado and has lived in San Francisco for the past 47 years, where he had a landscaping company until his retirement in 2004. Michael Lownie, his life partner of 19 years, is a fine artist.
The Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive (LLTA or Louise), founded and managed by professor Ms. Bob Davis, is a fiscally sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society. Located in Vallejo, California, it is one of the world’s largest repositories of archival materials pertaining to transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the world. In honor of Transgender Awareness Week this November, we interviewed Ms. Bob about Louise’s latest projects and on the significance of transgender history.
What are some of the initiatives that LLTA has been focusing on during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ms. Bob: Back in 2019, I gave a talk at the “Queering Memory” conference in Berlin called “Glamour, Drag and Death: HIV/AIDS in the Art of Three Drag Queen Painters.” It focused on the artists and performers Jerome Caja, Doris Fish and Miss Kitty, all three of whom died between 1991 and 1995, and includes analysis of artworks held by both LLTA and the GLBT Historical Society. I published an article based on the talk in Transgender Studies Quarterly this February, and now I’m working on turning the material into a short documentary film to reach a wider audience. I want people to learn about how these artists confronted AIDS. It was less intellectual; they responded in a visceral, emotional way, in a very valiant fight to retain their identities in the face of this horrible crisis. It’s now thirty years since the height of the AIDS pandemic, and there’s a whole generation of LGBTQ people who simply don’t have that lived experience. It’s important to pass on this history so they can learn about what the community went through.
What can you tell us about your ongoing online “scrapbook” project on the LLTA website?
Ms. Bob: It’s an online project called “I Think This is Our Denise: Discovering Forgotten Scrapbooks of Trans History,” and it’s based on a remarkable collection of six large scrapbooks donated by Taryn Gundling in 2014. They belonged to a trans woman named Denise, and contain over a dozen pages of candid photographs of transgender people and cross-dressers from the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when the transgender community was just beginning to define itself and establish networks. It took four years of research to learn more about Denise and the people in the photographs. I recognized some of them in other LLTA archival collections; in issues of the first national transgender community magazine, Transvestia, which began publishing in 1960; and in photographs held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, many of which were published in the book Casa Susanna. These photos depict transgender people vacationing at several Catskill mountain resorts, one of them named Casa Susanna, run by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie. These establishments served as safe spaces for transgender women to vacation in their gender of choice in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now we’re using the scrapbooks to do a deep dive into transgender history. LLTA is partnering with the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Transgender Archive at University of Victoria; the website “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”; and the Digital Transgender Archive to create an online hub that connects the resources of all five organizations to present photographs, biographies, and autobiographical articles about the individuals in the scrapbook. For example, many of the people in the snapshots wrote autobiographical articles in early issues of Transvestia, so the site connects you to essays they wrote about their lives. This project will allow them to really live again, and the site is being beautifully put together by our webmaster Robyn Adams.
You’ve been curating LLTA for many years now. What’s something you want people to learn about transgender history?
Ms. Bob: One of the things I’m personally interested in conveying relates to the growing awareness of trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer identities that we see today. When you examine historical materials, you realize that these shades of gender and gender identity have always been with us; they aren’t just emerging or being “invented” now. Trans people in the early 1960s, when the community first began to organize, were working with different terms, often borrowed from the medical establishment and out of date now. They certainly didn’t have the vocabulary that is available today. But if you dig down, the documentation reveals that people were defining, exploring, and working out their identities in complex ways. Understanding this supports us in continuing the work of building our community in the present so that we can display more of our rainbow.
Ms. Bob Davis (she/her/hers) is the founder and director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive. In the 1990s she served two terms on the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors.
For nearly all transgender or gender nonconforming people, correcting a well-intentioned person when they inadvertently use the wrong pronoun can be highly fraught. Bring it up and you’re likely to derail a pleasant conversation. Let it go and you’ll probably brood about it all afternoon.
But when you’re the first-ever high-ranking trans cleric of a major Christian denomination, tasked with caring for people whose level of familiarity with trans issues could fall anywhere, it’s much tougher.
For the Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer, who was installed on Sunday, Sept. 12, as the Bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), and who uses they/them pronouns, progress has meant a sort of learning what not to hear.
“Regardless of how people talk to me, as long as it was kind, it was OK,” they say. “Anytime I would correct pronouns when I was trying to talk pastorally to people, I was turning the subject from them to me, and then they feel like they need to apologize publicly — which draws even more attention to it.”
“I have a trans child, for whom, if ‘they’ isn’t used, will be in tears for days,” Rohrer says. “That has given me the permission to be really public about it: ‘Nope, you’re going to use “they,” because if you screw up with me, I’m going to have grace about it.’ Letting people know my pronouns and my name is great.”
“Not on every piece of stationery,” they add, “but enough that people can Google it.”
In terms of identity and breaking barriers, it’s almost always difficult navigating the scrutiny that goes along with being the first anyone to do anything. And this isn’t Rohrer’s first time. In 2017, they became the first transgender chaplain with the San Francisco Police Department, at a time when the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the cops had grown strained over scandals involving officers sending homophobic texts and the rising awareness of racist police violence. Rohrer believed their (voluntary) position was well-suited to bring about a more constructive atmosphere.
“I really affirm the idea of being in the strategic place to critique all systems of power, those making the largest decisions,” they say. “What I learned from being in lots of different listening sessions, there’s a full variety of LGBTQ+ folks in the Bay Area, and I saw that diversity of thinking around what people want in policing, what people thought safety was, what people thought was a crime.”
At the request of unhoused LGBTQ+ youth, Rohrer helped put together a potluck with LGBTQ+ officers — some of whom had experienced homelessness themselves, and who attended out of uniform. Rohrer expected “a grumpy conversation,” but the officers listened for three hours, and by the end, some of the kids were asking for information on how to become cops.
Summing up that detente between representatives of two groups who are often at odds, Rohrer says, “The progress of the world is dependent on every new generation believing that they’re right so strongly that it moves the world forward.”
Such tensions are not as inflamed as they were even a year ago. But Rohrer’s installation as bishop comes as vast tracts of the Sierra Pacific Synod’s territory are on hair-trigger alert for destructive wildfires, which generate spiritual crises of their own. Rohrer sees the conflagrations as a source of trauma requiring specialized pastoral care — especially for first responders.
The LA LGBT Center has completed construction of a new senior housing complex next-door to its Anita May Rosenstein Campus in Hollywood.
Los Angeles-based Killefer Flammang Architects (KFA) and New York-based Leong Leong have completed the Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing Complex.
Replacing a surface parking lot at 1127 N. Las Palmas, the five-story senior housing complex features 98 studio, one-, and two-bedroom apartments reserved for low-income seniors.
The building, in addition to housing, includes a fitness center, and a courtyard. The apartments are accompanied by inset balconies, and are designed to be wheelchair accessible.
The project includes a mix of traditional affordable housing, leased through a lottery system, and permanent supportive housing where rents will be covered through public funds.
The apartments, which are reserved for residents aged 62 and older, will offer rents up to $1,175 per month, as well as access to specialized services catering to LGBT adults, meals, case management, and employment training. Twenty-six of the 98 units are earmarked for individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness. The rents of those units will be fully covered by city- and county-provided grants.
“The lack of affordable housing in this country is at an all-time high and presents even greater hardships for the LGBTQ community given the many biases which continue to exist. It’s an even greater problem amongst LGBTQ seniors,” said Ariadne Getty, president and executive director of the foundation, in a statement.
In early 2020, construction commenced on the housing-focused second phase of the project, one made possible thanks to a $2.5 million gift from the Ariadne Getty Foundation (AGF). Also recently completed on the campus is a 26-unit Youth Housing complex located across the street from the Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing building.
Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing was developed by Thomas Safran & Associates, an L.A.-based affordable housing developer and property management company.
On Tuesday, Oct. 19 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to expand mental health treatment and other supportive services for LGBTQ people, both inside and out of county jails.
The movement’s lead author, supervisor Sheila Kühl, said this will also address concerns that a large number of women, including pregnant or elderly women, have been unnecessarily imprisoned.
“The county needs to pay close attention to the sexual orientation and gender identity of the people in custody, because without knowing who they are, they cannot effectively meet their needs. “Because,” Kühl added. The motion calls for the implementation of a series of recommendations detailed in a report issued by the county’s Gender Response Advisory Board.
There are about 1,300 inmates held daily at Century Regional Detention Facility, the county’s women’s jail in Lynwood.
A 2020 RAND Corporation analysis estimated that roughly one-third of women in county jail have mental health issues and that nearly three-quarters of those women could be safely treated outside a jail setting.
However, releasing them would require significantly ramping up the number of available inpatient and outpatient beds in the community.
Reliable data on the LGBTQ+ population in Los Angeles County jails is not currently available, but a national survey indicates that roughly one-third of women behind bars across the country identify as lesbian or bisexual. The board motion also calls for additional data gathering.
Women are the fastest growing population in U.S. prisons and jails, and an estimated 86% of women in jail nationwide have been victims of sexual violence, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who co-authored the motion, recalled voting more than 20 years ago on a state public safety bill aimed at “stopping belly chaining and shackling pregnant women who are in active labor as they are being transported from prison or jail to deliver. Just barbaric ideology, barbaric practice.”
Mitchell also pointed out the racial inequities evident in the disproportionate number of Black women jailed for crimes largely rooted in issues of substance abuse and poverty.
“Black women comprise only 9% of all the women in L.A. County, yet they make up 33% of jail bookings among women,” Mitchell said. “The racial and gender inequities in our jail system are real and must be addressed.”
The Kuehl/Mitchell motion also referenced a goal to shut down Men’s Central Jail without a replacement as central to that vision, although that particular objective is opposed by both Sheriff Alex Villanueva — who runs the jails — and Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
Both Barger and the sheriff agree that the dangerously decrepit jail must be closed, but believe a replacement is needed to house and treat inmates who cannot be safely released, particularly given the current lack of community infrastructure.