Revealing America’s Queer History, One State at a Time

In 1895, in the frontier town of La Grange, Texas, a doctor named John Carhart published a novel called Norma Trist. Its heroine, Norma Trist, was one of the first openly gay characters in American fiction. Now, pages from the book are part of a new art installation, which opened on September 10, at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn.

The exhibit, called, 50 States: Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, features three major installations, one for each of the three states in the show’s title. Each one of them, the artists said, was inspired by a little known story from the early queer history of each state.

“There’s something about these histories that are so easily forgotten,” said artist Nick Vaughan, who created the exhibit with his husband, Jake Margolin, “We knew we wanted a technique that wasn’t stable or permanent.”

The Texas installation at the 50 States exhibit.

The Texas installation at the 50 States exhibit.

To reflect this fragility, the artists reproduced oversized pages from Carhart’s book for the “Texas” part of the show  in loose, unfixed graphite powder. A gust of air could blow the words away.

The ‘Oklahoma’ installation features a sculpture of two-way mirrors through which a film is projected to create an ethereal effect. The sculpture, Margolin said, was inspired by the architect Bruce Goff who was forced to resign from the University of Oklahoma in 1955 because he was gay. Margolin described the film as a tribute to the playwright Lynn Riggs, who wrote the play on which the musical Oklahoma was based.

One of the smaller pieces at the 50 States show portrays Oklahoman playwright Lynn Rigg and a map of the state.

One of the smaller pieces at the 50 States show portrays Oklahoman playwright Lynn Rigg and a map of the state.

The Colorado piece includes a booth where visitors can watch a video of modern-day Coloradans toasting the memory of a man, who we might now called transgender, who lived in Trinidad, Colorado in the 1880s. Margolin said this piece affirms “that the road to what we call progress was paved by really anonymous people.”

The exhibit is the result of more than two and half years of work and research by Vaughan and Margolin.

“We stand on the shoulders of historians who do this work,” said Vaughan. The exhibit isn’t intended to be an authoritative account of this history, he said, but rather a way for viewers to access it.

This approach worked for visitor Rachael Warner, who attended the opening. Warner, who identifies as queer, said she grew up in rural Oregon and lives in Brooklyn. She said many people leave their rural origins, and that seeing this exhibit was like seeing what it would be like not to leave.

“You’re able to see your own history in this context that’s nostalgic, but also critical,” she said.

This exhibit is the second, third, and fourth installments of a long-term project by the artists to portray forgotten queer history from each of the 50 states. The first installment focused on Wyoming, which Margolin said he thought of as a very unfriendly place for queer people. He said discovering the queer history of the state changed his view. “Being there armed with that history was a total paradigm shift for the two of us,” he said.

With four states down and 46 to go, Vaughan and Margolin remained determined to complete the project.

“We’re prepared for this to take a very long time,” said Vaughn, “When we’re being really optimistic we say it’ll be the next 25 years.”

50 States: Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado is at the Invisible Dog Art Center, 51 Bergen Street in Brooklyn, until October 22.