and S Rodriguez
Jessica Carolina Gonzalez
Notes on Monumental Shame
In June of 2019, summoning the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston [CAMH] presented Stonewall 50 curated by Dean Daderko, based on an exhibition proposed by Bill Arning. Key to this exhibition was the archival memory of MARY’S, Naturally!, a legendary Houston gay bar and one of the oldest in Texas by the time of its permanent closing in November 2009. MARY’S, as writer Ed Martinez put it in a spring 1983 issue of Out in Texas, was “the motherhouse of all the gay bars in Houston.” At CAMH, photographs of patrons, memorialized as early AIDS victims, were displayed and marketed as collective nostalgia. Meanwhile, the brick building that once housed it—depicted in the photos on display—was still standing just a few blocks away, transformed into a coffee shop under the ownership of real estate investment company MLB Capital. Here, the structure’s material presence stood against a physical absence of the gay men pictured at CAMH. Although this turn to the archival in the space of the museum is historically important, it is equally important to dwell on what is lost by this particular process of monumentalization. Here, architecture stands as the only record made durable enough to outlast any societal achievements or illusions of progress.
The first brick thrown at Stonewall, what has become the origin myth for the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, signals by way of the brick (the essentialized tool of architecture), an indigenous radicality in queer engagement with the built environment. From a semiotic-structuralist perspective, the “gayborhood” of the last decade is marked as much by absences as by the visible markers of its past. Its essence lies in what is lost, omitted, or left out; an architecture of absences. In the cultural sphere, the “gayborhood” has become a fetish object primarily for cisgender white women to partake in some form of cultural tourism. This litany of signs reframing the initial obstruction of the Stonewall riots into a sterilized history. Given that architecture functions as a stage through which dominion is formalized and enacted, MARY’S redevelopment from Houston’s “Stonewall equivalent” into a “coffeehouse with gourmet, barista-made drinks, home-baked goods & light fare in an industrial space” proves a revealing allegory attesting to the depoliticization of LGBTQ+ people under a neoliberal rubric of “gay rights.” Rhetoric in the red-brick form indicating rot in the foundation of our movements.
without architecture, there would be no stonewall; without architecture, there would be no “brick” is a curatorially driven series of interventions by a group of artists whose practices are rooted in the unraveling of the convergence of politics and the built environment. Every June, the exhibition series is set to occur at the former MARY’S outback, now a paved parking lot, running alongside the citywide and national gay pride month commemoration of the Stonewall uprising. The continual reactivation of the site also recalls and functions as a continuation of early AIDS mourning practices and works to materialize if only briefly the inscribed trauma that’s been deferred. The Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of GLBT History estimates that as many as 300 people were laid to rest or had their ashes scattered at MARY’S. This is not revisionary history but a critical deployment of pastness, presentness, and futurity for the purpose of reanimating and reviving the revolutionary energies that once fueled the American gay and lesbian civil rights movement. Mourning is a utopian act insofar as it acknowledges a lack that is normalized as reality and attempts to work with and through this lack. We conceive of mourning as an exchange between all possible commingling temporalities—what has been, what is, and what could be, in an effort to engage with new modes of being and belonging that extend beyond the mere habitation of built and fixed structures.
X if it’s true that the ancient founders chose the site after consulting the omens, then, and also because we have lived there a long time, the place is so sacred to us that we cannot abandon it.