Nasir Montalvo wants to place Kansas City’s Black queer history front and center
Spread across two coffee shops and a bookstore, the “Black/Queer Kansas City” exhibit will showcase forgotten figures of local LGBTQ history — and hopefully encourage more Kansas Citians to share their own stories.
When Nasir Anthony Montalvo first moved to Kansas City more than 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.
That got Montalvo curious, 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 like I needed to do something to aid the community and, in doing that, finding community myself,” Montalvo says. “I thought the information was amazing, rich — albeit there was only a small portion of Black queer history there. A lot of the history in Kansas City is around white queer history, but I felt like I needed 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 history of Men of All Colors Together, an organization fighting racism among gay men; and a gay and lesbian variety show that aired on cable in the ‘90s and featured Lea Hopkins – a Kansas City organizer who founded the city’s first Gay Pride Parade in 1979.
Hinds says he is thrilled about how Montalvo’s research is filling gaps in GLAMA’s collections, which are mostly received through donations.
“Those relationships are built on trust,” Hinds says. “It can be challenging for that trust to be established with communities who have experienced a variety of marginalizations and are perhaps reluctant to turn over some of that documentation.”
Montalvo decided to expand their research by building three different exhibits around the topics to be put on at different businesses around the city: PH Coffee, Café Corazón and BLK + BRWN Bookstore. Altogether, their project is called “Black/Queer Kansas City.”
“Along with written stuff and the things I have to say, I have to commit to action as well as part of my praxis,” Montalvo says. “So I felt like I needed to turn these digital pieces into something physical, something people could come see and share with the wider Kansas City community.”
Montalvo doesn’t just want to teach about the past — they want to equip visitors with the knowledge to fight the problems that still plague the LGBTQ community now: internal racism, threats against drag performers and the ongoing struggle for visibility.
“These identities aren't compartmentalized,” Montalvo says. “It's not like in Kansas City, queer people exist, Black people exist, Latine and Native people exist (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 picking exhibit locations across the city, Montalvo wanted to embrace intersectionality within the queer community. They chose PH Coffee in the historic Northeast to break down harmful misconceptions about the neighborhood and expose outsiders to the rich history of the area.
Café Corazón in the Crossroads was chosen for solidarity between Black and Latin American communities, as well as to honor Montalvo’s own identity. And Montalvo picked BLK + BRWN Bookstore in Westport, which will host the third part of the exhibit, to show support for Black-owned businesses.
To capture a personal feel, Montalvo says they designed the displays like a family photo wall or a scrapbook. It’s a way to give the figures and groups featured in the exhibit a public acceptance that they didn’t have before.
Where GLAMA lacked information, Montalvo sourced materials for the exhibits through Facebook groups like KC's Cabaret/Pegasus Memories.
Montalvo hopes the exhibit serves as a reminder to people that even small, seemingly inconsequential items — like a flyer or group picture — can help piece together the history of a community.
Montalvo also wanted to offer something that people could take home with them, so they partnered with Oddities Prints to create prints of Edye Gregory, Quience Sykes and Lea Hopkins that are available for purchase.
While Hopkins is still alive and organizing in Kansas City, the rest of the exhibit serves as a memorial to Kansas Citians who have since died and otherwise been forgotten.
“Most of the Black queer Kansas Citians I've covered, have passed away either due to AIDS or old age which is part of why I wanted to do the exhibit,” Montalvo says. “A lot of queer people in the ‘90s and ‘80s died from AIDS and didn't get proper recognition or burial from their families.”
Hinds hopes the exposure of these stories to a larger audience will encourage more people to donate to GLAMA.
“Any energy that can be expended on highlighting these stories and helping to unveil them results, I think, in helping to establish that trust,” Hinds says. “People see, ‘Oh, these stories are there. Maybe they might want this story or documentation of this event or from this organization.’ Whatever can be done to help establish those relationships is golden from my perspective.”
The “Black/Queer Kansas City” exhibits at PH Coffee and Café Corazón open Feb. 27. The exhibit at BLK + BRWN opens March 1. All three exhibits close March 4. More details are available here.