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With fabric and crayon, man makes impression on gay history

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WEBSTER GROVES, Mo. Many of the names are familiar and anticipated Truman Capote, Andy Warhol and James Dean.

They are here along with those of actors Marlene Dietrich, Rudolph Valentino and Tyrone Power. Writers Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville and Oscar Wilde are nearby.

And, yes, St. Louis is represented in the new art exhibit at Webster University, in nearby Webster Groves, Mo. writers Tennessee Williams and William S. Burroughs. The creator of the collection, known as "The Gay Rub," also is a St. Louisan, although Steven Reigns now calls West Hollywood, Calif., home.

In the small gallery hang 150 rubbings taken from landmarks, signs, tombstones, plaques and other monuments from throughout the world. They represent what Reigns says are integral pieces of "queer" history, a term that is growing in favor among activists in referring to those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

"For gay people, I think it's important to see who has helped pave the way for us to live as openly as we do today," Reigns said. And for the general population, he hopes the exhibit shows the mark that gay people have had on various aspects of history.

For example, included in the exhibit is Leonard Matlovich, an Air Force sergeant and veteran of the Vietnam War who challenged the ban on gays serving in the military. The rubbings also include a marker dedicated to Ivy Bottini, who helped found the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, but was expelled because she was a lesbian.

The idea for the exhibit began more than five years ago, when Reigns walked past a plaque in a small park in his neighborhood. It was placed there in November 2009 as a "Transgender Day of Remembrance Memorial."

"I began to wonder: 'Are there others? What do they look like?'" Reigns said. He found that there was no comprehensive listing of markers noting places, people or events that help document gay history. He created a website listing markers and encouraged others to participate.

"There's no way my knowledge of LGBT history is all encompassing so I wanted people's suggestions and other people to participate."

That's where the exhibit also takes a turn. Many of the pieces in the collection by Reigns are done by others. Friends or supporters of the project would say they were traveling to or lived in a place where a marker is situated. In turn, Reigns would send them a piece of fabric and a black crayon to do the rubbing.

St. Louisan Jeffrey Ricker and his partner, Michael Todd Wallerstein, met Reigns at a writers conference in New Orleans a few years ago.

"Let me know if there is anything in St. Louis you need," Ricker recalls telling Reigns. "A little while later, he sent an email and said: 'I don't have William S. Burroughs. Would you like to go do that one?'"

So Ricker and Wallerstein headed to Bellefontaine Cemetery where Burroughs is buried and did an impression of his headstone.

"I didn't even know Burroughs was gay," Ricker said. He is looking forward to seeing the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 18.

"Because of who we are, we have to preserve and document our own history," Ricker said. "Unlike a lot of other groups, it's not passed down from generation to generation. If we don't document it in some way, it's lost."

Rubbings originated as keepsakes that loved ones took from gravestones. That's why Reigns decided to take the same approach with his exhibit.

"To only gather photographs robs the tactile nature of a marker," Reigns said. And the rubbing process is more intimate, he said. In all, 150 rubbings are on display. A booklet is available detailing each of the rubbings, including from where they were taken.

Jeffrey Hughes, director of the Cecille R. Hunt Gallery, said the exhibit is perfect for the space.

"It fits within our mission as an educational institution. We try to be inclusive and are drawn to activist-based art," Hughes said.

Reigns is a poet and has taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV. He is excited to have the exhibit, which has been displayed five other times, land in his hometown.

(c)2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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