An ongoing project aims to showcase untold stories of the Inland Northwest's LGBTQ+ community

click to enlarge An ongoing project aims to showcase untold stories of the Inland Northwest's LGBTQ+ community
Young Kwak photo
Spokane Pride History and Remembrance Project archivist Bethany Laird, head curator Crystal Marché and Spokane Pride board member Shelby Dirks.

Everyone, everywhere in the world has their own story. Some are long-lived sagas filled with chapter after chapter of jaw-dropping material, while others are more akin to a short novel. Regardless of length or content, most of the stories of those in the LGBTQ+ community just haven't been told — leading to a new generation of queer people who don't know their own history.

Instead of allowing that history to be lost, Spokane Pride has dedicated efforts to collecting and documenting these local stories through a new project called Spokane Pride & Remembrance: A History Project. Operating like a museum exhibit, the project showcases contributions of the region's LGBTQ+ community at Riverfront Park's Pavilion through Saturday, June 8.

Attendees can view panels of the national AIDS Memorial Quilts displayed by SAN (formerly Spokane AIDS Network) in one area, and can be dazzled by the jewels and gowns worn by royalty of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Spokane, an LGBTQ+ nonprofit that provides support and raises funds for the community. In total, there will be 10 or so exhibitions spread throughout the Pavilion building's first floor. Centrally highlighted among these different facets of the queer community's existence is a poster board timeline compiled by archivist Bethany Laird, a nonbinary Spokanite.

Over the past few months, Laird spent 20-plus hours of her free time each week documenting all this history. Using archival material and first-person interviews, Laird was able to pinpoint pivotal historical figures and moments in the region's queer community.

One story Laird is most excited to share is about Spokane jazz musician Billy Tipton, who came to town with the Billy Tipton Trio in 1958. Not until after his death in 1989 was it discovered that Tipton was a transgender man.

"We don't really have a lot of transmasc representation in our history, so that was really cool to discover," Laird says.

Laird's work on the project is only the beginning, and she hopes to see it continually updated and showcased at future Pride events.

"This exhibit is the launch of something greater and bigger, and it can't be done alone," she says. "It has to be everyone in the [LGBTQ+] community involved, and they all have their pieces to add."

Crystal Marché began performing as a drag queen in Eastern Washington over two decades ago, so the region's queer history is a personal affair for her.

The Tri-Cities-born queen began her own story at the queer nightclub Out and About in Pasco, and moved to Spokane in 2003 to perform at Dempsey's Brass Rail, where she was the self-proclaimed duchess of the Dempsey's Divas.

"Growing up, Spokane always seemed like the big city," she says. "But when I moved up here, I learned it wasn't as big of a haven as I thought."

Even though the city wasn't as queer-friendly as it seemed from afar, Marché soon learned firsthand that Spokane was where many LGBTQ+ residents of the Inland Northwest gathered, even if they weren't often acknowledged publicly.

As time went on and Marché became a local icon in her own right, she began to wonder why the stories of Spokane's queer community weren't being told. However, that thought laid dormant until 2020 when she was stuck at home during the pandemic.

She spent most of her spare time devouring historical content, including the 2020 documentary P.S. Burn This Letter Please, which tells the story of New York City's drag scene prior to the Stonewall riots through a collection of long-forgotten letters and photos. By tracing the material back to its source, the documentary illustrates the rich lives NYC queens and queer individuals were able to experience.

"We only hear about the destruction and how we were under a microscope, but this documentary paints this amazing picture of life in New York," Marché says. "Watching it, I was just like 'Man, who's gonna tell my story.' The more I meditated on that I thought, 'Damn it, why not me.'"

Thus the seed for this year's history project was planted in the fertile soil of Marché's brain to propagate until it began to actually flower at the end of 2023 with the help of Spokane Pride.

"You know, we began working on this project in December, but I've been talking about this to anyone who would listen for the past two years," she laughs heartily.

While the remembrance project's main goal is to preserve and celebrate the region's queer history, Marché says one of her personal goals as head curator is to ensure everyone's story is told, regardless of their identity.

"A lot of our history is told for, and by, white queer people," Marché explains. "That was really hard for me to swallow, because I'm coming from this standpoint of wanting to tell everyone's story. It's given me a level of humility that I, as a white person, don't really get to be in touch with because this project encompasses everybody."

Marché gives all of her subjects the freedom to share their individual narrative in the way they want it to be told, effectively creating a project that doesn't just "give these communities a voice," she says, but instead amplifies existing voices that were so often ignored.

"We've got to allow people to tell their stories from their voice or point of view," she says. "We just can't inject any of ourselves into [their stories]."

She believes allowing queer folks to tell their own stories makes the project a more accurate and authentic portrayal of their ancestry. And with that authentic portrayal comes a better understanding of where the LGBTQ+ community has come from.

Those wishing to contribute to the project can email [email protected]. Submissions can include paraphernalia from past Pride events, photos of drag performance, and anything else representative of the community's regional history.

Additionally, Marché thinks that formatting the project in this way will allow the region's queer youth to more easily connect with their queer elders.

"I think the generation coming up has a very palpable disconnect from their history because they don't know where they come from," she says. "Once younger people start to get a sense of where we've come from, they can have a proud feeling for where they're going." ♦

Spokane Pride History & Remembrance Project: A History Exhibit
June 4-6 from 11 am-4 pm and June 7-8 from 11 am-8 pm, free
Pavilion at Riverfront, spokanepride.org

Spokane Art School Faculty and Student Show @ Spokane Art School

Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through June 28
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Colton Rasanen

Colton Rasanen is a staff writer for the Inlander covering education, LGBTQ+ affairs, and most recently, arts and culture. He joined the staff in 2023 after working as the managing editor of the Wahpeton Daily News and News Monitor in rural North Dakota.