University of South Florida (USF) graduate Steven Reigns, now West Hollywood’s first Poet Laureate, says he’s motivated by a sense of love for the LGBTQ community. “Some of the most beautiful and brilliant people I know are a part of it,” the educator says. “We’re complex and complicated.”
It’s that love which led to his touring art exhibit “The Gay Rub,” opening Oct. 15 at his alma mater’s Centre Gallery. The collaborative project, which Reigns created in 2010 and continues to organize, showcases a growing collection of over 350 important markers in LGBTQ history.
By documenting historical signs, tombstones, cenotaphs, plaques and monuments from around the world, “The Gay Rub” seeks to draw attention to LGBTQ events and individuals who have been under-represented or under-appreciated throughout history. To achieve this, Reigns and others utilize the art form known as rubbing.
“Rubbing as an art form is quite historic and has been done for centuries,” Reigns says. “Most people are familiar with rubbings from elementary school. The first time I did it was in kindergarten … we each selected a leaf from outside, placed paper on top of it and rubbed it with a crayon until it was recreated on the page. This is my way of taking that art form and focusing on our queer landmarks.”
Reigns says that the rubbings act as an archive for historic markers worldwide, calling attention to which LGBTQ events and individuals receive public commemoration. It’s also a way to take note of those events and individuals which don’t.
“As a term, rub can have numerous connotations,” the exhibition’s official synopsis reads. “As a verb, rub can mean to upset someone: ‘Rub someone the wrong way.’ It can also mean truth: ‘That’s the rub,’ or social friction: ‘He got a lot of rub for that.’ And, of course, it can be slang for sexual activity … or erasure: ‘Being rubbed out of history.’”
Reigns says all of the meanings apply. He calls the exhibition “an assembling of our gay truth and the rub and rubbings that come from it.”
“I live in West Hollywood now and I discovered that the first plaque dedicated to transgender victims of hate crimes is in my neighborhood,” he says of the project’s origins. “I started to think ‘if this is the first, how many others are out there in the world? What do they look like?’”
Reigns says that while most people are familiar with countless historical markers across the world, it’s rare to see those dedicated to events specifically significant to the LGBTQ community. He decided to change that with “The Gay Rub.”
“I love getting to introduce people who are significant to our history. I love the educational aspect of it,” Reigns says. “I think doing a rubbing is a great way to honor someone and their life; I think it’s a loving act.”
While Reigns has completed the majority of pieces featured in “The Gay Rub,” submissions grew as word spread. “It was important to me that I wasn’t the only one going out and completing these rubbings,” he says. “There are rubbings from around the world and in different languages. I thought surely I could get people to do this in the cities that they live or when they’re traveling.”
To help, he kept the submission process simple. Reigns says he’s spent a significant amount of time in the post office, sending stamped return envelopes and supplies. “It was important to me for the supplies to be accessible,” he says.
The rubbings are etched in black wax on a white fabric known as tear away. “Essentially I use crayons,” Reigns muses. “When you see them all displayed at once, it’s haunting and impactful.”
While each rubbing presents its own story and is impactful in its own right, the artist says including a rubbing of Polk County hate crime victim Ryan Skipper’s grave was particularly important to him. Skipper, a student at the Traviss Career Center in Lakeland, was stabbed 19 times and left for dead in 2007.
“I was visiting Florida and I had no indication of where the gravesite was,” Reigns recalls. “Finding it was very important to me, so I walked the entire cemetery. I was so determined to honor him and his life, to show the violence that queer people go through.”
Markers like Skipper’s are critical for that reason, Reigns says. “Nicholas West in Texas, Charles Howard in Maine … We also have a rubbing of a marker dedicated to Matthew Shepard.” He says looking to the lives lost, also citing the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, is essential to understanding LGBTQ history.
“To look at these rubbings and look at the timespans, to look at this short time that they lived, it’s heartbreaking,” Reigns says. “They also demonstrate what someone can do and accomplish, and how talented and valuable our community is, that such an impact can be made in such a short period of time.”
Reigns says the show’s reception has been positive regardless of location, be it in California or North Carolina. “For some reason there’s something about this collection,” he says. “There’s something very palatable and universal about it. It allows people to relate to and support it.”
He believes returning to USF’s Centre Gallery, the only entirely student-run and non-profit art exhibition space in Florida, was the perfect fit for its next stop. “I’m thrilled that it’s going to be at there,” he says. “I appreciate that USF sees the value in this kind of exhibition and in helping to normalize the queer experience.” Reigns says that USF values educating their students as well as those who fall outside of the LGBTQ spectrum.
“When we go to exhibitions like this, someone else is purposely curating something for an experience,” Reigns says. “It’s a mood and an education; that’s what viewers are going to get by coming to ‘The Gay Rub.’”
Reigns sees the exhibit as a way for those in the LGBTQ community to see who has helped “pave the way for us to live as openly as we do today,” but notes it’s for everyone. “It’s an in-depth experience,” he says. “It’s educational, it’s emotional and it’s enlightening.”
Steven Reigns’ ‘The Gay Rub’ runs Oct. 15-26 at USF’s Centre Gallery, located on the 2nd floor of the Marshall Student Center at 4202 E. Fowler Ave. in Tampa. It is sponsored by USF’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, History and English Departments and The Humanities Institute. For more information, visit thegayrub.com or usf.edu.