Meet Nancy Cañas and Steph Niaupari, heads of the Latino GLBT History Project
One of the hardest parts of being queer is feeling like you don’t have people to look to — whether that’s look up to as a kid, look to for clarity and guidance as a teenager, look to as strong representation as an adult. Luckily, as you get older, you uncover all sorts of queer heroes that history has tried to erase. And fortunately, in 2019, there are media watchdogs who keep track of and advocate for more LGBTQ+ media representation. One organization that is reaching both into the past and into future is Washington, D.C.’s Latino GLBT History Project.
Founded in the 2006, the history project is a non-profit whose goal is to “respond to the critical need” to preserve Latinx LGBTQ+ history. But as early as 1993, its founder, Jose Gutierrez, was clipping newspapers and scooping up banners, t-shirts, posters, and memorabilia that captured the essence of the queer Latinx community in D.C. It was during the Millenium National March in 2000 that Gutierrez organized a pop-up exhibition. Sponsored by Gente Latina de Ambiente (GELAAM), it was housed at Club CHAOS and was called "Caminante no hay camino, se hace el camino al andar.” From there, Gutierrez worked with Paul Scott and Juan Noboa to official found the Latino GLBT History in 2006. It was incorporated as a 501(c)3 in 2007.
Today, the Latino GLBT History Project is looking to house its artifacts in the Latino History Project Gallery. The idea is to have exhibitions that rotate each month, in a gallery space that is at no cost to the public. Some upcoming multi-media collections include “90 Héroes Latinos LGBTQ,” an oral history project, “D.C. Latinx Pride: A Look At Our Traditions,” and “Queer Cuentos.”
And today, instead of Gutierrez, the Latino GLBT History Project is run by President Nancy Cañas and Vice President Steph Niaupari. Cañas identifies as queer or lesbian, and Niaupari identifies as queer and two-spirit. Both got their start in volunteering for D.C. Latinx Pride: Cañas for the 2012 celebration and Niaupari for the 2018 one. But they joined the organization for two very different reasons.
Niaupari’s main motivation was community. To this day, that’s their favorite part of participating in the project and its events, along with cultivating their own leadership skills. “And [being a leader] an experience, growing up, I rarely saw myself in. Being able to work with Nancy, work with the board, work with community — has always been my favorite part.” The ability to find a queer community was crucial for them because they originally hail from New York. “And coming to D.C. about four years ago — to a predominantly white university — I felt like the LGBTQ+ community here was so hard to find a sense of community [in].”
As it turns out, D.C. being a hub for international and domestic emigration was part of the reason why Cañas, as a Washingtonian, wanted to help shape the history project. “You have a lot of transplants and people who come in from different parts of the country — globally as well. Being someone that was actually born and raised in the DMV area — that [DMV] community is important as well,” Cañas says. When she began volunteering with the project and later sat on the board, her thought process was, “Let me add my little grain of salt of [D.C. native] input, if I can.”
But Cañas had a couple more intersections of identity that influenced her decision to commit to the Latino GLBT History Project. “For me, it was a way to show diversity amongst our own Latinx community. Usually, we have cis [Latinx] gay men running the organization — and that’s fine. But I wanted see women being involved and having an input. And also being a parent!” Cañas adds. As she points, there are always conversations about LGBTQ+ kids and their parents — never LGBTQ+ parents. “That’s what was important to me.”
Cañas also really values the opportunity to create awareness for the queer Latinx scene in D.C., as well as reach out to other leaders. “Working together to uplift each other and help one another with our projects. That’s my favorite part.” One concrete way that the project does that is by hosting art exhibitions.
“What we like to do is figure out ways of including other community members that are usually left out,” Niaupari explains. “Typically, if you go into any kind of museum, we see someone established, somebody with a lot of privilege.” So, if you’ve got the resources and the passion, why not work to close the gap?
“The artists that we’ll have there, they’ve grown because of the community, because everyone keeps uplifting each other,” Niaupari says. Besides, the name of the Latino GLBT History Project and the work of Gutierrez has been around in D.C. for, collectively, about 20 years. It’s important to share that credibility and, to use Niaupari’s words, “sense of validation” with folks who are just starting.
And, as Niaupari emphasizes, the Latino GLBT History project doesn’t just work to uplift the queer community during Pride — although, quite notably, they are the organizers of D.C.’s Latinx Pride. The project does so “around the year” as well as during Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. “For Womxn’s History Month [in March], we have ‘Mujeres en el Movimiento,’” Cañas adds. “And that is also honoring womxn — be that trans or cis Latinx womxn, [or] queer Latinx womxn. By honoring them and sharing them — and by letting the rest of the queer community learning about what they have to offer — they get noticed and recognized.”
Just because June has come to a close, again, that doesn’t mean that the queer Latinx Pride stops there. The Latino GLBT History Project will be hosting the Hispanic LGBTQ Heritage Awards (make your nominations here), which takes place on September 25 at the Human Rights Campaign. They’re also organizing a queer bachata fundraiser in October, details TBD. All in all, it’s important to both Niaupari and Cañas that, no matter what the project does, queer Latinx people in D.C. have a space to call their own. When it comes to why they do what they do, Cañas says, “It’s always creating that space to gather.” 🍒