Steven Reigns began taking rubbings of tombstones and historical markers related to the LGBTQ community in 2010. The project grew quickly beyond Reigns’ own efforts to people around the world submitting rubbings to what turned into a traveling exhibition and is now the subject of a documentary being screened at the Out on Film festival in Atlanta. “The Gay Rub” will screen at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 30, as part of a program of documentary shorts at the Midtown Art Cinema.
Reigns, a noted poet and the inaugural West Hollywood Poet Laureate, said the documentary directed by Michael J. Saul, chronicles the importance of both people and places in the LGBTQ movement. Atlanta INtown interviewed Reigns about his project and the new film.
How did you first become interested in making rubbings of markers of significance to the LGBT community?
“The Gay Rub” is a participatory project I created and organized. It’s an effort to document and display markers devoted to GLBT people and places to tell a broader version of our history. The project started in January of 2010 when I learned the plaque at Santa Monica & Crescent Heights in West Hollywood honoring transgender victims of hate crimes was the first in the world. I kept thinking about that plaque. There’s something about a bronze marker or a chiseling of granite that feels as if it legitimizes our experience.
How did the title “The Gay Rub” come about?
As a term, rub can have numerous connotations. 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. It can also mean erased, like how our LGBTQ history has been erased. Most importantly, it is shorthand for the word “rubbing.” All meanings apply. “The Gay Rub” is an assembling of our LGBTQ truth and the rub and rubbings that come from it.
“The Gay Rub” is not only a film but a traveling exhibition. Where are some of the places that the exhibit has been shown and what kinds of reactions have you had?
I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from attendees of the exhibit. It is historical, educational, inspiring, and also visually evocative and beautiful. The responses that touch me the most, the emails and notes that I’ve saved are from the ones who have done rubbings. These range from good friends I give supplies to before their vacations, to out-of-town friends I’ve mailed supplies, to complete strangers. The range of their initial interest is varied but the response and reaction from hunting down the landmark to doing the rubbing is so powerful. The massive amount of rubbings is due to my hard and diligent work but also to countless people who have stood on precarious ladders, taken time out of their vacation to go to landmarks, wandered cemeteries or street corners looking for the marker, held the rubbing paper for me on sidewalks while passersby step over us, and recently my friend Kris Guerra who let me sit on his shoulders in London while I rubbed a high landmark. Everyone who has done a rubbing has a story and has found it an adventure.
How was the decision made to do the film and what was it like working with your director?
For 14 years I’ve taught an autobiographical workshop for LGBTQ seniors. Michael Saul created a short video about the workshop. It was then that he learned about “The Gay Rub” and decided to create this short documentary. I’m so flattered he chose to focus on the project. He understood the value of it, that the rubbings themselves act as an archive of historic markers, calling attention to what LGBTQ events and individuals gets recolonized or legitimized through public commemoration.
Some of the rubbings come from historical markers including markers of victims of anti-gay violence. Can you talk about why these are important?
There are over 300 rubbings from historical signs, tombstones, cenotaphs, plaques, and monuments from around the world. There is only one sign for a place of business and I’m not opposed to more, however iconic places like the Stonewall Inn and Oscar Wilde Bookshop do not have textural signs to rub. I haven’t been overly selective with what markers to include, the project seeks to draw attention to the LGBTQ events and individuals under-represented or under-appreciated within history. Since this is a rare occurrence, I want to honor every marker possible with its inclusion in the exhibit.