BY Muna Mire in Features , Film | 16 OCT 20
Featured in
Issue 214

Tourmaline Summons the Queer Past

Tourmaline’s films speak a simple truth: Black, queer and trans people were always here and always will be

BY Muna Mire in Features , Film | 16 OCT 20

The late, legendary drag queen and activist Marsha P. Johnson would often walk to the end of the piers on the west side of Manhattan, strip naked and throw all of her clothes into the Hudson River as an offering to Neptune, god of the sea. She was infamous for strolling down Christopher Street naked after one of these religious prostrations. In many ways, Johnson was sainted while she was still alive. Her people – the homeless queer youth of Christopher Street – saw her as divine. There was nothing that she would not give to the needy: the shirt off her back, the shoes on her feet, her last dollar. She was known for wearing flower crowns. Johnson’s devotional practice is thoroughly documented; she spent much of her brief and joyously revolutionary time on Earth channelling a higher power. 

When I think of Johnson, whose legacy has enjoyed a recent renaissance, I think of my friend, the experimental filmmaker, archivist, community organizer and spiritualist Tourmaline. If it were not for Tourmaline, I would not know who Johnson was. Odds are you might not either. For many young people, Tourmaline’s digitized archival work, much of which lives on Tumblr, has been their first point of contact. It was through Tourmaline’s blog that I learned Johnson was one of the first handful of patrons to fight back when the police raided the Stonewall Inn on that fateful June evening in 1969. The following year, Johnson and her best friend, the Puerto Rican drag queen Sylvia Rivera, would go on to found Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries – a radical activist collective that provided housing and resources to homeless queer youth and sex workers in Lower Manhattan. The articles, images, interviews and oral histories that Tourmaline has lovingly and painstakingly gathered on her now-inactive blog, The Spirit Was …, are a rare window onto the lives of the freedom fighters who came before us. 

Tourmaline, Salacia, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

I meet Tourmaline on a sticky July afternoon in Brooklyn by the edge of the algae-saturated pond adjacent to the boathouse in Prospect Park. The heat appears to shimmer and break above the asphalt on the path nearby. A pair of dragonflies hover above a lily pad next to me. I wonder if they’re fucking. Dabbing the condensation from my iced coffee onto my brow, I fiddle with my phone as I wait. When she arrives, Tourmaline is a seapunk dream. Her hair is dyed an aquatic blue and there is a streak of teal eyeshadow across her eyelids. A tattoo of Johnson peeks out from beneath her blouse. Her look transports me back to the Tumblr aesthetics of 2012, when Tourmaline’s blog first became popular. 

Tourmaline squints across the pond. ‘I started coming to this park 15 years ago. And it’s interesting how much a space can hold your change and transformation.’ The fluid, spiritual relationship between individuals, time, the land and the sea is critical to Tourmaline’s work, throughout which, as the central tenet of Octavia E. Butler’s Earthseed (1993–98) novels holds, ‘God is change.’ Tourmaline’s dream-like renderings of queer and trans ancestors on film reach back in time in order to divine the future, disrupting linear notions of history and what theorist Saidiya Hartman, in her 2008 essay ‘Venus in Two Acts’, calls ‘the violence of the archive’.  In Tourmaline’s films, past, present and future are arbitrary distinctions that give way to a simple truth: we were always here and always will be. 

Tourmaline, Salacia, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Tourmaline’s most recent works, a pair of 16mm short films executive-produced by writer Janet Mock and actor Keanu Reeves, offer two ways of looking at the same subject: Mary Jones, a Black trans sex worker arrested for robbing a client in New York in 1836. Jones’s gender-nonconforming presentation was sensationalized in a newspaper lithograph at the time, describing her as a ‘man-monster’. The image appears in both films, acting as a sort of historical anchor to the reimagined life story of Jones, played beautifully in both films by Rowin Amone. In Salacia (2019), a six-minute, non-narrative loop, beautiful women draped in pearls pose against the lush, bucolic landscape of Seneca Village: a community of free, majority black landowners that was displaced to make room for Central Park. Suddenly, we are transported to a jail cell, where Jones has a feverish vision of the yet-to-be-born Rivera, comprising archival footage of Rivera filmed by the Christopher Street piers where she lived, and where Johnson’s body was found in 1992. Rivera says Johnson’s spirit is still with her, reminding her to keep going. ‘You gotta keep fighting girly because it’s not time for you to cross the River Jordan,’ she says. ‘I’m always folding time in on itself because that’s how I experience it,’ Tourmaline notes of Jones’s vision. Co-commissioned by the Brooklyn Museum and High Line Art, and named for one of Neptune’s eternal companions, Salacia was first screened on the High Line overlooking the piers. ‘I listen to the land and the spirits that are there,’ Tourmaline says softly, her eyes closed.

Mary of Ill Fame (2019), a 25-minute narrative short, tells Jones’s story in a relatively conventional format. The film places her again in Seneca Village, at a boarding house run by a man named Peter, who operates an abolitionist press. In the opening scene, Jones escapes from her prison cell. Later in the film, we see the cops that apprehended her plotting to return to the boarding house in order to fabricate charges on which to arrest the other residents in a bid to steal their land.

Tourmaline, Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Mary of Ill Fame seeks to make legible the historical links between slavery, prisons, labour and land; the idyllic backdrop of Seneca Village is shown as being under constant threat by white supremacists hungry for property upon which to construct their own pastoral fantasy. 

Tourmaline tells me that the idea for Mary of Ill Fame came to her while she was tripping on mushrooms alone in Central Park, communing with the land. She often finds herself ‘catching a vibe’ – listening to deep feelings and following intuitions she doesn’t quite yet understand. In other words, divining. This spiritual work is depicted in both films through Jones’s practice of scrying – looking at reflective objects in low light – something Tourmaline does regularly. 

Tourmaline, Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, 2017, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Many of Tourmaline’s films, like Salacia and Mary of Ill Fame, are portraits of queer and trans ancestors that she composes from scant historical information, a process not unlike scrying. ‘So much of my art practice is spiritual practice, meaning it’s ancestral stewardship, a way to reconnect to my elders and my own spirituality,’ she tells me. In both films, the performative utterances peppered throughout are actually spells taken from Virginia Hamilton’s 1985 collection of Black folktales, The People Could Fly. Hamilton often described her own writing in interviews as ‘a triad of the known, the remembered and the imagined’ and the opening invocation of Salacia – ‘They say the people could fly’ – is a nod to the book’s title. ‘I was raised on Hamilton’s book, knowing that Black people have access to magic, that we are magic,’ Tourmaline says. 

Tourmaline was born and raised in the Roxbury neighbourhood of Boston. Her parents were both organizers who met during the Detroit riots of 1967. Her father, the late George Gossett, was a member of the Memphis Invaders, a group of young Black organizers inspired by the tactics of the Black Panther Party. The Invaders brought militant direct action to the Deep South. Gossett also participated in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that brought Martin Luther King, Jr. to the city, where he was assassinated. Tourmaline’s mother, Maureen Ridge, worked as a labour organizer with unions like the Service Employees International Union. For much of her life, Tourmaline’s father was incarcerated, and she often visited him in prison, wrote him letters or took his collect calls. These experiences left an indelible impression on her and influence her work as a prison abolitionist. Over the past 15 years, Tourmaline has taught creative writing and arts classes at Rikers Island, New York’s most notorious jail, and worked with groups that serve queer and trans New Yorkers of colour, such as FIERCE! and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. ‘So much of my organizing work was giving myself permission to be the biggest part of who I am,’ she says. As we sit in Prospect Park, we are a stone’s throw from the Brooklyn Museum, where 15,000 people gathered for a historic rally on 14 June for Black trans lives. For Tourmaline and those of us who have been organizing for Black trans power in the years prior to the recent uprisings in response to the murder of George Floyd, this moment is the result of years of struggle. We understand it as part of a telos – and a long time coming. 

Tourmaline, Mary of Ill Fame, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Tourmaline’s work as both an activist and a filmmaker comes from a practice that she calls ‘freedom dreaming’, a term borrowed from her friend and teacher, scholar Robin D.G. Kelley. In a recent essay for Vogue, Tourmaline explains that freedom dreams are ‘born when we face harsh conditions not with despair, but with the deep knowledge that these conditions will change – that a world filled with softness and beauty and care is not only possible, but inevitable’. As much as Tourmaline’s work is about abolition, it’s also deeply concerned with pleasure, glamour, lushness and ease. She reminds me of the pleasures we can still locate during a pandemic. For her, it’s been a small joy to go to the beach and find solitude, something that was impossible in pre-pandemic New York. Like me, her sign is Cancer and she loves the water.

Water is a source of pleasure and pain in Tourmaline’s 2017 film Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, titled after the eponymous 1987 poem by Lucille Clifton, an invocation of the millions of enslaved people who were thrown or jumped overboard during the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade. The film opens with ballroom performer Egyptt LaBeija looking out over the piers of Christopher Street – where she once lived as a young homeless trans woman – from the windows of the newly constructed Whitney Museum of American Art. ‘People should never forget where they came from,’ LaBeija exclaims tearfully. As the film’s title card drops, a moody, synthesizer-heavy soundscape composed by artist Geo Wyeth provides sonic accompaniment as LaBeija dances on the museum’s balcony, the river spreading out behind her. The Hudson River flows into the Atlantic Ocean, and the film asks us to remember that these waters – whose banks LaBeija, Johnson, Rivera and so many other ancestors called home – are also a mass grave. Here, water is the medium through which to divine spirits and past selves: in another scene, LaBeija submerges herself in a bathtub, gets out and then looks into the bathroom mirror, when suddenly a figure – LaBeija’s memories, embodied by the artist Fatima Jamal – emerges from the bathwater behind her. The two are transported to a stage, where they vogue together in glamorous get-ups, as the camera lingers on their manicures, the ruffles of their dresses and their rhinestones.   

Tourmaline, Mary of Ill Fame, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

One of the living ancestors Tourmaline maintains a relationship with is Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a 79-year-old Black trans woman, Stonewall combatant and former

inmate of Attica prison. In every conceivable sense, Griffin-Gracy has defied the odds to survive. Tourmaline’s 2016 animated short The Personal Things came out of an hours-long conversation she had with Griffin-Gracy in a Chicago hotel room. But something went wrong, and only three minutes of the conversation were recorded. Those three minutes of audio are still so wise that hearing them narrate the film feels like sitting at the feet of a griot and receiving the blessing of their years. ‘That experience [informs] every single hotel-room scene, boarding-house scene, all-the-girls-together scene, in any art that I ever make,’ Tourmaline says. 

At the July online screening for Mary of Ill Fame – an event that doubled as Tourmaline’s 37th birthday party – we celebrated the Museum of Modern Art’s recent acquisition of Salacia. It felt like a victory to have the stories of our ancestors not only unearthed but enshrined. During the post-screening Q and A, Griffin-Gracy mentioned a scene in which Jones attempts to teach a young woman who lives in the boarding house with her how to intuit the danger that lies ahead. ‘I hope that I have taught you [this] and you have taught others,’ she said. Tourmaline appeared visibly emotional. ‘I love you so much,’ she replied. ‘You taught me. You’ve really taught me.’ 

Main image: Tourmaline, Salacia, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist

This article first appeared in frieze issue 214 with the headline 'Tourmaline'.

Muna Mire is a writer and producer. They live in New York, USA.