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LOS ANGELES — Right around the time that artist Devyn Galindo and writer Hope Steinman-Iacullo purchased their 1978 green Westfalia Vanagon, a New Yorker article caught the couple’s eye while doing some research on queer history. In her article, titled “Lesbian Nation,” Ariel Levy discusses the 1977 Van Dykes movement in which a caravan of lesbian van owners traveled across North America and Mexico. Their travels formed a sort of roving utopian community; they “avoided speaking to men unless they were waiters or mechanics.”
Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo, who both document queer culture in their work, were inspired to bring this history back in some way. They named their van Sweetpea and decided to chart a course from Los Angeles to the Florida Keys, stopping along the way to photograph and interview queer people across the country. They called their project “Van Dykes.” Their travels resulted in the slim, travel-friendly, paperback book called The Van Dykes Journal, designed in collaboration with queer Bay Area-based designer Cherish Chang.
A Los Angeles-based photographer, Galindo has previously captured communities that reflect her own queer, Chicanx identity in projects like the book and photo series We Are Still Here. The photos approach portraiture and identity from a decolonized lens, portraying Chicanx people in protest, in nature, and in full awareness of their power. Steinman-Iacullo focuses on highlighting queer elders that might otherwise get left out of conversations around queer culture. She was adopted by two gay men in 1987, the first openly gay adoption in New York City.
Van Dykes not only includes the stories of queer people across the country, it lets the reader into the intimacy of Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo’s connection as a couple. Part journal (it includes handwritten notes and a road trip playlist), part photo book, The Van Dykes Journal tells the story of people like Sebastian, a genderqueer Tejana based in New Orleans, Louisiana who reflects on the whiteness of mainstream depictions of the South, narratives that exclude “working class queer southerners.” In Palm Beach, Florida, couple Ruthie Berman and Connie Kurtz (aged 84 and 81, respectively), reflect on the injustices that inspired them to sue the NYC Board of Education for domestic-partnership benefits in the 1980s. (Since the interview, Kurtz passed away.)
Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo have now opened up submissions for photographs and stories to LGBTQIA people in the hopes of publishing another book soon. We caught up with them to talk about their three-month long journey and what they’re planning next.
Eva Recinos: How did you decide this was a project you wanted to take on?
Devyn Galindo: I had been looking around for a van for a few years and in the process of that, one kind of came to me via a lesbian who lived in Long Beach and it just felt cosmically right. And we were kind of early on in Hope and I’s relationship. We got the van in 2017 and decided to take off in the fall of that year.
Hope Steinman-Iacullo: We’re both attracted to travel and to meeting people and connecting with folks and their stories. We’ve dreamed up different ways of doing that over time. And separately, we also had an interest in vans, and Volkswagens in particular. This one came into our lives at the right time and it was very serendipitous, as Devyn said. We were like you know what, this is a great format for doing this. I’m interested in capturing elder queer stories, and Devyn, as a photographer, has always wanted to do a kind of sweeping chronicle of queer life across the country. This was a way to combine our interests and we decided to take off and use this van as our studio, as our home and as a jumping-off point to begin this project.
ER: How did you decide on your destinations?
DG: We didn’t exactly map out everywhere we wanted to go, we just knew we wanted to take off and maybe do the Southern route just because, weather permitting, that was what made sense. I lived in Texas for quite a while and have a network there. We used both of our networks of queer folks that we already knew and tapped them along the journey.
ER: Hope, which questions were important to ask when you were on the road and learning more about everyone’s stories?
HS-I: We were both operating from a place of knowing that as queer stories are appearing more and more in dominant forms of media, they’re still a pretty narrow representation. [We were] opening up the conversation for people to share — on their own terms and in their own language — stories about their lives … A lot of times narratives can be dominated, in terms of queer and marginalized identities, by tragedy. In thinking about these places that we were going to, it’s like, no, there are vibrant queer communities in these places. And it’s not to say that people are without their struggles, but instead of highlighting that, we really wanted to focus on perseverance and survival and hope and light and beauty.
ER: Devyn, we’ve talked previously about this lineage of queer photographers and how you’re influenced by photographers like Laura Aguilar and Catherine Opie. How do you see this project fitting into that lineage of queer photography and portraiture?
DG: I’m just trying to tell honest stories of queer folks and having them be as comfortable and at ease in front of the camera as possible, to capture them as their truest selves. That’s always been at the core of my work and what I try to portray. We just wanted to be thoughtful and careful with people’s stories and try to make it as honest as possible.
ER: There’s definitely an intimacy that comes across in the photos and in the interviews. And a sense of trust. I was wondering what it was like to try to create that.
DG: We didn’t just pop in and spend like five minutes with people, just trying to snap a photo. It wasn’t about taking, it was about creating together. It was about sharing these moments together. Connecting through queer stories and queer pain. We definitely tried to shed more of the lighter side of things but it was just an honest, raw connection to go around and meet people.
HS-I: We tried to be in conversation with them and not remove ourselves. But also make ourselves vulnerable in those conversations. And while that might not have extended as far as including interviews about ourselves, that was also some of the thinking behind the photos of our journey together. We’re sharing also that vulnerability. You can really only get to that place with people if you’re willing to share a part of yourself and also let down your walls. Otherwise it can feel voyeuristic.
ER: In the book you share that the van ran out of gas just as you were getting to the end of the trip. Was there anything else that was unexpected in your trip?
DG: OK, here’s a little secret that we didn’t put in the book. I’d like to think that I snub Walmart in many ways, but I have to say that Walmart was kind of one of the only safe havens we had along the trip. Because a lot of places won’t let you park the van in the city, and Walmart weirdly allows you to have 24 hour parking. So that was a weird, strange thing we were doing.
HS-I: The women whom we got the van from were Hillary [Clinton] fans, so there was a Hillary sticker that had remained on the van … right as we pushed off and got over into Arizona, we received our fair share of middle fingers and dirty looks.
ER: What are your future plans and dreams for the project?
DG: I would just love to have this be a continuing, ongoing series. My dream would be to do a hard book with 20 to 30 stories that can be like a queer anthology.
HS-I: I want to continue to do interviews, especially around queer elders because I feel like there’s not a lot of opportunities within the queer community for intergenerational conversations and dialogue and relationships to be formed.