It took photographer Devyn Galindo two years to find the 1978 avocado-green VW Westfalia that would eventually take her and her partner, writer Hope Steinman-Iacullo, on a three-month road trip from Los Angeles to the Florida Keys. But when she found it, she knew its spirit was right. An older lesbian woman living in Long Beach was selling one she used for road trips across the country, and she wanted it to go to someone who would love it as much as she did.
“It felt like a passing of the torch,” Galindo says of finding the camper van, which she named Sweetpea.
Galindo bought Sweetpea to use as a mobile studio and drove it across the country to document the oral histories of lesbians, transgender and gender non-conforming people, and queer elders—the stories that are often underrepresented in feminist narratives. She compiled her trip into The Van Dykes Project, a forthcoming journal that reflects a more inclusive vision of “Van Life” through Galindo’s photographs and Steinman-Iacullo’s interviews with six people in Phoenix; New Orleans; Allen, Texas; and Palm Beach, Florida.
“As queer women of color, we’re not going to have that typical ‘road trip’ journey of kicking back at every nature preserve we encounter,” Galindo says. “We wanted to dive deep into how we felt in these different pockets of America and into how other queer people were living in these pockets—elevating their stories and unpacking what it’s like to live, and thrive, in this time in America.”
The allure of the “Great American Road Trip”—the open road, the sense that the United States is open for exploration and discovery—has been immortalized in books, film, television, and even government policy. But road trips as recreation or leisure activities are only part of the complicated history of traveling through the country. Freedom of movement is far from guaranteed.
During Jim Crow, it could be a matter of life and death if black travelers ended up in the wrong place. Guides like the Green Book listed gas stations, restaurants, and accommodations that were accessible to African Americans. Meanwhile, road trips were an act of radical political and social rebellion for a group of nomadic lesbians named the Van Dykes—the namesake of Galindo’s project—who traveled across the U.S. and Canada in the 1970s in search of their utopia, stopping only at women’s lands that would be safe for them. Underground guides, like Shewolf’s Directory of Wimmin’s Lands and Lesbian Communities, now in its sixth edition, helped queer travelers find places that would welcome them.
“It’s a new form of colonialism—people feeling entitled to move to the land, live off the land, but not necessarily thinking about how other people’s blood is on the land or so intrinsically part of the land, or how some people are not allowed to be on the land,” she says. “America is so sweeping and it has that romantic road trip sensibility that people [engage with], but there’s a certain privilege with that. If you’re not moving through the land with humility and grace and respect for people who are from the land, who are indigenous, you should rethink that a bit.”
Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo’s project is in conversation with both dichotomies of American road trips: the sense of road trips as opportunities for discovery mixed with a deep sensitivity to how fraught movement in the U.S. has been, and still is, for people who aren’t white and heterosexual. The Van Dykes project continues the work of its namesake—but with an approach that is more QTPOC inclusive.
Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo looked to their personal networks for this first edition of the Van Dykes Journal, meeting with people who exist at intersections: Sebastian, a 34-year-old genderqueer person living in New Orleans who speaks about the lack of representation of working class queer Southerners; Cherelle and Tyler, a couple living in Texas in their late 20s expecting a baby—Cherelle identifies as lesbian and Tyler is a trans man who earned a Purple Heart in the military—who speak about the reproductive discrimination LGBT people face in our health care system; and Ruth Berman and Connie Kurtz, two activists who successfully sued New York City for domestic partner benefits in the 1990s and were both in their 80s living in Florida at the time of the interview (Connie died after the interview, but before the journal’s release). The couple spoke about falling in love, the complexities and anxieties of coming out, and fighting for rights.
“There are so many queer stories out there and they’re all stories of resilience and we wanted to uplift them,” Steinman-Iacullo says. “We didn’t want to highlight tragedy, but rather the tenacity and ability of our community to thrive in a world that can be hostile to them. So it’s people who have a history of activism, like Ruthie, or people who, by virtue of being true to themselves and of being who they are in the places they are, are having to be advocates, like Cherelle and Tyler. It’s a triumph of love and the human spirit.”
For Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo, the road trip was also a deeply personal and empowering. It included moments and elements you’d expect from any other road trips: They drove on Route 66, they wrote playlists and dealt with a car that had its own personality (Sweetpea maxed out at 65 miles per hour, but only broke down once, luckily). They spent about a week at each location, taking in a gay rodeo in Albuquerque, walking in the woods, and visiting the beach. But since their identities aren’t typical, their experiences would never be described as such. Galindo is Chicanix, with family from New Mexico and Texas. She moved around the country frequently, and came out when she was living in the south. This trip was a way for her to revisit the landscapes and environment that shaped a formative part of her life. Steinman-Iacullo is mixed race and from New York City. Her fathers were the first openly gay couple to adopt in the city, and she was interested in highlighting how people build thriving communities outside of liberal city bubbles.
“Being the people we are, holding the identities we do, we wanted to travel but also highlight how that’s different for us as we move across the country,” Steinman-Iacullo says. “For us, it’s nourishing our community and seeing that we exist everywhere. It’s finding kinship.”
Eventually, Galindo and Steinman-Iacullo want to publish 20 stories by 2020 and speak with people outside of their networks. Galindo also envisions turning the Van Dykes project into an outdoors group that hikes and camps together and perhaps even a book; sales from the first journal will fund future trips. But the mission will be the same: sharing the experiences and narratives that are overlooked and ignored in mainstream conversations about radical rebellion and feminist empowerment.
“I believe in the power of any one story and any one story is important to share,” Galindo says.