Monika Veliz (b. 1977) was born in Italy and grew up in Euclid, Ohio, before attending Virginia Marti College of Design. Veliz discusses coming out as a transgender woman in the 1990s after attending meetings at the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland. She discusses becoming active in Cleveland's Black underground LGBTQ+ Ballroom scene after joining the House of Chayde in the late 1990s. She discusses her career as a drag entertainer in Cleveland and describes the various gay bars and clubs in she performed at throughout the 1990s before briefly moving to San Francisco in 2000. Veliz discusses returning to Cleveland in 2001 and opening Jai Girl Inc before becoming involved with Margie's Hope and Margie's Closet in the 2021. She reflects on racial and gender-based discrimination within LGBTQ+ spaces and changes to Cleveland's LGBTQ+ and transgender communities over time.
Monika Veliz [00:00:16] Hello. No problem. It's a pleasure.
Riley Habyl [00:00:19] Of course. So, could you please state and spell your name for the record?
Monika Veliz [00:00:23] My name is Monika Veliz, M-o-n-i-k-a V-e-l-i-z.
Riley Habyl [00:00:32] Fantastic. So, where and when were you born?
Monika Veliz [00:00:36] I was—. It's complicated. I was born in Italy and raised in New York. And I moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1991.
Riley Habyl [00:00:50] How old were you when you moved to Ohio?
Monika Veliz [00:00:53] Oh, God. 13. (laughs) 13, yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:00:58] Could you tell me a little bit about your childhood and family background?
Monika Veliz [00:01:01] Sure. My father is a Sicilian immigrant and did a lot of photojournalism in the seventies—early part of seventies—freelance. My mother is—. She was born in Alabama, raised in Cleveland. And that was a very interesting happening. I am a twin. And they thought it was okay to go flying from Cleveland to Italy at eight months pregnant, and there we hopped out. (laughs) So, we spent like the first year and a half in Sicily, and then moved to New York, and then back to Cleveland, where my mom's family is. Yeah, very interesting. My mother is a child psychologist. My mom's a child psychologist. She loves children. She loves the development of children. And I think she did a pretty okay job with hers. I think. (laughs) When we got back to Cleveland in '91, I attended Central Middle School in Euclid. We moved to Euclid, Ohio, where my grandparents were living. And that is a bit of adjustment. I think—. Kids are kids, you know. I tend to have this thing where I use humor to fit in rather quickly. And so, lucky for me, I didn't have that many problems in high school or in middle school. So, yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:02:51] Speaking of education, could you tell me a little bit about your educational background—where you went to school, and what years you went to those schools?
Monika Veliz [00:03:00] (coughs) Excuse me. I attended Central Middle School in 1991 to 1993. Then I moved from Central Middle School to Euclid High School in 1993 to 1997-ish. And from there I went to Virginia Marti [College of Art and Design], which is right up the block, and obtained my degree in fashion design and retail marketing. Yeah, not bad for an immigrant's kid. It was an interesting—. That—. Just even that block was very interesting, because in that time I also discovered that I was trans [transgender], so—. Very unheard of in the nineties. Definitely unheard of for parents to be supportive of trans kids, and I'm—again lucked out. My parents were very supportive. And my last year of high school I started transitioning. So, I've been female for 30 years. I've been female always, but I've been female on the outside for almost 30 years. Over 30 years now.
Riley Habyl [00:04:32] Could you tell me a little bit about—. I know you said you parents were supportive when you came out. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you—. Well, to circle back a little bit, I guess—. When did you first learn about trans identities and, you know, like, non-cis [cisgender] genders, and—?
Monika Veliz [00:04:53] So, it's a very interesting—. You know, me and my younger sister, you know, we always played house when we were younger. And it was actually—. My sister later down the road said, "You know, I always thought that I had a sister." She's three years younger than me, and so she said, "I always thought that you were just my sister, because whenever we would play house or we would play together Barbie Dolls, you were always a female character." I always chose the female character. I wanted to be mother, I wanted to be sister. I didn't know what that language was. I was just playing as a kid. When I was 15, I come home from school, and my dad's all excited. He's like, "I found someone. I found people like you." And I was like, "Oh my God, why are you—. Who?" You know, 'cause I'm comfortable living in my heterosexual bubble as that anomaly, you know. And everyone seems to be committed to me having a normal life. So, I didn't think it was necessary to have other people like me around. I came home at 11 and told my mom that I had a crush on a boy. My mom was like, "Oh, boy." So from 11 to 15, we assumed that I was just gay. When I came home from school that day and my father dropped me off at the first LGBT [Community] Center—which was located on West 29th and Detroit Avenue—and I go in and there's all these gay boys that are like, sitting around in a circle. And they're discussing gay issues, right? And I was like—. I'm sitting in a circle and I'm just like, this does not sound like me. I don't have the characteristics that these other gay boys—. Like, things that I saw was definitively gay—being effeminate or anything like that. I didn't—. I never saw myself as being an effeminate male. I always thought I was just a girl. So, after the session, the facilitator said, "So, how did things go? How'd you like group?" And I was like, "I don't think it's for me." She's like, "Why?" I was like, "Well, I don't think—. I don't think I'm gay by their definition." And so, I had this conversation with her about always being femme, and things like that. And she was the one who mentioned the word transgender, this and—. You know. And so, I go home and I tell my my parents. And my mom looks at me, she goes—she rolls her eyes, looks at my father, and she whispers, "I told you so." They always knew. I think they always had an inkling that this could go multiple ways. And so, yeah, that was—. I was 15 years old when I heard that, and it all made sense. It all clicked for me. It was like, oh my God, this is—. I actually have a name to what I feel, and it actually empowered me. It actually made me feel more of a girl, more female, to actually know what I was.
Riley Habyl [00:08:29] Was that your first time hearing the word transgender, and learning about identities that weren't cis [cisgender]?
Monika Veliz [00:08:36] No. It—. Ironically—. No. Somewhere between 13 and 15, I heard, you know, the colorful words they used to call us—like transvestites, and crossdressers, and she-males, and he-shes, and things like that. And those things sounded—even then, sounded deplorable. It sounded—. I guess it was because of the context that it was used then. It was always something extremely negative. Those words—. Those words are not negative words, but they were always used in the context of being bad. And so, I didn't think I wanted to be that way. And so, I heard those words, and—. Of course, you—. Any teenager fumbling through (laughs) pornographic material at—in the eighties or the nineties definitely discovered those ads in the beginning of the tape. And it always had a trans woman ad, or, you know, things like that. And it used to always freaked me out to the point where I would just like, not even watch. Like, I don't even want to know what's on this tape. This just seems really, really weird. It seemed surreal. And I definitely did not think that I was her. And so, yeah. Again, to hear that I had a name, and that I do have a culture. And learning about that culture throughout my later teens was like—. It was like a magic door opening for me.
Riley Habyl [00:10:19] Where did you end up learning more about the trans community in Cleveland?
Monika Veliz [00:10:22] I stayed with the LGBT [Community] Center throughout my youth. Actually, they had to kick me out because I think I was the only trans woman—trans girl, that was physically trans—in this group. So, I got to—. You know, it turns out I did find camaraderie with my gay brothers, and I found what it meant to be part of a chosen family. You know, going every Saturday and—oh, God, we did go out every Saturday from like 11 to, like, I think it was like 1. And then something happens where after group, we would all go somewhere and, like, do coffee together. We would spend a lot of time in Coventry, just being teenage kids on a Saturday, you know, and feeling normal amongst this new chosen family. And so, yeah, I learned more about who I was through that first. Through that first, then I started doing drag. Then I entered the drag community, and then you learn so much more. And like—. So many things you don't want to learn, but—. (laughs) But all beneficial. All great, great tools if you're going to survive an LGBT scene. Yeah, so—.
Riley Habyl [00:11:56] Before we talk a bit about drag, could you tell me—. When you were going to the LGBT [Community] Center as a teen, were there any specific programs or groups for trans [transgender] youth at the time?
Monika Veliz [00:12:08] No, there were none. There was—. I think it's one of the reasons why I did stay. The name of the group was called PRYZM, P-r-y-z-m, or something like that [PRYSM, Presence and Respect for Youth in Sexual Minority], and we—. If it—. If there was, it wasn't suggested to me. I was made to feel welcome in this group that was specifically for gay youth. Because again, we're talking, you know, mid-nineties, late nineties, where—. Even all the separation that we have now was not vocalized. So it was just—. It was all lumped into one—. There weren't even lesbians. There weren't even female youth that was in the group. It was all gay men, and it was headed by a lesbian facilitator. So, you know, we are just—. We all found a safe space, and, you know, things didn't look the way they do today. But, you know, we took advantage of the fact that it was a safe space, and we didn't care about a lesbian facilitator. We didn't care that there was a trans woman in the group. We just—. Yeah, we just needed a place. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:13:33] How did you first find out about and get involved with the drag community in Cleveland?
Monika Veliz [00:13:39] I went to a club on West 6th and Frankfort called Numbers Nightclub [620 Frankfort Ave.]. And at the time, it was a very specific—. It's where most of the Black community hung out, and—. God, I was—. I ha—. I hate to say this. Well, all those people who ran the club are probably no longer here, so it's okay to say that. I was 17. I was definitely underage when I went to this bar. And—. But because of the year before, where I spent so much time developing my relationships with the LGBT community, hanging out with people—. Lucky for me, there were people at the door that could vouch for me, "Come on, get in." So, I saw an entertainer on stage. She's very well known throughout the state of Ohio, Andrea Michaels. I saw Andrea [Michaels] onstage doing Certainly by Erykah Badu, and that was—. It was another puzzle piece because I was like, "Wait a minute, I get to be a girl and make money? Wait a minute—this is like the most perfect situation." And so, I begged—. I had—. It's funny, I just wrote a post on Facebook about this. My first time performing, the show host—her name was Yofreakka. I begged her for weeks to let me perform, "Please, please, please." "Ahh. You've never performed before. You've never done it before. Go away kid. Go away kid." Begged her, begged her, begged her. She finally said yes, and I went home and I practiced, and I practiced, and I practiced. Show day comes, and I psyched myself out. When I got onstage, I forgot every single word of the song. I was literally doing—. Oh, a song by Monica. Can't think of it. I want to say Before You Walk Out of My Life by Monica. And I froze. Froze. 17 years old. Froze. And they—. She started the music over. She said "Don't—. Give her time. She just started. This is her first time. Give her time." She started the music over. Still nothing. But something magical happened where—. The audience started to sing with me. The whole audience started to sing, and then slowly the words started coming back to me and coming back to me. And from that point on, I never forgot another word onstage. I won several crowns. Several titles. I am the last Miss Gay Ohio Teen U-S-of-A, and that was—. All those things were—. But doing drag for almost 15 years was magical for me. It was—. Like I said, it was probably the best school I attended too. And I attended some pretty good schools, but that was—. I learned a lot. I learned a lot from other trans [transgender] women that were in the business, and—. Yeah. (laughs) Sorry. I can go on, and on, and on about that. (laughs) It's—. I don't know, it's—. And I did see some dark things too, you know. But I'm sure there's time to talk about that stuff, but—. But yeah, the good stuff was making lifelong friends and understanding that business. Yeah, and I don't think you can be any closer to the LGBT community than being an entertainer. Everybody comes into those bars, and everyone wants to know who that entertainer is, and they want to have conversations with them. And so, yeah, it was it was really good.
Riley Habyl [00:18:12] Can you tell me a little bit about how your drag career kind of progressed after your initial performance?
Monika Veliz [00:18:20] Sure. I went from Numbers Nightclub [620 Frankfort Ave.] to The Cage [9506 Detroit Ave.] over on West 98th and Detroit. Or—. Yeah, 98th and Detroit. And I performed at Numbers for a number of years. Three years. And the owner of The Cage was in the bar—asked me, you know, to come perform over—. And there—. It was a very—. Not a lot of Black entertainers came on this side of the bridge. At the time, downtown there were a number of Black watering holes—LGBT watering holes—that we all just stayed to. And we said, "Okay, white people are on that side of the bridge, and then we're on this side of the bridge." And so—. You know, Black girls and entertainers did come this side, but it wasn't that many. Andrea Michaels was definitely one of those women, and Terri Williams was also one of those women. I went from Numbers over to The Cage, and I liked it. I like—. I loved that energy that the audience gave, and I've always fell in love with—. I guess from my first year at college, I fell in love with the West Side. It just seemed more diverse, it seemed more open. And yeah, again, I was going to school, you know, down the street from the bar, so that was convenient. I could, you know, go make money at night and then go to class at eight, nine in the morning, and, you know, I was all good. But—. Yeah, I ended up making The Cage my show home, and I performed there for a long—probably—until its last day in 2000 and—. 2001? 2001. Jan—. On New Year's—. It was New Year's Eve, New Year's Day 2001. It was bittersweet because I was there for maybe three years, and I saw a lot of entertainers coming and going, and—. Yeah, it was a good place. It was home. It was—. To me, it was like that modern-day Studio 54. Never knew what you were going to see in that bar, but you welcomed it. (laughs) It was interesting, yeah. From there I went to Bounce [2814 Detroit Ave.]. I was the very first show cast at Bounce Nightclub—on the very first show cast, and that was with Jennifer Phillips. Erica Martinez had started doing shows—hosting shows there, and that was good. That was back in its early, early days. And I performed there, but—. You know, with the close of The Cage, it allowed me to try other different bars on for size. And so, I was sort of everywhere, where I was performing at Twist [Twist Social Club, 11633 Clifton Blvd.], U4ia Nightclub [10630 Berea Rd.], Bounce, and then Deco. Deco Dance [11213 Detroit Rd.]—which is now called All That Class, I think. And so, I ended up making Deco—. Eventually settling into Deco, but I was still kind of fluent everywhere, all over the city performing. The Innerbelt, going back and forth between Akron and Cleveland, and—. Yeah. (laughs) This is just about Cleveland, 'cause there's like—. Because that journey actually does take a rather hard left, where—. In 2000 I left Cleveland, and I moved to California. I moved to Los Angeles, and then was performing out there. And I ended up joining in the Imperial Court System—and becoming a Grand Duchess in the Imperial Court System—all in a matter of, like, two months. (laughs) I moved out there, and I—. Because, I didn't know anyone. I moved out there with my ex-husband. That's his area, so I knew absolutely no one. And I said, if I'm going to make it in this town, I got to find my people. And so, I found gay bars, and slowly but surely made friends. And within two months, I was Grand Duchess in the Imperial Court System. So, that's—. I'm just ambitious. I'm just an ambitious cunt. (laughs) I'm cutthroat, and I just—. I don't know, I think it's just—. I love people. I love being around people—(coughs) 'scuse me—and I love the energy that my community gives when we're together. And there's—. You know, there's something about being in a bar and hearing the buzz. That's what I call it. It feels like you're inside of a beehive, because all these conversations are taking place—hundreds and hundreds of conversations all at one time—and it feels like you're inside of a beehive. And we're all there to enjoy the safe space together, no matter what walk of life you come from, no matter how you identify. The thing in Cleveland is that things start off as gay bars, but eventually they become like neighborhood bars where you're now partying alongside cisgender, heterosexual people. They just see a really cool bar, and everybody in the neighborhood is, like, packing those bars. And I think that adds to, like, the freedom aspect of just being—doing normal things. If I just went out to a—. Doesn't have to necessarily be a gay bar, because everybody's there. So, yeah. I've met a lot of people that way.
Riley Habyl [00:25:00] Circling back to the early-to-mid 1990s, you mentioned that the—like, that there was a lot of, like, racial division in terms of the gay bar scene.
Monika Veliz [00:25:14] Mhm.
Riley Habyl [00:25:14] What were some of the bars that you mentioned that were more—like, more like Black LGBT community spots, versus white LGBT community spots?
Monika Veliz [00:25:24] Oh, God. So, there was—. Okay, so, when I first started—going between Numbers, there was another after-hours place called the Colosseum [7218 Euclid Ave.]. I definitely recommend you finding more Black LGBT people from that era, because they will probably go on and on about the Colosseum. The Colosseum with the located—. Well, it was the Colosseum on 79th Street, like, the Masonic—whatever that was. It was attached to the Masonic Temple, or something like that. But we would get together after the bar closed at 2:00 and we would head over that way. And it was in the basement of the Colosseum. It was weird. There's DJ tables set up. It felt very much like a house party. It was in the basement, which was just an open floor. And that was—. When I think about it, that was spiritual. It was spiritual, because there were all these people of color in this place, and we were doing things like voguing and battling—vogue battling and walking. And for some strange reason, that all resonated spiritual to me, because this was—. It felt like this was ours. This was—. You know, there were a lot of bars that were mixed and not so segregated. But when you went to the Colosseum, this felt like this was ours. And we're communing with each other, and we're enjoying our Blackness together, and—which was very much needed. But it was a Numbers, the Colosseum, and then—. Oh God, there was—. There was the nights where the bars that were not as segregated would have what they would call 'Black nights.' That's where all the Black community only went on that particular night—didn't go any other night of the week. They played hip hop, they played house music, they played deep house, things that—again, we could have as a Black community, this spiritual communion and just be with ourselves, you know? And every now and then, there would be, you know, quite a few white people that, you know—. Which was welcoming, you know, there wasn't—not that I can remember—too many bad racial mix-ups, or anything like that. But yeah, there was—. There were quite a few lesbian bars. One called [Code] Blue [1496 St. Clair Ave.], I believe, and so—. 727—. I'm trying to remember. I believe it was called [Club] 727. [Club] 727 [727 Bolivar Rd.] was, like, a really popular lesbian bar. But, again, all the Black LGBT community converged in that space, and—. Yeah, you hardly saw white people there. Yeah, really, when I think about it, it's sad, but it's also kind of beautiful because those spaces now are nowhere to be found. And so, yeah. Belinda's [9613 Madison Ave.]—. Well, we're talking in early nineties, so—or, mid-nineties. Yeah, there were—. We were—. The community was very big on—because those spaces were so limited, we were very big on 'Black nights'. They were important, I think.
Riley Habyl [00:29:34] Did Cleveland have a big ballroom scene in the nineties? I know that you mentioned the Colosseum and voguing—.
Monika Veliz [00:29:41] Yes. So—. Oh, God. We should have, like, numbered these [questions] so that I would be able to not jump ahead, but—.
Riley Habyl [00:29:51] No worries.
Monika Veliz [00:29:51] So, I was a part of a very prominent House here in Cleveland. There were tons, tons of Houses in the nineties. Part of my journey from, let's say, that group on 29th [Prysm], and spreading my wings a little bit definitely brought me to the House of Chayde—C-h-a-y-d-e—where—. It was run—. I had a mutual friend that was friends with people that—. She belonged to the House, and she said, "You should come to—." Like, "You should come over to the house." And it was literally a house—it was an apartment over on 97th and Chester Avenue. Little apartment, one bedroom apartment. I said, "I don't know. I'm—." You know, I'm thinking gang activity. You know, like, I don't know what a House is, and things like that. I go to the house and there's tons of people that I've seen already in the bar scene, or part of the group that I belong to. And they're all just like sitting around, laying around, talking. You know, talking about going out, and things like that. And my friend said, "Well, she want—. She's thinking about joining a House." And the House Mother at the time—who was Mahogany Reason—asked me what my name was. And I—. My parents—.My family calls me Money—M-o-n-e-y, and that was before Monika. That was my nickname. So, I said, "My name's Money." And Mahogany said, "I love it. She's in. Done." And I instantly became a part of the House of Chayde. And we vogued, and the ballroom scene was— was everything. There was the House of Elegance, there was the House of Couture. There was a lot of Houses here, and one by one they just started disintegrating. I think it's still underground—but at one point it wasn't. At one point there were House balls happening everywhere—from Numbers, to U4ia, to the Colosseum—where all these Houses would, you know, converge, and—again—commune (laughs), which is what the ballroom scene is about. It's about us having a place to commune together, and—. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:32:34] Do you know how the ballroom scene in Cleveland developed? I'm not sure if you know anything about, like, the history of Cleveland's ballroom scene.
Monika Veliz [00:32:41] I do not. I have to admit, I don't know too much about where it left off and where I picked up, but—. No, and I wish I did. (crosstalk) Maybe that's something I should go look for. (laughs) I should look for that, because that—. I think that would—. That's a very interesting piece of history considering, you know, my time—'96— there were a considerable amount of Houses that were that were here. So, somebody had to start it. (laughs) Someone had to start it. So, yeah. I think it's—. And, you know, the later decades, it's nice to know that you can now make a House the nonprofit, and—. Yeah, and so, I—. We definitely didn't have that. I think someone just said, "I'm going to start a House," and then they started it, and people started joining, and so—. Yeah. It's pretty good.
Riley Habyl [00:33:41] For the record, could you sort of explain what a House is, or the dynamics of being a member of a House?
Monika Veliz [00:33:49] So, in a House, there's either just a House Mother—. In my case, it was a House Mother and a House Father. And the dynamics are—. First and foremost, we're family. We compete as a family, and we hang out as a family, we—. You know, in a sense, it is a gang—but it's a loving gang. And the dynamics are usually different, because there's so—. It's not all trans [transgender], not all lesbian, it's not even all gay. There can be heterosexual members of a House, or—. I'm sorry, heterosexual cis [cisgender]-identifying people, members of the House. And the dynamic is—. Again, we're all here for each other. And I don't think there is, like—. I don't think there's anything where you, like, rise above—you know, like any type of official title that you can—. No, it's just—. We're all just House sisters, and House brothers, and—. Or, in the nineties the convention was just 'sister.' (Riley laughs) We didn't care who you were, you were just "sister". And so—. Yeah, that was—. It was good because, again, I found more trans [transgender] camaraderie. Being a part of this House, there are more trans women—youth—that was a part of this House. That was—. It really wasn't much to it. We would compete in House balls. And, you know, it was fun because we spent a lot of our time practicing. Practicing walking [ballroom categories], and practicing voguing. Any time there were, like, three or more of us in a room, house music was playing, and we were voguing, and stretching, and all—. Oh God. So long ago. But—. (laughs) I definitely don't have those legs anymore. (both laugh) But it was good, because even that was—. That was bonding time. And, you know, obviously we did talk about the racial disparages of the time, and, you know, being LGBT and Black and on the fringe of, you know, everything else. Not just certain things, but everything else. And so, you know, those were I things—. Those were times where we could have like deep discussions, and it's kind of—. For me, it's kind of—where the group left off, the House picked up. Where I still found myself sitting in a circles talking about, you know, political stuff, and change, and—. You know, I owe everything that I am proudly to that House, because they were loving, they were supportive—sometimes. (laughs) Everybody is—. Nothing is perfect, and no family dynamic is perfect, but—. For the most part, we supported each other's endeavors. And we had a really good House Mom, and a really good House Father.
Riley Habyl [00:37:17] What were some of the things that you learned in the House of Chayde?
Monika Veliz [00:37:22] Oh, God. Well, that depends, because I learned a lot of things. I learned—. I learned how to be a woman—if that makes any sense. Obviously, you know, in my own birth family dynamic, I'm the only trans [transgender] person in my family. So, there's not like a whole lot of conversations. You know, me and my mother's mother-daughter conversations aren't conventional. So, in this House, finding other trans women like myself taught me a lot about being a woman. And, I don't know—. Things that—. 'Cause there's—. You know, lessons have good aspects and they have bad aspects, and I was taught kind of both. There were things that I heard, or was trying to be educated about, that just didn't sit well with me as far as being a trans woman. But, you know, this journey is—. I think at that point I had—. The most important thing I learned is that this journey is singular. We can come together as trans people, but the trans journey is a singular one. And so, I learned how to do makeup. I learned how to—. I learned how to dress for drag. I learned how to perform. I mean, I was a good performer to start with, but the House [of Chayde] definitely taught me how to hone my craft, and to control it. (laughs) Control it. It was a place where we learned new dances, and we learned how to push our bodies' limits and—you know, for the sake of the ballroom, you know, was like, you have to keep going, keep going, but—. Above all, I learned how to be a friend. I think that was—. Because there were other issues that we dealt with within the House. We did deal with HIV, you know, and during a time where medicine was not that helpful—or, as helpful as it is today. So, we did deal with those issues. And keeping it secret, you know, and—. Oh, yeah. I learned a lot.
Riley Habyl [00:40:06] When you were performing within the ballroom scene, were there any specific— (crosstalk)
Monika Veliz [00:40:10] Categories?
Riley Habyl [00:40:11] —categories that you walked?
Monika Veliz [00:40:11] Yes. I walked for Realness, and—. I think that was it. And—. Once there was a Turnabout Ball, and I had to walk for—. Oh, Fem Queen Boogie Like a Butch Queen, which was very difficult. It's very easy—. (both laugh) It's like—. It's safe to say that I lost that one. But it's okay. (laughs) I did bring the House [of Chayde] quite a few trophies home for Realness, and—. Yeah, it's all good. (laughs) [For] Realness, obviously. And if that was your follow up question, "What is Real[ness]?" The [ballroom] category of Realness is, well, presenting like a cis [cisgender] woman. That is not just in looks, but in walking, and all that. Voguing, body movements, all that good stuff. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:41:12] This might be a little bit of a silly question, but I don't know if we've seen the FX show Pose—.
Monika Veliz [00:41:17] I have.
Riley Habyl [00:41:17] And— (coughs)
Monika Veliz [00:41:21] Forced to watch it. Because I was like—. It was weird, because when it when it first aired, everyone's like, "Are you watching? Are you watching?" I said, "No, I lived it. I don't need to watch it. I could sit here and tell you exactly what it's playing out there." So, yeah. Go ahead.
Riley Habyl [00:41:39] Would you say that the ball scene in Cleveland was at all similar to, say, the scene in New York? Or, was it is was it its own sort of thing?
Monika Veliz [00:41:56] I would have to say it was sort of its own thing. It was sort—. I could see where they were trying to push. But, you know, it takes a lot of working together, and the Cleveland LGBT scene, for all of its pocket camaraderie, is never—in my experience, has never been on the same page. And so, it was sort of its own thing, but it wasn't that far off. It wasn't—. It was almost there. And, you know, I think that had it been able to survive to today in Cleveland, we would be—probably—where [the ballroom scene in] New York is. Obviously, with things like Pose and, you know, RuPaul's Drag Race, and all these inspirational ideas that are just like fluid now. You can't turn off—turn on the TV without seeing inspiration that—. Yeah, it probably would be one of the biggest things here in Cleveland. It's really sad, and someone should really work hard to try to bring that scene back—the scene back.
Riley Habyl [00:43:17] At least from your experience, could you sort of tell me a bit about how the scene evolved when you were a part of it? I know you said it's declined in recent years.
Monika Veliz [00:43:27] Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:43:28] Could you tell me about how that came to be?
Monika Veliz [00:43:33] Lack of safe spaces. Like, it's very–. You know, it's one thing–. It's one thing for a white club to put on a 'Black night' because you're looking at, like the, local Black populace. They might not come out because it's a white bar, so it's not that big of a deal. When you're talking about a House ball, where—. It could easily be three to five hundred people descending on your property, and anything and everything will—could go wrong. Black people tear up stuff, I'm not gonna lie. People get angry, people want to fight. Does that—. I think that fear, of—dare I even say, like, Black destruction—prevented a lot of safe spaces for these balls. I think that was the number one contributor of it sort of melting away. Because it didn't just stop, it just sort of melted away, and it—. That was the direct result of them not being able to hold a ball anywhere, you know, without issues—without having to, you know, overly promise safety—and this, that, and other, and it's—. You know, it was definitely noticeable in the LGBT community that if you are a white person and you wanted to put on a birthday party, the club owner would not expect this extensive safety list, you know, and you didn't have to jump through as many hoops. But again, if you're talking about over 300 Black people, all of a sudden there are all this—you know, these hoops to ensure that their space was going to be there when we all left. So, I think that was that was pretty much it. In recent years, the last couple of years, I have heard grumblings of resurgence and people wanting to—. You know, African American LGBT people wanting to—. But they are, again, faced with that issue of, but where? But where? And so, I think that if there was a dedicated space—. I think that's the difference between New York and here, is that there are always dedicated spaces for the ballroom scene [in New York], and New York had them since the late '70s. And so, I think that is a problem. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [00:46:20] Around what year would you say the [ballroom] scene [in Cleveland] started to sort of fizzle out?
Monika Veliz [00:46:27] I left—. Well, our House sort of started to dwindle in numbers—started to fizzle—somewhere around 2000. 2000, where everyone was sort of, like, just going another—. Again, it was because of lack of space. It created a lack of motivation to bring people together, to start talking to other Houses, and saying, "Let's do a ball. Let's get together." Around 2000 is pretty much when I left and went on to do—. I was still doing drag at that time and performing, so—. But, you know, I had other things I was busy doing. (laughs) It just so happened—. But I mean, I tried my best to represent as long as I could—even bearing the name Chayde in my performances until—. Gosh, probably like 2001. No, I want to say probably 2000. The earlier part of 2000. I left, like, the back end of 2000, and just said, "I just don't have time for the House anymore." And then I changed my name from Chayde to Baker onstage. And then started my own family. (laughs) Started my own family, and that's—. Yeah. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [00:48:15] Could tell me more about the family that you started?
Monika Veliz [00:48:18] And—. I will. So, during the House days, I sort of got a little tag-along who had joined the House, and I started calling her Daughter. She started calling me Mother. And so, we—. We were kind of tight. Tyree, or—. In our house, there was then there was a suffix—a suffix added to our name. So, for example, my name was Money, but the suffix would have made it Monaja. And there are other people, like Kendaja, and so forth—and -aja was added to everyone's name. And so, my Daughter's name was Tyraja. And so, we were just tight, close friends. We bonded. Trans was not her journey, but she—. We were tight none the same. And then I acquired another daughter, a white daughter, in 1999. Mariah. If you go through any of my Facebook pages, you'll see Mariah everywhere. Mariah actually became a pretty good entertainer under my tutelage, taking the name Baker. And I don't—. It's weird, because there were only three of us Bakers. And by 2007, I was on Facebook and realized that there were a million-and-one Bakers in the city of Cleveland, and I didn't know how that happened. I really don't. I went to high school with a trans friend who turned out to be an entertainer as well, Brandy. And Brandy took the last name Baker as well. Brandy Baker, that's my sister. And we both belonged to the House of Chayde together. And Brandy went on and had [House] children, and started acquiring [House] children, and giving them the name Baker, and so—. Yeah, I was—. That was kind of shocking to me to find out that I was, like, a House Mother without knowing I was a House Mother. Because there are literally, I don't know, a thousand Bakers running around here, and—. To the point where I actually told my [House] Daughter Mariah, "We should try to do a family reunion just to see how many people are actually claiming the name Baker." And so, yeah. That'd be a very interesting—. Yeah, I want to know. (laughs) I want to know. I mean, that's—. Again, that is—. I think that's the beauty of Houses, and what Houses have given the community—is the ability to build family. And so—. The tool—. The most important tool is a name. And so, yeah, those—. Have a lot of descendants around here, I think. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [00:51:44] Speaking of the importance of a name—
Monika Veliz [00:51:45] Mhm.
Riley Habyl [00:51:45] —could you tell me a little bit more about, you know—the importance of a name, and the importance of finding found families, and creating families?
Monika Veliz [00:51:59] Yes. Well, again, that's something with, like, a hundred different avenues. (Riley laughs) But I'm gonna choose like, one, which is—. Well, as far as the community is concerned, name is everything. Name will get you in the door. But there is a lot to live up to in that name as well. You know, for example, I know so many Martinezes. And Erica [Martinez], who has literally a million children—. She has—. I believe she has a million children. The importance of name is—. It's so important because people have respect for that family's monarch. They have—. Their—. The matriarch, shall I say. I don't want to—. (laughs) Not gonna tell Erica [Martinez] I said that. (both laugh) Matriarch of everyone's famiIies. Matriarch. And, you know, it's because she—he or she—have put so much work into the community, and they've put so much love and respect into that community that the community now gives that back—and would probably give it blindly to a lot of their fledglings. At least at first. That being said, you still have to earn the respect of your community members, and the people that you pull up beside, and things like that. Nothing is given. I was lucky, because my guardian angel—outside of my drag mother—was Twiggy Morgan. I don't know if you ever heard of Twiggy. Twiggy—
Riley Habyl [00:53:54] That Twiggy? Like the—
Monika Veliz [00:53:56] Not the supermodel Twiggy, but the drag entertainer Twiggy Morgan.
Riley Habyl [00:54:00] Like, Twiggy's [Place] bar in Cleveland, Twiggy?
Monika Veliz [00:54:02] Yes.
Riley Habyl [00:54:03] Wow. (laughs)
Monika Veliz [00:54:04] Yeah. So, that's an interesting story. Twiggy and my mother—. My birth mother and father partied together at Twiggy's bar [Twiggy's Place, 2537 St. Clair Ave.] in the seventies. Everything gets a return somehow. There is—. And this predates me, so—. You know, and I've definitely sat down and had conversations with my mother and father and said, "When you were partying at a gay bar, did you ever think that you were probably like, in training at any point?" (both laugh) "Did you feel like you were in training?" They—. To this day, they still talk about, you know, Twiggy's bar. They still talk about, I guess, another bar that predates me. Porky's [1496 St. Clair Ave.]. And, you know, all those—all that stuff. And they went there all the time. So, when I did come out, as I'm doing my rounds—. After Numbers, I go to Rockies [9208 Detroit Ave.]. And I just go because, you know, being 18, 19, 20 years old, we—. Oh, it's so bad. I'm gonna say—. We all literally said that Rockies was the place where old queens went to die, because it just seemed like an older group. It was an older crowd, and we were younger and we wanted to, you know, run around and stuff like that, and we didn't go there. And it was weird because The Cage was one block away from Rockies, and so we—. Every now and then, we would walk a block over and just see what was going on. And so I go over there, and Twiggy [Morgan] looks at me, and she's shaking her finger at me, and she's like, "You just—. You—. You remind me of someone." And I was like, "Oh, God. I hear that all the time." She's just like, "No, no, no, no. You remind me of a woman—," I hate this language, but, "a real woman." That was the language she used, "a real woman," and, "—that I used to party with in the seventies." And I was like, "Oh." And she kept staring at me, and she kept staring at me. And she was like, "I'm just gonna go out—. Did you ever have parents that partied in the gay scene in the seventies?" And I was like, "Yeah, I think my mother and my father did." She was like, "You—. I'm gonna say you look like your mom, because I believe that I know your mother." I was like, "What? This is weird. This is weird." She describes my mother to the T. She—. Actually, the only thing she got wrong was confusing my father for Puerto Rican, and that was because of the complexion of his skin. And I said, "No, that wasn't my father. He was—. My father was Italian." And she was like, "Well, same. They all look alike." And so, Twiggy [Morgan] opened the bar to me. Name is everything. Name matters. Name carries weight. Twiggy [Morgan] opened Rockies to me. She let me perform there any time I wanted to. She would call me up and ask me, you know, if I wanted a booking, all these things. And, yeah, I sort of floated through the drag scene charmed, I think. Charmed because—. Well, you know, it was 50% of who you knew. And then 50% of that PR [public relations]. If—. You know, I tried to keep myself squeaky clean, and I tried to be friendly, and I tried to, you know, be welcoming no matter who I held a conversation with. And, you know, in a week, that could be as many as two, three hundred people. Of constantly interacting with people. And I just tried to stay open and keep my nose clean, and—. Yeah, because when you have people like Twiggy Morgan, Erica Martinez, and Mahogany Reason vouching for you—saying, "She's okay,"—it's important to go out into the world and do good by that. To make good on that. And so, yeah, name is important. Again, 100 different—. There are a hundred different avenues I could take you down. But yeah, it's interesting. That part of my life was—. It was fun, and it was exciting because I didn't know who I was gonna be. And, you know, it was weird because I realized that my parents are probably more—more allies than I had ever thought they were. You know, they had—. This was not new because they had a trans child. They'd always been allies to the LGBT community, and I think that has something to do with them being an interracial couple, and understanding what it's like to be on the fringe, you know, in the seventies. And so, yeah, I got pretty lucky, I think. (both laugh) Yeah. I still had to do the work myself, but—. Yeah. It was good work, learning the ups, and the downs, and, you know, trying to navigate LGBT life, I guess.
Riley Habyl [00:59:18] Could you tell me a bit about, maybe some of those ups and downs that you experienced throughout your career?
Monika Veliz [00:59:23] Oh—
Riley Habyl [00:59:23] If you have any, like, stories that stick out to you, or memories?
Monika Veliz [00:59:30] I do. I've been thinking about this for the last three weeks. There's one particular story that sticks out. Probably—. Well, the best—. The best story I have was definitely attending my first coronation at the Imperial Court System [in San Francisco]. That is what changed a lot of my—. And that happened in 2000 and—. 2000. But the worst story was a friend of mine—trans [transgender] girl—was murdered. And my phone was ringing off the hook. The dreaded landline, like, ringing off the hook, "Are you okay? Are you okay?" They found, you know, one of the girls dead down in the Flats. And then the next day, I said "No I'm—. I'm fine. I wonder who it is. I don't know who it is," blah-blah-blah. The next day, you know, there's a news report that a body had been found, and—. So I go to The Cage. It's ironic. I li—. At this point, I'm living a three minute walk from The Cage. And so I walk over to The Cage and a lot of the Black community— LGBT community—are standing outside The Cage. And Big Mama—. If you—. I'm sure that name's come across somewhere. Big Mama looked at me and she, like, clutched her chest. She said, "Oh my God. Girl, I thought it was you. I had—. Like, we all were sitting here just now thinking that you—." I—. She said, "Oh, it was that pretty one. It was that pretty one." I said, "No. I'm still here. Who was it?" And it turned out it was—. Her name was Sharika. And that was extremely hard when I found out it was her, 'cause Sharika and I were very close. And Sharika had just gotten a lot of 'work'—in quotes, 'work' done, and it was very unfortunate. She was 21, I believe. And to this day, no one's found her killer. So, yeah, that was probably the—. That was probably one of the—. That was the lowest, because it heightened awareness. It, again, grew me up. Yeah, I'm thinking that—no offense—everything's all shits and rainbows, you know? Like, "Oh, I'm now a part of a much larger community, and I'm safe, and I'm good, and everything is good." And then death happens because of who this person is. And it grew me up overnight. I was like a hoot owl all the time, you know, looking around me. Taking, you know, stock of everyone that's in the room, and who shouldn't be in the room. Who haven't I—I've never seen before, and—. Yeah, that was deep. (sighs, laughs) But I—. You know, now I do this work—and a lot of it is about Sharika. A lot of it is about that defining moment in my life where I wish I could have kept her safe. And now I'm in a position where I can work to keep trans folks safe. So, yeah. I don't think I've ever told anybody that. A lot of people ask me what motivates me, and I—. My normal responses is—. Because I don't want to talk about that, my normal response is, "Well, I just want more for my people." But I think the real reason is Sharika. I constantly think about her. And unfortunately, you know, the subsequent trans women that have died since, you know, that happened in 1999. And so—. Yeah. The—. But they're—. The good things that came out of it was, like I said, lifelong friends that are still here, thank God—and community. Understanding what community is, and not just to me. One of the distinct pleasures that I've had in this journey is being able to observe how lesbian communities—like friends, are, and trans communities, and the gay community. Like, everybody has their own little community within this [broader LGBT] community. And the one thing that constantly resonates is family, safety, and—. Yeah, that's—. I could go on and on about that positivity, because that is like—. I don't know. I don't know. I think that we should do more things like this project to talk about it. (unintelligible) Another low of mine is the fact that we don't talk about history. That there is a huge generation—. Two generations of LGBT Clevelanders who know absolutely nothing about these people. And it's a shame, because I think that—. You know, being Black, being Sicilian, I understand the importance of culture. I think that's—. I am motivated, ironically, a lot by my cis [cisgender] upbringing. And having culture, knowing where you came from—. Those things are the only way that you can actually utilize all of the advantages of being a part of a community. And so—. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:06:01] At least within the communities that you've been a part of, is—. Within the ball scene, and within the drag scene, is there an emphasis on remembering that history, and passing on that history and that legacy—.
Monika Veliz [01:06:14] Uh—
Riley Habyl [01:06:14] —moreso than outside of those communities, if that makes sense?
Monika Veliz [01:06:19] I don't—. I don't think so. I think there is, like, an official unofficial—. If there's, you know, at least two people in the room, someone will say their name or say, you know, "Remember when?" But there is no—. I have never seen. But then again, I don't know what other ball scenes around the world are doing. They may have some sort of 'In Memoriam' that takes place. But I know that when I was part of it, we didn't have anything like that. And so, we sort of look to each other as that legacy. Remembrance. Again, name matters. When you see someone who is carrying the name of someone who made an impact—'scuse me—there is that remembrance of the work that that person did, or how they contributed to someone else's life, and so—. Yeah, it's—. But, you know, as Black people we are conditioned to understand oral history, and that things are passed down. You don't always need this big, you know, presentation to remember someone. When you are talking to another person, this is—. This is the legacy. This is how those things keep moving. And so, I think a lot of us come from that oral history system, and knowing how it works. And so, I think that's been good for us. I think that's—. That works for us, yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:08:11] Sort of thinking about when you moved to California in the 2000s—. You had mentioned that you were a part of the—
Monika Veliz [01:08:19] Imperial Court System, mhm. (crosstalk)
Riley Habyl [01:08:22] Imperial Court System. Could you tell me a little bit more about what that is, and how you participated in it?
Monika Veliz [01:08:27] Yes. The Imperial Court System is—. It's—. First and foremost, it's a 501-c3 [nonprofit] where they fundraise for all sorts of different charities and organizations—not even specific to LGBT. They've been around since 1969, I believe. 1969 or 1967. It may be 1967. I believe the Court system pre-dates Stonewall. And so, it began in Northern California—San Jose, I believe, or San Francisco. San Jose. And the Imperial Court System functions like the monarch system. There is an Empress, an Emperor. There is Duchesses, and Dukes, and Lords, and Viscounts, and so forth, and so forth, and so on. And Ladies, and Ambassadors, and things like that. And it is prevalent throughout California, territories—northern territories of Mexico, and Canada. And it's huge. It is huge. And when I came back from this experience, of course, I'm like," Yep. Gonna start one in Cleveland," only to find out there is an Imperial Court already established in the state of Ohio. In Cincinnati. Over the last couple of years, I've been in a constant back-and-forth between starting a Ducal Court here in Cleveland, and how important that is. Because again—. For me, having come from a House system and seeing how important that is—. I instantly recognized that there. That—. They're all Dukes and Ladies, but it's a House. You know what I mean? Like, it's a House, and—. But on a much bigger, grander scale. There have been people like Cyndi Lauper and Cher attached to the Imperial Court System in New York. And all sorts of celebrities pitch in when it comes to the Imperial Court System. And it is one thing that the LGBT community does not know a whole lot about. When I did come back from California and I was talking about it, there were a lot of people in my group there was like, "What?" I was like, "Yes!" They were like, "Ugh. That sounds crazy." And it's like, "No, there's like—. They make millions and millions of dollars for charities and nonprofits. And they have scholarships, and all sorts of grants that are available to LGBT folks."
Riley Habyl [01:11:27] (unintelligible)
Monika Veliz [01:11:30] I want to do one here. I wanna be Empress, dammit. (both laugh) I'm working towards it, I'm working towards it. And, you know, being a part of Margie's Hope is definitely conditioning me to lead a Court, you know, and to—. There's nothing like understanding your community, and the needs of your community. That's the only way you can help them. And so, I would not want to be Empress until I felt positive and sure that I knew how best to serve my community.
Riley Habyl [01:12:08] What year was it that you moved from California back to Ohio?
Monika Veliz [01:12:12] 2000—. 2002? 2000? I wasn't there very long. I wasn't. I came back home. My ex-husband and I had split up, and I was like, "Well, time to go home." And so, I came home and I came straight back to work, you know, and had to earn a living, and all that good stuff. And yeah, that was 2002, and—. Oh, wait. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. (sighs) That had to be 2000. End of 2001. Had to be the end of 2001. I came home for a bit. I—. Again, I was in the bar when the clock struck 12 and The Cage closed, and we were all sad. And the bar owner, and Andrea Michaels, and Terri Williams, and myself and another friend stayed after the bar closed. And we were—. We were doing this. We were reminiscing about the good times in that bar. And yeah, it was kind of sad to see it go because it was for sure a community watering hole. It was—. You know, not just LGBT people, but it was also—. And it functioned seven nights a week. It was op—. There was something going on every night of the week. And cisgender—. The cisgender, straight community would always—. It was like they lived there, and we could hardly call it a gay bar anymore because it just seemed to be just the neighborhood place. And ironically enough, on the inside it felt safe. There was a lot of things that were going around—going on around that area that was really bad for the LGBT community. But on the inside we felt safe. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [01:14:16] What were some of the things that were happening around that area at the time?
Monika Veliz [01:14:19] Oh—. The area was just starting to go south. From people being robbed, to bashings, things like that. You know, not necessarily on that—. There were a lot of working girls that populated the corners where the bar was. And so, that often brings bad elements, you know, to that area and stuff. And so, violence was definitely not out of the question. It didn't happen often, but it did happen, you know. And so, yeah, we had to contend with that. And, you know, most—. You know, from my recollection, a lot of people came in big groups anyway. So, yeah. If violence happened towards you, you know, you were probably, you know, singled out as being like this loner. Going to your car or something. It was—. It started to really get bad, so I'm kind of—. As much as I'm sad that it closed, I'm kind of glad that it did so that no one would get hurt. No one else would get hurt. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:15:36] I know that you also own your own fashion company [Jai Girl Inc.].
Monika Veliz [01:15:38] I do.
Riley Habyl [01:15:39] Could you tell me about how that came into being?
Monika Veliz [01:15:45] So, I—. At some point, Wendy has to leave Neverland, right? She has to go back to the regular world. And so, 2007, I said, "I'm going to quit drag." I was—. It was weird, 'cause I was doing—. My [drag] last show was in the Martini Bar downtown, 2007. And I think I did probably one of the best sets I had ever done, for some strange reason. And I go back to the dressing room, and I'm closing up things, and, you know, all that melee that goes on. And so, I'm looking in the mirror and I—. I'm looking at my best friend, and I go, "I think this is my last show." She looked at me, she's like, "You're lying. There's no way." I was like, "Yeah. I'm over it. I think I've done it all, you know. I'm—. And it's time for me to start thinking about my future. I'm—." At that time I was 30 years old. And she said, "Well, what are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to start my own clothing line." And so, I started researching my demographic. And, you know, all the things that they teach us in college to do before you start a business. (laughs) And so, I instantly said, "You know, if I'm going to make this successful, the first thing I need to do is think about trans people." And, you know, I made a lot of my own clothes. And a lot of that came from going to get a blouse, and the blouses is, like, too short on my—. I—. You know, as a trans woman, I have longer arms. I have longer legs. I may be shaped like a woman, but that is just only in appearance. The numbers don't lie. My ribcage is longer. You know, my torso is longer. Things like that. And so, I started making a lot of my own, like, designs and stuff. And so, I said I think that that should be the focus of my clothing line [Jai Girl Inc.]. The overall focus is to design for all identifying women. Women who identify as women, doesn't matter. And I think at the time, no clothing line or label was using that language. No one was saying, "Oh, you know, if you're wearing women's clothes then—." Or, "If you're making a women's clothes, then it's for women." No one was being specific by saying that trans women are also entitled to these clothes. And so, you know, I then started saying, "No, if you if just—. If you're a woman, then I make clothes for you." And so, that was different. That got me a lot of attention. (laughs) Where we were like, "Really?" And that brought a lot of business my way, and then—. You know, the very—. I think the very moment that I thought I knew that I was doing this is when I sewed my own label—my label—into a garment. And I was like, "Oh my God. This is real." You know, to see it was different. And I said, "Oh my God. This is real. This is happening. I'm a designer." But, true story—no designer ever says that they're a designer. (Iaughs) If someone says that they're a designer, they're not a designer. I—. I create clothing. I'm a creator. I'm—. I wouldn't necessarily call it designing. When I think of what I do, I am creating an experience for identifying fems. Period. Whatever that experience is. You know, my own aesthetic is—. It's weird. It's like, 1950s. I'm obsessed with the '30s, '40s, and '50s for some strange reason. Not for political reasons, but—. (both laugh) But fashion-wise, everything. And so, you know that—. Even that broke off to affordability in my clothing, and, you know, sustainability in my clothing. I do not use fur of any kind of any kind, skins of any kind. I do not use real leather. I—. Like, it's just—. But, to be able to [not] use those things and still give someone a couture feeling was always my goal. Like, yes. You don't have to look like you shop from Kmart. Oh, God. That's really dating me, right? (laughs) Sorry, everybody. That's really dating me. You don't have to feel like you're shopping from Kmart to look good. Or, you know, you can spend the same amount of money, ish, and still have a couture, high-end feeling when you look in the mirror. And so I really structured my clothing line around that sustainability. You know, using cottons. Using, you know—. Oh, I'm a whiz at denim. Denim is like one of my favorite fabrics, and I have this fi—. I do have a fiber obsession where, like, I know all fibers. It's so weird. I am one of those people who can definitely shop online for fabric and not go, "But what does it do?" I already know the—. You know, if there's three or four different fibers that make up that fabric, I already know what that fabric will do. So, I do have a fiber obsession and I'm constantly using juxtaposition in my design. Juxtaposition is probably the heft of what I do. So I will put, you know, leather and lace together. I do experiment with different textures. And I have had quite a few design friends that are obsessed with me, because they don't know how I can take—. I don't know, I can take any fabric and make it into something. And it's like, it's—. I don't know. I don't know how I do that either, but it's fun. (laughs) And it's, you know, it's unique. Making sure that every woman feels unique in my clothing, in my wedding dresses. Oh, God, my wedding dresses. It is—. It's the only—. Like, that's my only aim as, far as that business is concerned. It's like, that's what motivates me. That's what drives me. And yeah, being a trans woman definitely adds a very unique perspective on women's wear, I think. Because you do have to be very specific when you're designing for the female body. It reminds you constantly that not every female body is industry standard. And yeah, that's a good tool to have it as a designer. As a creator.
Riley Habyl [01:23:26] How has your business [Jai Girl Inc.] developed over time?
Monika Veliz [01:23:34] Ah—. Slow. Slow, because—. Well, it's not as flourishing as it was in the beginning. Because in the beginning—. So, from like 2007 to about 2017. For a good strong ten years, I was doing really good. I was down to designing two or three wedding gowns a year. And I preferred that because it freed me to do whatever. But there's a catch-22 in all that. Brides are hell to work with. (Riley laughs) And so, I end up having to cut that back from (coughs) three to a solid two. Which was fine because I could concentrate a solid six months into the fine details of a wedding gown that's gonna last for a hundred years. I could do a lot more couture work—where I'm literally hand-sewing so much applique that my fingers are bleeding. And I enjoy that. But then when I became attached to this—to Margie's Hope, work just evaporated. It just evaporated. Because I found something that I was still—. Like, I was passionate about. Just as passionate as the designing. But I'm passionate about the community. I'm passionate about trans liberation. And so, yeah, I was like, I'll get back to it. It's like riding a bike. (Riley laughs) And every chance that I get within the organization, I try to pull fashion into it. The very first Daisy Gala happened last—in May, this past May—which was a fashion collaborative that I orchestrated. Like, I guess that is history. That is something that would be good—. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [01:25:32] Absolutely.
Monika Veliz [01:25:34] I decided one day—. Again, from the time I joined this organization [Margie's Hope], it was—. I don't want to let designing go. It is my love. It is my first love. And there has to be a way to get everyone on the same page. And fashion does that. Fashion tells such a unique story—of everyone's story. And I wanted to create an event where we can actually forget about being trans, and lesbian, and gay, and this, that, and another, and go, "Wait a minute—." Or, not to forget it—but to more or less recognize what actually exists in our community. The art, the talent, the beauty that exists under our glorious flag, our inclusive flag. And so, I put a committee together through Margie's Hope—a fundraising committee for this specific purpose. The [Daisy Gala] committee met every Monday for a whole year for one hour. We ended up raising $50,000 in sponsorships. It was a 300-plus turnout, community wise. And keep in mind, this was the very first annual [Daisy Gala], so every year there will be this event. It was a huge undertaking, but I'm—. I was proud of it at the end of the day, because a lot of the community got it. They were like, "Yeah. Fashion. I'm there. I understand." And there was tons of information that was—. I actually designed a magazine specific for it. Again, I'm branching out. This is who I am. I said, "I have to design a magazine specific for this." So it was a list of, like, the designers, the models—. It had connections about why fashion was important to identity, and even this cute little leaflet that had Oscar Wilde on the top of it that talked about how little subtle nuances back in those days— like the fashion nuances that let people know that they were safe—was important. So, all of this stuff. And people could not believe—. I think I got so many emails and texts saying, "You know, in the beginning I had a hard time understanding what you were trying to do. But when I actually got there, I was like, holy crap. She has just started something." I had—. A month later I had a sponsor and community partner Zoom [meeting], and it was good to hear them saying, "You've started something." As—. I don't know if that's, like, my contribution to the LGBT community, but I'm hoping that it is. Because there is a lot of—. That segregation still exists to this day, and a lot of it is just not knowing how we all fit together. And the more we come up with ideas of reminding everyone how lesbians are connected trans people, and trans people are connected to gay man, or that gay white men have just as much in common with the gay Black men as they do—. Like, if we keep setting subjects for people to realize that we—we're connected, we might fare this—. These tumultuous times that are against all of us. Every single one of us. No matter what side of the road we're on, it's against all of us. So, yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:29:51] To circle back a little bit—. How did you first get involved with Margie's Hope, and then Margie's Closet?
Monika Veliz [01:29:58] So, for a couple of years the former [Margie's Hope] President, Jacob Nash, kept asking me to join this organization, and to join the board. And I said, "Oh, God, I—. What do I have to add? What do I have to give?" You know, again, my cis [cisgender] upbringing has taught me—. There's a downside to that, that "If it doesn't affect me, I'm all—. I'm good." Like, "Life's good." And I wasn't acknowledging the things that were anti-trans, and—or even anti-LGBT as a whole was affecting me, and—. I don't know. I just didn't think that I had anything to really give to the community. So I kept telling him, "No. No, no, no." I was living in a—. Er, in Eastlake. Lease was up, and I was moving back to the west side. So I posted that on Facebook. And Jacob [Nash] reached out to me again and said, "Oh, you're moving back to the west side finally. Funny you should be moving over there. We're getting ready to open up a store, and we could use your fashion expertise." And that that will get me every single time. So I said, "Okay, fine. Fine. I will join your board, and—to help you develop the store, the store for the community. I will help you do that." I joined the [Margie's Hope] board in January of '21. I was made Vice President in March of '21, and then—. Yeah, and then I became President [of Margie's Hope] in November of '21. I love my community, and I worked hard. Again, like I said, I love designing. But for me, that will never leave me. I can literally pick up a sewing machine in the next five minutes and sew a complete gown, and—. But—. This is important. This is—. From day one, from the moment I walked in this door, I felt this was important. This was probably one of the most important things that I will do for my community. And I became devoted to it. And now it's just me running the store [Margie's Closet, 1384 W. 117th St.]. Jacob [Nash] is gone. Jacob was—. Jacob [Nash] retired from the organization in 20—. (sighs) Part of this oral history is being correct. Like, not lying. Telling the truth, right? (laughs) Okay. I s—. I'm gonna say it for the oral—. Jacob Nash was removed for the preservation of the trans community's future. And it was unanimously decided by the [Margie's Hope] board at the time to remove him. And then, their obvious choice was me, because over the course of that year I was everywhere. People wanted to talk to me. And I think it was a unique thing for Cleveland to see a Black trans woman in leadership. It's not something you see every day, or have seen every day. And so, it seemed like an obvious choice. And again, the love for my community supersedes everything I think about. And I want—. I was lucky enough to have a good upbringing, education, economic—sort of economic (laughs)—good economic resources. And so, I wanted the rest of my community to have—. I want the rest of my community to have access to that. And so, the only way I'm going to be able to do that is if I'm in charge. If I'm HBIC [head bitch in charge], as we call it. (laughs) So, yeah. We acknowledge the fact that Jacob [Nash] put in a lot of hard work into this organization [Margie's Hope and Margie's Closet], and giving us the foundation to build, you know. And hopefully, I will be able to give an even stronger foundation to the next President that's gonna sit here. And if they need anything, I'll be Empress, so I can help. (both laugh) So, yeah. I love this organization. I love the being—. I love what it represents to the trans community of—not just Cleveland, but of Ohio. We are there—. In the year that I—the two years that I've been President, we have gone from, "What's Margie's Hope?" to being probably the second most well-known trans organization in the state of Ohio. And that is only second to TransOhio. And that's because they are—. They help with a names. (laughs) So, I literally call James Knapp the godfather of the trans community, because a lot of the trans community in Cleveland—and in Ohio—have gone to TransOhio for a name change, so.
Riley Habyl [01:35:51] What would you say the role of Margie's Closet specifically is for the trans community in Cleveland? What services does it provide, and how have community members responded to it?
Monika Veliz [01:36:04] So, first and foremost, the definition of Margie's Closet [1384 W. 117th St.] is 'safe space.' We have a saying that "affirmation starts at the door." So, as soon as you walk in. We don't care what part of the transition you're in. I've had trans women who have come into the store with ZZ Top beards, shy, just starting out. And the first thing we ask is, "What are your pronouns?" The first thing that we ask, "What are your pronouns?" And the ZZ Top trans, you know, looking—tattoos, just got off a motorcycle. "I would prefer to be called she." Then that's what it is. We don't care what—. You told us who you are, and that it who you are every time you walk into this building. That is, like, for us—for me, the foundation of what this place [Margie's Closet] has to represent. It has to represent that you can be who you say you are in these four walls, if you can't do it anywhere else. When you need to be reminded of who you are, this is where you come to. I once told a reporter that from the outside it looks like a—just a little thrift shop. But in all actuality, I believe it's the start of a community center. And that was very apparent the first week to two weeks of us opening the doors. We were flooded by trans people. Throughout the entire trans spectrum. They wanted to work here. They wanted to be a part of whatever this is doing for the trans community. Wanted to be a part of that history—because it was and continues to be groundbreaking in the city of Cleveland. And so, I feel extremely lucky to be a part of this because I'm meeting people that I didn't even know existed in this city. Trans people. I—. "Oh my God. Look at you." I feel like a mother when I meet a new trans person for the first time, and we can sit down and talk about their journey, and we can sit, and—. You know, again, everything gets a return. I'm thinking about that—those House moments just talking to you right now. And your question of what did I learn—. I learned what it meant to be community. And everything gets a return. And here I am, almost 30 years later, using the tools that were given to me. And, you know, we've been lucky. We've been very lucky, where—. People have—. This is—. For some people, this is a normal stop on their way home after work. Like, they have to stop by the store just to even say hi to me. I mean, I had to tell the community for—. Oh God, the first three or four months of us opening, I had to literally post on Facebook, "Please stop bringing me frappés." (Riley laughs) At one point, there would be like five frappés sitting on the desk. Or, people would just stop and just said, "I was thinking about you and I wanted to stop and get you something." Or, how people are constantly saying, "Thank you, Monika. Thank you for doing what you do." And the reality is, I want to thank them every day. I feel extremely lucky to have front row of someone starting their journey. I've been very lucky in the last two years to see someone go from a ZZ Top beard to complete name change. To transitioning, you know, in the workplace and all that. It's been—. It's a beautiful thing. I recommend it to everybody, to find someone who's just starting out, and shadow them, and watch how they just bloom. They open up every day, every minute that you see them. They're a new person. And knowing that they are—. Feeding off of your positive support, that their—. What is—. Being—. What is watering them is the fact that they have community, that they now no longer feel alone. They see people like them. They hear people like them. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing. I think that the world that is anti-trans is losing out on a lot. They're losing out on talented musicians, artists, designers, architects, lawyers. They're losing out on beautiful people that could give a lot to this world. And I'm glad that Margie's Closet is the hub for those people. I'm—. That is what the this place has become. The services that we provide—. We—. So, Jacob Nash's idea of the Closet [Margie's Closet] was to make clothing accessible—. Affirming clothing accessible to trans people during their transition. My understanding is, like, once a month in the very beginning they would rent out space. And that costs a lot, you know. They were making clothes accessible—affordable clothing accessible—but it still cost them a lot to have to rent out a space just to lay out the clothes. And, you know, it was costing them more. And so, they decided to open up a place that trans people could always have access to. And so, yeah. How—. Why wouldn't I want to be a part of that? I said, "Absolutely, I could do that for you." Jacob [Nash] and I are really good friends, and so I wanted to help. And this was something I knew. I didn't know a whole lot about the nonprofit sector, but clothing I do know. And so, again, I'm able to use my gifts, and I'm able to use what I have to make my community better. There were times when we first opened I would spend—. You know, when we first opened, we would close at 8 p.m. Someone—. Some trans person, newly trans person—would come in at 7:30 [p.m.]. (grumbles) "Ugh. I want to go home. I'm tired. I've been here all day." But that did not stop me. I—. There were times where I would stay 'till 9:30 [p.m.] because I was convinced that that woman or that man's identity was in these [clothing] racks. And I'm going to help you find her or him. I don't care what that is. And they're—. My favorite question used to be—. It still is. "What kind of woman are you? What kind of woman do you see yourself [as]?" And, you know, you get all kind of colorful responses. Someone going, "I don't know. I like—. I like jeans and sneakers." And I said, "Okay, let's go find her. She's—. Trust me, I put a lot of this stuff on these racks, so I know she's in here somewhere." (laughs) And to see people leave happy, affirmed—. And, you know, there is a huge responsibility for us that have transitioned early, and [for] as long as we have. There is a responsibility to make sure that we don't scare new trans people. To—. You know, in the sense of—. I've seen many trans people who don't really want to talk about transitioning in the store. They don't want to talk about it because—. They look at me, and they go, "Oh, well, she knows what being trans is, if nobody else does." Like—. "And I don't want to feel—." What's the word I'm looking for? "I don't want to feel like—. I don't know. Like, I'm like—. I don't want to feel like the new kid on the block. I don't want to feel like I don't know what I'm doing." And it is our responsibility to say, "It's okay. None of us did." We have to let—. Remind them none of us knew what—. You know? None of us are gonna be as advanced as other people, either physically, or mentally, or any of that stuff. Whatever. None of that stuff matters. There are some trans people that are passable. There are some people that are not. But guess what? You're still trans, and that's the beautiful thing. That's the wonderful thing. And, you know, it's our responsibility to teach the new ones how to love themselves for everything that they are. And in the store, in this building, I can do that. I can be responsible for helping a newly trans person respect themselves and appreciate everything that they are. So, I—. It's a blessing. I thank them. They thank me all the time, but I'm like, "No, I would be sewing someone something—." You know, "I'd be sewing some whiny, pissy bride's dress right now if I wasn't here. And I would be not really—. I don't think I would be as fulfilled if I am now." And so, yeah. This is good. And finding the nonprofit sector was definitely a blessing for me. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:46:42] Thinking about, you know, how Margie's Closet is a historic thing, and how this is a source of, you know, affirmation and validation that hasn't previously existed before—. If you can think back from when you began transitioning to now, what are some of the biggest changes—both within and outside of trans communities—that you've experienced throughout your life?
Monika Veliz [01:47:12] Oh, wow. That's a broad one, but I can sum it up in quite a few words. Trans people are respecting themselves now. Trans people aren't as heavy as they were in my day. I constantly tell trans youth, "In my day there were two things that were expected of you once you said that you were a woman. That was to get on hormones, and to get sexual reassignment surgery." That was it. There was no in-between. There was no—. You definitely didn't talk about your private parts. You didn't talk about—. Ugh, God. Two trans women in love together was—. That was like one of the biggest no-nos ever. Ever. You were shunned almost if—. It was—. It's so weird that those things existed in our community. But there was no room for living outside of a binary code. You—. If you are a woman—. In, you know, my case—if you are a woman, then you got everything done physically. You married a man, or you dated man. Period. You didn't even date—. And I don't even think I knew a trans woman who dated a trans man. There was just none of those things that were discussed or talked about. And obviously that closes off a lot of thoughts about, "What have I actually signed up for?" Like, it sounds like I—. I made this move to be free—however, there are still a lot of constraints that are very much prevalent in my own community. And I was, for the most part, a very big outlier for a lot of things. I dated interracially. A lot of my circle did not. They could not understand why I would date a white man versus a Black man. But I dated Black men too, I was just attracted to white men. But those things weren't done. And you definitely did not utilize anatomy in the way that it was meant to be used—I'll put it that way. I'll put it delicately for whoever may be listening. There was just an idea of our bodies that was very unrealistic. And it actually caused a lot of damage as far as how trans women viewed themselves. And now, I get so happy when I hear about two trans girls that are happily— haplessly in love, and they are in love with each other. And I just think back to when I was a teenager, and thinking, "Oh God." I—. You know, I could think of probably ten trans women from that decade—some of them are still alive—that are probably cringing at this idea of polyamory, and, you know, dating the same as you. And they would—. They are probably cringing right now. But I'm loving it, and I'm enjoying it. And I'm like, "Finally. This is the way to freedom." When we start accepting ourselves, when we start accepting each other—. This is how we're going to get to freedom. It's not putting these restraints, and these rules, and these—. You know, these things that cis [cisgender] people can't even live up to. (laughs) Cis people aren't even trying to live up to. Why are we doing it to ourselves? It makes absolutely no sense. So, I'm happy to see that transition within our community. Trans people are freer. Did you know the number of bottom surgery is down? And it's down—. Not—. I don't want to say national average. We haven't really looked at that number. But the number is considerably down, and I think that that has a lot to do with the fact that trans people are just accepting themselves. Period. That trans people are finally using the words 'enough'. "I'm enough right now, " versus this unrealistic expectation of what we have to be. And so, yeah, I—. God bless 'em. They are. It is—. It's wonderful to see, and I'm happy that the trans community is changing. Yeah. As—. I have a saying in this store—or anywhere that I am—that's, "The dinosaurs are dying out." (laughs) We just have to watch still. We just have to wait. We don't have very much longer. The dinosaurs are dying. They're going to drag all their archaic ideas of what physicality or romance is with them. And so, we will have a new generation of people that are—. I don't know, expanding the boundaries, and—. Yeah. It's nice—. It was nice to live in 1993. It's a blessing to live in 2023, culturally. (laughs) Yeah.
Riley Habyl [01:53:34] Sort of related to that question—. Do you think—. I know that you've said that you've attended the LGBT Center as a teen. Do you think that the T in the LGBT is more visible, or any more accepted in the present, than it was when you first became involved?
Monika Veliz [01:53:52] Honestly, I think that's—. Honestly, I think that it has diminished quite a bit. In my day, it seemed like trans people were everywhere. It seemed like—. I don't know what that particular—. But see, when we talk about that LGBT [Community] Center, we're talking like two rooms. That [LGBT Community] Center on West 29th. I don't know. Do you know where the Jukebox [1404 W. 29th St.] is? Um, well you do this, so you know your history. The Jukebox on West 29th. It was there, and it was just a one room area. I think there were multiple areas of it, but I was in the main room. And it was a community. It was very grassroots. It was literally—. It was so grassroots. (sighs) We might as well have been family, like it was that you know, connected. Now? I don't think so. I went to the [LGBT Community] Center for the very—this [LGBT Community] Center located on 65th, or wherever—for the first time in 2021, November. And I'm looking around, and I'm asking—. I asked Devinity—. I was standing next to Devinity, and I go, "Where is Mother's picture?" And in the trans community, we know what Mother—. Who Mother is. Mother is Marsha P. Johnson. "Where is Mother's picture?" She's like, "I don't know, girl. I keep asking them to put up, you know, her picture." And I think it's sad, because what we're moving—. The era that we're really moving into is people forgetting who gave us our liberation. She [Marsha P. Johnson] happened to have been a Black trans woman. And they—. But this is how the white gay community have overwritten our history. Overwritten, you know, the things that actually do matter. You know, and when you walk into an LGBT place—. Trust me, I'm actually now trying to commission an artist to paint a mural of Marsha P. Johnson in here [Margie's Closet]. But when you walk into an LGBT space, it's almost like—that's the first thing you want to see. It's the thing that we need to see as a community. To remember that it wasn't just white faces that got us here. That it took all of us to get to this place. When I have been screaming it over, and over again. Whenever there is demonstration. Whenever there is, you know, mass cry out. Whenever a gay male or woman look to their left or their right, they are seeing me. They are seeing my sisters, my brothers walking with them. And when things like now—. Times like now where anti-[trans] legislation is smothering us—. We need them now more than ever. We need our LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual] community to remember that they would not be where they were if it wasn't for us. And, you know, I'm not—. I'm—. Part of that makes me angry. It makes me so mad. I was recently at a fundraiser, as recent as two days ago, and I was at the door. The fundraiser was for us, and it was put on by another fringed part of the community—which is the leather community. Kind of weird, the trans community and leather community working together. But I was actually kind of shocked at how many trans people were at this leather event. But I'm standing at the door, people not knowing who I am. Gay white men. And it wasn't a "you have to pay to get in." It was a—the words were, "suggested donation of $5." Five dollars. You can't buy crap in this country for $5 anymore, so it's a very small amount. I'm at the door, and I'm gauging white men's faces—white gay men's faces. Eyes rolling, "For who? For the trans community? Ugh. What? I–. Yeah, I don't think I have anything." And it was that—. It was like, Oh, my God. I'm not reacting, I'm observing what is really happening. What is happening is that these—. The white gay community does not see our problems as their problems. That has always been the issue, that they see no connection to—. You know, they can pass. They don't have to say they're gay—and still have a job, and be able to teach, and go to college, and all those good, good things. But it's not so long ago that their people were being outed in newspapers, shunned out of churches, all those things. Like, we are so connected. Don't you see that what happened to you is now starting to happen to another? And this is the time where you are supposed to be screaming and outraged. You are supposed to be putting on marches, and demonstrations, and, you know, going down to Columbus and speaking on behalf of the trans community. Fighting for us. You should be looking to trans leadership and asking, "How can I be a better ally?" I do believe that the T [transgender community] is very much silent today. More than it was 30 years ago. You could not go into a bar, club, a gathering, a Pride, without seeing tons of trans people. Representation. And now, it seems like representation is a struggle. It's a struggle to get a seat at the table. If it's not grant writing time, if it's not something specific that—. I think that's the worst. Like, it has to be something specific, like Trans[gender] Day of Remembrance, Trans[gender] Day of Visibility. It has to be specific for leadership to say, "Hey, we're doing this for this day." But they get to celebrate who they are every day, you know, and it's—. It's heartbreaking, but I'm gonna keep fighting, and I'm gonna keep fighting for a better allyship. I'm gonna keep fighting for people to recognize that we are way more connected than you think we are. Something as simple as fashion connected us. We were all sitting there and realizing that the world is being deprived of a really good community. And so, yeah, it's—. (laughs) I can go on and on about that too. We only have 3 hours. It's just—. It's—. I would— Literally, I would need like—. I would need a week to be able to express how I feel about the LGBT community in Cleveland. There are good, great, beautiful things about this community— but there are some things that they have to work on. The [LGBT Community] Center—. Lately I've been comparing LGBT Centers, period, throughout the country as like the Vatican. It's the holy church, right, of the LGBT community. 'Progression happens only but through us, right, so we're the one-stop shop resource.' But what happens when things start falling through the cracks of the church? When people start slipping through the cracks? Because you can't be everywhere all the time, and you can't address everyone's problem at the same time. So, it is incumbent on the LGBT [Community] Center to reach out to smaller organizations and pull them in as much as possible. My dream for Margie's Hope is to purchase a building, and then—an office building, and to be able to create ambassadorship offices for different organizations to be functional. That is not—. It is not necessarily a com—like, an LGBT Center, as much it is an embassy where you know that when you go there, there is something specific to help you. When people go to these [LGBT] Centers, it is a crapshoot of whether or not the resources that they need actually are existing right now. And so, that is—. That's a huge problem for LGBT communities throughout this country—is that unfortunately the caseload is getting heavy. The needs of the people are amplifying every single day. From housing to, you know, work, to just to have community, to be able to sit down. Like, there's—. I recently found out, there is no—. Not one support group in this city for HIV/AIDS people. Not a support group.
Riley Habyl [02:04:31] Really?
Monika Veliz [02:04:31] No. Not a support group. No. I did my research. I was like, "What?" And it took someone from that community to—. I was holding a conversation with someone from that community, and I said, "Well, isn't there a group that you can go?" They're like, "No." This person's been HIV positive for almost 30 years. They said, "No. If there was one, I would know." There is not one. Not even through the [LGBT Community] Center. They do HIV/AIDS outreach, but there is no groups meeting. And so, that's my next project, by the way. By the way. That's my next project, to try to facilitate that support group. Because HIV/AIDS does run very rampant in the trans community, and they need a place to be able to sit down and talk. And, you know, what happens—. That's—. Instantly, when he said that, shivers went up my spine. Because I said, "Oh my God. What happens to the person who just finds out? Where do they go? Who do they talk to?" They're having all sorts of medical jargon thrown at them. Big words. Medicine big words. But to be able to sit down in a circle, and scream, and express their frustration—. Why is that not here in the city of Cleveland? So, that is my next project, as far as like, trying to get that infrastructure built. Solidified, you know? And yeah, it's just—. People fall through the cracks. My feelings toward LGBT Centers is—. You're doing good work, but do better. (laughs) Like, get—. Like, we can always do better. I can—. Margie's Hope can always do better. And to—. The first step to doing it better is acknowledging that you have to. You have to acknowledge where you didn't do so good, and that people did fall through the cracks, and as a result they sort of got lost. And yeah, I—. Right now I'm sort of anti-LGBT centers, but it's mainly because I want them to just increase the resources that they could provide, and to listen more to their community. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [02:07:06] Absolutely. I'm just going to check my [list of] questions.
Monika Veliz [02:07:06] Go ahead. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [02:07:09] Because I think we've gotten through most of everything that I wanted to ask.
Monika Veliz [02:07:13] Okay.
Riley Habyl [02:07:15] But before we finish up—
Monika Veliz [02:07:16] Sure.
Riley Habyl [02:07:18] Is there anything else that you'd like to share that we haven't talked about yet?
Monika Veliz [02:07:29] I don't think so. It's one of the things we're like, if you ask me, I am an encyclopedia. Where like, if you ask me something specific, I can jump straight to that time. I can jump straight to that particular incident, or—.
Riley Habyl [02:07:44] (papers shuffle) Just one more once-over.
Monika Veliz [02:07:49] Go ahead. Go right ahead.
Riley Habyl [02:07:57] Trying to think of how to word this question. So, have you noticed a—. Or, have you experienced a decline in bars and LGBTQ+ meeting spaces over time in Cleveland?
Monika Veliz [02:08:16] Absolutely. See, that's what I mean. Tell me, and I will jump there. (Riley laughs) In my day—. Oh, God. That makes me sound so old. In my day I could easily—. We—. There was a book called The Valentine News. It was this little, tiny little booklet. I think I have some—. One. But in Ohio in general, hundreds of LGBT places that needed a thick book to tell you where they all were. And then we moved from the Valentine News to OUTlines Magazine. And that was a little bit thinner, but it was still pretty hefty—about all the places from Dayton, to Akron, from Cleveland to Cincinnati, that was functioning safe spaces. And it's sad to say that we have no more use for those books, because those spaces don't exist anymore. There are LGBT—. There are gay bars all around. There are still some that are, but they're—. They are being marketed to a specific group of the LGBT—to the community. I'm getting kind of choked up about it, because it is sad. It is very sad that like, there is a large portion of this community that is not experiencing, let's say, gay nightlife. But also experiencing the ideal of community, being in a safe space, and having a good time, and enjoying who you are—. There is a huge portion of this community that is not having that experience, because the bars that do exist cater to white, gay males. And not even to women, gay white women. You know, it's—. And it's unfortunate. Those places have gotten bigger, but the experiences of the overall LGBT community have shrank. And so, yeah, there—. In my day, there were hundreds of places for me to choose from. Now—. Especially in Lakewood, in this area. Oh my God. There was probably—. Between downtown and 117th there was probably easily 15 places that you could choose to go to. Some quieter than the others, some a little more rowdier than others. But most of those places are gone. And, you know, Twist [11633 Clifton Blvd.] is still hanging in the air—but Twist is hardly recognizable anymore, as far as the community is concerned. And Cocktails [9208 Detroit Ave.]—but, you know, we will always call it Rockies, those of us from that generation—it's still hanging in the air. And of course, MJ's—which is now Vibe [11633 Lorain Ave.]—is still hanging in there. But even those—. I've gone to those places, and yep—there's a certain demographic that hangs out, and you don't see a lot of any of the other demographics. You don't see AFAB [assigned female at birth], you know, individuals there. You don't see cis [cisgender], straight people there. There has been a mass close-off of what the community communed with. Like I said, there were—. In my day, there were times where you could hardly call a gay bar a gay bar, because it seemed like the whole neighborhood did not care who partied in there. It was just a good time, and they enjoyed it. But now when you go into these bars, you see only one demographic. White gay men, age open. It's just them. And when we decided to filter in—people who look like you and me—filter in there, then we're kind of looked at as like, "What are you doing here?" And it's always best to go in a group, that way you have someone to at least talk to you. You know? (laughs) 'Cause no one's going to start a conversation—. I mean, some people would. Also depends on who you are, too. Again, I'm lucky to have put time into this community over 30 years—that I can walk into any bar, and nine times of ten I'm going to see a friendly face that is going to approach me. But what about people who are just looking for that sense of community and they're by themselves? You know, it's not—. The environments aren't very friendly. They're not very welcoming anywhere, and that's a damn shame. That's a real damn shame. Because I can attribute all of my love for this community, unfortunately, through a gay bar. Having a place to go, having a place to be every Saturday night, or every, you know, Tuesday. Oh, God. The Cage used to do karaoke Tuesdays. And I hate karaoke. (Riley laughs) Trust and believe, I am not the biggest fan of karaoke. But I acknowledge the fact that it is still creating a safe space for people to be able to go hang out and be themselves. And I would even go do that just to feel that buzz of—people are there where they want to be. It's unfortunate, but—. And we'll get there. I do—. What I like to say—. As for the history of Cleveland, I believe that it will improve. I believe that there is a generation that is up-and-coming, that is also seeing all of these things, all of—also seeing that change needs to happen. And the dinosaurs will be dead soon, and they will inherit the earth. And they will make this beautiful, beautiful garden in their own image—which is of freedom, and community, and comp—. Total liberation. And I just hope I'm around long enough to see it. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [02:15:12] I have one follow up question.
Monika Veliz [02:15:13] Sure. Mhm.
Riley Habyl [02:15:15] So, this is sort of a reflection type of question, but—. What is a message that you would like others to hear about your experiences, or the experiences of others like you?
Monika Veliz [02:15:29] Live it. Live it. Whatever it is, good or bad—live it. Stay in the moment. Because when the future does change, you want to be able to see where it came from. You want to see that progression of liberation, and freedom, and—. And when it doesn't, you can still acknowledge what needs to happen in order to get there. Live it. Stay present day. Stay in the moment. Speak up. Speak up, act out. All those good clichés that my generation—trans Generation X—lived by. We tried to make a better world for ourselves. We tried to build community in the nineties, and—. It's been a let down so far. But, that being said, we still—. A lot of us still believe that we will get there. The foundation is there. I would tell anyone coming after me—live in the moment. Taking nothing for granted—good or bad—in this community, because this community always needs changing. That's the crazy thing about it, right? Like, it's so weird that the community that strives for liberation and complete freedom always still needs to change within themselves. You know, we want the rest of the world to change, but I don't think that we pay attention to the fact that we still have work to do within our community. Because within our community, segregation, racism, prejudices, those things exist. It's hard to—. I'm pretty—. I've had so many conversations with cis heterosexual people who—when I say things like that to them, they're like, "What?" I was like, "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. There—. That happens." There is white privilege. There is white fear—and I say that for the people of color. People of color are afraid of white people. There are white people who use their white privilege. There is—. All of the issues that the rest of the world deal with, we also deal with—and we are also trying to make better, and we're also trying to change. If we as a culture want to keep our future, we have to do this work. So, live in the moment. Be present. Acknowledge when these things are going south, and make change. Yeah.
Riley Habyl [02:18:25] Thank you so much, Monika.
Monika Veliz [02:18:27] Thank you, Riley. This was everything. (laughs)
Riley Habyl [02:18:30] I'm about to stop the recording.
Monika Veliz [02:18:30] Go ahead. (laughs)
This collection features oral history interviews with LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Same-Gender Loving) community members, leaders, and activists in the greater Cleveland area. Interviews explore the history of Cleveland’s LGBTQ+ communities, groups, organizations, places, and spaces both past and present. Interviews in this collection were conducted by Riley Habyl, a graduate student at Cleveland State University Department of History, beginning in the summer of 2023.…