Breaking the Societal Binary with Queerarchy
By Kara Schweiss
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography
On her Instagram page, Rowena Cage describes herself succinctly: “Artist. Author. Advocate.” Her art captures a fun spirit reflective of her upbeat, appealing presence. Her business, Queerarchy, focuses on positivity and love of self, and also advocates and affirms individual gender expression, gender identity and pronouns (Cage uses she/they). It’s easy to imagine such a likeable person being embraced anywhere, but the Caribbean-born Cage is unwelcome in their country of origin. “One of the things people ask me is, ‘Are you going to go back home?” she says. “I couldn’t, because on my island, I could go to prison for being queer.”
After coming out, Cage became more acutely aware of the need for more queer-friendly and gender-affirming companies and started Tinsy Thoughts as an outlet for their designs and as a way to create representation for the LGBTQIA+ community. The name of the business was eventually changed to Queerarchy to better reflect the mission of the company and its potential broader impact.
“When I came up with that word, it meant something very specific, disrupting the systems of society that expect binary or normative patterns of behavior. And the second part of Queerarchy I see as a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom to express their gender and sexuality without fear or shame,” Cage says. Cage has a Bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Master’s degree in organizational leadership from the College of Saint Mary. This education served them well when Cage worked in the corporate world in the 2000s and later in real estate, and it’s been advantageous to have that business background as an entrepreneur, too. “I always wanted to do my own thing,” she says.
Immunocompromised due to a longstanding health condition, Cage was in a particularly vulnerable demographic during the Covid pandemic. It was one— but not the only—incentive to leave the real estate business in 2021 to focus on Queerarchy full time.
“I was always looking to figure out how I can serve and create a space for marginalized people,” she says. “Queerarchy is there to break the binary; whether you’re queer or heterosexual, you can be yourself. There is a societal binary that says that somebody is supposed to act this way and someone is supposed to act that way, you’re in this role, you have to do these things and you have to be this way. I just want everybody to feel like when they step out, they stand out as who they are, can represent just for themselves and feel part of a community.” Cage is the lead concept designer for Queerarchy merchandise, which includes items from t-shirts and tote bags to greeting cards and stickers. The website, featuring taglines like, “Here, it’s Pride Month every month,” touts items “made by queer folk for queer folk and allies,” Cage says. T-shirts for adults and children promote affirming messaging like “I stand with trans youth,” “Beyond the binary,” “Queer is beautiful,” “Respect the pronoun,” and “Love yourself.” The children’s book Cage wrote and illustrated, “Pinapel & Friends: Who Are they?” is also available on the Queerarchy website. The story developed over a decade features an inclusive and diverse universe of characters.
“It’s never too early to start reading to a child if you want to be more inclusive. And if you are older, this is a simple story that shows acceptance in the most simple way, in a very gentle way,” Cage says. “I want to always make sure that whatever I’m doing, people don’t feel confronted, that there’s like ease to learning and understanding and being more inclusive.”
Some of the inspiration for the story and characters was pulled from real life. Not only does Cage identify as queer, she is parent to a 20-year-old son who is neurodivergent and a teenager who is non-binary. “Pinapel & Friends” doesn’t pander to stereotypes or tropes and introduces characters who are unique in their own right. The first book, intended to launch a series, also includes a resource guide for parents and educators to learn more about the use of gender pronouns and gender expression.
As a parent of a teen and young adult, Cage says she is concerned about proposed and new legislation restricting the rights of young people, from movements to raise the voting age to laws banning gender-affirming care for minors.
“These things are being done in this very sneaky way to remove the power from the youth, because they’re the ones that are going to change their future and the landscape of how we see representation for queer folk,” she says. “I feel like the higher-ups are seeing the change within young folks, and how more open they are from either their parents being more open or them just having a different mindset. They’re just more free-spirited, and are saying, ‘Hey, this is me. And I’m going to be me.’’’
Cage’s spirit of inclusion is evident in their art classes and participation in exhibitions and events at places in the Omaha area, such as Hot Shops Art Center. These activities support the vision of Queerarchy becoming a community where all are welcome, where people of all genders and sexualities are free to share their thoughts and feelings and themselves with pride and dignity. Cage says the concept of Queerarchy is empowering, and she wants to be able to provide gender expression and identity resources for anyone who may need them.
“When I started the business, I was looking to serve people not represented, and at the time I was understanding and coming into my queerness,” she says. “People come into the store down at Hot Shops, grown people, and they have cried, they have tears . . . they feel like (it’s) a safe space.”
Even simply wearing a t-shirt or carrying a tote with a message of acceptance is empowering, Cage says. “They’re very important, all of these little movements,” she says. “We’re letting our voice be heard.”