St. Louis Galleries Put On an Art-Show Memorial for Michael Brown

Angry protests flared up across the country last night as a grand jury decided not to indict Ferson cop Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown in August. Rage was the expected—and maybe appropriate—response to the killing of a black teenager, but the resulting photos of burning cars didn't do justice to the emotions the Ferguson community has been feeling for these past few months.

That's one of the reasons Freida L. Wheaton, founder of the Alliance of Black A Galleries in St. Louis, conceived of Hands Up, Don't Shoot: Artists Respond, a multi-site, multi-disciplinary exhibition

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The Power of Queer Books

First published on The Daily Beast, August 1, 2014. Read the original, with photos, here. Written with Sassafras Lowrey.

SASSAFRAS LOWREY: When I was seventeen, the adults I lived with went through my bedroom and found the lesbian books I’d secretly checked out from my county library. I kept them stacked between my high school math and social studies textbooks. Just six months before, I’d run away from my mom’s house and among the items I brought with me were two gay books I’d secretly purchased from the bookstore at the mall. The adults I stayed with found those books, too, and read my journal. They called my school, had me paged to the office, and told me never to come back. I knew then that queer words were powerful.

Three days after I was kicked out, I was crashing on a friend’s couch. I had no idea where to go, or what was going to become of me. I went to my county library looking for answers. I looked at every book shelved under “homosexuality.”  I was searching for answers about what it meant to be young, queer, and on my own.  That day, I didn’t find any books that could help me. Sitting on the floor of that library, I made a promise to myself that if I survived, I would somehow find a way to write the kind of queer books that I was searching for.

Then last summer I got a message on Facebook from a reader and artist named Michelle Brennan. She and I had friends in common but had never met, never spoken. She had heard about my novel Roving Pack and read it after being diagnosed with cancer. While undergoing chemo she began an art project. Taking a shoebox and a little doll, she brought my novel to life, the way that as children in school we did “book in a box” book reports. She mailed it to me as a gift. Opening that box was overwhelming. As an author, I’m living the promise I made to myself as a homeless queer youth that someday I would write the kinds of stories that I needed. That I would write stories that I still need, which bring queer lives to life on the page. Receiving that diorama from Michelle was the ultimate confirmation that I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. Queer books aren’t just important for queer youth. Queer adults need queer books. We need to see our lives, desires, bodies, relationships reflected back at us in books.

When I received Michelle’s diorama in the mail, I was in awe and immediately posted pictures of it online. So many people got excited, and began talking about the power of queer books in their own lives, the books that had inspired them to come out, and the books that inspire them today. They talked about wanting to make art in honor of these books.

* *

HUGH RYAN: When I was nine, a teacher took Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire away from me because it was “inappropriate.” Perhaps so, but it was also the only book I’d ever found with queer characters, even if they were immortal, immoral vampires whose lives bore no resemblance to mine in the suburbs in the early 80s. Without it, I was reduced to looking up “homosexuality” in the card catalog of my small public school library. When all that got me were books on Greco-Roman art, I looked up “sex,” which left me piecing together an understanding of my desires from a book on feline reproduction.

Thankfully, within a few years I started working after school and in the summers, and began to buy, borrow, or steal any queer book I could get my hands on. I was lucky enough to come of age in a time when there were books available. But I’ll never forget that feeling of being alone, not just in my town, but seemingly throughout space and time—so alone that there wasn’t even a book to guide me.

When I founded the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, which is a nonprofit that helps local communities around the country develop art shows to illuminate LGBTQ history, I was primarily concerned with sharing knowledge, spreading those small bits of our history that are hard to find elsewhere. But I quickly came to realize that the act of sharing was, in and of itself, just as important as the information being shared. As adults, we rarely are given the chance to consume, analyze, and give back information on topics we love. That time is relegated (at best) to school, where queer people often don’t feel able to be open and honest. Without having the chance to look at and analyze our own culture, our own history, and the things that matter to us, we are left depending on the analyses of others, which have often portrayed queers and queerness in a negative light.

When Sassafras showed me Michelle’s diorama, I realized this was a powerful way to share important stories that resonated in queer lives, in a format that wouldn’t feel intimidating and was almost endlessly malleable. Together, Sassafras and I wrote a call inviting people to create a diorama based on a book that was meaningful to them in their development of their queer identity. The books could be anything—gay, straight, picture books, math textbooks – so long as the author could explain how it was important to them. After announcing the show, we received nearly 100 proposals from around the world‚—including Canada, South Africa, Ireland, and the Czech Republic—for dioramas that ranged from pocket-sized to life-sized, on everything from picture books to dense philosophy.

Had we not been limited by the space of the gallery, we would have included all of them! In the end, we chose proposals based on a number of criteria: the clarity of the connection between the book and the personal experience; the artistic vision presented (although not the exhibit maker’s artistic training, as we are open to individuals at all levels of skill and experience in art making); and the creation of a well-rounded final show. A few books were proposed so many times that we knew they needed to be included, such as Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde (unfortunately, the artist making this diorama had to drop out of the show at the last minute), Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, and The Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon. The resulting exhibits explode what the form is or could be, and range from classic “book in a box” shoebox dioramas to translucent towers built on a lightbox.

It has been amazing to see the outpouring of inspiration expressed in the proposals we received, as well as the crucial institutional support from the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, the Lambda Literary Foundation, MIX NYC, and the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library! In our own small way, this show is a gift to the community and an offering to all other queers who like us stood before a card catalogue or library shelf looking for belonging.

"Where Were You During the Christopher Street Riots?"

First published on The New York Public Library LGBT @ NYPL Blog, June 27, 2014. Read the original here.

The document above was handed out by members of The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest and longest-running homophile organizations in America, in the days following what would eventually become known as the Stonewall Riots.

If you’re familiar with The Mattachine Society at all, it’s probably from images like this one, which was taken by Kay Tobin Lahusen at the second annual Reminder Day protests in Philadelphia in 1966.

Founded in 1950, the Mattachines took their name from a French Renaissance-era group of masked peasants who performed skits during the Feast of Fools – often ones that poked fun at or protested their treatment at the hands of the local nobility. Along with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian social and political group founded in San Francisco in 1955, they advocated a kind of radical normality in the face of the overwhelming consensus that homosexuals were deviant, pathological, and diseased. Looking at pictures of them now is like looking at gay activists by way of Leave It to Beaver. Yet it’s hard to overstate how radical their actions were at the time, when so few people were out publicly in any way.

Just how wholesome was their public image? This is a recruitment ad they used in the 1960s:

Homosexuals are Different

However, if we are most familiar with the image of The Mattachine Society as a group of clean-scrubbed (mostly) young men, it is because this was a political choice on their part. The early founders of Mattachine, including the legendary Harry Hay, were Communists, and they organized the group in anonymous, independent cells, much like the party itself was organized at the time. It wasn’t until 1953 that they were forced out by a growing membership that wanted to purge “subversive” elements and foster an ethos of non-confrontation.

In this way, the history of The Mattachine Society neatly mirrors the history of America as a whole. One year after they purged their own subversive elements, the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts would begin. By the early ‘60s, the national Mattachine organization would disband, leaving the local branches to radicalize at different rates – much as the country itself was doing. Mattachine New York, the producers of the “Christopher Street Riots” flyer, quickly became particularly militant.

After Stonewall, new organizations like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front quickly began to appear, capturing the confrontational, in the streets spirit of the time. Yet branches of The Mattachine Society continued on well into the eighties – indeed, Mattachine New York wasn’t disbanded until 1987.

[Frank Kameny and Mattachine Society of Washington members marching]

The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts & Archives Division is is home to the Mattachine Society of New York's recordsfrom its founding in 1955 all the way up to 1976, and it is a fascinating record of social change told from within one of the very organizations pushing for change.

A Bathroom of One's Own

First published in VICE, May 3, 2014. Read the original, with photos, here.

Twenty-five years ago today, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer, which she believed was caused by genetics, not the fuck-ton of hormones that rocketed her to stardom as “America’s first transsexual” in the 1950s. In her honor, I made a pilgrimage to the one place I know that bares her name: the Christine Jorgensen Memorial Bathroom, an intimate museum experience inside a Brooklyn duplex apartment. What’s a more fitting way to memorialize a transgender person, who always had issues with restrooms, than to give her a personal bathroom?

The facts of the matter: In 1952, a time before ultrasounds and the Polio vaccine, Jorgensen underwent multiple experimental operations to transition her body from male to female, all while under intense public scrutiny. Tons of journalists showed up at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) to cover her return from Copenhagen, where the surgeries were performed. On December 1 1952, the cover of the New York Daily News blared, “EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY,” and an icon was born.

“Christine's celebrity happened at a very particular time in US history,” said David Serlin, a Professor of Communications and Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego and the creator of the CJMB. He pointed out, “There was this incredible enthusiasm for science,” and Jorgensen’s transformation was seen as a triumph of modern medicine. The public’s initial response, he said, was, “We are building rockets, we can cure illnesses, and we can take a boy from the Bronx and turn him into a glamorous woman!”

Glamorous is the right word. Standing in the CJMB, surrounded by dozens of portraits of Jorgensen, I was struck by the glam and the glitz, the furs and the crystals, the elegant eyebrows and the perfectly curled lips. The CJMB is a tiny space—maybe 80 square feet of sunshine-yellow tile—and every inch is covered in Jorgensen.

Serlin first became enamored with Jorgensen in 1992, while researching her for a grad class at NYU. Years before the days of Google Image Search, he rented photos from the Corbis Bettmann Archive to accompany his article—his first major academic success. He tacked the images he didn’t use to his bulletin board, where they became a personal talisman. (A few of them still grace the walls of the CJMB.) “Then I started to ask friends of mine about items,” he recalled, and eventually he discovered eBay. “Little by little, I amassed this archive.”

In the late 90s, cash-strapped queer community organizations around the country were digitizing their holdings and selling many original archival objects. Serlin told me that he feels complicated about the provenance of some of his items, but he recognizes that the collectibles were going to be sold regardless. Some objects, like a subway poster advertising a series of articles about Jorgensen in American Weekly magazine, are so ephemeral, it’s shocking they survived at all. Serlin estimates he has nearly 150 pieces of Jorgensen memorabilia and that he installed a third of his collection in the CJMB when he moved to Brooklyn in 2002.

It’s only once I was inside the CJMB, standing face-to-face-to-face-to-face with Jorgensen, that I began to understand the magnitude of her fame. Every major magazine, newspaper, and radio show covered her transition. Books were written about her, and she later wrote Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography, which was translated into multiple languages andadapted into a movie in 1970. She also released Christine Jorgensen Reveals, an interview album where she discussed her life with Nipsey Russell, who conducted the interview under the name R. Russell. According to Newsday's obituary, she reportedly made $12,500 a week performing in a stage show in Hollywood. Jorgensen was so famous that a young calypso musician named Louis “Calypso Gene” Wolcott recorded a song about her called “Is She Is or Is She Ain’t?” (Wolcott later changed his last name to Farrakhan and joined the Nation of Islam, but the song is on YouTube.)

This question of realness would end up being Jorgensen’s undoing, Serlin told me. Part of her celebrity had to with America’s love of science, but the rest had to do with how little anyone knew about sex reassignment surgeries. Her peers, even those in the nascent homophile movements of the 50s, had no context for gender transitioning. There was no T in the vague LGB movement, and the word transgender hadn’t even been coined yet. Of course, people with cross-gender desires have always existed, and a few earlier pioneers had also undergone experimental surgical gender reassignments, but they didn’t have a public face in America until Jorgensen, according to GLAAD.

Serlin speculates that at first most Americans “really thought Christine was menstruating and had eggs in her fallopian tubes.” But after six months, the press began to ask more probing questions about what her surgeries actually entailed. When they didn’t like the answers, the country “went ballistic.” Gender panic took over, said Serlin. “They said, ‘He's not a woman. He's just a neutered faggot.’” Reputable magazines like Time stopped using female pronouns for Jorgensen, and coverage of her took on a nasty, speculative air.

America didn’t have a huge problem with someone switching between two discreet and very separate sexes, but the suggestion of some middle ground, of a spectrum between male and female, made people fearful and angry. Jorgensen’s existence and acceptance as a woman implied that gender and the body were not necessarily connected, that gender was something one worked to create. If this were true, the sex-segregated ideals of post-war suburbia would have been out the window. In the eyes of the public, Jorgensen was no longer a man-made woman, but a gender terrorist in a blond bouffant.

Though haircuts have changed, America has viewed transgender people this way ever since. What fascinates me about Jorgensen—and what the CJMB, with its reverent air of mid-century majesty, captures perfectly—is the suggestion that it didn’t have to be this way. For six months, Americans decided not to be assholes about gender. Maybe we were too ignorant to act ignorantly, but for a brief moment we decided that it was possible to become a woman. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been the case if Jorgensen wasn’t pretty (couldn’t pass, as it were), or if she wasn’t white, ladylike, and well spoken—but she was, and America loved her. Sure, we’d set the bar on womanhood almost prohibitively high—expensive experimental surgeries, massive doses of hormones—but Jorgensen proved that the game itself wasn’t rigged the way it is now.

Standing inside the Christine Jorgensen Memorial Bathroom, I saw America poised on the threshold of acceptance, and then watched us slink away, afraid to take the plunge. We’ve spent the last 60 years trying to paper over the hole Jorgensen smashed in our gender binary system, but inside the CJMB, it’s easy to imagine an America that went in another direction, where Jorgensen taught us that gender is what Americans make of it and that our bodies are not our destinies.

In the end, the CJMB isn’t only a monument to Christine Jorgensen, but also to the world that accepted her as she wanted to be seen. Visiting helps me remember that our awe came first and our hatred came after, that America stumbles towards every new thing like a delighted (but dangerous) toddler, and that our present moment is just another moment waiting to be changed.

This Guy’s SoHo Loft May House The Biggest Collection Of Homoerotic Art In New York

First published on Buzzfeed, March 26, 2014. Read the original, with images, here.

Every time I visit Charles Leslie’s SoHo loft, my eyes have to relearn how to see his apartment, to pick the individual players out of the sexual scrum. Then, like an erotic Magic Eye puzzle, a Warhol suddenly emerges from a thicket of phalli, and the coffee table resolves into a veritable Stonehenge of penises sculpted in glass, ceramic, and even whale bone.

Leslie lives not far from the museum that bears his name, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. “Lohman” refers to Leslie’s longtime partner, renowned interior decorator Fritz Lohman, who passed away four years ago. The two spent 48 years together: traveling the world, collecting and championing gay art, and helping transform SoHo from industrial wasteland to artist enclave to moneyed playground.

The museum is their official legacy, but Leslie’s apartment is a distillation of those years: a story of gay life existing on the margins during the buttoned-down 1950s, exploding outward in the ’60s and ’70s, surviving the “grim and ghastly plague years,” and re-emerging triumphantly into the present — all told through homoerotic and homo-romantic art.

Leslie began collecting gay art while stationed in Heidelberg during the Korean War, and continued afterward while attending the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. And over the course of his design career, Lohman had also gathered a small handful of such works. In fact, their shared passion for homoerotic art was one of the things that drew the two together.

Leslie purchased his loft in 1968 for a whopping $3,500. At the time, SoHo wasn’t zoned for residential use. “It was an industrial slum,” he recalls with an astonished laugh. When Lohman joined him a few months later, their collection of gay art began to grow in earnest.

And what a collection it is. It contains many of the most familiar names in the gay art world: Warhol and Haring and Mapplethorpe, to list but a few. But it also harkens back to pioneers whose work has faded from modern queer memory, such as Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose early 20th century pastoral nudes turned the seaside town of Taormina, Sicily, into the European nobility’s version of Fire Island. Leslie published a book on von Gloeden in 1980, and a half-dozen of his photos adorn a narrow wall by his guest room.

A good portion of Leslie’s collection comes from artists who moved to SoHo for its cheap rents and large open spaces. Many of them made gay art in private, solely for themselves and their friends. In 1969, this led Leslie and Fritz to hold their first unofficial “homoerotic art fair” in their newly renovated loft. They expected maybe 50 people to attend. To their shock, hundreds showed up over the course of the weekend. “We sold every single thing in the show,” Leslie recalls. “We always say three things happened that summer: Woodstock, Stonewall, and the art show.”

Quickly, it became a yearly event, and by the end of 1972, Leslie and Lohman had become part of the first wave of gallerists to open in SoHo. They asked for a 25% commission, if the artist could afford it, or else just a piece of their work. As a result, their collection ballooned.

From 1970 to 1982, the gallery provided a welcoming venue for SoHo’s burgeoning gay art scene. Despite having to shutter their doors during the AIDS crisis, they continued to champion gay work, with Leslie playing yenta between his long lists of struggling artists and would-be buyers. With the advent of effective AIDS therapies, SoHo’s gay community rebounded in the 1990s, leading Leslie and Lohman to reopen their gallery as a nonprofit. In 2011, it gained official museum status, becoming the first gay art museum in the country.

Many artists involved in their earliest ventures became lifelong friends with Leslie and Lohman. Marion Pinto, whose full-sized portrait of the couple still hangs over Leslie’s couch, eventually donated her estate to the museum, helping to create the endowment that ensures its future in perpetuity.

But though all of the work in his collection will go the museum when Leslie passes, the apartment isn’t just high art. In classic camp fashion, the collection butts the absurd up against the sublime. A plastic Santa with his “stocking stuffer” on display has just as much a home here as a drawing by Jean Cocteau. In some cases, high and low are mashed together in a single piece, as in Darold Perkins’ re-imagining of (gay) artist J.C. Leyendecker’s classic advertisement for the Arrow Collar Man.

Some of the pieces have historic interest to them, such as a metal toy of two young men engaged in fellatio atop a brightly patterned carpet. A stamp on the base enabled it to be traced to a World War I German munitions factory, where an artisan must have made it in his spare time.

At 80, Leslie is less involved with the day-to-day operations of the museum, but he’s still avidly collecting and supporting gay art. And even when he isn’t out looking for it, the work has a way of finding him. “People are forever bringing me phallic serendipity,” he says. And somehow, his loft seems able to hold it all, in a densely layered, palimpsestous celebration of homoerotic desire.