Before we start talking, Kia LaBeija slips off her shoes and runs her feet through the grass-green Astroturf at the end of a pier at the Hudson River Park Trust, one of the most brutally, beautifully gentrified parts of Manhattan. It's the first spring day that feels like summer, not just hot, but heavy, thick. Everyone here wants to be naked. Thirty years ago, everyone would have been.Read More
What if John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe stole a time-traveling DeLorean and teleported to the future to get married?
That’s the burning question answered in Once Upon a Dream, filmmaker J. B. Ghuman Jr.’s new art project. The photo series casts Jason Sellards (a.k.a. Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters) as Kennedy and NYC nightlife legend Amanda Lepore as Monroe.Read More
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.
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.
As we unwind the bright red packing tape that joins the two coffee cans together, Hunter O’Hanian, the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, explains what I’m about to see.
“We think this is his only finished work,” he says, separating the cans to reveal a long scroll made of computer paper taped end to end. Black and white photocopies of twinks—whipped, gagged, crucified, tattooed, and tied—writhe across the pages, filling them almost to the margins. The image has no punctum, white space, or dominant figure to draw in the eye, allowing the viewer's gaze to rest. Instead the eye skitters across the pages, noting a hard cock here and a flagellate there, without stopping on any particular moment.
Hunter isn’t sure if this is the artist’s only finished work for three reasons: The artist is dead, his partner—who asked that they both remain anonymous—donated the work, and the donation consists of 77 large cardboard boxes filled with gay porn, photomontages, pulp novels, mail-order sex-toy catalogs, books about Dracula, and images of opulent, but empty, rooms lacerated with careful slits to allow for the insertion of pornographic cut-outs.
A number of the boxes contained only carefully washed plastic clamshells (the kind that might hold a salad from a take-out Thai restaurant) filled with individual male figures meticulously excised from six decades of porn—the processed raw materials for the artist’s apocalyptic sex montages. Like the scroll in the can, each piece of paper has been carefully packed, as if the artist feared their rustling might hint at their true nature, their sexual shame. The line between fear and reverence is nonexistent here. These totemic boys are tools of artistic creation, but if discovered would mean destruction. The scroll itself is an act of mediation between these two poles, a spell cast in porn, simultaneously birthing and caging the artist’s secret desires.
To date, the museum has cataloged approximately two-thirds of this collection. Despite the detailed sheath of notebook pages that list the contents of each box, it’s a slow process because the closer you look the more you see. For instance, the centerfold of a 1950s physique magazine might hide a cut-out of a Saint Sebastian-esque ephebe in bondage. If you look closely at the image, you will notice that the figure’s tiny handcuffs have been transposed from another image and that his pentagram tattoo was added by hand. As the magnitude of detail hits you, you realize these 77 boxes contain a man’s lifework, his world, his everything—the story of an anonymous artist told through grainy reproductions of sexual torture.
Call it outsider art, intuitive art, art brut, or neuve invention; it is work made precisely at this intersection of art and obsession, pride and shame, sex and death, that has me scavenging through the museum's archives. Jean Dubuffet, the 20th century painter and impresario of the insane who coined the term art brut, famously said, “Art doesn't go to sleep in the bed made for it; it would sooner run away than say its own name.” How apropos to go looking for it amongst the love that dares not speak its name.
Intuitive artists tend to share traits from a grab bag of commonalities: obsessive tendencies, mental illness, repression, confinement, isolation, a lack of formal training, sexual hang-ups, a sense of persecution, religious or visionary zeal, a focus on the process of art-making rather than its outcome, a disconnect from cultural centers of power, and a belief in the importance of their own work that is separate from its salability or critical appreciation. The original outsider artist, in an American context, is Henry Darger, the orphaned, occasionally institutionalized recluse who spent more than sixty years creating his 15,000-page masterpiece The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is an ideal place to search for such artists. For the last 40 years, the museum and its founders, Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, have been dedicated to rescuing and preserving gay art. They’ve created a haven for art makers whose work was unappreciated during their time, whether because of their identity, the frankness of their homosexual work, or their mental instability.
I am fascinated by the delicate interplay between pride and shame in the lives of these men—their desire to be anonymous while simultaneously believing their art is important enough to dedicate their lives to it and ensure its preservation. (And so far all the intuitive artists I’ve found there are men. The museum now has a broader mission, but it began primarily as a collection of erotic male art, and the majority of its collection is focused on males.)
Much of the work could be considered survival art, rough pieces created in a hostile environment to make sense of the artists’ conflicting desires and unstable worldviews. Even when these men had formal training, they wanted to explore themes removed from what was speakable during their lifetimes. The insider art status was never available to them. Instead their art was an act of pure creation and dedicated to their own vision. Aside from the work that now sits in storage, little is known about most of these men.
Take, for example, Edward Hochschild. In 1995 three of Edward's friends walked into the museum to see if someone could rescue Edward's art shortly after he had died of AIDS-related causes. Wayne Snellen, the museum’s Deputy Director for Collections, recalled that his apartment was “trashed” when they arrived, but they were able to save three pieces: The Vial Cross, an approximately 5' tall wooden cross studded with vials of hair, blood, pills, sand, and all kinds of ephemera and effluvia; a shirt made from Edward’s hair; and a large dildo studded with acupuncture needles, placed under a bell jar, and affixed to a smoke-detector base. Crudely made but powerfully evocative, the three pieces present an inarticulate meditation on sex, religion, illness, penance, and identity.
Then there is Joseph Friscia, a self-taught sculptor who lived with his mother. In the museum’s files, he has but a six-sentence biography, which notes “his sculpture was the result of a severe Catholic upbringing.” His first donation to the museum was The Church Has Its Way, which consisted of clay figurines of men in various states of religious torture. (One man pleasures himself with a crucifix, which is a sight I will never forget.) After disappearing for years, Joseph reappeared and told Wayne that his mother had died and he was “now free.” He gave the gallery new sculptures, man-beasts molded from the peach pink bodies of fetal mice, and never returned.
Joseph and Edward are emblematic of the outsider artist who is a reclusive creative working out personal anguish through art. The museum’s collection also includes Hokey Mokey, who has anonymously mailed art to the gallery every month for the past 15 years.
Here, the same dynamic of pride and shame is worked out in a more playful manner. Hokey’s work primarily consists of flat erotic montages placed inside envelopes. The art dares viewers to both open the envelopes and destroy their contents. Each packet is themed around some aspect of the month, like a holiday or a turn of season, and suggests an ongoing attempt to make sense of the world through pornographic art. Over the years, Hokey’s work has developed three-dimensional aspects, layering of colors and materials, and suggestions of an awareness of other collage makers, like artist Barbara Kruger. When finally tracked down, Hokey expressed no interest in having a show of his work or coming to the gallery. He had sent art to a few other people, but said the overwhelming majority of his work (nearly 200 packages to date) has gone to the museum.
Ted Titolo is another artist who has given all, or nearly all, of his work to the collection—a vast and stunning collection of art in a dozen mediums and a hundred styles. Of all the outsiders in the collection, Ted’s work is the most powerful. Deemed too gay for art school and too crazy for the army, he worked on Wall Street and dreamed of being a “fat lesbian,” according to Wayne. Ted's compulsion to create is cataloged in reams of notebooks, sheaths of drawings, boxes of VHS tapes, and untold scores of photos.
Ted is often the subject of his own work, although his self-portraits tend to obscure or remove his face. Occasionally, the portraits go so far, they call for Ted’s own annihilation. (In their context, these self-destructive scratches might have more to do with Ted’s desire to obliterate his maleness than his self-hatred.) Much of his art is divided up into “projects,” such as Rasa, an epic collection of writing, drawing, and photography that nearly fills a dozen three-ring binders. Perhaps his most interesting work is American Kouros, an illustrated book created in the late 1960s, which details the “War Between the Monosexes and the Herms.” In this epic battle for humanity’s sexual and emotional future, Ted posits hermaphroditism as our only hope.
All but two of these men are dead or missing, and of those two, only one is in contact with the museum. They have left their work to say what they never could. For artists who made art outside the broader context of gay life in the 20th century, these outsiders speak powerfully to the experiences of gay men in their time and place. The fact that these artifacts remain—and were created in the first place—is a testament to the ability of pride to occasionally mediate shame in private, on paper, on canvas, or in the bodies of dead mice.
Twenty-five years ago today, transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen died of bladder and lung cancer, not the hormones that rocketed her to stardom as “America’s first transsexual” in the 1950s.Read More