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.

The Leslie-Lohman Museum Is a Haven for Artists Who Are Too Gay for Art School

First published on, March 2, 2014. Read the original, with images, here.

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.

Being a Queer Writer: Talking With Hugh Ryan

I was interviewed on October 22nd, 2013 by Edge, about being a queer writer. Read the original (with photos) here.

Nearly a decade ago, Hugh Ryan needed to make a career choice between artist or writer. Wisely he chose writing. Since then he’s become one of the most published LGBT (or ’queer,’ as he prefers) writers in print and the web. EDGE spoke to Ryan about his passion for writing (and being queer).

Back in 2004, while leisurely wandering the streets of Berlin, Hugh Ryan realized that he had a decision to make. He had been in the German capital three months, and had yet to settle on his next career move. Ryan refused to entertain the notion of a career that didn’t allow him to travel or work in his pyjamas - a resolve that permitted two, rather bohemian options: artist or writer. Fast forward nearly ten years, and with numerous writing and editing credits to his name, it is clear that Ryan made the right decision. After all, he is, by his own admission, "a terrible artist."
Indeed, Ryan’s resume boasts experience in a number of genres: from travel reporting, to entertainment journalism, to ghost writing children’s books - he is a versatile, concise and engaging writer. At the heart of his work, however, is a dedication to the issue of social justice for queer subjects. Edge caught up with Ryan to discuss his blossoming career, LGBT issues and writing for the New York Times.


Hugh Ryan

Being pigeonholed?

EDGE: So let’s start with some background - how did you get started? I know you completed a stint here at EDGE early in your career!

Hugh Ryan: Yeah, it feels kind of nice to be on the other side of an EDGE interview! (laughs) And well I’d always loved writing, but I never thought it would be a viable career option! Even as a kid I was very practical. I went to school originally for human development, and then I switched majors about 19 times and ended up as a feminist studies major. And it was only after a couple of years spent working as a youth worker and social worker that I decided that type of work wasn’t what I wanted to do, even though I thought it was very important work. So I took some time away from everything - I quit my job and moved to Berlin, Germany with my friend for four months. I spent all of my days walking around the city doing nothing, and by the third month I realized that I had to start doing something! (laughs) And I realized I wanted a job that enabled me to work in my pyjamas and explore the world, and that only really left two options: artist or writer. Of course I am a terrible artist, so the choice became easy - I settled on writer!

EDGE: You are an openly gay writer, and as with any "gay writer," there is the risk of becoming pigeonholed and restricted by that label. Is the term "gay writer" something you embrace, or do you find it limiting and frustrating?

Hugh Ryan: I embrace it 100 percent. I think there is the assumption that the mainstream media’s effort to ghettoize you or pigeonhole you is always necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t agree with that. I found very early on in my writing career that a lot of my stuff was very focused on the personal side of my life, and that necessitated being a ’gay’ writer (That said, I don’t love the label ’gay’. It isn’t a bad term, but I prefer to be known as a ’queer writer’) And then from there I always knew I had an interest in queer history and queer communities, and all of that led to me writing more and more about queer issues - issues which I felt I had a wealth of personal expertise and a wealth of personal knowledge that I had gained over the years.


Hugh Ryan

Not exclusive

EDGE: What are, arguably, the common themes in your work? I notice a focus on queer social justice, and social justice in general?

Hugh Ryan: Oh definitely- I think queer social justice is definitely at the heart of it, because that is the place where I know the most, and I have the most connections. I think it is a place where I can give the most back to the conversation. That said, I don’t write exclusively about queer issues. I am also a travel writer, restaurant critic and ghost writer etc. I have also written about social justice issues concerning other minorities. For example, I wrote recently about racism on reality television, but that is more from the perspective of a viewer. With queer social justice, well that is a topic I know intimately, so the criticism comes from a more personal place.

EDGE: You mentioned earlier that you write in other mediums - you are a travel writer and a copy editor for example. Is there a medium that you prefer working in? Or is there an equal balance?

Hugh Ryan: That is a tough call! I love the personal essays, and creative non-fiction. I love issues concerning poetics and the mechanisms of language, and I think the creative pieces are the areas where I really shine. I also really love writing kids’ books! I have worked as a ghost writer on a number of children’s books.

EDGE: Are you allowed to name those books?

Hugh Ryan: (laughs) No I am not unfortunately!! But I can tell you that they are well known and cherished books! I will admit that I wasn’t the originator of that series - I was extending someone else’s vision. That said, it was certainly exciting and rewarding.


Hugh Ryan

A queer context

EDGE: You recently penned an incisive critique for the New York Times about the "AIDS in New York: The First Five Years" exhibit that recently closed at the New-York Historical Society. And I certainly agreed with you when you posited that "bad history has consequences." Indeed, it is often the case that historical narratives work to uphold the values of the dominant culture, and are therefore less inclusive of marginalized voices. So I want to ask you, if you were given license to overhaul the exhibit, what changes would you implement to make it more balanced and inclusive?

Hugh Ryan: That’s a great question! I would start by working with people who know a lot about the subject. Because, for example, so much of my writing has been inspired, influenced and enriched by talking to lots of different people. So with queer issues, it is important to start by talking to the queer community, because there is so much knowledge there concerning our collective history. It has been kept and recorded by queer people, and I think that is something we shouldn’t forget in our rush to record and present our history for a mainstream audience. It is incredibly important that we do record and make note of our history, and that it features in mainstream venues, but I think it needs to start from a queer place.

For me, also, I think there was maybe too much of a focus on the medical response to AIDS in the exhibit, and less of a focus on the personal side of the epidemic. I would also critically revise the curatorial pose: the director said they were aiming for ’neutrality’, and ultimately I think ’neutrality’ is non-existent, and I think the idea that something can be ’neutral’ is dangerous and destructive. I think we need to acknowledge and embrace the fact that AIDS is situated within a queer context.

EDGE: You are fascinated with queer history, but what are your thoughts on the current state of the global LGBT rights movement? This past summer has witnessed some monumental gains and crippling setbacks - for example the attainment of marriage equality in the UK and France was overshadowed by the enactment of anti-LGBT legislation in Russia.

Hugh Ryan: I think that the longer queer issues are in the public realm, and are talked about, the more complicated they become. I am interested in the way that "queerness," as a lived identity, has changed over time in this world, for different types of people. I think progress is measured differently for certain groups within the LGBT community. So for example, take the issue of gay marriage, I support it 100 percent and I think it is important that people have access to that institution.

However, I certainly don’t think it is the most important or pressing issue, because there are transgendered people, for example, who face violence and work place discrimination on a daily basis just for being themselves. And there is still very little, if any, legal protection for them. So I certainly think there are more significant issues that I want to see the queer community as a whole rallying around. I do think worldwide the picture varies between different countries, and I wish I had more knowledge about that. In this country, though, I would argue that the general picture is improving, despite the fact that we still have a long way to go.

EDGE: And have you encountered any struggle or discrimination in your career due to your sexual orientation?

Hugh Ryan: I may have. I have definitely had moments where I pitched articles about LGBT issues, and I have had publishers refuse because their respective publications have never dealt with queer concerns. But I like writing for publications in this niche community, because we have our own stories. To offer an example, when the Chelsea Manning story came out, and it was revealed that she was in the process of transitioning, I had people in the mainstream media ask me "wow did you know?" And I was like "of course I knew", because it was a queer story, and I had already heard about it - it was a story pertinent to our community. So I guess in other words, being in a niche community can certainly help you in this business!

For more information on Hugh, visit visit his web page.

'On The (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories': Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History's Hugh Ryan On New Exhibit

I was interviewed on October 8th, 2013 by the Huffington Post, about the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History's Brooklyn show. Read the original (with photos) here.

"On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" kicked off this weekend, a unique and collaborative art and performance show curated by The Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History. A multifaceted intersection of history lab, art space and teach-in workshops, the show sought to provide visibility, education and celebration surrounding queer identity in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Huffington Post caught up with Hugh Ryan, Founding Director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, to discuss the show's Oct. 5 kick-off, the history of the Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History, and Brooklyn's legacy of queer identity.

The Huffington Post: What does "On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" as a project stem from? What are you trying to provide visibility to in regards to queer identity?
Hugh Ryan: “On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories” was a show long in the making. We knew we wanted to return to Brooklyn –- Pop-Up began in 2011 as a one-night-only event in my loft in Bushwick, and although I’ve since left the borough, almost all of our core committee live in various Brooklyn neighborhoods. More than that, though, we felt that Brooklyn has a long and illustrious queer history all its own, which is too often lumped into New York City’s queer history. We wanted to look at Brooklyn as a place with its own specific queer history –- in part because it has such a thriving queer present.

Can you explain what The Pop-Up Museum Of Queer History is? What kind of work does this organization do?
The idea for the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History came to me shortly after the conservative attack on the "Hide/Seek" exhibit [at the National Portrait Gallery] forced them to remove David Wojnarowicz’ piece “A Fire in my Belly” from the show. I was frustrated that the Republican establishment and the whims of governmental funding could so easily play political football with both art and history. I wanted some way to both protest the removal, and provide an alternative venue for queer histories.

Around the same time, a group in New York City called Queers Organizing for Radical Unity and Mobilization (QuORUM) put out a call for events. They were organizing a week of queer workshops in queer homes, and they were looking for a space big enough to hold the kick-off. At the time, I lived in a large industrial loft in Bushwick, and I proposed a one-night only museum show. I put a call out for exhibits over Facebook, not really knowing what kind of response I would get.

I was floored when more than 30 people – many whom I didn’t even know – wanted to create exhibits and performances. They ranged from the whimsical (ex. a gingerbread scale replica of Stonewall) to the meticulously researched (ex. a talk about and performance of the works of composer Jean-Baptiste Lully). A curator and artist named Buzz Slutzky stepped up to co-curate the show, and dozens of other people volunteered to help install the works.

Our one-night engagement was scheduled for the evening of Jan. 14, 2011. It was freezing cold that evening, but more than 300 people showed up for the show –- including 14 police offers, who shut us down for fire concerns shortly after midnight. They also gave me a ticket for disturbing the peace when I refused to let them into the apartment without a warrant. I guess it wouldn’t be a real queer historical event without a police raid…

Even as the cops were forcing us out of the building, people were asking when the next museum would pop-up. Queer people were hungry for our history, told by our community and to our community. Buzz and I quickly realized that this wasn’t a one-time event, but rather the beginning of an organization. Creating a nonprofit was different from creating a one-night show, however, and we needed help. Graham Bridgeman joined us as our development expert, and the three of us formed the nucleus of the organizing group that has created the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History as it exists now -– along with dozens upon dozens of volunteers, artists, historians, archivists, and committed community members, without whom we could not exist.

What different components does the show incorporate?
"On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories" is a scatter-site-specific investigation of the queer histories of the beloved borough where the museum got its start. Our kick-off event, on Oct. 5, was a queer history block party, which had music, performances, tabling by queer community organizations and archives, walking tours of the queer history of Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights, and workshops on how to archive your things at home, and how to make queer art out of queer history.

Throughout the rest of the month, we will also offer a night of experimental films produced in or about Brooklyn (co-hosted by MIX NYC and Union Docs), a panel discussion on queer communities and gentrification (co-hosted by the Brooklyn Community Pride Center), an open discussion between Circus Amok founder Jennifer Miller and queer sideshow impresario Ward Hall, and the premier of a new work by playwright and nightlife star Justin Sayre, based on the life of Hart Crane.

October is LGBT and Queer History month -- what do you hope this show contributes to the way we know and understand LGBT history?
It is our hope that this show will contribute to an understanding of Brooklyn as a place with a queer past. We are not merely interlopers newly washed up on Park Slope’s shores, but queer communities and people have flourished in these neighborhoods for as long as queer identities have existed.

But more than that, our goal for every Pop-Up is threefold: To show queer people as a valid public, worthy of speaking to; a valid subject, worthy of speaking about; and a valid authority, worthy of speaking on our own terms. What makes Pop-Up unique among the many fantastic queer history projects that have sprung up in the last few years is that we put a focus on our community teaching each other, which is why we offer workshops on how to “do” queer history on your own. We believe that when and where queer history has been preserved, it has been preserved by queer people ourselves, and this is a strength to be celebrated. Instead of one dominant, top-down narrative of our history, which would leave out the things that are awkward or hard or just simply commonplace. We have a million strains of history passed down from queer elders – and we celebrate that.

Where does the inspiration and overarching philosophy for the show come from? Is it a collaborative effort? Who all is involved?
Pop-Up is a volunteer, collaborative, non-hierarchical labor of queer love. Our organizing committee is permeable, but has a core of five members who have all been working on Pop-Up for at least a year. We dream of some day being able to pay our staff. After our first two shows, we set an organizational priority of always "stipending" our artists, even if only a little bit, as part of our commitment to strengthening the community of people interested in queer history. We use an intersectional model of queer history that is deeply indebted to and concerned with feminist studies, anti-colonial studies, critical race theory, without going to a purely theoretical and academic place that could turn off many viewers. We believe that history is exciting and beautiful and liberatory.

My Remarks At Visual AIDS "(Re)Presenting AIDS" Forum

Transcribed by Visual AIDS, September 2, 2013. Read the original here.

On August 22, 2013, Visual AIDS along with the Pop Up Museum of Queer History and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies, held a public forum entitled, (re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability. The event was recorded and transcribed. Panelists we invited to present a short statement about their work related to AIDS, art, and representation. Below,Hugh Ryan talks about the New York Times op-ed he wrote about the New York Historical Society's AIDS exhibition, and shares his thoughts about the power of history.

Hi, I'm Hugh Ryan. I’m the founding director of the Pop Up Museum of Queer History. And I just wanted to start by saying—thank you to everyone for being here because one of my biggest answers to the questions is engagement. I think we have to engage with each other, we have to engage with the generations before us, the generations after us, the institutions that support us, the institutions that scare us. It’s about engagement. It’s only when we’re talking to each other, sharing our stories, and sharing what we know and have experienced that we actually can move forward with any of this.


I recently wrote an editorial about the New York Historical Society’s show, and I was very critical. And I regret that the one thing that I did not say was: please go. I want everyone to see that show. I want everyone to see every one of the shows that we’re talking about and to talk about what is good, and what isn't good, or what we did like, or didn't like, or did understand, or didn't understand because we don't really move forward without doing that.

The Pop Up Museum of Queer History works around the country with organizations to create community-sourced displays on queer history. What I think differentiates us, or what we try to accentuate in our model is, we believe when and where queer history has been kept, it’s been kept by queer people ourselves. And this is a virtue; it’s not a problem. It’s not something we need to solve.

It’s not to say that we don't believe in authorities or in experience and in learning but, you don’t need, necessarily, to go through some institutional practice to have that and that, by valuing the authority that we have in the room and by sharing it we actually learn from each other. What we, as a museum, try to do is to work with individuals to create exhibits. So, our shows will have 30 exhibits created by 30 different people, some of whom may consider themselves artists, some of whom may consider themselves historians, many of whom have never thought about making an exhibit for a museum before. Our shows tend to be over lapping, they tend to be a little messy because of it. We believe that interplay is where we really learn the most, so we believe that one of the most important things in terms of how should AIDS be represented, is that we should all be representing it ourselves.

History is a tool we all have access to and we’re in this really odd moment right now, around queer history specifically, where it’s going from a “for us / by us” model of history to one that is more concerned with mainstream recognition and straight audiences. We’re suddenly interesting to people. And that’s not a bad thing. And that’s not something to be afraid of, but it’s something to note and something to remember when we engage, we shouldn’t give up what we had before. And what we had before was a model of history where we kept our history because no one was going to give it to us. And when we had it, no one could take it from us.

Download the full transcript at: (re)Presenting AIDS transcript