Let me start by saying I identify as a queer femme human being.
With that being said, I was saddened when I learned the “Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art” is no more. Well they still exist, but have now dropped the “lesbian” and “gay” from their name. Gonzalo Casals, Leslie-Lohman’s Executive Director, told ARTnews that the name change is emblematic of “what the vision of the future of the museum is,” and that “the past is informing the present, so we can be projected into the future. Part of that was embracing the idea of queerness in the most expansive way possible. In doing that it became evident that our name needed to be as expansive as the concept of queerness, so that everyone feels welcome to the museum”(1).
Yet, why does this name drop feel like the opposite of expansive? And instead of feeling more inclusive, it feels a bit hollow and empty?
Being a queer individual, you are always seen as other–in society, in social gatherings and even, in the way art is categorized and appreciated. When I attended college in San Francisco, I started to not feel like the other, but rather special and unique, and able to find a queer community I never had. I took a Queer Art History class and interned at the GLBT Historical Society/Museum, a wonderful institution that has a bit of art in their archives but mostly personal effects, items, documents, books–you know, an archival collection, just not an art-focused one.
I kept thinking: there are museums like the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the Museum of the African Diaspora, but why is there no gay art museum? Why is it that every time I see a queer artist they are a token in a museum collection or exhibition? An oddity?
Then I discovered the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the only queer art museum in the world, a museum that proudly stated that WE ARE HERE WE ARE QUEER GET USED TO IT. And I loved that. Finally, a place where queer artists and their artworks could be appreciated on their terms and seen as valid just they way they are with no need to have a special label saying they were gay or other (with that distinction somehow emphasizing that their work is less than or not as important because of its queerness).
I was so struck by an art museum that did not shy away from their focus, their mission statement, and their history. And their history was very Gay. I felt at home, I felt seen, and I felt validated.
With these emotions on my mind, during graduate school in 2016, I became the Summer Fellow at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. While a fellow, I was working on my graduate thesis, which discussed the innately political nature of queer art collections, and understanding and appreciating the importance of queer institutions for those collections. This led me to having the privilege of interviewing the co-founder of the LLM, Charles Leslie.
Leslie, besides being a fascinating human being, is an avid collector and supporter of queer arts and artists to this day. His passion and his courage with his longtime partner Fritz Lohman (who passed away in 2009) saved many artworks and archives that would have been lost or destroyed through time and during the AIDS epidemic.
Those acts of saving artwork, preserving it for future generations, were political acts. And not just by saving these works, but saving these works and preserving them with their context and their history intact. The birth of this institution as we know of it today rose out of the flames of the of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands of men were dying and our politicians denied an epidemic was happening (2). In The Art of Looking: The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie, Kevin Clarke observes, “The Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation….made it one of its special missions to save homoerotic work that might otherwise be destroyed by people who considered it ‘dirty’ or ’immortal’ or ‘unimportant’, especially relatives of recently deceased AIDS victims who swept in to clean out apartments” (3).
The idea of saving artwork, people and communities from being lost, forgotten and erased was something that truly stuck me while researching the museum for my graduate thesis. Preservation and exhibiting were ways of reclaiming history, showing the world that queer people have always–and will always–be a part of it.
When I interviewed Leslie, I asked if he believed collecting work for queer people was different than it is for other collectors, and if it had a more important drive behind it. This topic came up repeatedly throughout the interview and the word he continually used was “erasure” (4). It was the erasure of queer history that made these collections so significant and vital. Collecting and preserving art objects goes back to a constant struggle: “the whole thing has been a struggle against erasure. Erasure, because so much of the gay history of the world has been erased” (5). But the political aspect came when Lohman and Leslie wanted to put a name to their foundation. As Leslie says, “this collection and the idea of putting it in view of public people, that’s where it became a political issue. You know, because we finally reached a time where they couldn’t kill us, at least not officially” (6).
Thinking of that struggle–that fight to even exist in history, to be honest when I heard that the Leslie-Lohman Museum dropped the Gay and Lesbian from their name, my heart broke. It felt like a defeat, a way of erasing the Museum’s history–Queer history–not progress.
Maybe, gawd forbid, I sound out of date, “not in touch.” But, how could I be? When children today even in the United States will be abandoned, abused and even, killed by their own parents for suspicion of being gay? When our own government systemically takes down safeguards for queer communities such as access to healthcare (7), and feeling safe and protected in the workplace (8)?
When coming out, for many people including myself, I didn’t come as “queer” or a “lesbian,” but as gay. Everyone, no matter how conservative or liberal, knows what gay means. It is a word that has the ability to be both general and specific. By stating it, you can convey your queerness, being a part of the broader LGBTQAI community, or that you are homosexual male. Either way, the point is that while the queer community and our understanding of all the nuances and communities within keep evolving with new terms, gay has become a historical term. Its meaning comes from its continual use in history, society and from within the queer community itself.
The historical aspect of the term “gay” having the ability to encompass the entire queer community did not come originally from a positive place. It comes from how the cis-heterosexual society that we all still currently live in using that word as slur, a way to mark someone as other or wrong. Insisting on having “Gay” (and later, “Lesbian”) in the name of the museum/foundation was a distinctly political decision. This is seen clearly when Leslie recounts their struggle to be recognized by the government as a legitimate art foundation in the 2015 publication The Art of Looking:The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie:
“We went to our lawyer, Henry Weiss, a delightful gay man with two daughters. He had a young assistant named Erica Bell who he turned the matter of creating ‘The Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation’ over to. Erica was a big voluptuous lesbian, like Mother Earth. She submitted our idea to the Federal Government. It took her forever to get us established because of the word ‘gay’ in the title. Of course, the Federal Government is always the last to realize what is happening in the world, and they traditionally have a bias against anything that happens in New York. Erica got calls from the Federal Government agents asking, sniggeringly, ‘Where is this so called foundation, in someone’s bathroom?’ She said, ‘No the artworks are hanging in a little gallery, and the collection includes some famous names.’ At some point she got so frustrated that she called me and said, ‘Charles, we can get it passed quicker if we drop the word gay.’ I told her that this would lose the whole point. She agreed and battled on till she eventually wore them down. We got our certification in 1990 and became a proper foundation” (9).
There is so much power in words–the ability to strike fear, inspire hope, incite hate–but when we, as a community, can take back a word that had become a negative into something to be celebrated brings hope. When being called gay, queer, lesbian, non-binary, etc, is not a way of making someone “other,” wrong or bad, but instead, is a signal of acceptedness and even, a battle cry of refusing to conform. As Clarke explains, “…calling it a Gay Art Foundation was sticky finger in the face of large parts of American society who were intensely busy wiping gay subject matters and gay art off the map” (10). And now more than ever in this world and in this political climate, we, as a community, need to feel safe, together and ready to fight.
As a society, we have grown so much. We have fought many battles that we have eventually won, having our own parade, having the right to marry, to be able to be out at work and with your family, to be able to call a museum gay and be respected, etc. The LLM is still one of my favorite museums. It continues to support and foster queer artists, preserving their legacy for future generations. Over the years, the museum and its history have become well-known and respected, and have become even more heralded for its programming and collection in the art world. But it wasn’t easy getting to this moment. It took guts, an immeasurable amount of love and dedication, and dash of rebellion and anarchy. While a name doesn’t mean everything and is not always the defining feature of a person or place, the now Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art feels a bit more tame–the name drop a way of placating a heterosexual audience.
With a looming presidential election in 2020, everyday news of another death/tragedy in the LGBTQAI community, and protests and marches occurring, what feels like almost daily, against new and horrific injustices and fights for basic rights, I can’t help but cling onto the words and history that brought me comfort knowing I wasn’t alone.
- Kevin Clarke. The Art of Looking: The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie. 2nd ed. Berlin: Bruno Gmuender, 2015, 164.
- Alexandria Deters (2017). “We Were There, We Are Here: Queer Collections and Their Repositories and Legacies (Master Thesis)”, Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York, NY.
- Charles Leslie. “Queer Collector.” Interview by author. September 12, 2016.
- Clarke, 161.
- Clarke, 161.
Alexandria Deters is an artist, writer, and researcher in the Bronx. She received a BA in Art History and a BA in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and in 2016 received her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. She has written for Gallery Gurls, EL CHAMP, and POZ.com and currently works at Peter Blum Gallery, New York