Gay Art

The Many Shades of Gay

As the previous posts pointed out, many artists who were gay were caught up in attempts from various forces, both political and religious, to censor art. Confused and angered that art would be attacked in a land of free speech, the American art world directed its protests towards the red herring of censorship. Many gay artists were able to make gay-themed art with little or no interference, so it would seem that the incitement for censorship was not necessarily homosexual content but displays of Otherness in sites where the larger public could see this diversity. There are undoubtedly sincere individuals who honestly believe for moral and/or religious reasons that homosexuality is against their religion and their rights to their beliefs are protected by the Constitution.

However, the so-called “Culture Wars” begin when personal beliefs enter into the domain of “free speech” and the freedom to pursue happiness. Art was and still is on the front lines of those Culture Wars, and because art is public, it is always in the line of fire from those who want to remove anything they (personally) consider “offensive” from public view. The more precise problem of art censorship was a political one: people making statements through art that were not welcomed by other people. While the art world ignores the conservative culture, the conservative segments of American society are very concerned about the world of visual arts.

The censorship of gay art is less about the art and more about the “gay:” homosexuals were and are, legally in many states, second-class citizens, denied the rights enjoyed by “straight” people. Any threat coming from politicalized art to that “moral” order would be met with resistance, suggesting that the goals of conservative movements is political control and silencing of voices that presented another point of view. In other words, one can ask, is the issue one of the censorship of art or the domination of a minority? The art that has been targeted for censorship has been the kind of art that seems easy to read and that is susceptible to misinterpretation from those who refuse to inform themselves on the content.

Perhaps the level of difficulty in understanding homosexual art explains why some artists, whose work is more layered or subtle, are ignored by the religious and moral authorities. Other self-identified “queer” artists include David McDermott and Peter McGough who were among the earliest queer artists to emerge as a working couple. In order to understand McDermott and McGough, who did activist art on the margins, one has to understand the entire history of photography and a particular era in English history and numerous cultural references from the past. Like old photographs and early movies, their photographs are tinted in old fashioned tones, blues, lavenders and grays.

The pair are best known as photographers and in 1994, the pair did a photo book, The History of Photography, in which they rephotographed and restaged genres of photographs from the nineteenth century. Many of these images depicted the art couple, dressed up in period clothes and posing as a typical Victorian or Edwardian married couple. The pair lived in New York City on Avenue C and recreated a Victorian way of life in their apartment and used the fussy décor for their photography. To pose as a contented couple from the era of Oscar Wilde in the time of AIDS was a very political position, but the conceptual works of McDermott and McGough were subtle and visually not shocking, well within the intellectual realm and out of reach of the conservatives.

McDermott and McGough were part of a growing coterie of artists who were “out of the closet.” By the 1990s, “coming out” was a major narrative for queer people and many, like McDermott and McGough came out loud and proud. The couple was associated with other gay artists in the East Village scene in Manhattan during the 1980s, such as Keith Haring who worked hard to raise AIDS awareness. Keith Haring began as a “street artist” with Jean-Michel Basquiat, staking out the subway tunnels as his territory. The walls of the waiting areas of the stations had bulletin boards reserved for advertisements.

While waiting for new advertisements, the boards were covered with black paper and Haring would draw his signature line drawings with white chalk on the paper. Films of his fugitive invasions of the subway territory show an assured hand swiftly creating complex line drawings populated with humans and animals. Like Basquiat, Haring made his debut in the word of fine art in the late eighties and found fame and fortune with a wide range of works that included paintings, murals and graphic arts. When the AIDS epidemic swept the art world, Haring and other artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, worked hard to educate people, men and women, to the dangers of careless sex.

It was, in fact, this drawing of the “radiant baby” that inspired art critic, René Richard’s groundbreaking article, The Radiant Child, which focused on Haring and mentioned Basquiat in passing. Richard’s inspiration for the title of the article was Haring’s Radiant Baby, a child, drawn in outline, on his/her hands and knees, was surrounded by rays of light. Unlike Basquiat who quickly left his public persona as “Samo” behind, Haring’s career was largely devoted to public art and dedicated to the art education of children. Haring, like many of his colleagues, was diagnosed with AIDS and established a foundation for AIDS awareness before he died in 1990.

Although he outlived Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz also turned his attention to the decimation caused by AIDS in the arts community. Like Goldin, Wojnarowicz chronicled the dying moments of the victims of the disease in his art. Part of the East Village crowd, he lived long enough to witness the destructive assault on the arts by politicians in Washington, D. C. who called certain kinds of art “pornography.” He actually sued and won against a Mississippi-based group that had misrepresented his art as pornography. Wonjnarowicz was a writer and a visual artist and many of his images combined image and text. The artist produced four bodies of writings and just before his death in 1992, he did a series of readings for the benefit of a program for needle exchange (sharing needles among drug users was a major factor in the spread of AIDS).

The veterans of gay art would certainly be Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore), a British couple who began in the late sixties as conceptual artists, working collaboratively. They became famous in 1969 doing their signature performance piece, Singing Sculpture, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Dressed in neat gray suits with their faces bronzed like sculptures, the two initiated their art practice of putting themselves, their faces and bodies and their lives and their English heritage at the center of their art. But these artists also did text and image graphics, using the grid format, which resembled stained glass windows for cathedrals, the Medieval way of telling stories and teaching moral and ethical truths. The audience has watched the duo age over the past forty years from innocent young men to wise old men (still in the same suits) who have made profound comments on the alienating world of their time. As they explained,

Our subject matter is the world. It is pain. Pain. Just to hear the world turning is pain, isn’t it? Totally, every day, every second. Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human person, the complexity of life.

Because of the small number of people any one performance could reach, they began to make films, such as, The Nature Of Our Looking (edition 4), 1970, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (edition 25), 1972, In The Bush (edition 25), 1972, and Portrait Of The Artists As Young Men(edition 25), 1972. As the pair became more famous, films about them proliferated: The Red Sculpture 1975, The World of Gilbert and George (1981), Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture (1991), Gilbert and George: Daytripping (1992), Gilbert & George , The South Bank Show (1997) and The Fundamental Gilbert and George (1997) and No Surrender of 2oo7.

Although Conceptual Art tended to be non-political, the couple made art that was pointed and activist, perhaps due to the growing politicization of the gay community. It has been noted that Gay Liberation was an American movement, but that this movement spread world wide, having the effect of “Americanizing” gay men everywhere. When the AIDS epidemic began, the art of Gilbert and George, like that of many gay artists, began to focus on queer subject matter. Being British, these artists were not subjected to the criticisms of the American right wing. Gilbert and George use the phrase “Art for All” to describe their art and work in a single and unchanging format for their two dimensional work: a grid which is imposed over their images. Now well-dressed and well-mannered middle-aged British gentlemen, the couple had a show at the DeYoung in San Francisco, winter of 2008, the same year as the film With Gilbert and George, directed by Julian Cole.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.

This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.

One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.

From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.

But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.

By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.

Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”

Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:

The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.

David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.

Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One


Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

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Lesbian Culture


In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.
Simone de Beauvoir

There is a historical coincidence between capitalism, urbanism, and an extreme gender distinction, accompanied by a strict segregation between males and females. In a rural agricultural culture, both men and women labored year round, both genders contributed the the family’s prosperity and survival. The income came from the harvests, but once income came from wages in factories, gender inequality took on new dimensions. Men were paid more than women, not necessarily because they did better jobs but because low wages for women and children incrusted profits for factory owners. New forms of wealth also impacted the middle class as well, giving the men enough income to support a wife who, in emulation of upper class women, did not earn an income. As men took a larger role in the business/industry based system, they became more powerful, but their behavior was more carefully regulated in a modern world that needed both fiscal and sexual discipline.

Because men were given higher status in society and their behavior had more impact upon the social system, only male sexuality was regulated. Lesbians were usually not recognized as such and were more often labeled as “spinsters” and pitied for their condition and did not come under legal control. Romantic friendships among women and “Boston Marriages” between women were tolerated, doubtless because such friendships provided women with emotional sustenance and such unions were good places for “old maids,” or left-over women, to live out their lives. In fact, the nineteenth century was safer than other centuries for lesbians who, like gay men, had been put to death as late as in the seventeenth century.

Lesbians were left out of gay liberation, which was mostly a male movement. Lesbians had a prior commitment to women’s liberations but in the early years of the Women’s Movement, lesbians were marginalized in favor of heterosexual women in order to give the movement wider appeal to the masses. The relationship between lesbians and feminism was turbulent and it took years for mainstream feminists to accept lesbians as part o their cause. Lesbians realized that gay men were part of the male patriarchy and were complicit in the subjugation of women. It was a clear case of gender (male) trumping (lesbian) sexuality.

Men, regardless of sexual preference, would bond with men and, even though lesbians had long identified with the gay culture and had allied themselves politically with male homosexuals, men, no matter what their sexual preferences, would not be supportive of women. Lesbians had not suffered the persecution that gay men had. “Straight” men had high opinions of “femme” lesbians and had fantasies about a pair of such ladies making love. Therefore, lesbians were no threat to masculinity or to the family or to male dominance, and the lesbians who were “butch” exhibited all the appropriate attributes of the male bureaucratic personality: objective, logical and unexcitable. Nevertheless, according to the late Jill Johnson, author of Lesbian Nation, “in the 1950s, there was no lesbian identity except a criminal one.”

Because of instinctive male bonding, the poet, Adrienne Rich, made a connection between lesbians and feminism in her 1978 article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Rich made a very important argument in deconstructing heterosexuality, which was assumed to be “natural” and was therefore unmarked. Rich pointed out that heterosexuality was not natural but was an oppressive social force that was imposed upon men and women. Heterosexuality was like capitalism in that it created relations of unequal power, and, according to Rich, gay men are complicit in the marginalization of all women. Johnson agreed stating, “Gay men, however discriminated against, are still patriarchs.”

Because male domination of women is in the interest of men, whatever their sexual preference, all men oppress women. Rich puts forward the influential concept of what she called “compulsory heterosexuality,” meaning that the entire social and economic system forced heterosexuality upon the population through laws and customs. Homosexual behavior, everything from certain sex acts (among men) to mode of dress (for men), was outlawed and homosexuals were stigmatized and shamed. Heterosexuality, therefore, is not a personal preference or a religious dictate but a political institution that works to the disadvantage of all women.

Here is where Rich connects the cause of the gays and lesbians with the feminist movement. By denying women full equality, women’s lives are limited and their dependence upon men is increased. Rich’s position was an interesting one, considering that for over a decade, feminists had kept a distance from lesbians, fearing that feminism would be even more stigmatized. But by the late seventies, stigmatization had already occurred (feminists hated men and didn’t shave their legs, etc.) and the feminist movement became more inclusive of homosexual women because they were sisters in inequality.

The legal and social inequality of (homosexuals) lesbians and women keeps straight men in power and maintains an imbalance of privileges through the political system. Heterosexuality is “naturalized,” that is, the culture insists that heterosexuality is the “norm” or is normal and that any deviation from the “natural” organization of male and female is “unnatural.” By making lesbianism pathological, heterosexual masculinity is privileged. Lesbianism, then, is a resistance to the patriarchy, according to Rich, even though “lesbian” is a term used against women. (We continue to see this label applied to Hillary Clinton.) Lesbian theory in America was straightforward and practical and, in its way, reformist and assimilationist but every nation produced a different version of lesbian theory.

In France, a nation that was not open to extending equality to women, feminism was, by necessity, less practical or more theoretical. The late French feminist Monique Wittig, stated that lesbianism and the term “woman” is possible only in a sexist society that is ruled by rigid sex roles and is characterized by male supremacy. “Woman” and “man” are imaginary formations created and constructed by the culture in order to create power positions. What Wittig and Rich are saying is that the “identity” of “women,” “men,” “gays,” and “lesbians” is not natural but a cultural fiction, and this position was a radical change from the way in which the concept of “identity” had been used during the Civil Rights Movement in America.

During the period of Gay Liberation, “identity’ was linked with political activism and with “pride” in that identity which would be asserted in the face of the labels of the Heterosexual culture: “deviant,” and “invert,” and “queer.” Wittig deconstructed “identity” and “queer” and “lesbian” in order to escape value-laden binaries. As she wrote in “The Straight Mind” in 1980:

To destroy ‘woman,’ does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (‘forced residence,’ domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.) a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free. For us this is an absolute necessity; our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression.

In 1978, Wittig was arguing with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book, The Second Sex, which was mostly about the history of straight women, in which the older scholar said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” But the two Frenchwomen shared the same ground, as women and/or as lesbians, they were the Other, and both inherited their ideas from Marx (or ultimately from Hegel) that systems, not people, created human relations. Wittig tried to situate lesbians outside of the system of binaries: “…it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women…” an act of separatism that, in her lifetime, would yield to the desire to become part of the wider society where Ellen de Generes would be a beloved lesbian talk-show host.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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History of Sexuality, Part Two


“Queer” was once an insulting term of scorn and distaste applied to homosexuals and the aggressive appropriation of this term by the homosexual community as a defiant positive identification signaled a change from the meaning of the term “identity.” “Queer” is also a Postmodern term, signifying an awareness that it is a classification that is artificial and constructed by society. “Queer” is a representation and was (and still is) used as a prerogative term, a word that was deliberately repressive, designed to designate the Other, as an act of power and control. Postmodernity understands representation or the power to represent stems from a position of social dominance and that sexuality is linked to economic power and control of the One. To say “queer” is to identify. “Queer” theory was also a reaction to the rejection of a meta-theory or meta-narrative of of sexuality, which positioned heterosexuality as the privileged state and marginalizing homosexuality as the Other.

Following the thinking of Michel Foucault that one should investigate smaller units, Queer Theory was a concept of the 1990s. The theoretical basis for “queer” was feminist theory, which was a theory of difference. In her book Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argued that gender relations–the binary between male and female—was stabilized by the immobility of women and that once “female” became unstable, the position of the male was threatened. Gender was constructed by society and then performed by the individual, with both male and female playing social roles. “Queer Theory” emerged at the same time as Butler’s arguments for gender performativity but “queer” did not necessarily mean “gay” or opposite from “straight” or “homosexual” or opposite from “heterosexual.” As Samuel Allen Chambers and Terrell Carver stated in Judith Butler and Political Theory,

Queer identity therefore must not be confused or confuted with gay identity; it rests no on the ground of a fixed desire for the same exa, but on the position of one’s marginal sexuality in relation to the norm of heterosexuality.

Thanks to theorists, such as Adrianne Rich and Monique Wittig, writing about lesbian theory, “identity” was revealed to by a mere construct. For Rich, heterosexuality was “compulsory,” forced upon all, regardless of their preferences. For Wittig, gender relations were constructed solely for the imposition and maintenance of heterosexuality, so much so, that lesbians were totally outside of that binary. Nothing was natural; all was constructed and given out to individuals by society. In Queer Theory, Annamarie Jagose stated that “Queer” marked a break and a rupture with the politics of liberation and assimilation of the sixties and seventies. Although it should be pointed out that twenty-first century gay culture strives towards assimilation and bourgeois life styles, “Queer Theory” emerged in the nineties as an acknowledgment of Michel Foucault’s insistence in Discipline and Punish that power was not concentrated in a central place but was distributed and disseminated widely, impossible to confront. Foucault noted that power was productive and produced categories, such as “queer.” These categories were used to classify people into groups where they could be marginalized and oppressed through a “discourse” or body of “knowledge” which reinforced the spread of power. For Foucault, surveillance produced knowledge of the subject under examination and that knowledge, in turn, produced more power. We have seen this process very clearly in the “creation” of the “homosexual” in the 1870s through medical discourse. By the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuals had been declared “inverts” and laws were passed to prevent homosexuality from spreading, like a disease.

Alert to the danger of categories, the new activists adopted the term “queer” which is non-specific and non-exclusionist. “Queer” can be seen as a counter discourse, an act of resistance to the existing discourse on homosexuals which actually produced “homosexuals.” Rather than having a label applied to them by the heterosexual society, homosexuals began using the word “queer” as a self-designation, chosen deliberately as a new form pf personal identification and of political organization. “Queer” was an attack on the entire concept of “identity,” and upon sexuality. Far from being “natural,” sexuality was, according to Foucualt, a cultural category, an effect of power, and something produced through discourse. The emergence of “queer theory” revealed the extent to which society and culture expended enormous efforts to shape human sexuality in certain directions: heterosexual with men dominating and women pleasing men. Following Foucault’s line of thinking, Judith Butler asserted that the whole notion of “marginalized” identities privileges the center and is complicit with regimes that maintain power through identifying who is at the “margin” and who is in the “center.”

Gender, Butler stated, was a performance and gender roles were performative. The performance of a particular gender is a kind of masquerade, a role that is played by the individual who is rarely aware that he or she is acting from a script written by a system seeking to maintain the “naturalization” of heterosexuality. The way a person dresses or walks or talks or even the hairstyle defines him or her as “male” or “female.” The apparent “unity of gender” inscribed by these ritualized and repetitive performances is achieved under constraints, such as, men cannot wear women’s clothes or, in some cultures, women cannot be unveiled. Any deviation from the standard performances is punished. Queer theory questions conventional understandings of gender; and, when one describes oneself as “queer,” the term is a self-designation and self-identification, taken by the individual. Queer theory insists that sexuality is a discursive effect and the primary goal of queer theory is to “denaturalized” gender and sexuality, revealing the artificial constructs of “male” and “female.” Monique Wittig memorably proposed that perhaps we could all simply be “people:”

Like racism, sexism is so well implanted in ruling class ideology that only a radical seizing of power can destroy it—a political takeover to represent, in our turn, our interest as being the universal interest. That is necessary for the first phase, the send goal of all seizure of power by the people being an abolition of domination in general. Our interest is that of the people. We are the people.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The History of Sexuality, Part One


“Chick equals nigger equals queer. Think it over.”

Unattributed quote


In his 1980s series of books on human (mostly male) sexuality, the French philosopher and theorist, Michel Foucault, dated the emergence of “homosexuality” as the year 1870 with the publication of an 1869 Karl Friedrich Otto Westphal article called, Contrary Sexual Sensations. While one could argue (and some have) with Foucault about his aggressive claim-staking date, it is certainly true that before the late nineteenth century “homosexuality” as a named “condition” did not exist. But during the nineteenth century, a century obsessed with social classification, this aspect of human behavior had to be “named.”

The point that Foucault made in his three volume History of Human Sexuality (incomplete at his death in 1984) is that although there have always been men who loved men and women who loved women, same sex love was either tolerated according to cultural norms or condemned as having violated cultural norms, the way that stealing was against the law. There is some correlation between urban societies, such as Athens and Rome, where homosexuality was allowed, and tribal or agricultural societies, where homosexuality was forbidden. As shall be discussed, there is also a correspondence between economic systems and sexual systems.

To borrow Westphal’s term, homosexuality was considered “contrary” to expectations that opposite genders were “naturally” attracted to one another. The assumption of “naturalness” generated its opposite, “unnatural” or against nature, a negative term. In 1864, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs introduced the term “The Third Sex,” in order to describe those who desired the same sex, called “Unarians,” after Urnanian, the mythological Greek goddess of homosexuals. Lesbians were “urninds” and homosexual men were “urnings.” The term “homosexuality” supplanted “urnaian,” and when “homosexuality” was “discovered” in 1870, it applied only to males.

The term “homosexuality” was coined in 1869 by Swiss doctor, Karoly Maria Benkertand popularized by English sex theorist, Havelock Ellis in the 1890s. Benkert argued that homosexuality was natural and innate and unchangeable and that the right to practice homosexuality should be as inalienable as a kind of personal freedom. Although Benkert was making an argument for human liberation, his insistence that homosexuality was a human trait rather than a simple crime, led to a medical model for what was called “inversion” of “normal” sexual desires.

Anxious to claim higher social status and eager to shape public policy, doctors made being homosexual into a human pathology, a mental disease. The homosexual, as Foucault put it, became a “species.” The “modern” conception of “homosexuality” is one in which the homosexual (male) was considered a social, cultural, and psychological deviant in a medical sense. By the beginning of the “homosexual” was identified, categorized, and classified and set apart from the rest of society. Because the Victorians assumed that sex coincided with penetration, sodomy was outlawed, but women were not included in “homosexuality” and lesbianism was not determined to be illegal.

History of Homosexuality

As David F. Greenberg’s book, The Construction of Homosexuality, pointed out, homosexuality needs to be understood as an historical effect of certain social and cultural conditions that encouraged a homosexual sub-culture to be created and recognized. Homosexuality seems to be an urban phenomenon, because, unlike rural societies where labor was needed, cities had large populations and plentiful workers. Michel Foucault and others have discussed ancient homosexual groups in ancient Athens where homosexuality was considered not only natural but necessary for the efficient functioning of democracy.

In order to form a strong social contract or a democracy, men needed to have strong bonds of affection and regard. A strong military without homosexuality was unthinkable, for whom would men fight if not for the ones they loved? We find echoes of Greek attitudes towards homosexuality in politics and the military, both homosocial cultures, today. Men band together and make close alliances politically to make the government run they way they think best and the military sets up small, closely-knit squads and uses the “buddy system” to train men to fight—not so much for their country, an abstract concept—but for their friends, a band of brothers. The ancient Athenians fielded the famous and feared “Band of Lovers,” a cohort of homosexual partners who would fight to the death to protect each other.

Non-urban societies had no use for homosexuality, because of the need for procreation to make the society productive, and it is from these nomadic desert cultures that the modern Judeo-Christian condemnation of homosexuality arose. Men loving men and men reluctant to mate with women was a social and economic problem that was “solved” through religious taboos and social pressure. Homosexuality was labeled a “sin” or a transgression against religious edicts and, in many societies, homosexuals faced the death penalty.

As Francis Mark Mondimore remarked in his book, A Natural History of Homosexuality, the ancient Greeks and Romans had no word for “homosexuality,” because the culture had no concept of an exclusive sexual allegiance that was “natural.” The idea of “nature” or “natural” would later be conflated with “God’s will,” in that “God” made opposite sexes and therefore God “intended” for the opposites to attract and mate. The Greco-Roman gods were sexually omnivorous, while the Judeo-Christian-Muslim monotheistic God was asexual, except when impelled by matters of necessity. Christianity was hostile to sexuality, to women and considered homosexual acts to be a sin. However, there was no concept of “homosexuality,” only of a (sinful) misjudgment that could be put right by a confession and penance.

In a post-Christian society, sex was a necessary evil With the coming of the Enlightenment and a secular society, punishments over religious beliefs were ended and replaced by penalties for crimes against society. The ending of the death penalty for homosexuality coincided with the cultural shift towards science and towards a capitalist economy, and these changes would play a role in (re)defining “homosexual.” Due to population increases and the need to control the public, the masses had to be disciplined, as Michel Foucault described in Discipline and Punish. To discipline, one must be able to transform a mass into categories, that could be classified and designated. It is under these circumstances of “discipline” and “punish” that “homosexuality” became a defined and constructed entity.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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History of Sexuality, Part Two


Modern Homosexuality

The beginning of the modern homosexuality is linked to a new economic system: capitalism. Capitalism, compared to feudalism, is marked by a specific kind of society characterized by urban centers and bureaucracy. Capitalism, compared to rural societies, which favor small clusters where everyone knew everyone else, was impersonal, regulated by detached actions and distanced decisions. Unlike the village market, where the local butcher might reduce the price of meat for a needy family, the capitalist market is vast and impersonal and is driven by an economic machinery that is inhuman and alienating to human needs and desires and to human beings and their feelings. To succeed in such a society, the new human of the nineteenth century needed to cultivate behaviors that got positive rewards under capitalism: rational thinking, disciplined lifestyle, independence, self-direction, self-control, and, above all, competitiveness.

Capitalism favored the family unit as the economic unit and, in doing so, redefined “family,” from “extended” or inclusive to “nuclear” or isolated. With the nuclear family now deemed the central economic unit, market forces found it easier to separate extended family units, as individuals left the villages and their family roots, searching for work. The nuclear family, under this new familial regime—a combination of the religious and the economic, now empowered the male as head of the family (by divine right) and subordinated (through religious custom) the females of the household to his rule. Frederick Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884 that the second class status of women began with the concept of “private property.” Earlier, Karl Marx argued that capitalism reduced human relations to economic relations and resulted in alienation, now extended, according to Engels, to that most intimate of relations, sexuality and marriage.

While the status of the individual male and his social mobility could rise under capitalism, the status of the female sank during the nineteenth century to a historical low. Existing under conditions of psychological alienation, women lost mobility, both social and economic. They lost all legal and economic rights. They were denied full access to the culture, from education to suffrage. Any status women had was second hand, siphoned at a distance from their fathers or their brothers or their husbands. Without male protectors, women became invisible and without a husband, women did not exist. More about the status of women later, but for now, we need to note that the “family” is not only gendered but sexed as well: it is heterosexual, meaning male marries female.

What was the impact of competitive capitalism upon relations among men? Under the circumstances of impersonal market forces and an almost Darwinian struggle for existence, male (human) emotions could not be expressed or acted upon. Kept in a state of tension and competition against each other, so that the strongest could “win,” men could not have feelings of comraderie or intimacy towards each other. Any actions that negatively interfere with competition must be eradicated if the man is to achieve success. Middle class parents began to raise their male children to succeed in the market, by shaping them to be self-reliant and to behave with self-control and foresight.

In the early decades of High Capitalism, it was necessary to restrain oneself in order to accumulate capital and to sustain prosperity. Unlike ancient Greece, where men loved one another or ancient Rome where men respected each other, modern men could socialize only the most rigidly controlled and organized conditions, most of which were extensions of competitive sports. As Eve Kosofsky Sedwick stated,

Because the paths of male entitlement, especially in the nineteenth century, required certain intense male bonds that were not readily distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement.

Surveillance of sexual conduct directed towards male children and adults became necessary to regulate behavior towards “productive” ends. Homosexuality was “unproductive” in that the male “couple” could not reproduce themselves. Masturbation was “unproductive” in that the ‘seed” was “spent,” or wasted like money spent on bad investments. Pleasure, even among men and women, husbands and wives, was also redefined in economic terms “unproductive,” a “waste” of time. In its unproductiveness, pleasure threatened the family, the basic economic unit.

Pleasure in all its forms was repudiated and sobriety in all its grimness was embraced. Abstinence became the valued conduct, along with chastity, even within marriage, where small families were the only economically viable social unit. Sexual pleasure had contained, for both men and women. Doctors obligingly declared that women were incapable of sexual feelings and, therefore, men became indifferent to the needs of their wives. The result was a more or less well-regulated sex traffic in women whose low class and lack of education left them with few recourses. Many women, rural refugees, came to cities only to become prostitutes. The male customers could participate in prostitution with impunity while women were caught up in the policing of sex and carried the public shame.

Although there was a trade in homosexual prostitution, male prostitutes were much more underground as homophobia forced homosexuals to go to extremes to express themselves sexually. Homosexual pleasure-seeking was forced to shift from children, now declared off limits, to other adult men in impersonal settings in public, such as restrooms and baths. Homosexuals, or men with same-sex preferences, could come together as a culture only in an urban setting. As early as the seventeenth century, a distinct sub culture of homosexuality emerged in “Molly Houses,” or sites of social gatherings of men. Here a specific and recognizable culture was created with distinctive dress and jargon and gestures. As the broader culture came more and more under the regime of capitalism and competition, these urban subcultures were driven underground by social disapproval.

Unlike heterosexual relations between men and women, a purely economic exchange, which was legal, homosexual acts of any kind became illegal The Labouchère Amendment of 1885 in England was the first to criminalize homosexual acts between men. The new laws that began to be enacted at the end of the nineteenth century set prison sentences for homosexual acts among men. By the end of the nineteenth century, Europe and America had entered into an age of imperialism and militarism, an era, which demanded a high level of masculinity and of what were considered masculine traits and behaviors.

Molly House behavior would not be tolerated in a society that needed its men to cultivate disparate traits of self-control, lack of emotion, and violence. All of these qualities were necessary to cultivate if the imperialistic culture was to dominate and control the inferiors and to kill, if necessary to protect one’s possessions. Women were needed to breed these new warriors for the new empires and no more. Peace was dreaded as being “effeminate” and dangerous to men who must be bred to fight and kill. Although by 1870 the death penalty against homosexuality had been lifted, other laws against “sodomy” were enforced and any public displays of homosexual behavior was condemned.

Even though the family was the prime economic by the twentieth century, the structure of the family created great anxiety over “masculinity” because women, excluded from society, were the prime caregivers. Young boys identified with their mothers and had to undergo ritual separation from their mothers and sisters to be initiated into the rights and rituals of manhood. From childhood on, boys had higher status than girls, even their older sisters and mothers and the male privileges taught them to separate themselves from low-status females. Little boys were taught sports by their fathers to combat feminine influences and were taught how to “act like men.” Everything that was female and feminine was denigrated in a patriarchal male society and all that was masculine and male was valorized. Clearly, in this highly masculinized society, homosexuals, especially effeminate homosexuals, had no place.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]