“I am a glossy photograph
Of course I am a bit retouched
And my color has been processed
But cameras always erase
Fear lurking behind a face
I am a lie and I am gold
But I shall never grow old”
–Amanda Lear “I Am A Photograph”
Is it possible to look back to that gold lamé-draped, handlebar moustache-wearing, disco-dancing, cruising post-Stonewall era of the 1970s without the lens of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which would irrevocably alter the course of LGBTQ life? Can you look at artwork, photographs and other documentation from that decade without searching for the images and names of those who would disappear in the decades to come? Or of the others who would become continual caregivers to friends and lovers? Or the clubs, bathhouses, piers and others spaces that would be shuttered for fear of transmission?
In Douglas Crimp’s Mourning and Militancy, Crimp not only honors the lives lost due to HIV/AIDS but also the spaces of sexual possibility, citing bathhouses, the piers, the rambles, the theaters and other locations known for their freedom of sexuality. However, beyond the sexual cultures transformed by the virus, our historical interpretation of the seemingly halcyon days before the 1981 New York Times article announcing “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” has also been irreparably changed by grief, nostalgia and the loss of potential mentors and other idealistic possibilities for later generations.
Speaking to Reginald Harris for Lambda Literary on his book Smash Cut, writer Brad Gooch recalls his process of remembering this era for his memoir: “I was seduced at first by the pleasures of remembering the Roaring Seventies, and being back with Howard again in those early days of our friendship and love. They were romantic, utopian days, for us and for artists and gay people, certainly in Manhattan. When I turned the corner into writing about AIDS, I was already deep into remembering. I stopped for a bit, realizing what I’d gotten myself into. I had not really revisited these memories deeply since I shut the door on them over two decades ago.”
This difficulty in revisiting the 1970s as Brad Gooch identifies comes to the fore in Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s current exhibition The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment. Curated by the Museum’s staff, The 1970s resurrects the rapid and revolutionary changes occurring in the decade post-Stonewall riots.
Filled with over 115 artworks largely culled from the Museum’s own extensive permanent collection, the exhibition is admittedly overstuffed and yet, the sheer number of representations of the decade paints an unmistakable portrait of the times. From street demonstrations to out-and-proud queer kinship to the freedom of not only sex but queer sexual representation, The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment unveils the decade that laid the groundwork for contemporary queer identities, culture and politics.
Containing largely photographic works, the exhibition ranges from activist documentation such as Peter Hujar’s recognizable Gay Liberation Front Poster Image to portraits of cultural figures like Rob Hugh Rosen’s beautiful photo of the Queen of Disco herself Sylvester dressed to the nines as Lady Day and iconic photographic series such as Jimmy DeSana’s ever-so-Catholic Submission series and the full display of Robert Mapplethorpe’s notoriously Jesse Helms-approved X Portfolio.
Naturally beginning with Diana Davies seminal photograph of the Stonewall Inn taken a day after the riots in 1969, the exhibition follows the explosion of the gay liberation movement with images like Rink Foto’s capture of the “first large group of lesbians” in the San Francisco Gay Parade. Even activists who threw bricks at Stonewall appear in later demonstration photographs like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. In a photograph also by Diana Davies, Johnson, wearing a jaunty green hat, holds a sign for S.T.A.R. (Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries), a groundbreaking organization founded by both Johnson and Rivera.
With the proliferation of activism also came LGBT community spaces like the Gay Activists Alliance located at 99 Wooster Street, which recorded in 1973, that there were over 1000 gay groups worldwide. In addition to community centers, bookstores like the sadly shuttered Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, which appears in the exhibition through a fun photo of its founder Craig Rodwell by well-known LGBT documentarian Fred McDarrah, became an epicenter of burgeoning gay culture and politics.
Liberation in the 1970s did not only happen in the streets but also in the sheets as numerous photos showcase in the exhibition. From bathhouses to leather-bound sex clubs like The Mineshaft to the sunny yet desolate utopia/dystopia of the Christopher Street piers, sexual experimentation was abundant, available and encouraged even though many states still held laws against certain sexual acts. With an undeniable community built around these sites of sexual pleasure, as well as an–even if fleeting–creation of kinship and care between same-sex partners, sexual possibility ran both parallel to and undoubtedly influenced the more traditionally defined political activism.
Even though Leslie-Lohman’s permanent collection tends to lean heavily on male depictions of sexuality, The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment also features moving imagery of female sexuality. Perhaps the most captivating artist portraying lesbian sexuality in The 1970s was Tee A. Corinne. A photographer, educator, author and draftsman of the hilarious Cunt Coloring Book, Corinne’s photographs not only celebrate lesbian sex but also a diversity of bodies including women with disabilities. By revealing a sexuality that largely goes underrepresented, as well as unspoken–baffling the minds of men, Corinne’s photographs represent an entirely female eroticism deriving from women’s form and figure as in her hallucinatory and kaleidoscopic Print #5.
Of course, we couldn’t talk about lesbians in the 1970s without having at least one reference to lesbian separatist collectives, which, if I’m being honest, always felt camp to me. With an emphasis on representing the range of queer women’s lives, photographer Joan E. Biren (JEB) shot three nude women on the porch of their house, presumably from a lesbian commune. JEB herself also aided the founding of the separatist collective The Furies in Washington D.C.
The underground counterculture also looms large in The 1970s such the raucous glitter and glam troupe The Cockettes and the deranged Baltimore scene surrounding our preeminent filth elder John Waters in Amos Badertscher’s photograph of the First Lady of Baltimore Edith Massey. However, I did feel the exhibition lacked a reflection of the East Village’s developing art and performance scene in the late 1970s connected to more kitschy and yes, mixed clubs like Club 57. Yet this, as well as the exhibition’s main focus on the queer East and West poles of New York and San Francisco, may just be attributed to the limitations in the Museum’s collection.
However the vast exhibition certainly provides a rich basis to consider the historical view of the 1970s. I’ll confess, I found it nearly impossible to gaze at the photographs of the countless men gathered at the Christopher Street piers without a consideration of the amount of these individuals pictured that likely passed away by the mid-1990s. Not only would these men disappear, but the piers themselves would be decimated and later transformed into a yuppie park for condo-inhabiting celebrities and hedge fund managers on the West side.
Not only was it almost impossible to not consider the losses, but it’s also difficult to view these images without nostalgia, as numerous reminiscing fellow viewers at Leslie-Lohman seemed to attest. What is the lasting effect of this nostalgia? While nostalgia can certainly have a significant place in remembrance, as well as a means to imagine a future, how does it affect historical understanding?
In Patrick Moore’s Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality, Moore delves into both the shame and nostalgia for the 1970s. He explains, “In addition to a sense of shame, for older generations of gay men, looking back to the 1970s involves nostalgia; for younger men, the 70s elicit envy. Both of these reactions tend toward a romanticism of the time that is as inaccurate as simply writing off the era as a time of excess that led to tragedy.” (48).
He continues, “From the vantage point of my generation, it is tempting to view the 1970s as emotionally uncomplicated because the participants had not yet experienced the trauma of AIDS. But in understanding the sometimes destructive choices made by these men within the larger context of a laudatory social experiment, it is important to remember that their entire lives had been shaped by oppression. With all their creativity, their social connections, and their relative wealth, these were men who had lived with the overwhelming sense of shame that was and is still a common denominator of gay life. The triumphant act of coming out and living an open life does not erase the damage done by living in fear during one’s development” (49).
Like Moore states, the 1970s, as shown in Leslie-Lohman’s exhibition, should not be understood merely as a glorious and uncomplicated utopia that can never be reached again. The 1970s were a complex and divergent times of both activist and creative heights and continual struggles for acceptance and equality.