Home can reveal so much about a person. Yes, this is an obvious cliché, but an individual’s architectural and interior design sensibilities–not to mention their cornucopia of tacky knick-knacks scattered around their existence–speaks volumes. This truism relates perhaps even more to queer individuals.
Since, at the very least, the Decadents at the turn of the century, aesthetics have been a key aspect of queer culture. I mean, Oscar Wilde was so into decor that he had to quip about it on his deathbed, reportedly announcing, “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” This decorating frenzy is further emphasized in the decadent novels of the period like Joris-Karl Huysman’s A rebours (Against Nature). His fictional character and Filthy Dreams role model Des Esseintes spends his entire sickly, reclusive existence building the ultimate extravagant, excessive bachelor pad. It takes a certain nihilistic and thoroughly queer sensibility to encrust a tortoise with gold and jewels. Poor thing, but you have to suffer for aesthetics!
More recently, Slim Aaron’s photograph of a young Truman Capote in his Brooklyn Heights apartment sparked readers imaginations about the young and, at the time, androgynous writer. With kitschy ceramic cats peppering the living room, Truman lounges on a couch with a cigarette holder. Playing the role of the flâneur, Capote looks more like Holly Golightly than Holly herself. Aaron’s photograph not only captures the essence of the writer, but also a rich intersection of the red accented interior and Capote. Capote appears to be the product of that lush interior, which becomes even more hilarious once viewers learn he was just renting the place and living in the basement. But, nevertheless, the photograph depicts a queer individual as part and parcel of his interior style.
This queer obsession with interiors extends even to today with one of my–and John Waters’s– favorite blogs Lurid Digs, a sarcastic ode to the poor interior design skills of amateur gay porn photography. And boy, those queens could use a design tip or two. Beyond the humor, the strength of Lurid Digs lies in playing on the voyeuristic impulses of its audience. Who doesn’t like to go snoop around others’ places? I know I do.
Following in the footsteps of this extended historical conflation between LGBTQ individuals and their interiors, photographer Tom Atwood expands on this impulse to capture queer people in their homes in his book Kings & Queens In Their Castles. Published in April 2017 by Damiani, Atwood was nice enough to give Filthy Dreams an advance look. The book spans an exhausting and ambitious fifteen-year project in which Atwood photographed 350 LGBTQ subjects in their homes all around America. Referencing not only the long aristocratic history of queerness, as well as a send-up to the importance of drag kings and queens in this history, Kings & Queens In Their Castles showcases the multifaceted diversity of queer lives in America.
Granted, the most immediately notable photographs to many viewers will be Atwood’s documentation of the lives and homes of well-known personalities. George Takei wraps Christmas presents in his Los Angeles home, while Don Lemon, the CNN anchor who became my #1 dream party partner after his New Year’s Eve ear-piercing incident in New Orleans (Let’s party, Don!), talks on his cellphone on his empty, tiny Manhattan terrace. Filthy Dreams’ filth elder John Waters also makes an appearance–not with his notorious house electric chair, though–leering menacingly in front of a wall of pin-ups. And Fun Home and Dykes to Watch Out For idol Alison Bechdel with Holly Taylor, noted here as a “compost maven” walk around the garden of their Vermont home.
However, what makes Kings & Queens In Their Castles feel both so refreshing and significant is Atwood’s photographs of non-celebrities and non-entertainers, challenging the roles that LGBTQ individuals play in our society. Among the Dan Savage and Bruce Vilanch’s, Atwood captures farmers, baristas, Hallmark employees, gay bishops and trans deputy sheriffs. In many respects, these photographs become more essential to Atwood’s project than his more famous subjects.
These photographs, such as the image of Mari Omland, a Vermont farmer pouring goat milk, transform Atwood’s project into a democratic and inclusive look at queer life. In his artist statement, Atwood explains the motivation behind his project. He says, “I decided to photograph LGBTQ Americans because I felt there was a need for a contemplative photo series of the community. Many LGBTQ series depict scantily-clothed young subjects romping through the forest or lounging on the beach. There was a need for a series highlighting our manifold personalities and backgrounds.”
As you know, faithful Filthy Dreams readers, I’ve complained of similar trends in queer art, particularly photography, which still, even decades later, relies on the hyper-eroticized style of Robert Mapplethorpe. It doesn’t have to be all eroticism (though some is always good). Kings & Queens In Their Castles achieves an alternate form of queer photography without cloying sentimentality or a “Queers! They’re just like us” schmaltz.
The portraits are, instead, sympathetic and curious, as well as powerful. Much of this has to do with Atwood’s choice to place equal emphasis on both the figures and their surroundings. Take, for example, the photo of Lydia Brown, who is a Georgetown student and disability activist. Their dorm room is, in many ways, quite traditional with that awful standard dorm room desk, chair and bed. However, Lydia made it their own by papering the walls with brightly colored activist protest signs and art, as well as Christmas lights. “Disabled and Proud,” reads one sign. However, this cluttered yet compelling background doesn’t overpower the energy of Brown. Brown holds their phone with their eyes back, talking and smiling. With their clearly energetic air, the photograph captures and conveys their passion.
The interiors themselves vary as much as their subjects. Some interiors are simplistic like the apartment of John Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, while others are wildly opulent such as the photograph of Gary Tisdale-Woods, a community volunteer, with a preference for ornate chandeliers and 18th century design. Naturally, I’m drawn to the subjects with the most bizarre and campy interiors. For example, Mother Flawless Sabrina, the seminal drag mother to all drag queens with her 1968 film The Queen, boasts an apartment filled with so much mind-boggling stuff that I could stare at her two photographs all day. It’s not everyday you see a room filled with an alien sculpture, a wig stand adorned with Groucho Marx glasses and paintings everywhere. Similarly, Frank Marino, otherwise known as Ms. Las Vegas, has a pastel nightmare of an abode with pink flamingos and giant candelabras. It’s a 1970s fever dream and it would probably make Liberace jealous.
What is also fascinating are the spaces that seem to play against type. For instance, Michael Musto’s apartment is shockingly sparse given his more outrageous personality. Speaking for myself, I know writers don’t exactly have the best interior decorating skills, but even I have more on the walls than Musto. It’s unexpected.
Overall, with so many varied depictions of queer homes, the natural inclination is to ask yourself, as the reader, if there is a certain queer sensibility that connects all of these interiors. And the answer is: not really. There’s no one consistent style or aesthetic, which just goes to emphasize the range and diversity of queer life.
What does connect all these interiors, though, is the importance of aesthetics to queer existence. In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he admits, “The maniacal obsession with getting that shade of paint, the angle of that roof, the texture of that surface exactly right is one that may well be a salient distinctive gay male cultural trait” (315). Atwood extends this beyond just gay men to include a range of LGBTQ identities. Even though there isn’t necessarily one way to be queer, aesthetics matter and have always mattered. And Atwood shows aesthetics are essential to queer culture no matter if those aesthetics are down on a farm or in a Manhattan hi-rise.
View more photos and purchase books at www.TomAtwood.com/kings-queens