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Queer History - A Temporary HomoMuseum In New York

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 26 september 2005


New York is famed for its art, its gay scene and every possible connection between the two. Chelsea (known for its “muscle queens”) alone already boasts some 230 art galleries with quite a bit of homosexuality on show: from Andy Warhol and Richard Prince to the French Colombian painter of masculine bodies Luis Cabalero. The Leslie-Lohman gallery in Soho has completely dedicated itself to “gay & lesbian art.” It results in a parade of penises sometimes, or butch masculine bodies. In spring they had a nice exhibition of photographs of boy prostitutes from Baltimore and surroundings. The Fales Library of the New York University currently has a show titled “Pansy, Dyke, Homo, Fag: 150 Years of Queer Culture,” which, as you’d expect from a library, consists of mainly books and manuscripts. They show a letter from Bosie to Oscar from May 1895 (Oscar Wilde at his second trial and almost behind bars and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas safe in Paris) with the beautiful final sentence: “I am always your own loving and devoted boy, Bosie”.

Also a collection of gay erotic poetry “Ionica,” translated from Latin and selected by William Johnson Cory (London 1858), the oldest gay text of the Fales Library. The subtitle recounts that men like Cory may have preferred boys, but were definitely no pedophiles! Clearly to make sure the library wouldn’t be torched by some idiot.


There are some gay fanzines, gay porn and ordinary novels, posters and papers of Coleman Dowell, Dennis Cooper and David Wojnarowitcz.

Some books are rare such as Sagitta’s about the “nameless love”, or they have gorgeous covers like “A Scarlet Pansy” by Robert Scully (1933) or Eliot George’s “The Leatherboys.”

At the entrance there’s a showcase with memorabilia of Act Up.


No Dirty Behavior

New York is a crazy town, there are more gay men and women walking hand in hand here than in any other city in the world. Their presence has become so dominant that straight boys don’t want to be seen walking down the street together fearing they’d be labeled gay. At the same time all sex just left the city. A video store, Blue, offering no frills but nevertheless expensive sex, was closed down by the police just before the Gay Parade with the charge of soliciting prostitution.

Not one gay watchdog that barks; it’s a law of nature in New York to outlaw sex in the capital of capitalism. A café practically designed as a darkroom has personnel walking around with torches to prevent indecent behavior. And you have to pay ten bucks for that humiliation too!

Across the street from the Fales library is Washington Square Park with a public toilet with five shit boxes in a row without walls or doors. Nobody has been able to tell me who’d use this toilet.



You’d almost think it was modern art. It would have been so handy for sex but all parks in New York have an army of park security making sure that there’s no drug use, no alcohol, no riding bikes, and no dirty behavior. So this toilet will have no gay alternative nightlife.

Improper Conduct

Exit Art, a sort of gallery on the corner of 10th Avenue and 36th Street has the very interesting exhibition HomoMuseum, unfortunately only until July 30. The theme is gay heroes and gay moments; the famous heroes got more attention than the exotic gay moments. They show visual art and videos by artists who have incorporated a queer historic fact or event. It starts with two female monkeys polishing each other while a boy monkey points at their brightly red cunts.



They’re bonobos, the monkeys closest to humans, they shop around sexually and are practically insatiable. They were introduced to the modern world by the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal. The triple portrait of Sal Mineo on a pillar is very cute. Sal Mineo, that’s that cute queen Plato, co-star of James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.”


An art installation of hundreds of empty bullet shells forms a map of Alexander the Great’s journey to the Indus and at the same time pictures the divine emperor with his lover Hephaistos asleep under a blanket.

There’s a view box with stuff from the inheritance of Quentin Crisp and above it are four of his hats.

A lesbian artist provided the “Lamb of God” as a gay icon, a sheep impersonating Jesus Christ. She claims his great contribution was the message of tolerance.

A picture on the wall shows two soldiers making love instead of war. It’s nice that gays can be such sweet peoples but I would like to see them a little tougher in these times of Bush, Bloomberg and Benedict, and Balkenende (they call it the B-line here).

There are photos of James Bidgood, according to the organizers of the exhibition a grossly underrated artist. A deceased colleague who is even more underrated is called Alvin Baltrop. This black man was the royal photographer of the gay’s and hustler’s lives on the piers of the Hudson where there used to be a meat market for beef, pork and men. He had collected a book, “Ashes from a Flame,” but it unfortunately was never released.



These remarkable pictures were very rarely published. Fortunately there are like twenty hanging here and they were also used for the gorgeous documentary about New York’s gay sex scene in the seventies when it truly was a city of sexual liberty, “Gay Sex in the 1970s.”

The piers have been cleaned since then, there’s a decent and beautiful park there now, with a lot of gays and lesbians hanging around. They are allowed to kiss, but they can’t touch each other’s nipples, let alone anything more sexual, decided the park committee early this year.

I saw a couple of young black queens making sexual gestures towards each other. Two park rangers immediately reprimanded them. Next time they could be arrested for “improper conduct”. Wasn’t that the title of a documentary on Cuba’s repressive stand on homosexuality? When it comes to sex political adversaries sometimes come out as sexual allies.



A really practical part of the exhibition is the “archive”. The curators had called upon the community to send in interesting gay historic objects. So there were books, videos and manuscripts of gay New York. A charming collection of photos, probably not authentic unfortunately, shows hustlers from a brothel on Bowery in 1890.

The story was that the boys would sell photos of themselves to make some extra money and that a client had collected these and had complemented them with notes about the boys, their dicks and their specialties. Those notes were printed out recently. The historian Jonathan Katz, with whom I visited the exhibition, wondered why they hadn’t been added in original handwriting. Now it seemed that they were just trying to increase the (eBay) value of the collection by means of the notes.



The pyre on legs referring to the execution of sodomites in the Middle Ages formed an interactive part. Under the pyre were a table and a chair. Visitors were invited to write down the names of meritorious gays or lesbians with a short explanation, after which those names were attached to the twigs of the pyre. I contributed marquis De Sade (sentenced to death for sodomy) and Jacob Israël de Haan.

There was also a closet with portraits of some famous gay heroes compiled of many small photos of today’s gays and lesbians. They had attached the maps of the houses of famous gays to the outside of the closet. A prison for Genet, the Parisian apartment of Gertrude Stein and a public toilet for whom I could not find out.

History and Art

Jonathan Katz wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if all the artists and historians had cooperated from the start. To us it seemed like a good idea for both sides. Historians are often not very visually focused. I shiver sometimes when I see the non-information added to pictures in gay books. And artists sometimes are really off the mark as well. The Alexander the Great installation was accompanied by a text that recounted his victory over the Muslims, a thousand years before Mohammed wrote the Koran! Religions often give themselves the aura of eternity, but a critical artist falling into that trap is a funny injustice.


We ought to start that in Amsterdam - a dialogue between gay history and gay art. There’s enough talent present on both sides, and enough interest.

We’ve had several historical exhibitions such as “Goed Verkeerd” in 1989 and “queer art” shows such as “From the Corner of the Eye” in 1998.

Why not go for a dialogue between both disciplines that can result in a nice Dutch exhibition?



 







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