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“After Stonewall” Exhibitions Remind Us That Queer History Shouldn’t Be Straightforward

Stonewall on show at the NYPL, the New York Historical Society, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum

When Craig Rodwell encountered riotous crowds outside of the Stonewall Inn in the late hours of June 27, 1969, he felt compelled to stick around. As retold in David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, something was “about to happen,” Rodwell felt. “This was the spark,” he later claimed, “we had been waiting for for years.” Throughout the recent spate of special exhibitions dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the language of conflagration is, indeed, omnipresent. The LGBTQ liberation movement was “sparked” by Stonewall, according to the introductory wall text at the Art After Stonewall: 1969 – 1989 exhibition at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, a two-part show that continues at the Gray Art Gallery at New York University. The riots were a “flashpoint” in the struggle for LGBTQ rights, we learn at the Stonewall 50 exhibition at the New York Historical Society and the Love and Resistance: Stonewall 50 exhibit at the New York Public Library. There was a “before” Stonewall and an “after” Stonewall, these exhibitions agree: a “before” defined by political moderation and limited visibility, and an “after” defined by exuberant public protest and uncompromising visibility.

For visitors to these commemorative exhibitions, the broad similarities largely stop there. While all three institutions have chosen the Stonewall riots as the epicenter of their curatorial narratives, their reasons for doing so differ. At the New York Public Library, the riots serve to anchor a larger narrative arc of incremental progress toward rights for LGBTQ people, while exhibits at the New York Historical Society and the Leslie-Lohman Museum aim to trouble notions of straightforward progress. The former does so, in large part, by celebrating underrepresented identities in the queer community and expanding our knowledge of queer nightlife before, during, and indeed “after” Stonewall. The latter more explicitly interrogates the paradigm by injecting interpretive wall texts with additional context. At times, these caveats verge on finger-wagging, reminding us that our favorite images from the gay seventies express erasure as well as celebration. To visit these exhibitions is to grapple with the complicated legacies of modern LGBTQ social movements. They beg the question: What is queer history and how do we tell it?

At the New York Public Library, the answer seems to be chronology. Though the exhibit is broken up into four themed sections — “In Print,” “Love and Resistance,” “Bars,” and “Love” — walking through the exhibit is ultimately an exercise in linearity. Beginning with gay and lesbian publications of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “In Print” section suffers from an excess of tidiness. With wall texts identifying and interpreting a handful of documents at a time, the long wall of periodicals tells a story centered on cis-male gay whiteness, in which cis-female, racialized, and trans identities are presented as mere subsets of the main narrative. In predictable fashion, gay and lesbian homophile publications (One, The Ladder) take the lead, followed by GAY POWER and physique magazines (featuring mostly white men), lesbian magazines (featuring mostly white women), publications dedicated to people of color, and finally those dedicated to trans and gender-nonconforming identities. What the gallery gains in efficiency it loses in nuance.

Where, for example, were queer women of color before they founded the Salsa Soul Sisters collective in 1974, whose Third World Women Gay-zette is displayed near the end of the gallery? The exhibit gives no indication of the early though strained participation of women of color in the Daughters of Bilitis a missed attempt to contextualize the exclusions of early homophile movements. (See “Further Reading.”) Without this context, it would be easy to see the activism of women, and women of color in particular, as a mere outcropping of white cis-male gay movements. That would be a shame, especially considering the strides queer history has in the past two decades to elaborate intersectionality.

This pattern of categorization and subtle hierarchization continues in “Love and Resistance,” where images of early gay rights movements are dominated by white cis-gendered subjects, and in “Bars,” which skips over lesbian femme/butch bar culture of the nineteen-fifties (see “Further Reading”), entirely elides the uptown ballroom scene, and makes only passing mention of the role of trans people of color in the Stonewall riots. Finally, the gallery dedicated to “Love” remains confoundingly white, cis-gendered, and straight-laced. Though the photographs on display are intimate, and at times quite moving, they sap “gay” liberation of its queerness. The gallery leaves little room for the erotic, and even less for fluid, non-normative sexual exploration. Of course, the NYPL is perhaps constrained by the audience it seeks to engage — one that includes children and families to a much greater extent than somewhere like the Leslie-Lohman museum. Though the curator’s decision to exclude explicit materials from the exhibit makes sense in this context, the absence of sex — and its role in the activist outpourings of the seventies — is nonetheless frustrating.

To go from this exhibit to the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (covering the years 1969 – 1979) is to see first-hand the benefits of a more consistently inclusive curatorial approach. Rather than seeking to teach the history surrounding Stonewall, the Art After Stonewall exhibits at Leslie-Lohman and the Gray Art Gallery seek to explicate the “impact” of the LGBTQ liberation movement on visual culture. In doing so, the exhibits reject easy origin stories and are careful not to give undue credit to any persons or organizations in particular. Rather, the portrait of liberation one comes away with is a portrait of collective activist currents nurtured and spread by means of individual artistic endeavors.

The exhibit at Leslie-Lohman, in particular, feels exceedingly well-balanced — if anything, one walks away with a better sense of lesbian artists and movements than one does of their gay counterparts, and gender fluidity is a primary, rather than tertiary component of the exhibit as a whole. Wall texts not only puncture the white, middle-class, cis-gendered composition of famous photographs and artworks (like Peter Hujar’s famous photograph of the Gay Liberation Front, centering white, cis-gendered subjects) but also celebrate artworks that provide an alternative narrative, like Chicana artist Judith F. Baca’s “Origins of the Gay Rights Movement,” which features images of black members of the Daughters of Bilitis. The four chosen themes that guide the exhibit — “Coming Out,” “Sexual Outlaws,” “Gender Play,” and “Uses of the Erotic” — are both less vague and more flexible than those on display at the NYPL, allowing for a capacious understanding of what queer liberation has signified for various members of LGBTQ communities. The artworks displayed in “Sexual Outlaws” and “Uses of the Erotic,” in particular, express one of the primary “impacts” of liberation on visual culture: the joyous reclaiming of queer bodies and queer space.

The diversity in race, ethnicity, and gender identity on display at the Leslie-Lohman affirms what has become a hackneyed slogan of contemporary queer activism: “We Are Everywhere.” Not only are we everywhere, but — the exhibit implies — we are queer, a word defined for us at the entrance to the Gray Art Gallery as defying “categorization, since no one and no thing can be queer in quite the same way.” Unfortunately, the Gray half of the exhibit, which continues on chronologically from the Leslie-Lohman displays, flounders in overly insular wall texts: they teach us more about the downtown art scene than about the historical and creative sea changes the artists expressed in their work. The portion of the exhibit on display at the Gray Art Gallery is overall less nuanced, less diverse, and less thoughtfully curated than the Leslie-Lohman. The first floor displays shockingly few women artists and artists of color, and the exhibition as a whole lacks narrative cohesion — in a way that feels more haphazard than it does intentionally subversive.

While the special installation “Say It Loud, Out and Proud” unfortunately glossed over these same complexities in its attempt to create a comprehensive timeline of LGBTQ activism from 1965 to the present day, the curators all but made up for these shortfalls in the brilliantly presented “Letting Loose and Fighting Back.” There is much to learn from this eclectic testament to LGBTQ nightlife — not only the names and locations of dozens of now defunct queer bars and spaces, but also the intricate politics that shaped their existence. One could spend hours sifting through the detailed texts accompanying the photographs, documents, and objects on display, each gesturing toward a rich ecosystem of queer social life. The exhibition is all the more meaningful in that it can only scratch the surface of these ephemeral spaces. We are left to imagine the full range of patrons who relied on their existence for romantic encounters, friendships, community, and resources. Particularly enlightening was the exhibition’s attention to policing, a connecting thread that may have shifted in light of the Stonewall riots, but by no means disappeared.The “Stonewall 50” exhibit at the New York Historical Society falls somewhere in the middle — neither as linear and homogenous as NYPL, nor as overtly present-oriented as the Leslie-Lohman. The two exhibitions, “By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives” and “Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall,” and the special installation, “Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride,” teach the history they exhibit without falling into any traps of over-simplification. The Lesbian Herstory Archives exhibit balances chronology with breadth. An eclectic array of posters gives a general sense of the lesbian movement’s sweep, while display cases offer detailed stories of lesbian activists and their accomplishments, both political and personal, in realms as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and the U.S. military. While the exhibition (like the Lesbian Herstory Archives itself) espouses a “radical principle of inclusion” that “reveals the limitations of valuing some lives over others,” the tensions within and between historical lesbian and queer women’s groups remain largely implicit. A more purposeful explication of these tensions and how they both threatened and fostered lesbian community would presumably only deepen what is already a strong testament to the diversity of queer women’s engagement in LGBTQ liberation.

So what is queer history, and how do we tell it? Rather than offering any easy answers, these three exhibitions remind us what queer history isn’t, or at least, shouldn’t be — straightforward. Instead, as we commemorate the Stonewall riots and reflect on the watershed it became, we should hope for a history that continues to proliferate stories and to problematize categories. We should hope that there continues to be not one, but many “after”-Stonewalls.

Hannah Leffingwell is a PhD candidate at New York University in the departments of History and French Studies. Her work centers on the intersections of queer identity, feminism, and social justice. Her first chapbook, A Thirst For Salt, was published by Gazing Grain Press in 2018.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Elizabeth A., and Suzanna M. Crage. “Movements and Memory: The Making of the Stonewall Myth.” American Sociological Review 71, no. 5 (October 1, 2006).

Brown, Leighton, and Matthew Riemer. We Are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation. California: Ten Speed Press, 2019.

Enke, A. Finn. Finding the Movement: Sexuality, Contested Space, and Feminist Activism . Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2007.

Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement . New York: Seal Press, 2007.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold : The History of a Lesbian Community . Routledge, 1993.

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