The AIDS Front
A new exhibition touches on how the fight against AIDS started at home—but didn’t end there
by Lester Strong
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]n this show I wanted to explore the question: Beyond the stereotypes of sex-crazed weirdos, just how do gay men and lesbians live their lives? Are we or are we not just like everyone else?”
That was the reply by James Saslow to the initial question in a recent interview about the photographic and art exhibition he has curated titled On the Domestic Front: Scenes of Everyday Queer Life, currently on view at the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Museum in New York City through October 25. The show explores gay men and lesbians at home, at work, and at play in a time span stretching from the late nineteenth century until today. And while it amply demonstrates that in many ways they have much in common with their heterosexual counterparts—eating, sleeping, cleaning, raising children, vacationing, going to the gym or the beach, holding down jobs—in one way during the past thirty-five years their lives have often differed greatly: the amount of time they have spent at bedsides caring for the sick or dying during the AIDS epidemic.
We might call this “the AIDS front.”
“It’s a constant shadow,” said Saslow when asked how the disease enters into the exhibition. “Whenever you look at the domestic lives of gay men especially these days, you have to wonder if anyone portrayed in the photo was affected by AIDS. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the people shown in the more recent photos were living with AIDS or HIV but didn’t know it.”
The disease is certainly front and center in several photos included in the show. “One is by this wonderful photographer Sage Sohier, which she took in 1986,” said Saslow. “It’s titled simply David and Eric, Boston. You have an intimate view into part of a typical gay male couple’s home. The two men are in their bedroom. They’re not wearing shirts, and the one in front is staring off rather mysteriously into space. You see the IV pole and gradually you realize that one or both of them are sick and under treatment. A good example of an ordinary domestic scene, but made poignant by the knowledge that these two are coping with a serious illness at home—not exactly what everybody does all the time.”
Another image is set in a hospital. “Titled Zayin, New York Shadows (David Wojnarowicz), this oil painting done in 2000 by Douglas Blanchard commemorates Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS in 1994,” said Saslow. “It’s very powerful because it contains a recognizable face. Wojnarowicz in his art and activism was so identified with AIDS that the work is almost like a tribute to everything he was and did. I included it in the show because while a hospital is a public space outside the home, it became an extension of the intimacy of the home where many many gay people lived temporarily while sick themselves or caring for their loved ones who were confined to hospitals because of AIDS.”
A third image relates to a certain kind of “play” engaged in by many gay men and lesbians before, during, and after the height of the AIDS epidemic: dancing. “Red Hot + Dance was a compilation album of dance music released in 1992,” said Saslow. “Spearheaded by George Michael, it contained music and remixes of music by George Michael, Madonna, Seal, PM Dawn, EMF, and Sly & the Family Stone, among many others. It was produced by the Red Hot Organization, with cover art by Keith Haring. The Red Hot Organization is dedicated to raising money for AIDS causes, and the cover shows, in typical Haring style, disco dancers. It’s a good example of how the gay and lesbian community, along with their straight friends, rallied to help those who were sick during the worst part of the crisis.”
Still a fourth image, titled Sidewalk Diversity and taken by the West Coast photographer Rink at the San Francisco Castro Street Fair in 1990, may well be AIDS-related. “The fellow in the wheelchair probably had AIDS,” commented Saslow. “The timing is right, although since he’s unidentified, we’ll never know for sure.”
Saslow also named a number of individuals with work in the show who died of AIDS: the painter Patrick Angus (died 1994), photographer Peter Hujar (died 1987), fashion/design/advertising illustrator George Stavrinos (died 1992), and of course Keith Haring (died 1990). “We lost so many talented people to AIDS,” he added. “All these years later, and I’m still shocked at the losses.”
Like all of us, Saslow encountered AIDS in his personal life many years ago. Professor of Renaissance
Art and Theater at the City University of New York until his recent retirement, he is also the award-winning author of Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society (1983) and Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (1999), among many other books and scholarly articles. But in the early 1980s, near the start of his academic career, he was also the New York cultural reporter for The Advocate. “My editor at the magazine, Brent Harris, came from Los Angeles to visit, and we had a business lunch in late December 1980 or early January 1981,” Saslow said. “He complained he wasn’t feeling well, and said he had these strange marks on his body. He said he was going to a doctor when he returned to California to have this checked out. He was dead about four months later, and a month or two after that came the announcement about a group of young gay men in the Los Angeles area sick or dying of a mysterious illness having to do with suppressed immune systems. Retroactively we all understood that Brent died of AIDS, but of course he himself never actually knew that.”
Asked how AIDS impacted the domestic front of the gay population during the years when an HIV-positive diagnosis was tantamount to an early death, Saslow replied: “I experienced some of that in my own life, and it has a couple of answers, depending on who you were. If you had AIDS, it started to limit your life. You couldn’t leave your home if you were sick or so immune-suppressed you couldn’t expose yourself to germs. When you got very sick, you couldn’t get out of bed, whether at home or in a hospital. You couldn’t travel. You weren’t in good enough condition to do much of anything.”
He continued: “If you yourself were well, it meant you spent a lot more time out of your home in hospitals caring for sick or dying friends who weren’t getting the proper care they needed by medical staff terrified of the disease. It meant people disappearing from your life and whole sections of your social circle being cut away as friends died one after the other. Social networks shrank, and in some cases never grew back. Other people go through this. My mother, for example, is eighty-seven-years-old. She’s seen a lot of her friends die, and even after my father passed many years ago, she saw her social connections change and in some cases shrink. It’s always sad. But when you’re in your twenties or thirties, and so many friends are dying.….”
On the Domestic Front reveals a gay world of fun and play, of everyday concerns, of friendship, love, and companionship. Most of it also harks back to a time when gay life was much more hidden than it is today because being openly gay incurred the risk of penalties ranging from social ostracism and public humiliation to job loss to jail time. Even today vitreolic physical and verbal assaults, including political gay-bashing, are hardly things of the past.
“I see the show as a political statement couched as an artistic statement,” said Saslow near the end of the interview. The artistic statement can’t be missed in the many fascinating images showing the span of gay domestic activities over so many decades. As for the political statement, Saslow expressed it as follows in an article he wrote for the Spring 2015 issue of Leslie-Lohman’s journal The Archive: “The exhibition’s theme of domesticity is especially timely in a decade that has seen the unprecedented mushrooming of gay marriage and child rearing, and their gradual acceptance both legally and socially. The goal of queer liberation has shifted from our right to be different and erotic toward the right to do what everyone else does.”
On the Domestic Front is an entertaining, well-conceived glimpse into over a century of gay and lesbian life that has brought the U.S. gay population into a remarkable new era of gay rights affirmed and a large degree of social acceptance achieved.
Who as little as twenty years ago could have predicted that in 2015 gay marriage would be declared a constitutionally protected right by the U.S. Supreme Court? Who could have foreseen that in the same year New York City would designate the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village—the site of a 1969 riot by drag queens and other gay bar patrons considered the central event that propelled the gay rights movement into mainstream American and even global consciousness—a historic landmark right up there with Grand Central Station?
Nevertheless, the AIDS front still shadowing gay life today reminds us that not all issues affecting gay people are political in nature, susceptible to legislative or judicial solutions. And isn’t it ironic that the spread of HIV into new populations far beyond the gay male locus of its first public manifestation in the early 1980s underscores in its own horrible, terrible way the right of everyone else to share the same nightmare that has plagued gay life for several decades now?
For more information about “On the Domestic Front,” running from August 25–October 25, at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, visit www.leslielohman.org.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.