History Is the Art of Memory
Steven F. Dansky Talks with A&U’s Hank Trout About Documenting Advocacy
From the earliest days of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) through his current work archiving interviews with LGBTQ pioneers, Steven F. Dansky has enriched the LGBTQ and HIV communities as an activist, as a writer and publisher, as a photographer and artist, as a hospital administrator and psychotherapist, and as a documentarian. Unpacking all of Steven’s many and varied significant contributions to the LGBTQ fight for equality and to the community that suffered the brunt of the onslaught of AIDS might seem like a Herculean task.
But it’s a task worth undertaking. Let’s try.
Steven was born into a working-class family in a blue-collar neighborhood of the South Bronx, New York, where some of his neighbors were survivors of the Holocaust. He lived in Manhattan for most of his life, until he married his husband, Barry Safran, “on the first day, in the first state of marriage equality (Williamstown, Massachusetts).” He and Barry moved to upstate New York for seven years; they now live in Las Vegas, Nevada.
A precocious social reformer, Steven traces his activism to his pre-puberty days, when “in 1952, at age eight, I made a poster in support of Adlai Stevenson for president. I walked across the South Bronx to deliver it to the Democratic club.” As a teenage campaigner, he met soon-to-be President John F. Kennedy; later still he joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). “The radical shift occurred,” he told A&U, “when I moved to New York’s Lower East Side, during the most turbulent time in U.S. history; that is, until the current movements of #MeToo and #BLM.” He began writing for the New York Free Press and for a self-published bilingual newsletter titled, Basta!, which he sold on the streets for a penny.
Steven was one of the first members of the Gay Liberation Front, formed in the month after the 1969 Stonewall rebellion. To this self-styled radical leftist, “it seemed unavoidable that any movement for LGBT rights had to formulate ideology and a set of guiding principles. All my work in GLF was motivated by that purpose, whether it was working on the Come Out! newspaper, the first publication post-Stonewall; publishing Faggotry, a mimeographed journal of poetry and polemics; or co-publishing Double-F: A Magazine of Effeminism.” Steven told A&U that he finds it “remarkable” that some of his work has survived and been republished fifty years later [see The Stonewall Reader (2019) and Art and Queer Culture (2019)]. Since 2009, he has written several essays for The Gay & Lesbian Review, all of which, he says, derive from his early convictions about the centrality of LGBT culture and the “gay sensibility.”
With the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Steven volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), founded by Larry Kramer and others. His experience there led him to return to graduate school in his mid-forties “for a degree in social work in order to professionalize my commitment to being of service during the peak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.” MSW in hand, he trained at the Institute for Human Identity and opened a private practice that was almost entirely HIV/AIDS-related. He also co-facilitated a support group for GMHC until the late nineties. He became a hospital administrator, managing multimillion-dollar HIV/AIDS programs and clinical trials funded through the NYC Department of Health and the CDC, working primarily in underserved communities of color such as Harlem, Queens, the South Bronx, and Brooklyn.
“I was working at Beth Israel Medical Center when Larry Kramer was scheduled to give a talk. I was unable to attend,” he said, “but I wanted to convey my experience of homophobia in the hospital systems that I believed affected access to healthcare and patient outcomes. I called Kramer and presented my point of view. He was totally cordial to me, someone he didn’t know, had never met, but said, ‘I only care about medications and treatments. I want to save lives.’ Of course, I cared deeply about saving lives—I thought homophobia was about that, too. I thanked Kramer for the work he’d done and said, ‘I wish we’d worked together when you were at GMHC.’”
Steven has had an incredible writing and publishing career. Along the way, he has written two books about the AIDS pandemic, Now Dare Everything: Tales of HIV-Related Psychotherapy (1994) and Nobody’s Children: Orphans of the HIV Epidemic (1997). Now in his seventies, Steven’s social consciousness still informs every word he writes. “I believe that being an artist is about fostering social justice—not reductionist social realism but seeing reality through the consciousness of a moral imperative to make life on the planet better for all people,” he said.
That same social consciousness also informs Steven’s photography and film work. He purchased his first serious SLR 35mm film camera, a Miranda, in the 1960s, citing as inspiration photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Helen Levitt, and Gordon Parks, as well as the early LGBT photographers Diana Davies, Ellen Shumsky, and Richard C. Wandel. From early on, Steven believed that photography documenting the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS movements could make a huge social difference. “Images can change the world—there are many that I can cite—for this purpose I think Peter Hujar’s iconic, staged image made in 1970 of GLFers running down a deserted New York street became emblematic of ‘coming out.’ I’m in the photograph, third from the right. The impact of this photograph has been with me for fifty years. And I made a documentary about the image titled, On Performing Identity, that was screened at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, NYC (2016), and I wrote about it for The Gay & Lesbian Review, in ‘The Look of Gay Liberation’ (March 2009).” He has exhibited his photography in solo and group exhibitions and has been published in photobooks such as Protest!: Photographs of Social Justice in the 21st Century (2016) and In Public: Studies from the Street (2012), and in LensWork magazine. Photographs he took from 1969 to 1971 were first published in TGLR and compiled in On Bearing Witness.
In 2011, Steven’s photographs of street life in Las Vegas were published as In Public: Studies from the Street. He told A&U that when he moved to Las Vegas in 2007, “I attempted to correlate the street life to New York City. I found several districts that reference the urban life that I understood from my child-to-adulthood.” A portfolio of those photographs exhibited at Clark County Library, Las Vegas, in 2010. The book is still available, in both print and eBook format, from www.blurb.com.
Perhaps Steven’s most ambitious project is the ongoing Outspoken: Oral History from LGBTQ Pioneers, begun in 2014. The impetus for the project, however, occurred in 2009 when Steven curated an exhibition of photographs at the LGBT Community Center in New York titled “Gay Liberation Front (1969–1971): A 40th Anniversary Retrospective,” a “visual storyline that chronicled the birth of the modern LGBT movement. Some images captured cataclysmic historical events, demonstrations, and marches; others were spontaneous snapshots that captured the private intimacies; some were strip-photographs taken inside an enclosed photo-booth.” As he curated the exhibit, “I began to re-experience history; envision streets of protest; conjure personas; inhabit vanished places; and summon the voices of comrades and foremothers.” From those memories sprang the idea of creating video interviews with “audacious pathfinders and gay liberationists; dykes and lesbian separatists; radical fairies and queens. These pioneers formulated a daring politics with insights about human existence, trans- and gender identity, and sexual orientation that has inspired generations of post-Stonewall Rebellion activists and change-agents.” Since 2014, he has interviewed over one hundred of those LGBTQ trailblazers.
“The project is committed to saving our history, and I have travelled from coast-to-coast through rural communities to urban epicenters; from chicken farms to downtown hotels; from hospice rooms to walkup tenement flats; and globally via Skype to Bangkok, Buenos Aires, and Melbourne.” Those interviews are available for viewing on a dedicated website and are archived, along with his personal papers, at ONE: National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, Los Angeles, California. The project proceeds from urgency, as four of his interview subjects (Danny Garvin and Jerry Hoose, who were both part of the Stonewall Rebellion, and Jim Clifford and Tim Elliott, members of the GLF) have died since being interviewed.
Currently, Steven is hard at work on Attend Me: A Pandemic Journal, a full-length documentary about long-term HIV/AIDS survivors navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. That documentary will comprise several parts, the first of which was completed in August 2020.
The images accompanying this article represent Steven, the photographic documentarian. From the somewhat whimsical (see “Self-Portrait with Keith Haring Reimagined” and “Queering the Subway”) to the purely documentary (“Keith Haring Bathroom Wall,” “Live Stigma-Free of HIV”) and the slightly erotic (the “Smokeout” portraits), they demonstrate the range of his photographic work as well as his keen eye. They speak also to the importance of documenting those moments that build a movement, the movement to which Steven has selflessly dedicated his entire adult life.
From that precocious little social reformer making political posters at age eight, Steven has grown to become one of our communities’ most prolific, most celebrated, and most important truth-tellers. As he preserves our histories—histories that include one of the most important civil rights movements, and the worst pandemic, of the twentieth century—he continues to enrich all our lives.
For more information on Steven’s life and works, please log on to www.stevendansky.com. His interviews with LGBTQ pioneers and survivors of the AIDS pandemic can be found at: www.outspoken-lgbtq.org/interviews-ch5u.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.