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Past, Present, and Future of Sexual Diversity

by our Editors in Theatre, Art & Expo , 27 september 2015


With the exhibition “Homosexuality_ies,” the Schwules Museum and the Deutsches Historisches Museum, both in Berlin, present the first comprehensive show on the history, politics and culture of homosexuality. The exhibition thematizes society’s handling of homosexuality in light of social, legal and scientific repression. It follows the gradual process of emancipation from the late eighteenth century into the present.

Jointly funded by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes and the Kulturstiftung der Länder, “Homosexuality_ies” is on view at the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum simultaneously until December 1, 2015. Given the ongoing, worldwide discourse on equal rights for homosexuals, both institutions see this exhibition as an act that positions a socially and politically current topic in the middle of society.

The exhibition section at the DHM focuses on historical developments in society, politics, art, law and science since the “discovery” of homosexuality mid-nineteenth century. Via a selection of artistic positions, the exhibition part at the Schwules Museum explores the present and raises questions as to the future of gender codes and sexualities.

Until now, the history and culture of homosexual people have been conferred to the shadows of public memory. The exhibition “Homosexuality_ies” presents an impressive abundance of materials, formats and media that offer a broad public insight into the multi-faceted and nuanced history. It acknowledges the cultural-historical achievement of homosexual emancipation, which has transformed society’s understanding of gender identity. Homosexual cultures and approaches to life have sharpened awareness of the limitations of traditional gender codes and demanded recognition for the diversity of alternative models of living. “Homosexuality_ies” strikes out the usual perception that equates homosexuals with gay men, emphasizing the vital roles lesbian activists have played in all these developments.

‘Curing’ Sexual ‘Deviations’

The show traces the history of homosexuality_ies in ten chapters, concluding with the present. It demonstrates how same-sex sexuality and divergent gender identities have been criminalized through legislation, pathologized in medicine and excluded from society. Exhibits include a copy of the first secular criminal provisions effective for the entire German territory, the “Constitutio Criminalis Carolina” from the mid-sixteenth century, which, drawing on religious traditions, punishes sexual acts “against nature” between women and men alike with “death by fire.” A letter handwritten by the author Karl Maria Kertbeny in 1868 will also be on view. That letter contains the first use of the terms homosexual and heterosexual. Since science began concerning itself with sexuality, homosexuality designated a divergence from the “normal.” The exhibition thus illustrates the efforts to diagnose and “cure” sexual and gender “deviations” in medicine and psychology. As a counterpoint, models by researchers including Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, Magnus Hirschfeld and Judith Butler represent efforts past and present to establish understanding for sexual and gender diversity.

Nazi Persecution

An extremely gruesome episode in German queer history is the persecution of homosexuals by the Nazi’s. This is at the moment the subject of an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazi regime promoted racial health policies that sought to eliminate all sources of biological corruption to its dominant “Aryan” race. Among the groups persecuted as threats to the national health were Germany’s homosexual men. Believing them to be carriers of a “degeneracy” that weakened society and hindered population growth, the Nazi state arrested and incarcerated in prisons and concentration camps tens of thousands of German men as a means of terrorizing them into social conformity.

The exhibition in New York examines the Nazi regime’s attempt to eradicate homosexuality. The Nazis’ efforts left thousands dead and shattered the lives of many more. This exhibition is on display until October 2, 2015, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Edmond J. Safra Plaza, 36 Battery Place, New York, NY 10280. See www.mjhnyc.org for more information.    

Gay Movement

In Berlin a core section of the exhibition “Homosexuality_ies” focuses on the lesbian and gay movement, particularly after the legal liberalization that occurred over the course of the 1960s in Germany. This section features a plethora of exhibits including flyers, press materials, posters, photographs, videos and objects – such as a preserved original educational brochure from 1901 by the very first homosexual civil rights association, the “Scientific-Humanitarian Committee.” Other exhibits include the script of “Coming Out” (1989), the first and last official film on homosexuality in East Germany, and footage of the “Muff Mobile” at Christopher Street Day 1998 in Berlin.

Contemporary Debates and Artists

In closing, “Homosexuality_ies” aims to present contemporary debates and raise questions as to the future of gender codes and sexualities. It shows how new coalitions of trans*, inter* and queer-feminist protagonists are propelling the recognition of sexual and gender diversity in society right now. Aside from historical developments, the exhibition displays a wide range of subjective experiences: One chapter is dedicated to very personal “Coming Out” stories. Another highlights the cross-over from the personal to the political, where codes in clothes, style and manner are exhibited, which transformed over time from signs used to identify oneself to like-minded fellows into offensive tactical manifestations in public.

A selection of works by contemporary international artists comment on the exhibition’s themes in a variety of ways. Artists include Monica Bonvicini, Louise Bourgeois, Heather Cassils, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset, Nicole Eisenman, Katarzyna Kozyra, Tamara de Lempicka, Lee Lozano, Jeanne Mammen, Zanele Muholi, Henrik Olesen, Sturtevant, Sam Taylor-Johnson, and Andy Warhol.

The majority of the exhibits originate from private initiatives that have conferred their collections to archives such as the lesbian archive Spinnboden, the feminist archives FFBIZ and Grauzone, Cologne’s Frauenmediaturm and the Archive at the Schwules Museum. In that respect, this show funded substantially by two major general institutions raises a fundamental question regarding how the topic of “Homosexuality_ies” can be represented and presented properly in museums and archives. The exhibition has been curated by Dr. Birgit Bosold, Dr. Dorothée Brill and Detlef Weitz, with research contributed by Dr. Sarah Bornhorst, Noemi Molitor and Kristine Schmidt.

On the Domestic Front

An extraordinary private collection which wasn’t transferred to an already established (academic) institution is that of Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman. This gay couple from New York began collecting and showing art in their SoHo loft in 1969 to provide an outlet for gay artists. During the 1980s with the rise of AIDS and the death of so many artists and collectors, they realized that many important works of art were being destroyed by families who, because they didn’t know what to do with this type of art or didn’t want to acknowledge the sexuality of their loved ones, threw amazing collections of art in the dumpster.

Charles and Fritz knew these works had to be preserved. This need for a safe haven for art that is often excluded or looked down upon led them to create the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, Inc., in 1987, a non-profit organization. Since then, the organization has grown from a small “underground” gallery, to the present spacious Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. This museum presents at the moment the exhibition “On the Domestic Front: Scenes of Everyday Queer Life.”

In the twenty-first century the thrust of queer politics has shifted from asserting our right to be different and erotic toward demanding the right to do what everyone else does. The last decade has seen the unprecedented mushrooming of same-sex marriage, child-rearing, and domesticity increase in acceptance both legally and socially. “Domestic front” is a military metaphor that stresses the essential contribution that daily living must continue even in wartime, as with the soldiers during war on the “battle front.” Living queer lives has long been an active battle front in America’s ongoing culture wars. Now, the queer fight has shifted from the right to be different toward the right to be “normal” and unremarkable. Queer genre imagery is a weapon in the battle to secure what we might call the radicality of the ordinary.

Just Like Everyone?

The show features some seventy works drawn mostly from the Leslie-Lohman Museum collection and answers the age-old question, “What do GLBT people do when they’re not having sex?” The artworks range widely in subject matter, medium, and style, cover the period from early twentieth century to the present, and offer a suggestive panorama of queer lives in the United States that - until now - has been neglected by museums, galleries, and historians.

“On the Domestic Front” aims to contribute to a long-running socio-political debate within the GLBTQ world: are we, apart from our sexuality, “just like everyone else,” or alternatively, do we have a distinct sensibility or style (or many of them)? Homemaking is an act of everyday social performance, a way of realizing and expressing a sense of self and a sense of belonging. Home life, in practice, can often be a source of pain, yet the idea of home always promises more - love, friendship, comfort, pleasure, and the possibility of reinventing them all. The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections: home, work, play, and fantasy.

At Home and On the Hop

“Home” presents domestic interiors and everyday life: individuals, couples, and families in living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms; as well as in “homes away from home,” such as hotels, motels, RVs, and hospitals. A group of works by Saul Bolasni, (theater and costume designer, illustrator, and painter) records the comfortable post-war gay men lifestyle of many urban dwellers. Numerous works on display attest to the wide influences of Paul Cadmus and Jared French, especially in intimate domestic scenes. Fayette Hauser’s photographs of the Cockettes, the path breaking San Francisco performance troupe founded in 1969, help illustrate a communal household where they made their own clothing from thrift-store finds, developing a raucous, glittery form of “hippie drag.”

“Work” focuses on the feminist goals of breaking down occupational gender stereotypes and increasing access to employment and independence, while “Play” includes social and recreational activities and spaces from gyms and swimming pools to vacation homes, bars, clubs, and theaters. In this section, a photograph by Del LaGrace Volcano, “Sunset Strip Soho, Anastasia and Allegra, London,” playfully portrays a couple’s night out at a London strip club.

“Fantasy” depicts social scenes that are wished for in the mind rather than observed in the body. We see this imagined through contemporary artist Caleb Cole’s photograph, “Refinement and Elegance,” with its portrayal of Cole who takes on the persona of what was once called a “piss-elegant queen” with a passion for collecting and decorating.

Different or Just the Same?

Although the exhibition’s images examine aspects of queer lives that are “just like everyone else’s,” three long running debates hover over them: Do we perform these activities in distinctive “queer” style(s)? Do we represent them artistically in a distinctive way? And, do we look at such images differently? After all, we create domesticity, and illustrate it, out of a lifetime of experiences and emotions that are inevitably different from those of straights, and queer spectators view any narrative scene through the multiple lenses of identity and history.

The exhibition’s diverse works demonstrate the uniqueness as well as the universality of everyday queer life. It is a unique opportunity to see works from the Museum’s collection (and some strategic loans) that in some cases, never been exhibited.

“On the Domestic Front: Scenes from Everyday Queer Life” runs through October 25, 2015. There is an exhibition catalog available with exhibition images and subject essays by Stephen Vider, Cookie Woolner, and the exhibition’s curator James Saslow, a professor of art history, theater, and Renaissance studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. He earned his Ph.D. with the first dissertation on homosexuality in art; published in 1986, “Ganymede in the Renaissance” helped open art history to consideration of homosexuality and gender in the early modern period.


References & more information:
* Schwules Museum, Lützowstraße 73, 10785 Berlin, www.schwulesmuseum.de
* Deutsches Historisches Museum, Unter den Linden 2, 10117 Berlin, www.dhm.de
* Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10013, www.leslielohman.org

 



 







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