May 14, 2019
by Jacob M. Robinson
Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s quick ascent to prominence in the 2020 presidential race demonstrates a remarkable progression for acceptance of the LGBTQ community in the U.S. What five decades ago began as a struggle for the most basic levels of toleration and decency has since expanded to an integration and “normalcy” that would have been unthinkable to even the most optimistic activist a mere two decades ago. The origins of the struggle and movement of the last fifty years—with all of its triumphs and setbacks—is well documented in the recently opened exhibition, Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, in nearby SoHo.
Of the works on display in the Grey’s portion of the exhibition, two images stand out in my mind as strong statements on how far LGBTQ rights and recognitions have come in America. Rink Foto’s White Night Riots, a black-and-white photograph from 1979, and the digital image of the artist collective ACT UP/Gran Fury’s installation of Let the Record Show… at the New Museum are both testaments to the uphill battle queers faced in the struggle for public awareness and representation. White Night Riots depicts the violent aftermath of Dan White’s lenient sentencing for the assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was then the most prominent openly gay politician in America. ACT UP/Gran Fury’s Let the Record Show… on the other hand, publicly shames six religious and cultural leaders by displaying their busts above pedestals inscribed with their derogatory statements against those affected by AIDS. A seventh bust, Ronald Reagan, rests on a blank pedestal, calling attention to his years of silence in the face of the AIDS crisis. Taken together, these two works speak to obstacles faced by LGBTQ Americans seeking positions of power, and the discrimination against them by those in power.
At the time of Let the Record Show’s window installation at the New Museum in 1987, America had a president who refused to acknowledge a health epidemic ravaging the country. Now, just over 30 years later, the country has an openly gay presidential candidate who has enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Democratic Primary polls. How far Buttigieg makes it in the crowded field is yet to be seen in what are sure to be grueling months ahead—but this essay is not intended as an assessment of Buttigieg’s appeal as a presidential candidate. Rather, the fact that a man with a legally married husband is a viable candidate at all is a testament to the impressive successes of the gay rights movement and the struggle on the part of many of the artists in this exhibition.
For me, Art after Stonewall functions not just as a chronicle of the post-Stonewall movement, but also, in the context of the present, provides a useful point of comparison with the shifting place of LGBTQ Americans in the national consciousness. What began as a fight for visibility (“We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!”) now largely exists as a push for “normalcy.” In 2012, in my native Dallas during an outdoor installation-based show that is presented annually in the Downtown Arts District, I viewed The Gay Agenda, a performance art piece created by Randy Potts, the grandson of a well-known late televangelist from Oklahoma. Potts and his partner built a mockup of a living room on the sidewalk, and passersby could see the “gay agenda” in action. The pair engaged in such mundane activities as vacuuming, watching TV, playing cards, and so on. In contrast with many of the charged works in Art after Stonewall, the approach is not one of aggressive activism, but rather a desire to put a “normal face” to the lives of queer individuals in America. Such a development makes plain the movement of LGBTQ Americans from a fringe group, fighting for acknowledgement, to an increasingly integrated and visible part of the country’s daily life.
Jacob M. Robinson was an undergraduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. He received a B.A. in Art History from New York University in May 2019.