In 1969, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique and president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), declared lesbianism the “lavender menace” that threatened to pervert the public image of feminism by associating it with deviant sexuality and unnaturally mannish (or worse, man hating) women.
Harmony Hammond, who curated a lesbian art show in New York City in 1978, recounts how one prospective exhibitor’s sponsor threatened to drop her if she participated. Feminism and the art market would not intersect until the later 1980s, so the few successful women artists of the late 1970s had to make other choices. For example, Louise Nevelson, courted for the Gay Liberation commission, made the difficult decision to stay in her closet.
In 2004, gay and lesbian organizations and papers immediately protested the “de-gaying” of Susan Sontag’s obituary. A spokesman for The New York Times explained that since no “authoritative source” would confirm any lesbian relationship, it had chosen not to use the phrase “longtime companion” about her partner Annie Liebovitz, ostensibly because it would “bear the unpleasant aroma of euphemism.”
Today, in spite of almost-daily writings and news reports demonstrating a greater acceptance of open queer culture in the U.S., we are still trying to move past this history of stigma and invisibility. Fortunately, we have Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, whose comprehensive book Art and Queer Culture provides a progressive narrative and illustrations of homosexuals who have become increasingly adept at dealing with the reality of past censorship.
Lesbian and gay artists have been targeted for censorship as part of the strategy of conservatives to maintain ignorance and sexual bigotry through an unrelenting opposition to sex research and education. All homosexuals have faced discrimination; however, through the mechanisms of misogyny and homophobia, lesbian artists have been more severely censored and discriminated against while the work of many male homosexual artists has been widely exhibited.
Lesbian exclusion from both queer and feminist historical accounts of culture and art negates a useful history that might shape the culture of a queer present. Some lesbians may be masculine, but they are not men. And, as Monique Wittig observed, neither are they women: “A meaningless concept in a heterosexual economy, lesbians are ghosted in the public’s sphere not by consistency but by strategic incoherence.” The invisibility of lesbians has made it possible for society to construct a world without lesbians. This is paralleled by the “world without homos” depicted in feature films, where a lesbian is posed as singular and alone on the margins of what is really a heterosexual drama.
While lesbians were active and visible within early feminism, their presence “evoked homophobic fears within the women’s movement” and supported the homophobic belief in the wider culture that if lesbians were involved, then the movement itself was discredited. This theory carried over into the art world.
Hammond remarked, “We do not have a history. We are not even visible to each other. Many well known women artists of the 20th century have been lesbians, but if they are famous as artists, it is never mentioned that they are lesbians, or how that might have affected the way they live, their work or work processes.”
This silence—this omission of words from the biographies of lesbian artists—has denied us role models and the possibility of developing work that both acknowledges lesbian experience as a creative source for art-making and validates the context in which it can be explored.
Today, perhaps we are on the brink of something new. We are certainly at a very important juncture, with new creative energy coming from a public and sometimes political consciousness in our work. To be a lesbian artist is not necessarily a limitation or a box any more than it is an advantage. It is a statement of commitment, energy, interest, and priority.
Some artists put themselves on the line by creating work that spoke honestly, often moving upstream in terms of the norm or acceptable parameters of queer art. Though some lesbian and queer female artists still conformed to the general expectations of the minimal public exposure available to them, others did not. Hannah Hoch’s art did not offer a masculinized image of women that might be understood within largely acceptable frameworks, nor did she show women improved through masculinization, such as was seen in print media. Hoch, who was in a known lesbian relationship, instead made images that depicted “a pleasure in the movement between gender positions and a deliberate deconstruction of rigid masculine and feminine identities.
Claude Cahun, the French artist, photographer and writer whose work was both political and personal, often undermined traditional concepts of gender roles. Her representations of herself were considered highly transgressive in a society that continuously monitored female imagery. Cahun made the seemingly subversive decision to appear in her only published “self portrait” as a masculinized figure who “flaunted her refusal to participate in a compulsively heterosexual culture, and announced her identity as a lesbian without providing straight male viewers with the opportunity to appropriate, sexualize, or exoticize the female body for their own purposes.”
Lesbian life was portrayed as lurid and wicked in early pulp fiction such as Women’s Barracks and Strange Sisters. At the height of the genre’s popularity during the 1950s and ‘60s, lesbian pulp sold well into the millions of copies. It was the cover art as much as the narrative itself that inspired lesbian and yet- to-come-out lesbian readers. Though officially marketed to a male readership, countless women purchased the paperbacks. Even as these novels rejected the viability of lesbian love and life, their flamboyant visibility helped to produce a sense of lesbian community.
Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (later republished under the title Carol) deviated from the pulp norm. The novel follows two women from very different backgrounds who find themselves in an unexpected love affair in 1950s New York. As conventional norms of the time threaten their relationship, a beautiful and honest story emerges revealing just how difficult it was to be a lesbian in the not-too-distant past. Yet the novel offers a relatively happy ending that was unprecedented in lesbian and gay literature. Highsmith first published the novel under the pen name “Claire Morgan” because of the story’s lesbian content. Carol, a 2015 movie adaptation of the novel stars Kate Blanchett.
Barbara Hammer’s coming out as a lesbian changed her life and profoundly influenced her art. She began to make films that explored lesbian identity, desire, and sexuality through the use of erotic imagery and experimental camera work techniques such as repetition, mirroring, and fragmentation; often the filmmaker herself was a presence.
Harmony Hammond said, “I came out as a lesbian artist— meaning the two are connected and affect each other.” She is credited with organizing the first exhibition of lesbian art, “A Lesbian Show,” in New York. Together with Catherine Lord, she co-curated “Gender, Fucked,” a 1996 exhibition whose aim was to integrate gender into the lesbian identification. In 2000, she also published the comprehensive Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History.
Sharon Hayes in 2008 organized a performance called “Revolutionary Love 1 (I Am Your Worst Fear)” and “Revolutionary Love 2 (I Am Your Best Fantasy).” Hayes assembled a diverse collection of performers to recite, in public unison, a text about sexual freedom inspired by the early gay liberation movement of the 1970s.
There is a direct correlation between visual media and changing views on gay civil rights as cultural expectations and responses continue to evolve. The repetition and assimilation of particular imagery, icons, historical and contemporary figures, and phraseology into mainstream culture have contributed to the growing acceptance and familiarity of gay culture into society.
This article is an excerpt from Summoning A Voice: Design, Feminism and Gay Rights,
Lisa Williams, MFA thesis, 2016.