The Look of Gay Liberation

Steven F Dansky. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 16, Issue 2. Mar/Apr 2009.

The ascendancy of photography during the 20th century produced an extraordinary historical record of society and culture. In an instant a photograph of the past can leap into the present with irrepressible vitality. Essayist Susan Sontag wrote in “Photography: A Little Summa” that photographs “reveal hidden truths about themselves or less than fully reported social conflicts in societies both near and far from where the viewer lives.” Photographs make visible what is concealed and become evidence of reality—a photograph is a powerful record of the social space.

The early photographers of lesbian and gay liberation confronted ambiguity by shooting photographs of out-in-the-open GLBT people, images of astonishing and unequivocal candidness. Forty years ago, dating from the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, it was daring and risky to be the subject of a photograph depicting gay liberation, unabashed and full-framed, the physical declaration of political and sexual identity. Unlike the coded photographs of earlier generations, such as those in David Deitcher’s book, Dear Friends: American Photographs of Men Together, 1840-1918, the ones of the early Gay Liberation era were taken with breathtaking directness. These images serve as a permanent record of the life-affirming sexual identities that emerged during that era.

In On Photography, Sontag observed that photographs have intrinsic value as social commentary and that “social change is replaced by a change in images.” The story of GLBT people needed to be told. The subjects in images had to be accessible, real, and vulnerable if they were to be effective. The intimate photographs of Ellen Shumsky are a perfect example of this. Despite being taken in the public square of Central Park’s Sheep Meadow surrounded by tens of thousands at New York’s first gay pride march in 1970, the lesbian subjects in Shumsky ‘s image appear to share aprivate moment. In order for social change to occur, there has to be evidence of the event, as in the photograph by Fred W. McDarrah for The Village Voice of the Stonewall Rebellion. And in the documentary photograph by Diana Davies, an image also of the first march that portrays the exultation of social progress.

Anatomy and Destiny of a Photograph

Peter Hujar (1934-1987) was one of the most important American photographers of the late 20th century, having influenced Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplefhorpe, among others. Hujar photographed drag queens, gay cruisers, corporate high-rises, dilapidated diners, crumbling Newark apartments, and animals. He’s probably most known for his portraits, some of which are in the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Before Hujar withdrew from fashion photography in the 1970’s, he took a photograph that is generically titled, “Gay Liberation Poster Image,” which I prefer to call the “Come Out!” photograph after the poster that made it famous. Annie Leibovitz wrote in Annie Leibovitz: At Work, “Some pictures attain resonance as documents of their time.” The “Come Out!” photo is such an image. Its meaning has been variously interpreted, but its original use was as a poster for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), New York, with the overlay text, “Come Out!! Join the Sisters and Brothers of the Gay Liberation Front.” The poster from its conception was meant to be printed in large numbers. GLF member Judy Reif remembers wallpapering the GLF poster on the sides of buildings in Greenwich Village: “The poster was going to recruit people for the first gay pride March in June 1970.” To my knowledge, the Hujar photograph was never exhibited or published at that time as an image distinct from the poster.

It is the most iconic photograph of Gay Liberation; no image better captures the spirit of the first year after the Stonewall Rebellion. The image seems cinematographic, an encapsulated frame or a film still, completely uncompromising- which is why it worked as a political poster. In Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, art historian Richard Meyer said of the “Come Out!” photograph: “It stages gay liberation as a Utopian space beyond the reaches of State power and social control.” The significance of the poster was evident at the time, and it appeared in the background of Shumsky ‘s photograph taken at a GLF meeting.

It was on an early Sunday morning in the Flatiron Districtusually a pulsating and congested Manhattan square that was silent and motionless at this hour—that eighteen members of GLF waited at a street corner on Fifth Avenue. The enigmatic, softspoken Hujar arrived with five-o’clock shadow, carrying a camera. He climbed the pedestal of a lamppost, balanced himself, and directed his subjects as if choreographing a show. His subjects ran down the street away from him.”Run toward me,” he called. From that somewhat elevated angle with the camera focused on his huddled subjects, he shot the image at just the right moment.

Although several subjects in the photograph have placed the location of the photograph differendy, Hujar shot the photograph at 19th Street between Fifth Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas. The site was a few blocks away from Hujar’s commercial studio on West 23rd Street, which he operated from 1969 to 1970. John Knoebel revisited the spot nearly forty years later to rephotograph the site without human subjects, thus proving the location as noted.

Martin Duberman described Hujar’s staging of the photograph, which he used for the cover of his 1993 book, Stonewall: “In the final poster, the fifteen marchers crowd the center, and it only gradually becomes clear that the sidewalks behind them are empty; these ebullient troops seem to have no backup forces.” The photograph has power and energy through Hujar’s use of linear perspective, with the street from Fifth Avenue to the Avenue of the Americas becoming the vanishing point.

Paradoxically, most subjects of the early photographs of Gay Liberation, while out enough to be photographed, were not named in any caption and are thus anonymous. However, I was able to identify a number of the people in the “Come Out!” photograph, and even tracked down a number to get their recollections about the photo shoot.

Judy Reif (first row, fourth from left), who was there with the fiercely determined Fran Winant (at Reif’s right) remembered the day quite clearly. “I listened to the Stonewall Rebellion on a radio newscast with my parents. It was that summer, either August or September, that I joined the GLF. When we gathered to take Peter’s photograph, Fran Winant whispered in my ear, ‘Are you ready for this? Do you want to be out?’ I can’t believe how naïve we were. We decided to be photographed hidden behind the tallest men in the group, but then Peter shouted, ‘Now! Turn around and run towards me.’ We ran in the opposite direction, and Fran and I wound up in the front. We were photographed face front. But I was thrilled when I saw the photograph. We put ourselves on the poster so others would follow and come out. The photo’s meaning for me is as a poster- the words have to be there.”

Fran Winant added this: “Peter Hujar’s photograph is a reminder of an important time in my life when, with love, exuberance, and daring, we launched the modern gay movement and gave a gift of human rights and freedom to the people of the future. As a measure of our success, no one now can know the fear we felt then at being in this photo and the poster made from it. Each year millions worldwide celebrate gay liberation with us. I imagine them filling the empty space in the photograph behind us.”

Suzanne Bevier (farthest right) is wearing a head bandana and her fist is clenched. She designed the mandala that was published in Come Out!, the GLF newspaper, as a separate GLF poster. Bevier’s mandala, in turn, was incorporated with the “Come Out!” photo, whose figures were superimposed before the great circle, to produce yet another GLF poster.

Jim Fouratt (first row, seventh from left) is wearing sunglasses and hip-huggers. He claimed his role as the impetus behind the taking of the historic photograph: “Of course, I asked Peter to take the photo.”

This writer also appears (first row, third from right), wearing sandals, bell bottoms, and an oversized brass belt buckle. At the time, I knew nothing of Hujar’s reputation as a photographer. It wasn’t until several years later that I got to know him. I thought of him as a six-foot-six, lonesome traveler, emotionally reserved, similar to Gary Cooper. He seemed oblivious of his intensity and charisma, though GLF member John Erdman, a close friend of Hujar, remarked: “He was the Pied Piper of the East Village, a mentor to many new artists in the 1980’s.” The photograph has been with me for my entire adult life.

Earl Galvin (second row, first from left) appears in archival footage that was used in the film Milk, in which Galvin discusses the aftermath of the Toad Hall attack in San Francisco later in the 1970’s. He described the event in the film as follows: “Through the door there, the front door, there was just an explosion of police charging in here. I ran into the bathroom to hide with some other people. All we could hear was screaming and crunching and smashing. It was frankly the most terrifying experience I’ve had in my life.”

Early gay liberationist Dan Smith (second row, second from right) remembered the day of the photo shoot this way: “We spent a number of hours running up and down the street. That day felt like we were performing a dance set-up for a musical, great fun. Did you notice that I was barefoot in the photograph? I spent most of my time barefoot back then.”

Bob Bland is visible only as a clenched fist and the top of a man’s head. Bland (back row, first from left), an enduring GLBT activist and Democratic Party leader, had this to say: “That photograph has been a mainstay of my history. I scanned a copy when Duberman’s Stonewall came out, and it has hung on my wall ever since. It hangs right next to a college photo of me in an antiwar protest and an autographed photo of Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. Only my fist and my ‘fro are visible, but the photo captures the joyous, rebellious spirit of the times better than any other I have seen, so I love looking up at it as I sit at my laptop.”

John Erdman (second row, first from left) commented: “I met Peter Hujar the night after Stonewall. It was [in] my bar of choice. It was the only one with a varied mix of people, not coded by Lacoste, Levi/leather, or madras. I hadn’t heard about the riot and walked right into a demonstration the very next night. And there were Peter and Jim Fouratt, lovers at that time. Within a few weeks, I was in GLF. Peter was very satisfied with the photograph-he thought the image showed diversity, and he loved the clothes everyone showed up wearing. He expected hundreds to show up for the shoot, but he managed to make the photo work with handfuls. You know, I’ve waited all these years for someone to affirm that photograph as important iconography. I have the poster framed and on display in my home. It’s very meaningful to me.”

Carl Miller (back row, third from left) and Hujar were also friends, each initially in the commercial art scene. Miller later became a world-renowned textile designer who turned his 17th Street loft into a collective that was an important base for GLF activities in New York, welcoming visitors from other cities. In 1973, along with Allen Young and three other gay men, he moved to Royalston, Massachusetts and started Butterworth Farm, a “gay-centered intentional community.” He died of AIDS in 1999.

William Pigman (back row, last on right) a GLF member who later joined a commune in upstate New York, wrote: “If you draw a line straight down from the second raised fist from the right, it will hit my head. All you can see is my forehead and a short haircut. Peter stood on something to take the photo, perhaps a monument-a statue of some kind; it was taken from a height, looking down at us as we ran toward him.” Pigman wasn’t out to his parents at the time, and it was mind-blowing when he contemplated the GLF poster being distributed all over the city, even in the subway.

The mood of the photograph is unambiguously euphoric. Hujar’s lens captured a fractional image, as all photographs must. The photographer chooses what’s inside and outside the frame. There were hidden subjects invisible to the lens and absent from the shoot. Indeed whether to come out and appear in the photograph was an intense struggle for many that showed up. New York City public school teacher Ron Ballard, dually oppressed as gay and African- American, told a fellow GLFer that he just couldn’t do the photograph and always regretted it. He feared recrimination as a teacher. Nearly 25 years later, however, Ballard appeared in the PBS “Out Rage, ’69,” by filmmaker Arthur Dong, a documentary about the gay and lesbian liberation movement.

Allen Young, gay activist and author, was working at Liberation News Service when he was invited to be a part of the Hujar photo. He recalled the following: “I was nervous about being in the photograph, having just started attending GLF meetings. I wasn’t yet enough out of the closet. Now, whenever I see the photograph, I’m reminded of the fear of coming out that infected me for so long. I’m regretful about having missed the opportunity to be in such a historic and iconic photograph.”

Other applications of the photo would follow: a 1970’s poster by Su Negrin that had the Hujar photograph extracted from its cityscape and layered onto Bevier’s mandala; the Duberman Stonewall cover, which sliced several subjects from the image; a cover of OutWeek, a magazine published during the late 80’s and early 90’s, with the caption, “Stonewall Revisited.” And this year it appears as part of a photomontage for the cover of Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s Smash the Church, Smash the State!: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, published by City Lights.

Out of the Closet

In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick commented that “The closet is the defining structure for gay oppression in this century.” After four decades, the closet remains the central metaphor of the GLBT movement. The first Gay Pride march, in 1970, was about tens of thousands coming out of the closet. It was announced on simple white cardstock with deliberate gay panache and the message: “You are invited to Gay Liberation’s First Birthday Celebration … Sunday, June 28, 1970 … Mass March up Sixth Avenue to Central Park’s Sheep Meadow for Gay-In. Assemble at Sheridan Square, 12-1 PM.”

I marched with the Flaming Faggots- a group I started with Kenneth Pitchford, with whom I later cofounded the New York Effeminists. Along with the other group members- Joseph Canarelli, Michael Danchese, Robert Miller, and Michael O’Hara- we advanced, shoulder to shoulder, from Christopher Street to the Avenue of the Americas, turning northward at Milligan Place and 10th Street, where several nearly identical photographs were taken of us. One shot by Pulitzer Prize-nominated Michael Evans was published The New York Times, showing only the backs of our heads. The identity of the subjects concealed. Two other photographs were taken by Fred McDarrah, renowned Beat-generation chronicler, at the exact same location that were published in The Village Voice. In one photograph, there are only back of heads as in the Evans image. But surprisingly, McDarrah shot a second photograph, the flipside of first, revealing the faces of the subjects.

It is the rare photograph that conveys the private circumstances under which individuals process change. Ellen Shumsky revealed claustrophobic intimacy in a very personal moment of group political contemplation in her photograph of a Radicalesbian meeting. Each woman listens attentively to a speaker who gestures with an outstretched hand like an appeal. Shumsky, an early member of GLF, a founding member of Radicalesbians , and one of the authors of The Woman-Identified Woman, commented on the photograph- possibly taken at Rita Mae Brown’s East 15th Street apartment as noted by one subject in the photograph (though not verified by Shumsky): “It was a meeting of Radicalesbians on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I remember every woman in the photograph. I don’t recall what the meeting was about, but I know it wasn’t a consciousness-raising group meeting or a meeting for the writing of “The Woman-Identified Woman.’ It must have been about some group or political issue.”

Martha Shelley (left comer, partial head with glasses), a GLF member and one of the founders of Radicalesbians recalled, “I bet the photograph was of a planning meeting for the 1970 Second Conference to Unite Women sponsored by NOW. NOW invited a panel of women to speak on issues such as race, but lesbians were omitted. Betty Friedan was homophobic and called us the ‘lavender menace.’ We entered the auditorium and pulled off our shirts to display T-shirts silkscreened with the words “Lavender Menace.” We asked the authence whether they wanted to listen to the panel or discuss our issues. They voted to dialog with us. Later that day, we distributed the historic lesbian-feminist document, ‘Woman-Identified Woman.’“

The photograph of the signing of “The Effeminisi Manifesto” (from left: Kenneth Pitchford, this writer, and John Knoebel) seems like a vignette, lacking sharpness, but the image successfully evokes a sense of the clandestine. The “Manifesto” was a germinal work of queer theory that has been anthologized several times. In American Social Movements: Gay Rights Movement, Jennifer Smith described it as “one of the most enduring documents to emerge from the modem gay liberation movement.”

Other photographs of gay liberation are important in order to establish the intense activism of the early movement, such as the Times Square protest against police harassment that degenerated into what became known as “The August 1970 Riot.” The event was reported in The New York Times (8/3070) as follows: “Several hundred youths roamed through Greenwich Village last night and early this morning after a demonstration homosexual organizations ended.” John Knoebel, an early activist and GLF member, recalled: ‘“Join Us! Join us!’ out. For what, to do what? Who knew? But the surge was pable. It was a hot night in the Village. Hundreds of people started shouting. ‘Gay Power! Gay Power Now!’ The march fully overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and ceased to exist. And this was the moment when the march became the riot. All pandemonium let loose. Sirens started howling as squad cars arrived and police tried to clear the streets.”

The power of cinematic and staged images is also evident on examination of the potential of stills from films such as Milk. David Campany wrote in “Re- Viewing Rear Window,” (Aperture, 2008) “On the whole, popular cinema was and remains escapist fantasy, while the subject of reportage is actuality, the real events of the world. But in their own ways the film still and the reportage photograph have to solve the same two problems: visual clarity and narrative stillness.” These qualities are apparent in the candle-light procession of thousands through the streets of San Francisco after the assassination of Harvey Milk as seen in the recent film. This film image—as in Peter Hujar’s “Come Out!” photograph—has the same meaning for everyone, everywhere.