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What it Took to Create the World’s First Gay Art Museum

Charles Leslie’s passionate half-century of homoerotic art collecting offers a mirror for the history of gay history itself

The "Queer Threads" exhibition, which ran in early 2014, examined the diversity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer experiences. (Stanley Stellar / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art )
smithsonian.com

Man of the hour Charles Leslie was resplendent in a metallic gold jacket and a pair of hot pink leather shoes. From the stage of the Founders’ Day celebration of the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the octogenarian art collector addressed the raucous crowd there to celebrate the upcoming expansion of the museum he established– a major milestone that will double in size the world’s first and only museum dedicated to gay art. But before discussing the future, Leslie wanted to talk about the origins of his collection of homoerotic work.

Speaking self-referentially, Leslie says, “If your family had an Encyclopedia Britannica in the house in the 1930s,” recalling his own childhood in Deadwood, South Dakota, “you discovered Greco-Roman sculpture. And the rest was history.”

The rest, indeed, was history: thousands of years of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, ignored and relegated to circumscribed footnotes, if that. Until very recently, these stories occupied no chapters in textbooks or wall space in our museums. But thanks to pioneers like Leslie, that’s changing. In many ways, Leslie’s life can be seen as a mirror for broader societal trends in LGBTQ history keeping. Or as the president of the museum’s board of directors, art historian Jonathan David Katz, puts it, Leslie “encapsulates the cultural tendencies” of more than half a century of gay historic activism.

Leslie’s historical awakening began when he was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany, during the Korean War, where he first encountered the work of pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Before the rise of Hitler, Hirschfeld helped to turn Berlin into a haven for sexual minorities, with the opening of his Institute for Sexual Research in 1919.

“I never knew there was such a person,” Leslie exclaimed, still struck breathless some 60 years after he first discovered Hirschfeld. “Such a movement!”

After the war, Leslie toured Europe with the Lotte Goslar Pantomime Circus for a few years before enrolling in the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill. As it did for many men of the time, Europe introduced Leslie to a more open vision of gay life. Growing up in a small town during the Depression, Leslie’s exposure to gayness as an identity was limited to what he could glean from the encyclopedia. Aware of his own sexual desires from an early age, he left for Los Angeles as soon as he could, where he easily fell in with its sub rosa gay community. But it was Europe that made him realize there was such a thing as “gay history” – and that much of that history was only preserved in art. Soon, he began secretly buying any such work he could find.

“I’d go to a flea market and find some little drawing or something that gave me a certain frisson,” he recalls, sitting in the Soho studio he’s had since 1968. “If I could afford it, I'd buy it.”

Installation view of the work by Zanele Muholi in the exhibition "After Our Bodies Meet" which ran at the museum in summer 2014. (Stanley Stellar / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art )
Installation view from the exhibit "Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community," which ran in early 2014. (Stanley Stellar / Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art )
"Dockside Interview" by Arthur Tress (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)
"Untitled (Boy with Roses in His Hair)" by Wilhelm Von Gloeden (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)
"Jane Heap" by Berenice Abbott (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)
"Two boys aged 23 or 24, from: Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy" by David Hockney (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)
"Homage to Tarpei Mills" by Marion Pinto (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)
"Chasseresse" by Romaine Brooks (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
Still from Heather Cassils' "Hard Times" video. (Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum)

Upon Leslie’s return to the states, he joined the touring production of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer. Eventually, he settled in Soho. At the time, the area was “an industrial slum,” says Leslie.  His few neighbors were activists, outlaws and artists – those willing to risk illegal living in terrible conditions in return for huge spaces, few rules and low overhead. There, Leslie worked as a massage therapist, which is how he met the love of his life, interior decorator Fritz Lohman.

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