Urban Explorations Urban Explorations

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

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There, they continued to show homoerotic art (one early show introduced New York to the leather daddy aesthetic of Tom of Finland), but also branched out to include work by women (such as Marion Pinto’s solo exhibit “Man as a Sex Object”), and less openly erotic work. But the initial focus on gay men, and in particular, white gay men, continued the unfortunate tradition of excluding women and people of color from the historical record.

“For a long time I just really felt that it was a male space and it had very little women's stuff in it,” says Maxine Wolfe, one of the coordinators of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which was founded in New York City the same year that Leslie opened his gallery. Much like Leslie and Lohman, the women who founded the LHA did so with a conscious political agenda and little reliance on formal training or mainstream institutions. “The whole idea was to do something that would be for the community and by the community,” Wolfe says, “because no one else was doing it.”

At the time, small groups of politically engaged LGBT people were forming collectives all around the country to support their communities from within, such as the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (a transgender rights and direct action group founded in New York City in 1970), and the Combahee River Collective (a black lesbian-feminist group formed in Boston in 1974). The Leslie Lohman Gallery fit right in with this newly radicalized ethos of claiming a public identity without assimilating or trying to play down their sexuality.

For a decade, the gallery operated on a thin margin of profitability, more as a labor of love than a commercial venture. But the early ’80s would see the business – and nearly the entirety of gay life in America – subsumed by the AIDS crisis. Many of their artists and customers died, while others refocused their energy on caring for the sick and fighting homophobic families, apathetic government organizations and corporations that saw the gay community as too small a market to make it profitable to explore new drugs.

“Within two years we lost 14 good friends,” Leslie says, remembering that difficult time. “Two of them died in our house because they had no place to go.”

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