Archives of American Art’s New Show Reveals Stories of Gay America

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The modern gay rights movement in America was jump-started in June 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar, and met with massive resistance from the patrons therein. The days of rioting that followed was a major rallying cry to all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons to stand up for their civil rights and take pride in being different from the others. But these communities of people simply didn't spring up out of nowhere to demand their due. They have always been a part of our nation's cultural fabric, but, for fear of social persecution or legal prosecution, gays have long felt the need to live under the radar. Living in times of extreme social intolerance, these people have had to mask parts of their identity in self-defense, but sometimes these hidden lives play out on the page. For the new show Lost and Found (opening on Saturday), the Archives of American Art has unearthed a trove of letters, photographs and other ephemera that illustrates the gay experience in America and brings to light social enclaves and romantic relationships that provided support to people rejected by society at large.

“It’s within artistic communities that gays and lesbians were first able to express themselves in American culture," says Archives of American Art manuscripts curator Liza Kirwin. "Because it’s a bohemian milieu, they were allowed certain broader parameters to express who they were within an artistic community. And I think that’s pretty provable going back to the 19th century that gays and lesbians within the artistic community—both the visual arts and performing arts—were accepted within that group to a point. More so there than within the broader culture.”

But divining who was involved in homosexual relationships—especially before the late 1960s— is a bit of a trick. Even in personal correspondence, the language of love may be suggestive, but not explicit. "Part of it is knowing the surrounding context of these artists’ lives," Kirwin says. "You already know that they’re gay or lesbian, so you go to their papers and you find evidence of it that way. If you didn’t really know, and you just went to the papers, you wouldn’t necessarily know that they were gay."

Such is the case of Appalachian Spring composer Aaron Copland, who was a private man disinclined to discuss or write about his personal life. In the summer of 1928, he made the acquaintance of painter and lithographer Prentiss Taylor and the two struck up a correspondence in November of that year. Copland's initial letters express a warm cordiality befitting good friends. But by spring 1929, cordiality evolved into romance. "It's always a dangerous business to write the kind of letter I sent you," Copland wrote in March 1929. "Now that I know how you took it, I don't regret having sent it."

In addition to one letter from April 1929 on display, you can see a selection of Copland's letters to Taylor online. It's genuinely heartwarming to read through the progression of their relationship, especially since it makes you wonder if the art of the love letter—be it authored by a gay or straight person—is alive in the digital age. Somehow love texting or love tweeting seems inherently trite, and email too impersonal for the occasion. But if you want to see it done well, read the writings between people who—without public displays of affection as an option—made such beautiful use of the written word.

Lost and Found complements the National Portrait Gallery's LGBT-themed exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. Both shows are open from October 30, 2010 through February 13, 2011. You can preview some of the Lost and Found artifacts in our online gallery.

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