I made a ‘zine with this image in 1992, and I’m not sure if I’m more sad or angry to have to be pulling it out of the archive. But the reality is that, for queers in this society, we must stand up and speak up or we still face silencing and, yes, death. I got really excited about the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibit, because it’s so unusual to have historical gay, queer, and transgender artists (recognizing, of course, that these are terms of a modern time) portrayed within their true queer context. Many of the pieces I know and knew something about the context, some are new to me, some I knew but had no idea about the back story. To have them all displayed together, with the context of the artists’ lives, and overall as a movement, was amazing.
Then the controversy started. The whole point of the exhibition *is* queer visibility. But one of the pieces includes a video installation by David Wojnarowicz, which has a 4 second section of ants crawling on a crucifix. Though the video is a response to the pain and anguish of losing a love to AIDS, in an exhibit about queer history, this piece drew the ire of some wingnut, and ultimately, was removed from the exhibit. This spurred a wide range of protests, writings, and alternative exhibitions.
This is happening against the political backdrop of a movement to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, hearings on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, and cuts to AIDS Drug Assistance Programs around the country. I came into my own as a young queer amidst early ’90s ACT UP activism, with the memory of the Corcoran Gallery’s cancellation of a Mapplethorpe exhibition fresh in people’s minds. Maybe we’ve done too good of a job selling the “we’re just like you” line, losing the ideals of Gay Liberation in an effort to be palatable to suburbia. But this action makes it clear that when we express ourselves in a raw, unvarnished way, when we celebrate that which sets us apart, we’re still at risk for silence. And, as the spate of recent suicides cautions, for death.