Photo of photo by Diana Davies
Is the most changed aspect of the lgbt movement over the past forty years actually the language we use? Compare the open, out, goal-oriented words "Gay Liberation Front" to the obscure, closety, "Human Rights Campaign," which emphasizes struggle more than solution. Contrast the people-centric Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis to the militaristic sounding "The Task Force." Consider the demands of this poster, "Gay Power. Black Power. Women Power. Student Power. All Power to the People" against today's pleas for acceptance and tolerance. Juxtapose "Radicalesbians" with "The L Word."
Those thoughts came to mind studying the small, smart exhibit that opened today at the NYPL, "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation." The show begins with an excellent overview by Jason Baumann, coordinator of collection assessment and the LGBT collection, which describes how much of the 20th century marked a step backward:
Throughout the displays, nine additional write-ups offer insights into the first lgbt rights groups, Stonewall, Gay News, the Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, Street Transvestites, Gay Activists Alliance, Christopher Street Liberation Day 1970, and a summary.
Speaking shifts in language, when was the last time someone handed you a heavy cardstock printed invitation to a Central Park "Gay-In" or showed you a police permit for a "Gay Be-In (Happening)"? Other artifacts on display include issues of The Ladder, copies of the newspaper Gay (featuring a movie review called "The Bores in the Band"), and Sue Katz's mimeographed essay "Smash Phallic Tyranny." The official agenda of the ECHO conference of 1965 highlights two discussions on "Is There a Place in the Great Society for the Homosexual?" If that question seems apt concerning the present administration, the even starker deja vu comes from seeing a 1966 document from the Mattachine Society titled "New York Police Promise To End Entrapment." Someone needs to send a copy to their 2009 video booth squad.
The exhibit has seventeen large photos, sixteen of which are by Diana Davies. More diversity might have been rewarding, particularly some of the library's collection of photographs by Kay Lahusen, Barbara Gittings' partner. Three panels of Robert Wilkinson's little color snapshots offer a glimpse of the first gay pride, but the subjects are unidentified. Overall, the images suggest the early years of the lgbt movement lacked leaders, a misconception righted by the rigorously researched texts. And, of coruse, I'm grateful for the inclusion of Diana Davies' photo above, in which the red jacket guy's sign proclaims, "We Demand an End to the Exploitation of Human Sexuality for Profit!" Though the Jonai are bringing back his hair, his words make you realize how distant 1969 remains.
Fifteen years ago, in honor of Stonewall 25, the library held a huge lgbt show in the premiere gallery on the first floor, complete with giant pink triangle banner outside, emblazoned with "Becoming Visible." Now for the 40th anniversary, we get half the hallway on the third floor.
At the NYPL (5th & 42nd), the free exhibit is up through June 30. Closed Sundays.