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In some corners of Instagram and the virtual shopping mall that is the web, T-shirts with the slogan “The Future is Female” or “Lavender Menace” can be found with surprising frequency. Apparently there are even people who have turned the latter phrase into some sort of herb-themed horror concept involving menacing sticks of dried lavender and awful typefaces. But, as that last example shows, very few people connect the dots back to the source of the slogans. In both cases, it was early lesbian feminist activists who first donned those phrases on T-shirts.
It’s both satisfying and illuminating, then, to walk into the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and see one of the original Lavender Menace T-shirts displayed inside of a vitrine. It’s there not as part of a history show, but rather an exhibit of work by the woman who silkscreened each of the shirts worn by the group of activists who disrupted the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York in 1970: Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk.
Prior to 1970, prominent members of the growing feminist movement began claiming that lesbians, and being associated with lesbians, threatened the movement’s progress. Famously, Betty Friedan, then-president of NOW (the National Organization for Women), described lesbians as a “lavender menace.” With tongue firmly in cheek, but also with a deep sense of clarity about their role in the movement, Gottschalk and her fellow activists preempted the New York event’s first speaker, disrobing to reveal their T-shirts, and calling for the audience to join them. Numerous affirmative responses came from the crowd. The activists also handed out copies of a new pamphlet-cum-manifesto titled “The Woman-Identified Woman.” The following year, NOW passed a resolution recognizing that lesbians and their concerns were key to the movement.
And that’s hardly the only important moment in LGBTQ history where Gottschalk was present. A huge photo of her, taken by the same woman who captured the only known photos of the Lavender Menace action, Diana Davies, greets visitors at the entrance to the one-room show. In that photo, Gottschalk stands holding a sign at the first-ever Christopher Street Liberation Day March, which commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In other words, we’re not seeing LGBTQ history filtered or retold; we’re seeing it in the moment, from women who were there as it was unfolding, through their own eyes.
The exhibition is just a sampling of Gottschalk’s work, but each image depicts stories and realities that are hard to convey secondhand. Many of the works are filled with bright-eyed, loved-up lesbians and queers who, at that time, were more likely to be threatened, maligned, or worse than to be treated with the recognition and love so clearly present in Gottschalk’s photos. The photos also express a deep sense of how important and close-knit this growing community was. Though the show is focused on Gottschalk, it incorporates a few works by Diana Davies and Joan E. Biren (JEB), two other incredibly prolific and important photographers of the era. JEB and Gottschalk were lovers for a period, having met at the Black Panther Revolutionary Constitutional Convention, which Gottschalk attended as part of Angela Davis’s invitation to lesbians from the Gay Liberation Front to speak. Some of the most intimate and loving photographs in the show are by Gottschalk and JEB of one another — these are images of queer women’s desire and care that are so rarely brought to mind when people speak about lesbians today.
But Gottschalk’s images also show that things didn’t “get better” with time for many of her subjects. Countering an often youth-obsessed queer culture, these photos shed light on the later chapters of some of her subjects. Marlene, a towering and gorgeous figure who appears in many photos on view, was a sexual assault survivor, foster-care kid, and teenage runaway, who became a close friend of Gottschalk’s. We see her unashamed, in love, and at work in many photos. But in a later photo, we learn from the conversation excerpts that artist and curator Deborah Bright includes on the wall labels that Marlene struggled with mental illness as she got older and died without money or a home. We also see Gottschalk’s trans sibling, Myla, as she moves through her life. Starting out withdrawn and shy early, she quietly reveals the price of her identity — in one photo we see her bearing bruises from a brutal attack; in another, having to conceal herself at work. We learn later that Myla suffered from addiction for years, contracted HIV, and spent time living in halfway houses before dying at the age of 56.
What struck me, after taking the show in, is how easily this exhibition could have not come into existence. Diana Davies’s image of Gottschalk defiantly holding her sign in 1970 has been used and repeated hundreds of thousands of times at this point. When I first saw it years ago, I had no idea of the name of the woman it depicts, nor that she herself was an important photographer. Gottschalk’s name doesn’t even appear on the Wikipedia page about the Lavender Menace action.
At the exhibition’s opening I was able to confirm what I suspected, that members of that same close-knit community of women worked to bring this show into existence, to make sure Gottschalk got her due. While popular queer narratives and images today often focus on rosy ideas of love winning out over oppression, and painful and difficult histories are rendered marginally accessible through nostalgic and nameless glances on social media, it’s powerful to be reminded that then, as now, there are challenges and struggles, and it is often implacable individuals from outside the dominant classes who are doing the everyday work of fighting.
Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk, curated by Deborah Bright, continues at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (26 Wooster Street, Manhattan) through March 17, 2019.