Ron Amato’s exhibition Gay in Trumpland, opening up today and on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art this weekend explores the dark fear many gay men are internalizing as President Trump and his inner circle remove rights and protections for LGBTQ individuals. GLAAD’s Trump Accountability Project currently lists 90 concrete policy attacks this administration has undertaken against individuals who don’t happen to be straight.
Ron Amato explained to Hyperallergic, “What Trumpland means to me is the environment he has allowed to happen … he has surrounded himself with people with anti-gay agendas … Jeff Sessions has an anti-gay agenda … Mike Pence has an anti-gay agenda … Betsy DeVos has anti-gay agenda.”
Surprisingly, Amato’s imagery does not confront “Trumpland” with the familiar styles of LGBTQ activist art or online memes. There is not a single image of Donald Trump in the show. Neither does one find snapshots of witty protest signs, nor predictable images of loving gay and trans couples in domestic settings. But we are better off, since these artistic strategies are — with all due respect —played out. Intriguingly, Amato takes a road less traveled to artistically indict Trump and reflect on the shadow he is casting on contemporary gay culture.
What the viewer encounters at this show is far more enigmatic and psychological, which befits a museum for Gay and Lesbian Art but requires a primer. Photographs of nude men who are veiled with white fabric might not seem obviously connected at first to Trump’s political assault on gay rights. But Amato’s invitation is to ponder hiding and visibility in visual terms. The male nudes are covered so extensively in opaque white fabric that they appear to be hiding from the viewer, sometimes from each other, perhaps even from themselves. Let’s not kid ourselves — the Trump administration is trying to send gay men back into hiding.
For example, in “Gay in Trumpland 20,” it actually takes a bit of straining to detect the second figure in white fabric underneath the far more apparent nude figure. It’s a potent evocation of turning us invisible, pretending like we don’t exist, and concealing us. But there is also a lamentation in this nude figure. He can’t break through the white fabric barrier. Something is coming in between him and the other man he is trying to embrace. Woke gay men are having a hard time with the current environment — it’s triggering fight, flight, or freeze responses — and that’s not the easiest space to fall in love, date, or feel safe.
This is a series of photographs of unabashedly gay male nudes. The LGBTQ acronym alludes to a solidarity between people that are actually remarkably different. And in this particular series, Amato is exploring the gay male response to Trumpland, which is similar but also different than how lesbians, trans people, bisexuals, or queer people experience it.
“Gay in Trumpland 24” is one of the most powerful images in the show, where two gay men embrace in a cocoon created by white fabric. These two men find and create a safe space to embrace. And as the Trump administration is seeking ways to remove space for LGBTQ people, the safe space we can create as gay men with our partners and our lovers is becoming more precious, important, and sacred.
Not every gay man has the privilege and joy of an intimate relationship. Some gay men aren’t looking for a relationship, and that’s valid. Others aspire to be in a relationship but struggle to feel safety and love with another man. Some gay men hit psychological blocks as they seek intimacy. And in “Gay in Trumpland 4,” Amato explores these blocks visually with the white fabric. The two men embrace, but they conceal their faces and much of their bodies from one another. They aren’t showing their entire selves to each other as they embrace. There is a barrier between them and reluctance to be fully revealed and vulnerable.
Internalized homophobia is a barrier that can block gay men. This is when gay men, as well as other queer individuals, psychologically take on the hate they see from Trump and others, and begin to believe deep down that they are inferior, despicable, or unlovable because they are queer. It’s very hard to let another man love you when you don’t think you are loveable yourself. And this can lead some gay men to put up walls when other gay men try to love them, which “Gay in Trumpland 4” visualizes with the opaque fabric. Intimacy’s etymology traces back to the latin intimus, which means inner most. And fear can lead us to hide and veil our innermost selves from other men.
Reflecting on the danger of internalizing Trump’s homophobia, Amato explained to Hyperallergic, “Part of Trumpland is that we are hiding from each other because they want us to go back into hiding … and by they I mean the President’s base and the people he has surrounded himself with … homophobia and transphobia is starting to bubble back up again.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only Love can do that.” As the Trump administration continues its assault on gay rights, it is totally valid to feel rage, sorrow, and helplessness. But we cannot lose sight of the power of the love we can still nurture between each other. We must not internalize the fear and hate Trump is trying to stoke and in turn shut down and stop loving one another. Now more than ever, the safe spaces we can create as gay men with other gay men can offer a precious light amidst this darkness.
Ron Amato’s Gay in Trumpland is on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art from January 18, until January 20, 2019. The opening will take place on Friday, January 18 from 6–8pm.