Opinion

The Leslie-Lohman Museum’s Choice to Drop “Gay and Lesbian” From Its Name Is a Great Loss

When did explicitly naming queerness become a bad thing, preventing people from feeling “welcome” at the museum?

Exterior of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, now the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art (image via Ajay Suresh on Flickr)

When I read that the Leslie-Lohman Museum was planning on dropping “Gay and Lesbian” from its name, I assumed that the museum was replacing the words with another queer nominator. This would have been a great strategy to encompass the range of identities that make up the LGBTQ+ community today. But, upon further reading, I discovered that the Leslie-Lohman­­ is simply dropping any explicit reference to queer identity, and will from now on be known as the “Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art.” In his statement on this decision to ARTnews, Leslie Lohman’s executive director Gonzalo Casals stated that the name change represents “what the vision of the future of the museum is”; the new name is “as expansive as the concept of queerness, so that everyone feels welcome to the museum.”

Even though I greatly admire the Leslie-Lohman Museum and the work it does, I cannot help but have conflicting feelings in response to this statement, and I have been mulling over these feelings for the past few weeks now. Initially, I tried resisting my instant urge to write on it, thinking that I’ll probably just sound like a grumpy dyke with an outdated point of view, who doesn’t understand the intricacies of the matter. Yet, after encountering others who share my surprise, I have embraced the fact that grumpy dyke might actually be quite an accurate description of me.

The Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art was the first museum I visited when I moved to New York City in 2013. Unlike my relationship to prominent institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, I knew nothing about Leslie-Lohman’s collection. Yet I was drawn to the museum, exactly because “gay and lesbian” was emblazoned in the institution’s name. Certainly no exception among those of us born in the Soviet Union, I was raised under the widely accepted, pervasive doctrine that homosexuality is a disease, and when six-year-old me had fuzzy, warm feelings for my female art teacher, I learned to master the art of repression; I buried those feelings so deep that it took 14 years for them to permanently break through to the surface. I’m by no means special; so many of us spend decades of our lives looking for traces of our existence and when we don’t find them we think maybe we don’t exist. The act of naming holds crucial significance for queer people on the journey to finding themselves, since historically we have been denied nomination. Lord Alfred Douglas, in writing about his love for Oscar Wilde, referred to his queerness as “the love that dare not speak its name” — the legal system considered homosexuality the crime “inter Christianos non nominandum” (that horrible crime not to be named among Christians); trans people have been misgendered and erased; and the history of lesbian sexuality has witnessed an invisibility not even “worthy” of being criminalized. After all these years, do we really have to go back to existing between the lines?

The museum did announce that it will start using tag lines in its marketing, starting with “The Future is Queer,” which was also the theme of this year’s Leslie-Lohman gala. Yet how can the future be queer if queer is being etched out of the present? As queer culture is increasingly being commodified by mainstream society, the implication that we have somehow internalized queerness and no longer need institutions explicitly dedicated to it — that queer love is “all around” — overlooks the fact that in many countries being queer is still a death sentence, and, quite frankly, it connotes a naïveté not unusual to the bubble that is New York City, where queerness is — to some degree — an implied presence, accepted as commonplace. However, being able to choose to not explicitly name queerness is a position of privilege.

I find it worrisome that as the Leslie-Lohman is (rightfully) gaining attention and funds in these times of political turbulence, the museum feels the urge to blur its roots. I can see how an institution might fear that including an identity reference in its name risks ‘ghettoizing’ the artists it represents, implying — in this case — that gender and sexual identity are what define an artists’ work, and that it doesn’t live outside of those frameworks. I am not claiming that there is such a thing as a quintessentially queer aesthetic which should have its own museum. But I do believe that queer artists’ work is intrinsically informed by a resistance to the constraints of dominant heteronormative society, and have a different sensibility from artists whose gender and sexuality have never provided a source of discrimination.

Many will disagree with me that dropping any identity reference from Leslie-Lohman’s name is a great loss. I was not in the board meetings, I don’t know the full scope of arguments that this decision was based on, and I’m sure it would not have been made unless the majority of the community agreed. This is not an investigative journalism piece, or a critique of the work that Leslie-Lohman does as an institution. This is a meditation on why I found myself having ambiguous feelings regarding the name change; it’s a critical opinion piece based directly on what has been released to the public — which is what the majority of the queer community (in the US and abroad) will read and hear.

When did explicitly naming queerness become a bad thing, preventing people from feeling “welcome” at the museum? Are those the kind of people we want in a museum dedicated to queer art? Why this constant need for justification and expanding the terminology to ensure everyone feels comfortable? (And let’s face it, often this “everyone” is the heteronormative community.) Why can’t there be a gay and lesbian museum, queer museum, museum of the unruly, the wild, the rejected, the butches and the bulldaggers, the queens and the fairies, the trans and genderqueer cuties, the nonbinary goddesses?

Needless to say, queerness is in more than just a name, and removing the queer reference does not mean Leslie-Lohman is abandoning its mission to support queer art. But it is important to recognize certain roots and legacies, even if not everyone identifies with them. I wish Leslie-Lohman had chosen to embrace difference instead of choosing to erase it “so that everyone feels welcome to the museum.”

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