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I tried resisting my instant urge to write on it, thinking that I’ll probably just sound like a grumpy dyke with an outdated point of view, who doesn’t understand the intricacies of the matter.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.”

Ksenia M. Soboleva is a New York-based writer and art historian specializing in queer art and culture, with a particular focus on lesbian visibility. She received her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts,...

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

  1. Maybe you’re a grumpy dyke, and maybe I’m a grumpy faggot. But I think this is a real loss, too.

  2. Look at it this way: we should be grateful that the museum lasted as long as it did as the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art.
    But it was either going to become the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art — or the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Pansexual, Nonbinary, Bigender, Third Gender, Intersex, Asexual and Demisexual Art.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. What was once a very clear distinction between Gay and Straight has now become a crazy salad of names and descriptions. I agree…better to be called simply The Leslie Lohman Museum than to be the above LGBTQA-Z Museum of Art. Also I may be a grumpy lesbian but I fear that the word “lesbian” has also been erased. Now lesbians are “gender fluid”, “queer”, “trans”, “Non-Binary”. I am just an old fashioned Dyke and proud of it.

  3. A lot to unpack here. You are miffed because a group of gay men (mostly) worked for years to create a museum of gay art and now, those numbskulls, are not following your narrow neo-Marxist ideals.

    This is typical, and I have seen it from feminists for decades, like over 40 years. Gay men build something then the Feminists believe they have a right to take it over. Because reasons.

    How about if you, Ksenia M. Soboleva, work for 30 years to build a museum up from the ground and then you can decide what it’s called and you will never “miss” a board meeting.

    Wait you’d never do that! That would entail actually working to accomplish something. Why would you ever do that when you can sit back and humiliate someone who has worked hard and then try to assume their efforts as your own. You had plenty of opportunity to be part of that museum, you chose not to, until now.

    This is just another example of Feminist homophobia. Gay men can have nothing unless it is approved by The Feminist Nannies.

    I’d like to answer your question “When did explicitly naming queerness become a bad thing”, when people like you were given the opportunity to voice your divisive ideology.

  4. Well – from my perspective, brought up by a father who had the usual anti-queer attitudes, and for whom learning about what it actually was via contacts with people who were not straight, I think it’s high time for you all to just be normal & get over the stupidity of the ‘straight’ community. Those who never even knew what not-straight was until they were 18 or so (in the 1950’s) learned that we had always known ‘others’ our whole lives, and as we progressed thru life met many lovely people that turned out to be gay, completely without any issues one way or another. Some of the very sweetest ‘men’ I ever met were gay men, some very obvious to my woke up sensibilities, some not, but I now feel we have had this subject stuffed in our faces this past 20 years, and quite honestly I am tired of it. I want to just let everybody be who they are without any other human judging them. My answer for that is – it’s nobody’s business who somebody decides they love – they are who they are – dumped into a physical body with no choice, all of us are prisoners ! Please just drop this whole ‘identity’ stuff – you are who you are, you had no choice, we have no choice, I do not care if your choice is not my choice – I have no business questioning your decision. My answer to my grandson who tried at age 15 to tell me he was not gay, was ‘ok – but you are just Dylan to me, just be your lovely self’ – he is gay & acknowledges it now, and I had known that since he was very small, but it would be his choice not my business what he did with that understanding. He is still Dylan the person first, anything else is his to decide. I just want us all to accept that we are a motley crew of many flavors of perfection, all have choices, none deserve ridicule because of their flavor – and the ‘Conservative’ brain that wants everybody to be the ‘same’ is entirely about their own fears. Relax, be the very best human you can be, and kind to all other humans ! And for the record – all that blatant, in-your-face ‘gayness’ that exhibits itself in the parades etc, just makes me angry – that is just deliberate shock-you tactics to get back at people who are the critics – but it just confirms the worst of the bigotry – ‘they are different’ – when ‘they’ are all around us, as many as 10% of the population – a high number – your brother, uncle, aunt, sister, neighbor !!!

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