Stories of commercial brands using artists’ work without their permission, and cashing in on the stolen designs, are unfortunately all too common. In May, when an image began circulating on Twitter of a new t-shirt sold by Gap that featured the logo of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group founded in 1992, many presumed the American retailer guilty of the exploitative practice, unscrupulously profiting from artists and the queer community.
In reality, Gap had not only secured the permission of the artist, longtime Avengers collaborator Carrie Moyer, but also compensated her to reproduce the distinctive bomb graphic on the shirt, which also included a text about the group and the names of its founding activists. After running the project by three of the Lesbian Avengers’ six co-founders, Moyer sold the logo for $7,000 and donated the money to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York.
But the three remaining founding members — Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Ana Maria Simo, and Sarah Schulman — say they were never consulted by the artist nor the company. They were shocked to discover the shirt advertised as part of the Gap Collective: Pride collection this spring, what they saw as an instance of “the commodification and co-optation” of lesbian history.
On June 18, after the digital publication Autostraddle ran a story about the initial Twitter controversy and interviewed Moyer and co-founder Maxine Wolfe about their decision to license the logo, the three members penned an open letter to Gap.
“The GAP commercial deal was done without consultation with the larger body of the New York chapter, or other Avenger chapters across the world,” wrote d’Adesky, Simo, and Schulman.
The group, they continued, was founded “on activist principles that oppose the commercial branding/sale of lesbian history and ideas.”
“As founding members of the New York 90s Avengers, we strongly oppose any deal made to license the Lesbian Avenger name, logo, member names and origin story to the GAP — or to any corporation or commercial entity for purposes of profit,” the letter says. They add that the Avengers already had their own official t-shirt for sale on their website, the proceeds of which support the group’s historic documentary project.
“Movements are creative group experiences, and the ideas that emerge from them are a product of a creative relationship,” Schulman told Hyperallergic. “If a person comes up with a design or slogan, that piece of artwork comes from their proximity to the others. No one owns that. There were many, many graphic images in the Lesbian Avengers: t-shirts, posters, handbooks, a wide variety of campaigns, and no one owns any of them.”
Schulman also noted that while Moyer had authored the version of the Avengers’ logo sold to Gap, the bomb symbol was first drawn on a pamphlet handed out at the 1992 Gay Pride March by co-founder Simo, one of the writers of the open letter.
She also questions the price Gap paid for such a piece of history: even with a limited edition run of 1,100 shirts, at $34.95 each, “the math doesn’t add up” considering the $7,000 payout, she said.
Gap has since taken the shirts out of circulation — not in response to the open letter, but over a separate kerfuffle related to the product’s design. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Moyer said the retailer had initially proposed releasing a series of shirts honoring different queer activist groups for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Then the pandemic happened, and Moyer thought the project had been shelved. Instead, she says, the company quietly rolled out the Avengers shirt this year as part of its larger Gap Collective collection, described simply as “an ongoing product collaboration celebrating the spirit of activism and the energy of forward movement.“
The shirt featured the names of the Avengers’ original founders, which Gap itself had asked Moyer to exclude over possible legal concerns. But the art director at Gap who was in charge of the project left the company last year, and the correction was never made. Moyer asked the brand to take down the shirt altogether since the design violated the contract she had signed, and Gap conceded. (The company has not replied to a request for comment.)
“I thought this would be a portfolio of t-shirts that showed the history of different grassroots activist groups. I thought we’d be part of something bigger with projects like Silence=Death and National Coming Out Day,” Moyer told Hyperallergic.
The artist also says that she consulted with three Avengers founders, not just Wolfe but also Marie Honan and Anne Maguire, before selling the logo. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Honan said she had some apprehensions about working with a commercial retailer, but ultimately green-lighted the project.
“I wasn’t keen to get involved with the Gap, but when they described what the project was, it seemed like a more interesting proposition,” Honan said.
The company’s blunder with the design aside, Moyer rejects that the logo’s use in a t-shirt inherently cheapens or commercializes the Avengers’ history and contributions.
“It’s a fake sense of outrage,” she told Hyperallergic. “There’s this idea of some kind of purity about what this is. And, the truth is, the Lesbian Avenger Handbook is for sale at Walmart and Amazon.” (The group’s unique how-to manual, subtitled A Handy Guide to Homemade Revolution, is sold in those stores online.)
“It’s an interesting question, the ethics of ‘Rainbow Capitalism.’ But where do you draw the line? Amazon and Walmart have a terrible history of contributing to anti-LGBTQ politics,” Honan said.
“We’re at this state where capitalism is a giant machine that just sort of eats everything. But it’s also a means of communicating if you want it to be,” Moyer added. “And in this case, the idea of releasing this t-shirt was informing people about the history of Dyke Marches, which are all over the country now.”
The first Dyke March took place in April 1993, on the eve of the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. The Lesbian Avengers led the organizing along with activists from the ACT UP movement and the LA-based group Puss n’ Boots, and continue to help mobilize thousands for the annual event — “a protest march, not a parade” — to this day. This Saturday, June 26, demonstrators will walk down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to Washington Square Park for the 2021 NYC Dyke March.
It’s one of the countless legacies of the Avengers, which fought fiercely for lesbian visibility and survival, advocating for gay and lesbian individuals to be included in school curricula and opposing homophobic legislation.
“I’m interested in using different routes to seed propaganda,” Moyer said. “If you don’t know about the Lesbian Avengers in Omaha you’re not going to look them up, but maybe you’ll see them on the Gap. That was the thinking Maxine and I had about it.”
But great care must be taken when it comes to disseminating that history through channels not affiliated with it, especially in the case of a commercial entity, says d’Adesky, one of the three co-founders who wrote the open letter to Gap.
“Decades ago, we weren’t thinking about our logo being on a Louis Vuitton bag,” she told Hyperallergic. “This was cultural resistance that was produced by and for lesbians, not for consumption. The humor, the in-your-face graphics, it was reflecting that we were in a different political moment in the early ’90s. Now everyone is branding themselves, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the shirt becomes an NFT before we can blink.”
D’Adesky also echoes Schulman’s view that the logo, texts, and graphics created for the Avengers were birthed from a collective movement, not a single person.
“What is the relationship of the individual to a larger social cause many years later? This is something confronting every political or social group. ACT UP’s name has been taken and used,” she said.
Despite their differences, the three co-founders who spoke to Hyperallergic all agreed that the Gap t-shirt saga brought to the surface complex questions about the visual language of activism — its creation, ownership, circulation, and appropriation. The pernicious and systemic erasure of lesbian activism by mainstream media, which has largely ignored the role of lesbians in LGBTQ and AIDS activism, renders these issues all the more urgent and consequential.
But the Lesbian Avengers “isn’t just something that just happened 30 years ago, it’s a living history,” says D’Adesky.
“We can sit and argue about merchandise if we want to, but we’re marching for the need to defend lesbian history and rights and our mission statement and our principles all over the world,” she said. “We’re not just acting for ourselves.”