Life & Culture

Male Erotica from a Time When It Was Illegal

Focusing on the decades before Stonewall, Sex Crimes is a new exhibition that brings together work by artists who produced homosexual art and literature under the threat of arrest

It wasn’t until 2003 that the US Supreme Court finally gave LGBTQ people basic civil rights protection under the Constitution, ruling that sex between consenting adults of the same gender in private was not a crime. Under the current administration, though, these rights are slowly being chipped away in an effort to take the nation back to a time when citizens could be targeted for what have been interchangeably known as Crimes Against Nature, Unnatural Acts, and Sex Crimes.

For generations, these draconian laws lead to incarceration, institutionalisation, familial rejection, public shaming, loss of employment, denial of healthcare, and even death for members of the LGBTQ community. “This is our history,” says Greg Ellis of Ward 5B, who has co-curated Sex Crimes, a new group exhibition with Brian Clamp. “Times have changed, there have been gains made, and I think it’s good to put this context out there to say, ‘hey, not too long ago this is where we were, and we don’t want to head back there.’”

Rooted in the decades before Stonewall, Sex Crimes features work by artists including George Platt Lynes, John S. Barrington, Bruce of Los Angeles, James Bidgood, Mel Roberts, Jim French, and Jack Smith, all of whom created homosexual art and literature under the threat of arrest.

“I’ve always been interested in how we as a people function in that way because that was the history of being gay for so long,” Ellis says. “People had to operate this way in order to survive and you can see that in the creation of safe spaces and artwork. Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia and there were pay-offs to the local police precincts and patrolmen but they still had to function under the radar. These spaces displayed signage in the windows for the gay community to know that it was a friendly place. Unless you knew what was going on, you wouldn’t understand what it meant.”

Sex Crimes looks at the issue of mental health and how the American Psychiatric Association (APA) formulated subjective diagnoses of homosexuality as a pathology (which it finally removed in 1990) in order to be taken seriously by the power structure. The show includes work by Freddie Herko, who had been targeted by his own family, sent to conversion therapy, and ultimately committed suicide.

The exhibition also explores the impact of McCarthyism on the LGBTQ community in the years leading up to Stonewall. “On the surface, McCarthyism was about communism and un-American behaviours in a political way – but it affected gay men and women in government and the arts more than any other people,” Ellis says.

“The queer community has always been considered subversive American types. The history that exists for an entire group of people came out of these laws, this prejudice, and this hate. They responded with this art work so that they could still exist within that culture and remain true to themselves.”

Sex Crimes is on view at ClampArt, New York City until September 28, 2019.