How they broke the closet in 1969

Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet into the Stonewall Era (here on Amazon) is a nicely presented coffee-table type book of photographs from two lesbian photographers in and around the Stonewall riot era (late 60s and early 70s) in New York City and other places on the east coast of the USA. The book has been published now to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a tipping point for gay rights and gay liberation movements.

I say “gay” here because that’s how it was known at the time, but language changes so quickly among marginalised groups that the Stonewall era has already become tricky to talk about. Do we honour the labels people used (or didn’t) for themselves at the time? Do we use modern inclusive language to avoid some kinds of offence or confusion at the risk of causing others – how do we apply current labels to people who didn’t think about themselves as we do now?

The book addresses this obstacle: its editor, Jason Baumann, the LGBTI Initiative coordinator at the New York Public Library which holds the photo collection this book has been compiled from, acknowledges the “tremendous change” from language the people in these photos were likely to use words like homosexual and transvestite, and what’s used now. He says “Although it may at times be anachronistic, I have used the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer [and] LGBTQ to better reflect the language commonly in use today.”

Yet he consistently refers to photographs featuring people apparently of the same gender as “a gay couple” or “lesbians” in the captions he’s written, even where the people’s names are not known and thus it seems impossible that their sexualities can be. At times he writes, say, “two men” which seems more inclusive so it’s frustrating to see such bi-erasing language used so necessarily elsewhere after a stated commitment to use modern language. I wish he’d also had the modern, bi-inclusive reluctance to define people’s sexuality by who they happen to be sitting next to. The blurb descriptions and quotes also exclusively use “gay rights” and “gay liberation” to describe these photos so it’s frustrating to see such inconsistency in the commitment to modern language.

The photos themselves are nice, ranging from touching candid shots of couples to fierce political activism. There’s not much here for the bisexual reader looking to see themselves reflected though: the only time the word appears when it isn’t part of the LGBTQ list is in the caption of a photo of feminist writer Kate Millett, “speaking at a panel on sexuality at which she publicly came out as bisexual.” Wikipedia cites her as a lesbian, which leaves this all the more ambiguous.

The book is an enjoyable one to flick through but I can’t help think of bisexual invisibility and erasure as I do so.

Holly

 


BCN issue 155 coverThis originally appeared in

Bi Community News issue 155

Published July/August 2019.