A Recent History of Censorship of LGBTQ Art

The Supreme Court may have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but artists making work about gay rights still face opposition

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait (1975). (Photo: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait (1975). (Photo: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation)

While today’s historic Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage marks a bright new chapter for the Gay Rights movement, there have been countless hurdles along the way—including many notable instances of artistic censorship.

Earlier this year, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art mounted the exhibition “Irreverent: A Celebration of Censorship,” which spotlighted significant LGBTQ art and artworks that have been censored and the controversy that surrounded them.

“Today’s news transcends gay issues,” Leslie-Lohman director Hunter O’Hanian told the Observer. “What the Supreme Court ruled is that we are all created equal. The ruling is really about treating everyone—whether they have been marginalized because of race, gender, or who they love—equally. The beauty of this is that the court put it under due process.” SCOTUS’s 5-to-4 ruling is a civil rights victory that makes same-sex marriage a constitutional right by law in every state.

Mr. O’Hanian said that the opportunity to show work that had been censored elsewhere was important, especially because the show “talked not just about the artwork itself, but also the institutions.” Most of the works, he said, were not difficult to obtain, but work by three artists that had been removed from the Izmir Center at Kültürpark in Turkey in 2012 posed a challenge. He explained that in the end the museum was able to make new digital prints for the show.

Other pieces, like the photographs by Andres Serrano vandalized in Sweden, hadn’t been shown elsewhere, and the museum was able to display the original damaged pieces.

“I would like that show to travel to one of the cities where the shows were censored in. I don’t think people really like to see work taken down.

“We are an organization that celebrates the differences of people,” he explained. “We take risks all the time. To have the Supreme Court back up that the work we do is important.”

The museum is currently showing “Interface: Queer Artists Forming Communities Through Social Media,” an exhibition of 30—mostly New York-based—artists. The show runs through August 2.

Below, are five artists and the stories behind their struggle with censorship:

Robert Mapplethorpe, Invitation to Light Gallery Opening, (January 6, 1973, 1972).  (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Robert Mapplethorpe, Invitation to Light Gallery Opening, (January 6, 1973, 1972). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

“Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1989
Robert Mapplethorpe was censored multiple times over the course of his career, but perhaps the most notable was in 1989 when he was slated to have a major retrospective at the (now-closed) Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. The exhibition, titled “Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment”, was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania and first shown in Philadelphia and Chicago before heading to D.C. However, Mapplethorpe’s imagery was deemed pornographic because of its homoerotic undertones and cancelled. Ultimately, the Washington Project for the Arts picked up the show, and visitors stood in lines around the block to get in.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, (1986-87). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly, (1986-87). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery, 2010
In 2010, another D.C. gallery, this time the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, buckled under the pressure of lawmakers to remove a video by David Wojnarowicz from the landmark show “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The video depicted ants crawling over a crucifix, and was intended as a response to the AIDS crisis. The exhibition was the first major survey of gay portraiture, and the film was shown again in New York at the New Museum in 2011.

Alma Lopez, Our Lady, (1999). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Alma Lopez, Our Lady, (1999). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Alma Lopez’s Our Lady at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2001
The artist’s digital print was included in the 2001 show “CyberArte: Tradition Meets Technology” at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, but religious activists fervently called for its removal. The print, which visually referenced queer Chicana culture, was also censored in exhibitions in Cork, Ireland and Oakland.

Kent Monkman, Duel After the Masquerade, (2007). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Kent Monkman, Duel After the Masquerade, (2007). (Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)

Kent Monkman’s Duel After the Masquerade at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2007
The artist is well-known for his sexually fluid, politically-charged commentary on European colonization of Canada’s native populations, but when his work was proposed to hang in the First Peoples’ Gallery—which normally exhibits the work of Anglo explorer-artist Paul Kane—for the 2007 exhibition “Shapeshifters, Time Travelers, and Storytellers” at the Royal Ontario Museum, curators refused to show it. Subsequently, Mr. Monkman responded with a depiction of his genderqueer alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testicle killing Kane in the painting Duel at the Masquerade.

Andres Serrano’s “A History of Sex” at Kulturen Gallery, 2007
Masked vandals filmed themselves smashing the work of Andres Serrano at the Kulturen Gallery in Lund, Sweden in 2007. The series on view, titled “A History of Sex,” graphically portrayed a variety of sex acts. After the incident, Mr. Serrano requested that the damaged work remain on view. The artist told New York Magazine, “The damaged works make a statement in and of themselves.” The museum refused, but the original works, damaged and unrestored were included in the show at Leslie-Lohman.

A Recent History of Censorship of LGBTQ Art