Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk
Leslie Lohmann Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York
29 August 2018 – 17 March 2019.
For nearly five decades, Donna Gottschalk (b. 1949) fiercely protected her photographic archive and the subjects who revealed themselves to her camera. The exhibition Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art marks the first time Gottschalk’s work is on view to the public. Though she never considered herself a professional, Gottschalk spent decades photographing the world around her: a decidedly queer world, filled with her lesbian and transgender siblings, her chosen and blood family, her lovers, her fellow activists, and herself. With tenderness and warmth, Gottschalk captured honest portrayals of radical lesbian communities and queer counterculture in New York and California in the late 1960s and 1970s.
Gottschalk’s coming of age and coming out coincided with the dawn of the gay liberation movement in New York. In 1969, at the age of 18, Gottschalk saw a small notice in the Village Voice for a Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting, and ‘everything changed’. She became an active participant in the movement and deeply entrenched within a community of queer radical activists in the city. Visitors to Brave, Beautiful Outlaws were invited into a sacred space: a community built from shared experiences, desires, and ideas, from honesty and trust, from love and sex, from acceptance and communal self-exploration. In tender black-and-white portraits, Gottschalk shows a wide-ranging lesbian and queer spectrum, diverse identities cutting across race, class, and gender identity.
Gottschalk approached her subjects with the utmost care and patience. She waited until there was an established trust between them, resulting in photographs with a palpable authenticity and intimacy, as the subjects eventually revealed their truest selves to her camera. These images could only come from within their community and the profound connection these women built together. When asked by her subjects why she wanted to take their photograph, Gottschalk would respond: ‘Because you are beautiful, and I never want to forget you.’
In Sleepers, Limerick, PA (1970, Fig. 1), two women sleep tenderly against one another in bed. Their heads peek out from under the blanket, curled together so closely that neither rests on the shared pillow, their bodies becoming one under their cover. A book sits on the nightstand from the night before, the window is opened halfway, and morning light bathes the bodies. The top of the composition cuts across one of Gottschalk’s own GLF posters taped to the wall as if to underline the bold exclamation ‘Lesbians Unite!’ The physical and political double entendre is satisfying, as she captures a quiet and intimate moment of revolution.
Various ephemera displayed in vitrines across the gallery help further contextualise Gottschalk’s participation in the gay liberation movement, exhibiting GLF newsletters featuring her photographs, silkscreened posters, and political prints. Most striking is an original Lavender Menace t-shirt, stencilled by Gottschalk for the Radicalesbians’ iconic ‘zap’ at the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Second Congress to Unite Women (1970). After distributing their collective manifesto The Woman-Identified Woman, the group rushed the stage and disrobed, revealing t-shirts emblazoned with ‘Lavender Menace’ – a term used the year prior by NOW president Betty Friedan, who saw lesbianism as a threat to the progress of women’s liberation.
An entire wall of the exhibition is dedicated to Gottschalk’s photographs of her transgender blood sibling Myla. We see Myla throughout the years: first at age eleven, lying in bed behind the protection of the family dog; then, five years later, sitting upright in her bed in San Francisco, no longer vulnerable or obscured in shadow, but self-possessed and creating a space of her own. Viewers bear witness to Myla’s personal evolution through the lens of someone who saw her exactly for who she was, as she wanted to be seen. We see Myla radiantly experimenting with her gender expression, languid and wistful she reclines on a chair covered in lace, wearing a dress borrowed from a friend, free within the safety of community. Another image captures Myla’s severely wounded face after an attack by a transphobic stranger. The sharp contrast reminds viewers of the imminent danger facing queer individuals at this time, and of the continual violence perpetrated against trans and gender-non-conforming people today. The community-building and family-making of Gottschalk and her peers was not only an act of mutual celebration but a survival tactic in a world that cast them aside.
Another set of photographs features Marlene, a roommate, longtime friend, and brief lover of Gottschalk’s. We see her as a young woman standing in their apartment, arms crossed against her bare chest, wearing a defiant smirk and looking at Gottschalk with loving eyes. On the wall behind her hangs a tabloid newspaper clipping from the New York Daily Mirror featuring a photo of queer women fighting in the street and the headline ‘Lesbians Torture Drag Queen’. The stark contrast between the portrayal of lesbianism in mainstream media at the time and Gottschalk’s work is immediately evident. The clipping hangs on the wall as if it is a reminder of who they are not, of the prescriptive view of lesbianism they are fighting against. Gottschalk’s lesbianism, that of lesbian activists at the turn of the 1970s, is affectionate and inclusive, her anger taking form in art, in protest, and in fierce vulnerability.
Brave, Beautiful Outlaws offers a new window onto our queer lineage, a new opportunity for queers of today to see themselves reflected in the past – a new reminder of the power of resilience and community. It is a reminder that could not feel more pertinent. At a time when lesbian sub-communities are antagonising their trans and gender-non-conforming siblings, when there is cultural anxiety over the erasure of queer histories, and when queer lives are perpetually threatened, Gottschalk’s work offers a moment of reprieve: a window onto an inclusive and affirming community built from empathy and authenticity. Her photographs are a testament to the strength and persistence with which these women lived authentically and fought to take up space, and this exhibition leaves us with a strategy for the continual building of our queer futures.
Rachel Beaudoin is an art historian, independent curator, and art educator who specializes in queer and feminist art history and is passionate about cultivating community around art through empathy and interdisciplinary exploration. After graduating from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2017, they worked on curatorial projects at The Jewish Museum and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City. They are currently curating a forthcoming exhibition on body fragmentation and assemblage in contemporary queer art at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Rachel is based in Austin, TX.