Suffering for our sexuality—In contemporary art, being queer looks authentic if it hurts

I didn’t realize I was bisexual until I had a sex dream about Julien Baker. I was 19, and it was the middle of summer, and I had fallen asleep listening to her discography. She was (is) my favorite musician and is also a lesbian. That morning, I felt warm and happy and comforted—it wasn’t a ‘gotcha, surprise!’ as much as a visual validation of what I already knew. Sex is not sexuality and sexuality is not sex, but the sunny feeling of relief that melted across my chest while I lay on my back in my bed felt like a confirmation.

In high school, I had moments of shimmering veracity: times I wanted to kiss my girl friends, crushes cloaked by admiration. But I always circled back to the same paradoxical anxiety that I wasn’t gay enough to be bisexual. I attribute part of this to the concept of merit—I felt I had not earned the identity of being queer, because I had not yet dated anyone, had not suffered for my sexuality, had not justified myself. My identity, it seemed, rested on the boxes I hadn’t checked.

After visiting the 2019 Whitney Biennial, one image, a photograph by gender non-conforming artist Elle Pérez titled “Dahlia and David (fag with a scar that says dyke),” has not left my mind. I was first magnetized by it, and then frustrated. From flesh, small lakes of crimson. Blood spills from incisions where the word “DYKE” is carved into the skin of a disembodied thigh where it floats to the surface against shadow. Two latex-gloved hands hold a tissue and a scalpel. The photograph elicited in me a familiar vexation: why is queerness historically associated with pain?

“When Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, and Nan Goldin were creating art about queer bodies, the very existence of those bodies was subversive; to assert their existence, completely unvarnished, was outrageous.”

The queer experience has historically been painful, and it is important to remember that pain and to honor those who have undergone it. The works of artists from Kiki Smith to David Wojnarowicz explore the pain of being queer during the AIDS epidemic—Wojnarowicz conceptualized his photography and wrote his memoir Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration in response to the crisis, both to evoke rage from others and to express his own. His art and writing are challenging to engage with because of their depictions of pain, not unlike how Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits with blood vessels and thorns force the viewer to see the artist in conjunction with her suffering. When Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, and Nan Goldin were creating art about queer bodies, the very existence of those bodies was subversive; to assert their existence, completely unvarnished, was outrageous.

Wojnarowicz was shamed for his activism, including when he dumped the ashes of his partner, Warren Krause—who died of complications from AIDS—on the grounds of The White House to protest the President George H.W. Bush administration’s passivity towards the AIDS crisis. His actions helped catalyze ACT UP’s 1966 Ashes Action, which encouraged people to spread the ashes of loved ones who had died from AIDS-related complications on the South Lawn. (The ashes of Wojnarowicz, who had passed away four years earlier, were scattered amongst them.) In a presidential debate with Bill Clinton one day after Ashes Action, Bush was asked about the government’s responsibility for the AIDS epidemic. “Well, change your behavior,” Bush retorted. “If the behavior you’re using is prone to cause AIDS, change the behavior.”

We’ve come a long way since the 1990s: the number of new HIV diagnoses is down by two thirds, and gay marriage was legalized in 2015, and representation of LGBTQ folks on television has noticeably improved. The success of Queer Eye has resulted in part from the need for gay joy, but episodes typically hinge on tragic backstories in order to make the joy seem warranted. Movies with gay subjects still circle around conversion camp plots (Boy Erased, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) or involve devastation or death (Dallas Buyers Club, The Normal Heart, 120 BPM, It.) Many films about gay relationships, even without death, conclude with a heavy sadness (Blue is the Warmest Color); those that do not, as with Carol’s ambiguous ending, rarely receive public recognition at the big awards ceremonies despite garnering critical acclaim.

Pain is prevalent in media because of its ability to foster empathy. Photographs of marginalized groups (documentation of the AIDS crisis, viral images of migrant children) can translate passive pity into active compassion; they help viewers connect suffering to a living (or dying) human. At the same time, these images can reduce a community’s existence to their suffering. The mutilation of the body raises yet more questions. Is the subject self-harming because of internalized homophobia? Could the hands belong to another, unidentified person, who is inflicting pain (or even pleasure) upon the subject? Is a slur a reclamation, or a damnation? To what extent do we interrogate the artist’s own identity? Because queer art and artists—and lesbians, specifically—have been historically restricted in society, the images that are presented by major art institutions become the primary source for many viewers to engage with the queer experience outside of a queer context. Research about representation in art galleries is sparse, the most accessible studies on artists’ sexual orientation in large-scale group exhibitions being PDFs of masters theses and a couple of dated JSTOR links.

Pérez states that their photographs are “neither reflections of reality nor imprints of personhood”—instead, they express the ability of the body to mutate and evolve—an abstract objective evident in the artist’s body of work as a whole. There’s a scene of compassion and comfort for a person who has undergone top surgery, a phosphorescent hand holding a glowing bottle of testosterone; a portrait of a person bruised around the eyes, recovering from facial feminization surgery. “Mae (Three Days After)” is a stunning photograph; the colors are crisp, the head-scarf reminiscent of Virgin Mary. The pain of transitioning is simultaneously imbued with the hopeful anticipation of fulfillment or pleasure.

“Part of why it took me a little while to legitimize my sexuality was my hesitance to claim something I feared wasn’t mine.”

Photographer Catherine Opie twists these boundaries through her own technique: etching drawings onto her back. The photographs “Self-Portrait/Pervert” and “Self-Portrait/Nursing” were exhibited at the 1994 and 2004 Whitney Biennials, respectively—representing Opie’s enduring influence as subversive representations of motherhood and family, and the contradictions she embodies as a butch lesbian and lauded artist. In the latter photograph, Opie is wearing a mask in reference to the queer leather community, and the word ‘pervert’ presents the complexities in that identity. Opie’s page on the Guggenheim’s website shares this interpretation of these photographs: “Faintly but clearly visible on her chest, the word ‘pervert’ still appears as a scar, a trace of her history that carries forward through time.” The museum’s explanation halts me. While it is true to say that Opie has withstood metaphorical lacerations, the insistence that that history “carries her forward” feels masochistic, and contributes to the idea that the queer experience hangs on the painful past.

My life does not revolve around my queerness; my bisexuality has been an agent of joy in my life, but my happiness does not depend upon it. Part of why it took me a little while to legitimize my sexuality was my hesitance to claim something I feared wasn’t mine. And part of that fear was fueled by the particular representations of gayness impressed upon me by media and institutions, which are often incentivized to show images of queer people in pain as a means of proving their own empathy. Recognition of historical pain is a necessary toxin that warrants time and space within art—but that narrative often consumes others, coming at the expense of the happy queer art that does exist, and that contains narratives which are essential in forming the associations young people have with gay lives.

Large institutions have the power to expand our perspectives: whatever medium, they can widen the avenues through which we engage with the lives of others. Well-funded and purportedly future-looking structures need to reckon with their patterns. Painful art will continue to be made so long as pain exists, but those stories, when isolated and multiplied by those who have not lived them, are easily tokenized to the detriment of us all.