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Two Photography Shows Highlight How “White” America’s Gay History Is

Two new photography shows about Fire Island and George Platt Lynes inadvertently highlight how white the prevailing version of American gay history is.

Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove opened at the New-York Historical Society in May and runs until October. “This exhibition explores the gay and lesbian community that flourished during the 1950s in Cherry Grove [Fire Island] through some 70 enlarged photographs and additional ephemera,” write the curators. The photographs are a mix of color and black-and-white snapshots preserved by the Cherry Grove Archives Collection, depicting men and women relaxing on the beach, dressed for parties, and otherwise unwinding—a fascinating document of years gone by in one of America’s first gay retreats. (See also Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island Pines.)

George Platt Lynes: Face/Flesh/Form opened at the Childs Gallery in Boston on July 1 and runs through August 28. From the web page: “Photographer George Platt Lynes, famous for his commercial work in fashion magazines, secretly produced a substantial body of nude and homoerotic photography throughout his life.” Fifteen of these black-and-white photographs are on display here, including seductive images of Jack Fontan, Robert Schafer, and Mel Fillini that exemplify the dramatic framing, posture, and lighting for which Lynes was known.

While I have not seen the Cherry Grove exhibition in person, what is striking about all of the images shown online is how “white” they are: pictures of white men, by white men, for white men. As a white man married to another white man, I feel ill qualified to editorialize on the subject, but the simple fact is glaring. It has also not escaped other critics. Reviewing Safe/Haven in BuzzFeed.News, Pia Peterson wrote, “Let’s be honest, we are looking at predominantly white men, because that’s the unfortunate truth of the world, that white men get everything first.”

It may seem unfair to call out exhibitions of particular bodies of work for what is not in those corpora, but these two shows are by no means unique. An hour leafing through three great books about the male nude produced the same impression: In Peter Weiermair’s The Hidden Image, David Leddick’s The Male Nude Buy, and Petra Mason’s Beefcake Buy, most of the photographers (possibly all of them) are white men, and the vast majority of the images depict white men. Where photographs of people of color are included, they can seem “ethnographic,” objectified, or hypersexualized.

Marhsa P. Johnson, James Baldwin, and RuPaul Charles

From James Baldwin to Marsha P. Johnson to RuPaul, queer Americans of color have been there whenever it counts. Michael Bronski reported this simple fact in A Queer History of the United States Buy, and Kevin Mumford devoted his book Not Straight, Not White Buy to the subject. “I wanted to reclaim a history that had been washed over,” Mumford told the Illinois News Bureau in 2016, to show how “black gay lives matter.”

With that, here are a few photographic antidotes worth reading; suggestions for others gratefully accepted:

Art Notes

Illustration by Gay·F·fect. Photograph of the Eta Carina Nebula CC BY 4.0 ESO (European Southern Observatory). Drawing of Marsha P. Johnson CC BY-SA 4.0 Dramamonster. Photograph of James Baldwin CC BY-SA 3.0 Allan Warren. Photograph of RuPaul Charles by State of California.

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