A Quagmire for Queer Art

Art addressing issues of sexuality lacks prominence on Harvard’s campus

A Quagmire for Queer Art
Whitney E. Adair

Art addressing issues of sexuality lacks prominence on Harvard’s campus

Walking into a gallery in Boston, you are confronted by a roomful of same-sex couples arm in arm—a group of people publicly announcing their same-sex love. Instead of the canvases gracing the walls, this scene is the work of art, part of a larger series entitled "PDA: Public Displays of Acceptance." The series itself is just one of three parts of an ongoing project called "The Wedlock Project," which aims to challenge the viewer’s perceptions of gay marriage. Two married artists TTBaum and Michael Grohall began the long series in 2009 in order to spread acceptance of homosexual matrimony.

"The Wedlock Project" is just one of many artistic events aimed at the queer community in Boston. As the capital of the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in November 2003, the city has long been one of the most accepting in the country for Americans with same-sex lifestyles. Its open-mindedness is clearly reflected by its burgeoning Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) artistic scene. Still, recent events on the national level—including the suicide of homosexual Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi this September—have demonstrated that the United States is not entirely acccepting of its LGBT communities.

According to TTBaum and Grohall, art—whether it be theater, literature, visual art, or music—can be employed to alter antiquated perceptions of sexuality. The definition of ‘art’, like ‘sexuality’, is fluctuating and often ambiguous; its very fluidity lends it the power to promote active societal engagement with the complex issues like those associated with the homosexual community in America.

It might be surprising, then, to realize that Harvard—situated as it is amongst such a liberal population—seems to lack a great wealth of artistic productions and artistic organizations targeting issues of gender and sexuality at first glance. On closer inspection, though, H-BOMB Magazine, last year’s "ACT UP New York" exhibition at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, and other individual projects have sought to encourage discourse about sexuality. But in general, these works seem to garner little attention from the community at large. The lack may betray a certain level of discomfort with controversial issues of sexuality.

PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF ACCEPTANCE

TTBaum and Grohall, pioneers amongst the Boston LGBT Community, present a clear demonstration of how art can challenge perceptions of sexuality. Their ongoing project aims to inspire discourse on the controversy surrounding same-sex marriage through visual, performance, and community art.

"A lot of creativity comes from our sexuality," says TTBaum. "This is often the creative basis of my own body of work. We, as a same-sex couple, are constantly confronted with the question of how we look to the world at large."

According to TTBaum and Grohall, the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts triggered conflict within both the straight and LGBT communities--a conflict felt deeply by both artists. In "Wedlock" they seek to address these conflicts both personally and publicly.

"Gay marriage is very new in the social consciousness," says Grohall. "We don’t know how to deal with it; it doesnt really change the definition of marriage as much as it alters gender roles between equals. Thus we sought to both expose and resolve this conflict within ‘The Wedlock Project.’"

The project is composed of three consecutive parts: "Engagement," "PDA" and "Matrimony." The first part involved a month-long, multimedia exhibition in Boston’s Space 242, which showcased visual and performance artwork from TTBaum, Grohall, and six other artists. The entire enterprise opened with a live performance by the couple assuming their alter-egos, the Romeos. This performance—and indeed "Engagement" as a whole—sought to question the conventional bases of all male relationships.

The next stage of their venture engaged the public more actively. "Part Two, ‘PDA’, invited people in many different venues throughout Boston to come out and perform a public display of affection with a member of the same sex," Grohall says. "It encouraged the outsider to view this physical connection in a different light, and allowed the queer-identified people the opportunity to feel accepted by the community," he adds.

The third and final stage of the Wedlock Project is ongoing. "When we were first starting out," says Grohall, "there was a lot of controversy and a lot of confusion amongst the gay community in regards to the legalization of same-sex marriage. There was a struggle and a marked feeling of a loss of cultural identity." TTBaum and Grohall sought to create something positive from these chaotic reactions. "We have always been a community which takes tradition and makes it our own. Therefore ‘Matrimony’ is itself addressing the institution of marriage and an effort to prove to both the queer and straight communities that we can mold this institution into something which is ours, but also something very beautiful," says Grohall.

Both artists emphasize the importance of art not only as a creative outlet, but also as a medium for vital cultural discourse and social activism. To advance is social goals, the work is public and inclusive. "PDA" in particular demonstrates the ability of accessible art to engage viewers who would not usually identify with art directed towards the queer community. According to the artists, this form of art plays a vital role in the eradication of entrenched misconceptions and prejudices about the queer community.

ARTISTIC EXPERIMENTS

While Harvard may not showcase such direct artistic celebration of homosexuality, the campus does offer a range of support groups for LGBT students: these include Queer Students and Allies (QSA), the Jewish LGBT support group BAGELS, and Girlspot, an organization providing resources to the female questioning and lesbian communities. Although vital on campus, they are essentially bodies of social support without direct engagement with art.

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