US Jewish institutions take pride in LGBTQ support
Marking confrontational pivot point in the gay rights movement which saw police violence, museums and nonprofits join consortium to commemorate the event through art and education
By CATHRYN J. PRINCE. 1 June 2019. Times of Israel.
NEW YORK — At first glance Ross Bleckner’s “Double Portrait (Gay Flag)” might be viewed simply as a pop-culture tribute to the rainbow flag symbolic of the gay rights movement.
But a closer inspection of the painting reveals a raised Star of David and it becomes clear — the nine-foot by three-foot canvas is really an exploration of the artist’s overlapping gay and Jewish identities.
For the past year, as part of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, the Jewish Museum’s “Scenes from the Collection” has displayed works highlighting themes of gender and identity. Through these canvases it hopes visitors will further explore the role Jewish people, institutions and art played in the LGBTQ civil rights movement.
The museum is one of several Jewish institutions, including the Center for Jewish History, the American Jewish Historical Society and the Museum of Jewish Heritage, participating in the nonprofit Stonewall 50 Consortium. The consortium provides the framework for commemorations and celebrations of the watershed event.
“Jews have always been involved in social justice in US and gay Jews and allies have been key players in the movement,” said Eric Marcus, the consortium’s founder and chair.
Among those instrumental in supporting LGBTQ rights were people such as Pauline Phillips, who wrote the advice column Dear Abby, and famed writer Larry Kramer, who co-founded the nonprofits Gay Mens Health Crisis and Act Up. There was also Jeanne Manford, who founded PFLAG, an organization for parents of homosexual children, and her son, Morty, who became an activist after he was brutally beaten in 1972.
On June 28, 1969, a group of homeless LGBTQ teens, trans women of color, lesbians, drag queens, gay men and allies took a stand when New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar. At the time the American Psychiatric Association deemed homosexuality a mental illness, and homosexuality was illegal in nearly every state. Legal penalties ranged from three months in jail to possible life in prison.
The Stonewall Inn raid turned into a multi-night uprising. However, contrary to popular belief, said Marcus, it wasn’t the start of the modern gay rights movement, nor was it where pride began. It wasn’t even the first time police and LGBTQ people were in confrontation.
Instead, it was a pivot point.
“Stonewall has been ever mythologized. LGBTQ history didn’t begin at Stonewall. There was a 19-year history of gay rights advocacy before Stonewall,” Marcus said. “What it did though is turn a very modest movement into a national movement. Later, the AIDS crisis supercharged the movement. Still, what occurred after Stonewall would not have occurred without the uprising.”
Marcus said he hopes the consortium will illuminate the hidden history and clear up misconceptions about the LGBTQ civil rights movement. As part of that effort it released “Stonewall: The Basics,” a FAQ-style primer on the uprising.
A prolific author as well as founder and host of the podcast Making Gay History, Marcus said many might not realize just how many Jewish people were involved in the early years of the movement.
The consortium came about after Marcus was asked to meet with the National Park Service in Washington, DC, to talk about developing educational material around Stonewall.
What began as a one person meeting grew to a five-person conference call, which then blossomed into a 20-person conference call, he said. There are now 230 organizations and 400 events scheduled in each of New York City’s five boroughs.
“We are the little organization that could. I’m looking forward to talking about how people experience the idea of Stonewall, what it means to them, and how it inspires them in their lives today,” Marcus said.
Sometimes it’s necessary to look to the past to find inspiration for today, he said.
On June 3, the Center for Jewish History, in conjunction with the American Jewish Historical Society, will present Sidney Franklin’s autobiography, “El Torero de la Torah,” also known as “The Bullfighter from Brooklyn.” Franklin, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, became the world’s first Jewish bullfighter in the 1920s. A closeted gay man, Franklin grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
For art institutions such as the Jewish Museum, marking Stonewall is a way to celebrate the diversity of Jewish culture and identity. Going forward the museum wants to continue providing opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue, fostering empathy, mutual understanding, and respect.
“We’ve been enthusiastic about creating programs in partnership with the Stonewall 50 Consortium. This collaboration has allowed us to build on the inclusive representation of Jewish identity in the Jewish Museum’s collection exhibition, ‘Scenes from the Collection,’ and explore LGBTQ history and activism through the lens of art on view at the museum,” said Nelly Silagy Benedek, senior director of education.
Aside from Bleckner’s painting, visitors to “Scenes from a Collection” will see Gert Wollheim’s portrait of a gender ambiguous couple in Weimar Germany; as well as a series of paintings by Chantal Joffe portraying gay Jewish women of the 20th century, such as Claude Cahun, Gertrude Stein, and Susan Sontag.
There will also be several gallery talks and tours in the days leading up to, and after, the June 28 commemoration.
“Our Stonewall-inspired programs have cultivated new audiences of all ages, and we hope to continue offering similar programs in the future,” Benedek said.