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Cruising the Collection: Queer Images at the MCA

by Jack Schneider

In late May, protests and riots erupted across the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd, a black man, by white Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin.[1] Much media coverage, political rhetoric, and public discourse has been devoted to debating which forms of resistance are effective at creating lasting change. We can look to LGBTQ history to see how collective actions such as riots in response to injustice and inequity have affected long-term change. In fact, the now-ubiquitous Pride began as a riot. On June 28, 1969, the New York Police Department raided the historic gay bar the Stonewall Inn. Queer people were routinely harassed by the police during this era, and raids were not uncommon. Yet this time, the patrons fought back. The ensuing six days of protests and riots are credited as the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement.

LGBTQ+ people have been persecuted throughout history for deviating from heteronormative society. In the 20th century, these oppressive conditions necessitated the creation of clandestine networks of bars such as the Stonewall Inn, bathhouses, bookstores, private homes, public parks, and other safe spaces where queer people could connect. In parallel, codes were developed which allowed LGBTQ+ people to identify each other in public without disclosing their identity more broadly. To cruise is to learn these codes and traverse these networks in search of love, lust, and kinship; thus, cruising is way of life for queer people.

Because of the bravery of LGBTQ activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were among the first to resist at Stonewall, things have gotten better for LGBTQ people in the United States and many other parts of the world.[2] Art has played a role in making the LGBTQ community more visible to broader society; many queer artists seek to rectify the repression of representation of LGBTQ people through their work. Photography in particular has proven to be a potent medium for documenting queer life.

On this essayistic cruise we’ll take a look at some of these image-makers in the MCA Collection and the subjects of their attention. As part of the MCA’s holdings, each of these artworks was, at one point or another, purchased by or gifted to the museum. By keeping these works in the collection, the MCA asserts their cultural value and artistic importance. While queerness may not be a major theme of the MCA Collection, as with cruising in real life, wonderful things can be found in the niches.