FAMILY: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America
This is the book I looked for eight years ago when I began to realize that I was gay. I was in college, all my friends appeared straight, and my head was filled with only gay stereotypes. These stereotypes didn't fit my self-image and I began to feel the need to learn more about myself and others like me. Gay men and lesbians were all around me, but with their chameleon-like quality, I didn't realize they were there.
Sometimes a photographer's work can be a picture of the photographer as well as her subjects. When I talked with Jean Mills, working the Alabama land her father once farmed, I recalled my childhood on my family's farm in Caroline County, Virginia. Dan Stevens of Maine, who rattled on about his ancestors, reminded me of my late Aunt Margaret, who diligently traced our family back to Jamestown in 1619. When Allen Spencer talked of singing in his church choir, I thought back to my hometown Southern Baptist church, where my mother was the organist and I sang in the youth choir. Martina Navratilova was the first famous person who I knew was gay.
But even those whose lives bear scant resemblance to mine share a common thread: We are gay in a predominantly straight society. There are those who, if they could flip a switch and become straight, would gladly do so. Others, such as Ana Chang, are grateful for a gift that allowed them to see life a little differently, even at the expense of losing all contact with her parents.
Rejection by our families is often our greatest fear. If that rejection comes, gays then turn to others like themselves to form a "family." The word family is slang to mean gay in many parts of the country.
But just like any family, relations aren't always smooth. Some branches are embarrassed or enraged by others. Lipstick lesbians don't want gay women to be portrayed as bull dykes. Even the less-than-pious would excommunicate members of ACT UP who disrupt cathedral Mass. The burly boxer doesn't want to be associated with the drag queen. And the drag queen says individual freedom is what it's all about, honey.
As I searched for subjects, I operated under the assumption that I could find gay people anywhere -- the only difficulty would be their willingness to be photographed. I wanted to show a reflection of America, from the politician to the Elvis impersonator. A bar owner in Memphis flatly stated that there were no gay Elvis impersonators, and I needn't waste my time looking. But I found several.
I read hundreds of newspapers and newsletters, and questioned hundreds of people. When I asked about couples who had been together 50 years or more, many gays laughed at the mere possibility. But I photographed Gean Harwood and Bruhs Mero, who have been together for 63 years. Often, I found what I wasn't even looking for. Once, when searching for a Jewish family celebrating Sukkoth, an exasperated Michael Thompson couldn't answer any of my queries but suggested I might be interested in photographing Joseph Dittfeld -- a Holocaust survivor.
Some lines repeated throughout my journey. Whether it was Glenn Burke, growing up in sight of San Francisco, or Wanda Henson in Mississippi, both thought they were "the only one." Few interviews with men failed to discuss AIDS. The color red is omnipresent at gay events - from a single feather in a New Orleans Mardi Gras Ball costume to the ribbon on a cowboy's shirt in Arizona. While AIDS is woven into the fabric of our lives, it is too often used to define us as gay people.
Once, at a showing of portraits of gays, three people from the audience complimented me on my "AIDS pictures." Yet I had not even mentioned the disease. Lesbians who were interviewed seldom discussed AIDS.
Nearly every person of color talked about racism. White people barely mentioned it. Charles Gervin, a black man who lives in Detroit, offered these words, "Yes, we talk about it as much among ourselves as we talk about it with you. As a white person with another white person, you might not be aware of how much racism impacts on you, but just as much as it impacts on my life, it impacts on your life." A black lesbian refused to be photographed because she said she would not let some white woman take her picture.
I found much divides gay men and lesbians, for we are a reflection of society. But there is also a tremendous spirit of friendship and support. Strangers offered their homes, even when they declined to be photographed. This book could not have been done without the generosity and hospitality of both gay and straight people across the country.
Photographers, driven to produce the most arresting pictures possible, often portray gays only in extreme situations. Too often these photographs have been used to define gay people due to the lack of material available. That's why when a Washington Post colleague looked at my pictures he questioned, "But, these people don't look gay."
The mere fact that the women and men in this book have agreed to appear between its covers shows that they are not typical lesbians and gay men. But their photographs and words are meant to provide a glimpse into the lives of gay people, a taste of their diversity and experiences.
Nancy Andrews, August 1993