The ‘Progress’ Pride flag was designed in 2018 by artist Daniel Quasar to bring a greater focus on inclusion and progress within the LGBTQ+ community. Photo: Jeffrey Whyte / Alamy Stock Photo
From Stonewall to Ballrooms, Rauschenberg to RuPaul, the LGBTQ+ community has always played an important role in contemporary art. Here we take a look at the last 70 years of queer history and the artists who helped shape it.
Gay rights activist Harry Hay establishes America’s first national gay rights organisation, calling it the Mattachine Society.
Roberta Cowell becomes the first (known) British trans woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery. This enables her to receive a new birth certificate and be officially recognised as a woman.
Frida Kahlo dies at the age of 47. Despite having married Diego Rivera twice, Kahlo is an important figure for queer art history. She was extremely open about her sexuality and had multiple affairs with women while at the same time challenging gender stereotypes in her life and work. Claude Cahun, an artist often associated with the Surrealist movement who played constantly with gender in her work, also dies in 1954.
Diego Rivera (1886–1957), Emmy Lou Packard and Frida Kahlo, Coyoacan, 1941. Platinum-palladium print, printed 1995. Image: 10⅝ x 10½ in (27 x 26.8 cm). Sheet: 16⅛ x 13 in (41 x 33 cm). Sold for $8,125 on 10 December 2015 at Christie’s Online. Photo: © 2021 Banco de México Diego Rivera Frida Kahlo Museums Trust, Mexico, D.F. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
The first lesbian rights organisation, the Daughters of Bilitis, is founded in San Francisco by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, among others.
Diane Arbus’s photographs start to be published in leading magazines such as Artforum. Arbus, who was bisexual, spent her life documenting marginalised groups — including drag queens — and forging a new relationship between photographer and subject.
Andy Warhol makes the film Sleep, featuring his lover, John Giorno, sleeping naked for five hours and 20 minutes. While few make it through the whole film, it is a poignant work and significant for its place in the oeuvre of a man who was long considered to be asexual. This same year, Susan Sontag publishes her influential essay Notes on ‘Camp’.
Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson receives the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her contribution to children’s literature, which included the wildly popular Moomins series. After having an affair with theatre director Vivica Bandler, she ‘went over to the spook side’, as she put it, and from then on only had relationships with women.
Yves Saint-Laurent, one of the first fashion designers of such power he didn’t have to deny his sexuality, democratises fashion with the launch of his ready-to-wear collection, Rive Gauche.
French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, pictured with models showing his spring/summer collection on 2 February 1967. Photo: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo
David Hockney publishes a series of prints entitled Illustrations For Fourteen Poems By C.P. Cavafy, which boldly celebrate homosexual love and lust.
This same year, the UK passes the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalises homosexual acts in England and Wales, after the publication of the Wolfenden Report, which declared: ‘It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens.’
In the early hours of 18 June 1969, the New York Police carry out a raid on gay bar The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. But while intended as a routine operation, it quickly escalates to become a riot that lasts three days and sparks the annual Pride marches that take place all over the world today. Leading figures in the riot include Marsha P Johnson — who would go on to become one of Andy Warhol’s muses — and fellow trans activist Sylvia Rivera.
That same year, Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman hold an exhibition of work by gay artists in their SoHo loft. They continued to curate shows throughout the 1970s and expanded their collection in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, as they rescued numerous works by dying artists. In 1987 they founded the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation, which formally became a museum in 2016.
The first official Pride march is held in London, with over 2,000 participants. The number grew significantly as the years went on and today Pride in London attracts up to a million people. Brighton’s first Pride is held in 1973.
Kathy Kozachenko becomes the first openly gay candidate to be elected to public office when she wins a seat on the Ann Arbor city council in Michigan, US. Since then, all 50 states have elected at least one openly LGBTQ+ individual to political office in some capacity.
The Artist in Residence gallery in New York presents The Lesbian Show, one of the first exhibitions dedicated solely to lesbian artists. It was curated by Harmony Hammond, one of the founders of the gallery, who would go on to publish Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History in 2000.
The first national march on Washington DC for lesbian and gay rights, which took place on 14 October 1979. Photo: Mark Reinstein / Alamy Stock Photo
Abstract Expressionist Beauford Delaney dies. Delaney was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance who became famous for his portrayals of jazz clubs and other Black, gay figures such as James Baldwin.
That same year, over 75,000 people march on Washington, DC in support of lesbian and gay civil rights. Meanwhile, in the UK, what is now known as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health is founded.
The Terrence Higgins Trust is set up in memory of one of the first people to die of an AIDS-related illness in the United Kingdom. In the same year, the New York Times refers to the disease as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, promoting the (at the time) common misconception that AIDS only affects gay men. Activists swiftly campaign for the name to be changed and later that year, the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome becomes more widely used.
The Tom of Finland Foundation is established by artist Touko Valio Laaksonen to protect, preserve and promote the erotic arts. The Finnish artist, known for his portrayals of muscular bikers and leather men, became hugely popular on the gay scene in the 1970s.
American photographer Nan Goldin makes her most famous work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, documenting New York’s gay and transgender communities and the subculture of the Bowery neighbourhood, and exhibits it at the Aperture Foundation in the city. The title is taken from Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.
In the UK, the art world’s most famous gay couple, Gilbert & George, win the Turner Prize.
ACT UP, an AIDS advocacy group, is formed in New York in response to President Reagan’s indifference towards those living with the disease. The group hold large demonstrations to protest pharmaceutical companies’ profiteering and government neglect, popularising the slogan ‘Silence = Death’.
Artist Keith Haring is diagnosed with AIDS. A year later, he establishes the Keith Haring Foundation, which continues to bring art and education to children as well as providing funding for AIDS organisations. He dies in 1990.
Keith haring (1958–1990), Silence = Death, 1988. Acrylic on canvas. 108 x 120 in (274.3 x 304.8 cm). Sold for $5,609,500 on 14 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York. Photo: © Keith Haring Foundation
Artist Isaac Julien gains a cult following after the release of his film Looking for Langston. A poetic exploration of the world of Black artists during the Harlem Renaissance, and particularly poet and activist Langston Hughes, the film plays with time and place, bringing together the roaring 20s with the hedonism of the 80s.
Meanwhile, Stonewall UK is formed by Ian McKellen and others in response to Margaret Thatcher’s controversial ‘Section 28’ legislation, which forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in published material and schools. It would later be repealed in 2003.
The work of Robert Mapplethorpe is successfully defended in an obscenity case brought about by anti-pornography activists, who fail to persuade the jury that his photographs lacked artistic merit. Mapplethorpe himself died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1989.
Félix González-Torres unveils six billboards across New York featuring black-and-white photographs of his empty double bed. Referencing the grief and devastation of the AIDS crisis, these were on show as the artist’s lover was dying from AIDS complications.
Artist Zoe Leonard writes her seminal poem I Want a President in response to poet Eileen Myles’ announcement that she would be running in the 1992 race for president of the United States as an independent candidate. The first line of the poem reads: ‘I want a dyke for president.’ That same year, she exhibits large photographs of female genitalia at Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany, juxtaposing them with 17th-century portraits in the city’s Neue Galerie.
Also in 1992, two giants of pop culture come together when Gianni Versace designs the costumes for Elton John’s world tour, inspired by his album The One (which Versace also designed the cover artwork for).
Jean Paul Gaultier, one of the first couture designers to put men in skirts, becomes co-host of Eurotrash — a surreal late-night magazine show broadcast on the UK’s Channel 4. This high-kitsch celebration of European eccentricity quickly became a cult classic. Gaultier presented the show until 1997 — incidentally, the same year that his costume designs featured prominently in Hollywood blockbuster The Fifth Element.
Derek Jarman (1942–1993), Sketch for Caravaggio. Chalk on chalk board. 30½ x 46¾ in (77.5 x 118.8 cm). Sold for £3,500 on 16 November 2010 at Christie’s in London
Prominent artist, filmmaker and activist Derek Jarman dies of AIDS, aged 52. Jarman was a leading voice against the Section 28 legislation and campaigned to raise AIDS awareness. His films include Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1987) and Edward II (1991), all of which starred his friend and frequent collaborator, Tilda Swinton.
Vaginal Davis — a leading figure on the queer and punk club performance scene in LA — makes a film entitled The White To Be Angry. Drawing on her earlier work as part of ‘homocore’ band Pedro, Muriel & Esther (PME), the film confronts white supremacist culture while at the same time retaining the humour and transgression that would later influence the Riot Grrrl movement.
The same year, Elizabeth Taylor sells a gown she wore to the 1969 Academy Awards to raise money for amFAR, one of the world’s leading non-profit organisations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education and the advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy, at an auction held by Christie’s in New York. Taylor co-founded amFAR in 1985 and was a prominent campaigner in the fight against AIDS.
After a long battle, the age of consent for homosexuals is lowered to 16 in the UK. It was originally 21 until 1994, when it was lowered to 18.
The UK passes the Civil Partnership Act and the Gender Recognition Act.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art holds an exhibition entitled Duncan Grant: Ivory & Ebony, presenting the Bloomsbury Group figure’s homoerotic nudes.
Catherine Opie (b. 1961), Dyke, 1992. Chromogenic print. 40 x 31⅞ in (101.6 x 81 cm). Sold for $87,500 on 26 February 2019 at Christie’s Online. Photo: © Catherine Opie. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, Seoul and London
Leading American photographer Catherine Opie becomes the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York. Best known for her portrayals of LGBTQ+ communities, Opie’s work is often autobiographical, reflecting her experience as a lesbian woman, and has received great critical acclaim.
That same year, Sharon Hayes invites 100 LGBTQ+ people to read a letter she had written to an absent loved one at the sites of the Republican and Democratic national conventions in a work entitled Revolutionary Love: I am Your Worst Fear, I am Your Best Fantasy.
The first season of RuPaul’s Drag Race airs in the US. Beamed into living rooms across America and beyond, the show brought gay culture to a mainstream audience, in turn making huge steps for tolerance and acceptance of marginalised groups.
The National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institute presents Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, an exhibition of works that address sexual and gender fluidity in the arts and their effect on wider society.
Protest punk rock and performance art group Pussy Riot is founded in Moscow. Vehement opponents of Russian president Vladimir Putin, the group has been arrested many times for its guerrilla performances, which advocate for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.
In the US, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presents the first retrospective of the work of Glenn Ligon, including his famous installation Notes on the Margin of the Black Book. The piece appropriates photographs of black men by Robert Mapplethorpe, and contextualises them with quotes by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston to show how they were made without taking into account colonial tropes around race and sexuality.
The UK passes legislation to legalise same-sex marriage. The first same-sex marriages take place on 29 March 2014. France also legalises same-sex marriage in 2013.
The US Supreme Court legalises same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Royal Vauxhall Tavern — an iconic gay venue in London — becomes the first building in the UK to have its LGBTQ+ history acknowledged when it is granted ‘listed’ status.
The poster for Paris is Burning. Photo: ©Academy Entertainment / Everett Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
The Stonewall Inn becomes America’s first national monument to LGBTQ+ rights and the iconic film Paris is Burning, a record of Ballroom culture in New York in the 1980s, is selected by the United States National Film Registry for its cultural significance.
Mickalene Thomas opens her show, Mentors, Muses, and Celebrities, which sees her cast Black women in heroic roles, reclaiming agency from the male gaze and the objectification and exoticisation that has plagued them for centuries.
That same year, David Hockney’s retrospective at Tate Britain becomes the fastest-selling exhibition in the gallery’s history. The show runs alongside Queer British Art 1861–1967, marking the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
In 2018, Kehinde Wiley becomes the first Black gay artist to paint a US president’s official portrait. In contrast to the stiff paintings of white men that preceded it, Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama shows the former president leaning forward on a wooden chair, his stance casual yet engaged.
Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Photo: Matt Smith / Alamy Stock Photo
Taiwan becomes the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage. That same year, cyberfeminist artist Shu Lea Cheang represents the country at the 58th Venice Biennale.
An exhibition of ‘visual activist’ Zanele Muholi opens at Tate Modern in London. Muholi identifies as non-binary and since the early 2000s has been documenting the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities.
For the first time, the UK census contains questions on sexual orientation and gender identity.