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    The LGBTQ Experience Through Art

    Teacher Lyndsey Schlax of the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts is teaching the nation’s first on-site high school LGBT course, according to district officials. In this column, students from her class will be anonymously sharing with the San Francisco Bay Times their thoughts about related matters, and what they are learning in the groundbreaking course, “LGBTQ Studies.”

    Recently, Schlax and her students created an art exhibit showcasing works by and/or about the LGBTQ community. Some of the images are featured here.

    Student, 11th Grade

    art1As a student at a public arts high school, I have always been interested in the impact that art can have, and how an artist’s personal story can impact the way their art is perceived and appreciated. Over the last few weeks, every student in our LGBTQ class found a piece of art that in some way connected to the LGBTQ community.

    Some picked pieces by LGBTQ identifying artists, and others picked pieces that impacted the movement as a whole. Once we all selected pieces, we started gathering research on the artists. We went back into their personal lives as well as what they were going through when the pieces were made. Once we found out some background information, we were faced with the questions: “How has this piece impacted the LGBTQ community? What story does it tell?”

    I personally studied a piece made by Mickalene Thomas, a lesbian visual artist from the New York area. She specializes in acrylic and rhinestone on wood panel. A lot of her work also includes themes of feminism, femininity, sex, and sexuality. The piece that I chose is no exception to this. It depicts a group of beautiful black women sitting around a table in brightly colored, sparkling dresses. The title isGirlfriends And Lovers. It was painted in 2008. It is a beautiful painting with so much life and character.

    Similarly, although all students picked art from different mediums, all of the pieces selected were full of life and character. At the end of the project, we displayed all of the pieces as a free museum exhibit in our school. Some folks from the press attended and took pictures of the exhibit. When all of the pieces came together, something truly special was created. What we have been learning in our class was reflected from thirty-five different angles. There were darker pieces, lighter pieces, some more accessible than others, but they all stood for visibility, unity and companionship. It is amazing that we can have school projects that are this immersive, well balanced and that can combine awareness, education and the arts so seamlessly.

     Student, 12th Grade

    art2The use of the arts in emphasizing LGBT visibility has been invaluable for generating tolerance and recognition among those who would not otherwise feel so open or accepting. In the Ruth Asawa SOTA’s LGBTQ Studies class’s exhibit of LGBTQ artists, one of the main themes is visibility. I chose to display a photograph of the dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn to highlight that theme.

    Today the gay-male-ballet-dancer is sometimes a stereotype, but at the time, Rudolf Nureyev’s sexuality was accepted in a way similar to Christine Jorgensen’s, the first trans woman to receive gender reassignment surgery: with curiosity, tentative acceptance, and some cruelness. Nureyev’s performances went a long way towards his acceptance; ballet offers another interpretation of masculinity, which rejects strict gender roles and uses some feminine qualities to bolster a confident masculinity. Such portrayals of masculinity help combat the misogynistic principles that contribute to homophobia.

    Rudolf Nureyev was one of the most influential and iconic male ballet dancers of the 20th century. Russian-born, Nureyev danced at the Kirov Ballet before defecting from the Soviet Union in 1961. In 1963, he met his dance partner Margot Fonteyn during his time at the London Ballet. Nureyev continued to dance, act, and choreograph until his death caused by complications from AIDS in 1993.

    Rudolf Nureyev was a semi-closeted gay man; he had many lovers and never seemed to try to hide his relationships explicitly. He is responsible for popularizing ballet in the west and was a Russian national treasure until his defection. Nureyev’s inclusion in the exhibit is important for gay visibility, especially since he was Russian. Currently, Russia has very hostile attitudes and laws towards gay people. In 2013, the Duma passed an anti-LGBT propaganda law, which censors all media that is not strictly heterosexual. The state claims it is to protect children from corruption and abuse, two stereotypes that the LGBT community has long been a victim of. It is important that gay Russians have a positive example of what it is to be both Russian and gay.

    Student, 12th Grade

    art3As part of our LGBTQ class, we put together an art exhibit made up of art by LGBTQ artists and art about the LGBTQ experience. The artist whom I chose to research is Zanele Muholi, a photographer. I was astounded when I read about her career as a “visual activist” and saw how remarkable her work was. She is a prime example of a woman who has dedicated herself to promoting a cause through her art, a skill that we long to develop in our own art disciplines here at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. Zanele Muholi was born in Umlazi, Durban. Her art focuses primarily on bringing visibility to black lesbian and transgender women in South Africa. One exhibit Muholi has created is called “Faces and Phases,” which consists of more than 200 portraits of South African lesbians. It is important for Muholi to bring attention to individuals in this community, in particular, because the LGBT community in South Africa has faced an overwhelming amount of violence. It is important also because there is a misconception that gayness is “un-African.” Another tragic subject that Muholi has chosen to capture in her photography is victims of “corrective rape.” In the exhibit our class created, I chose to show Muholi’s photograph entitledColeen Mfazwe. This black and white portrait portrays a South African lesbian woman wearing a sash that reads, “Prince.” The woman has a solemn, strong expression on her face and she is standing confidently. The woman’s appearance, from her sequined bowtie and her bold sash to her fresh haircut, indicate that she is a person who is unapologetic about being herself. I deeply admired Mfazwe for that reason. Muholi’s work is not only empowering and touching, but it also gives visibility to a group of marginalized individuals that need to be seen by the general public in order to gain the acceptance they deserve. I genuinely believe that through artwork, especially artwork that shares the stories of individuals, we can learn to sympathize with and relate to groups of people that we may have never even encountered before.

    Student, 12th Grade

    art4When I first heard that my LGBTQ Studies class was curating its very own art gallery to be put on display in our school wellness center, I immediately had a few artists in mind. Of those artists, I decided to do more research on Mark Ryden, one of my favorite Pop Surrealist artists of all time. Named as the father of pop-surrealism and the king of signs and symbols, Mark Ryden graduated from the Art Center at the College of Design in Pasadena, CA in 1987. On April 29, 2009, in New York, Ryden created “Incarnation” as a part of his The Gay 90’salbum.

    Large-eyed, baby-doll faced, a girl with a head of hair reminiscent of pop-artist Sia stands in the midst of an eerily beautiful garden. Matching with Lady Gaga at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, the girl wears a meat dress, decorated with the heavily loaded cuts of meat. As horrid as this may sound, this piece can also be translated into the trans-identity. The artist, Mark Ryden, emphasizes the name of the piece “Incarnation,” which means “a person who embodies flesh.” He emphasizes the point that our bodies are just pieces of meat we wear. Our minds say so much more than our physical self. This is parallel to the way some trans people may feel when figuring out their identities.

    The piece has taken Hollywood by storm, as seen in the influence of Lady Gaga, the year after this painting was made. In history, Ryden plays with the idea of the human mind. As the human body ages only forwards, the human mind has the ability to travel in time, backwards and forwards, very much like the artist himself. Ryden is an artist inspired by the 1890s, a time way before the one he is living in.

    About a week ago, we all went on a field trip to visit the GLBT History Museum and the Tenderloin Museum to study the history and works of the LGBTQ community. It was the history of the transgender community in the Tenderloin that led me to choose this specific piece for the museum project.

    Student, 12th Grade

    art5Change happens when people become aware of issues and learn how they affect innocent people. Crawford Barton photographed gay men in San Francisco and Harvey Milk’s campaign. He was responsible for the change in the way the general public viewed gay people. In the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, gay people did not receive support and were often blamed for having it. When people saw the photographs by Barton published in major newspapers, they began to realize that gay men were just like anyone else and were able to sympathize with them. When people gain sympathy for people in need, they are much more inclined to be nice to them and to help them. Gay people began to be seen as regular people rather than predators or sinners. Barton published two photography books featuring men who looked proud and free, and not scary or intimidating in any way. This reinforced the normality of gay people in San Francisco. Barton’s life story is representative of many people who came from rural, non-accepting communities who moved to an enclave that had been established after the wars, where they would be able to express their sexuality freely and be who they are. He was born on a farm in Georgia and ended up in art school where he decided he was going to accept his sexuality and move to San Francisco. Taking pictures and living openly with his lover Larry Lara in the Bay Area was a privilege people not long ago did not have. Barton was lucky he was able to escape. For the majority of history, people in the LGBTQ community have been deeply oppressed. To this day, the LGBTQ community works hard to create and reinforce equality. A large part of fighting for social justice is awareness. Without the awareness and visibility that Crawford Barton was part of for gay men, San Francisco and the United States may not be the way it is today.

    art6Student, 12th Grade

    Finding community is something that most people can comfortably identify with, but not everyone has this equal opportunity. At the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA), we have created an internalized respect for those of all backgrounds, and I am proud to say that we, as a family, enforce equal treatment and equal opportunities for all people who come through our school. On November 20, the SOTA LGTBQ studies class opened our doors for our first art exhibition, curated by our teacher, Lyndsey Schlax, along with our entire class. Distinct themes were covered in this showing including: Portraits and People, Visibility, and HIV/AIDS.

    When we first began this project, we were not expecting anything like how the actual exhibit turned out, as we had never done this type of presentation before at our school. In beginning the assignment, we were told to research an artist related to the LGBTQ community, their history, and a piece of their artwork. After learning about the background story, the artist, and their piece, we were given the assignment to create our own museum cards that someone could normally find at a public art exhibit. Fortunately, we had been given the opportunity to visit the Tenderloin Museum and the GLBT History Museum on a field trip to get a feel for what types of descriptions we could create for our own projects. These museums inspired my fellow classmates and I to create a positive and welcoming theme for the gallery.

    The section I participated in was Portraits and People. I chose to study “Tree of Hope, Stay Strong,” a double self-portrait by famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. In my process of learning about Kahlo, I delved into all websites that could potentially unlock the secrets of the artist and her painting. I discovered that the openly bisexual artist became the victim of a tragic bus accident when she was 18. She remained immobile for over three months, and because of this, she left her career in medicine and decided to become a full time artist.

    Influenced and driven by the pain of undergoing over 30 different surgeries, not all successful, Kahlo was empowered to create a politically driven set of portraits. The left side of the portrait shows a dilapidated version of the artist where she is bleeding and unconscious. The right side shows a powerful, bold portrait of Kahlo where she is casting off her back brace in efforts to leave her painful past behind.

    I believe Kahlo used this technique of comparing the portraits to show the two different realities she lived in: who she was and who she longed to become. Understanding the internal battle of having two expectations of one’s self is a battle people of the LGBTQ community are far too familiar with. A person’s struggle with identity can be caused by the lack of community, or the excessive burden of the binary constructs of society. All these contradicting expectations divide a person into two different people, which Kahlo literally portrays in her painting.

    I enjoyed being involved in this project because I felt community where people have the same interests as me. The ability to create galleries like this one gives visibility to LGBTQ artists around the world. A theme that should be taken away from this experience is that of storytelling. Kahlo created these portraits to show her perseverance in never giving up on living, and as students, we should use the knowledge we have gained from these artists to inspire the art we create.


    An LGBTQ-themed art exhibit, curated by teacher Lyndsey Schlax, went on display at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. PHOTO BY JO LYNN OTTO

    Student, 12th Grade

    art7Recently, Ruth Asawa SOTA’s LGBTQ Studies opened an artists’ exhibit in their wellness center, featuring the work of artists in the LGBTQ community from different decades. Denying the story of an artist’s life deprives their work of its full meaning. We sought to extend visibility by exploring established artists whose identities have either been suppressed in second-hand interpretations, or have already gained prominence in the gay and lesbian community. Each student chose a piece of artwork and researched about the artists’ lives. Our assignment was to gain a deeper understanding of the piece’s meaning and to write a short description and brief biography reflecting our chosen work’s significance to LGBTQ heritage.

    I chose The Darned Club (1891) by Alice Austen. The gelatin print photograph presents two couples: herself and her partner Gertrude Tate, and her friends Julia Marsh and Sue Ripley intimately posing on Clear Comfort’s lawn on Stanton Island. The viewer can see New York’s Brooklyn peeking in the distance across the Narrows. When asked why she chose to call her piece The Darned Club she replied, “I guess that’s what the boys called it.” The photo was developed in 1891, three decades before women achieved suffrage in the United States with the passing of the 19th amendment. First-wave feminists had been advocating for their liberation with an amplified voice since the 19th century, challenging gender expectations and questioning what was considered lady-like behavior.

    After Austen’s father abandoned his family when she was still a small baby, Austen’s mother resettled them in her parents’ home. She grew up fairly privileged on Clear Comfort, the only child with six adults. Her uncles, Oscar and Peter Miller, encouraged her interest in photography when she was still young. Photography was developing into an art form in the late 19th century, and Austen explored her interest in the form of documentary work.

    Her photography features subjects around her home, New York scenery and cultural landscapes, immigration to the United States, her partner Gertrude Tate, women in bloomers riding bicycles, and occasional cross-dressing portraits. She never married and spent fifty years with Tate until the 1930s, when she was forced to sell Clear Comfort. The estate is now a museum and memorial to “one of America’s most prolific female photographers.” Unfortunately, the house’s establishment has more or less suppressed her lesbian identity in its historical interpretation since, but the recent Lesbian Avengers have argued for her sexuality.

    Austen never married, lived with Gertrude Tate for half a century, asked to be buried with her partner, and was denied her final wish. Despite the evident, her legacy was denied the visibility she crafted with her gelatin and glass plates. The Alice Austen House museum prefers to ignore Austen’s lesbian identity, presenting a misinterpretation of her life and erasing relevant cultural significance. Many feel that such a deprivation inappropriately dishonors Austen’s life and contribution to American photography. In 1994, the Lesbian Avengers, an activist group focusing on “lesbian survival and visibility…descended upon the museum reception dressed up as lifeguards to rescue this photographer’s lesbian history,” according to one report.

    Worried for her reputation after death, Austen’s family did not confirm Austen’s homosexuality. While validly concerned, they also deprived the visibility her photography sought to document. We as an artistic world need to know who the LGBTQ artists were and are. Their voices are important to their stories survival, and their stories are precious retellings of experiences outsiders must try to resonate with. Visibility is crucial to our survival as humans because it allows us to feel each other’s emotions and needs, helping us nurture consideration for others within ourselves.

    For more information about the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, please visit

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    Lyndsey Schlax has been a teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District since 2008. She is uniquely qualified to address multiple areas of LGBT studies, having also specialized in subjects such as Modern World History, Government, Economics and U.S. Politics. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and earned her M.A. in Teaching at the University of San Francisco.