Censorship Controversy Continues After Stonewall Museum Removes Exhibit

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It really becomes censorship when the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) writes you a letter with a question like, “How is cultural understanding to be built, if the Museum caters to the very prejudices it seeks to oppose?”

That’s what happened to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives after it decided to take down an art exhibit that upset some visitors. SFGN covered the incident in its Sept. 19 issue. Days later, Svetlana Mintcheva penned the above quoted letter to Tom Tabor, chair of the Stonewall board. She wrote that the group is “deeply concerned” over the removal of Jeff Larson’s exhibit “Men in Living Rooms.”

The exhibit, which was allowed to run its course through opening night on Sept. 12, was subsequently cancelled. It depicted, as its name implies, the looks of living rooms where gay men live. None of the pictures depicted explicit nudity — clothes or body parts covered all genital areas.

“Given the various multi-uses by different groups in the limited space at Stonewall, it was determined by the Chair, Tom Tabor, to cancel the remaining period of the exhibit to October,” Tabor wrote in an official statement to SFGN.

Tabor explained in the statement that the Museum has been working extensively with nearby schools, which raised its concerns over the exhibit since it didn’t to risk an “overreach” that would endanger this “opportunity.”

“The museum, library and archives have thousands of wonderful, provocative and explicit pieces and Stonewall is proud to share and exhibit them,” Tabor wrote. “The issue is how best to do so, and also best work to contribute to student LGBT education.”

But Svetlana Mintcheva disagrees with this sentiment in her letter, claiming there’s nothing in the photos is inappropriate for children.

“Not only are they not explicitly sexual, but they don’t even display full frontal nudity (the genitalia are covered),” she wrote. “School groups can see much more explicit nudity in a regular art museum.”

SFGN reached out to Tom Tabor for comment on the letter from NCAC, but he hasn’t responded as of press time.

The Letters

While a picture may be worth a thousand words, four pictures are worth 1,128 words, in the form of two letters. Below are Stonewall National Museum and Archives’ Board Chair Tom Tabor’s official statement regarding the exhibition and the letter he received from Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship.

From Tom Tabor

Stonewall National Museum & Archives Today

Like many private museums and libraries across America, Stonewall has had to create new programs and activities to earn financial support to survive. In response to the demand in classrooms for a greater understanding and tolerance on LGBT issues for all students to help stem the tide of bullying, homelessness, and teen suicide, Stonewall has joined with school districts in partnership to make available LGBT history education.

Many national gay organizations including GLSEN, Human Rights Campaign, Victory Fund, Equality Florida, Lambda Legal and others along with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association advocate for this education effort. Stonewall National Museum & Archives, as the largest gay and lesbian museum in America, can serve as a major resource to develop LGBT education materials.

In creating new programs and activities, the limited space in the Stonewall Museum serves multi-purposes; as a library, museum, archives, business office, meeting space, theatre, and for exhibits and receptions. Plans to expand Stonewall’s space to include a “gallery” site and retail store in Wilton Manors and possibly a library branch location within Equality Park are in preliminary discussion stages. The possibility to expand education services is being explored across the country.

Artist Jeff Larson’s exhibit produced by ArtsUnited opened Wednesday evening for one night. Given the various multi-uses by different groups in the limited space at Stonewall, it was determined by the Chair, Tom Tabor, to cancel the remaining period of the exhibit to October.

With our current new outreach in working with schools in response to the demand for LGBT history education, Stonewall did not want to limit this opportunity by an overreach now that schools have been in. The museum, library and archives have thousands of wonderful, provocative and explicit pieces and Stonewall is proud to share and exhibit them. The issue is how best to do so, and also best work to contribute to student LGBT education.

Actually, very little daily traffic comes into Stonewall to see any exhibit other than during specially promoted receptions. Rather, the great majority of traffic to Stonewall is for library services and business purposes each day. This has been a transition for Stonewall in recognition of all its responsibilities and opportunities ahead and Stonewall looks forward to continuing to serve the entire community well.

From NCAC

Dear Mr. Tabor, As a group uniting over 50 organizations dedicated to promoting the First Amendment right to free speech, the National Coalition Against Censorship is deeply concerned about the cancellation of Jeff Larson’s Men In Living Rooms

exhibition at the National Stonewall Museum and Archives. We have been joined in our concern by a number of organizations and individuals working in the sphere of art and GLBT rights, including Visual AIDA an the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. We strongly urge you to reverse your decision and return the photographs to display for the scheduled duration of the show as well as to develop a clear exhibitions policy with specific criteria as to what can be shown at the Museum.

Our understanding is that Men In Living Rooms was pre-approved by the Board of the Museum, put on display as scheduled in early September and, subsequently, taken down in response to complaints, some of which were voiced by Broward Stonewall Education Project Committee members. The exhibition was, hence, only seen for the duration of the opening reception on September 11th.

In cancelling a scheduled – and pre-approved – show because some people may have found it inappropriate for school groups coming into the Museum, you open the door to expectations that programming at the Museum will be modified to suit the arbitrary judgment of individuals who subjectively consider some content inappropriate for children.

While we laud your initiative to work with the Broward County School District and to educate students about LGBT history, that project should not lead to compromising the mission of the Stonewall Museum and Archives by forcing the institution to steer clear of aspects of the LGBT community that some parents or teachers feel uncomfortable about. Such a policy would very likely lead to wholesale self-censorship on the part of your institution.

As you are probably aware, LGBT material is regularly censored in school systems because of claims that it is inappropriate: just in the last few months, complaints over the use of Todd Parr’s The Family Book and other materials endorsed by GLSEN in an anti-bullying curriculum sparked censorship in the school district of Erie, Illinois. As it stands, all GLSEN materials and books on GLSEN reading lists are banned in Erie and teachers must direct any and all questions about non-traditional families or sexuality to a child’s parents. North of Salt Lake City, Utah, a parent’s complaint led to a book about anon-traditional family, Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mothers’ House,

to be put under restricted access in school libraries. The book, which had been purchased specifically because the schools have students with two moms or two dads, can now only be accessed with a parental permission slip – if anyone knows it is even there.

There have been incidents even at the college level: a few years ago, for instance, staged photographs of Ken and G. I. Joe dolls holding hands were removed from the photo gallery of Shelton State Community College (Tuscaloosa, AL) at the direction of the President who claimed that the images “created a negative impression” and were “offensive” and “controversial” because they might be interpreted as endorsing homosexuality.

While none of the examples above are as provocative as Jeff Larson’s photographs, they demonstrate how broadly some groups in our society understand what is “inappropriate” for children and how ready they are to call for censorship of even the most “innocent” material. If the Stonewall Museum begins to cave to such complaints, where will it be able to draw the line?

Jeff Larson’s photographs are unquestionably legal as to minors: not only are they not explicitly sexual, but they don’t even display full frontal nudity (the genitalia are covered). School groups can see much more explicit nudity in a regular art museum.

The cancellation of Jeff Larson’s show thus raises the question whether, in deference to the often conservative, and even homophobic, sensitivities of the culture at large, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives will head down the slippery slope of censoring material that could be considered controversial by some and thus compromise its mission as “an epicenter of enlightenment for [theLGBT] community” which plays “a significant role in building bridges of cultural understanding in theLGBT community and beyond.” How is cultural understanding to be built, if the Museum caters to thevery prejudices it seeks to oppose?

Looking forward to your response,
Svetlana Mintcheva
Director of Programs
National Coalition Against Censorship

The Kinky Exhibit - Corrected

In SFGN’s Sept. 19 issue, coverage of the censored exhibition, five photos were printed, three of which were not part of the exhibit. In fact, the exhibit totaled four photos. The photos above were not printed last week, the two small photos (below) were. These four photos make up the exhibit, according to artist Jeff Larson. We regret the error.


 


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