Kinky Exhibit Sparks Controversy at Stonewall National Museum and Archives

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Officials at the Stonewall National Museum and Archives are fending off charges of censorship after a controversial photography exhibit was removed just days before its opening.

Four photographs from a series titled “Men in Living Rooms” by photographer Jeff Larson had been scheduled to be on display from Sept. 4 to 29. The exhibit was coordinated with the library by ArtsUnited, an LGBT arts group, and featured pictures of semi-clothed gay men in the environs of their own living rooms.

On Sept. 5, ArtsUnited’s John Coppola was informed by Stonewall President Bryan Knicely via email the exhibit was “causing quite a stir and we had one person on a committee remark that she was not going to bring a group to the Library because of the content of the photographs is a bit too graphic for the kids….”

Knicely added, “While I do not believe in censorship, the current photos push the boundaries…” further stating the photographs made a group of LGBT straight allies uncomfortable.

For Larson, the decision to remove his show was completely unexpected:

“Sample images of my work were given to (Stonewall) this summer, the press release that ArtsUnited produced was approved by (Stonewall), which has one of the four images in the show, and after the show was hung, a staff person of the museum was consulted to the hanging and they were approved.”

Larson immediately reached out to supporters, many of whom were members of the library.

Christopher Reed, author of Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, fired off this evaluation of the situation, “In fact, there is something profoundly disturbing in the idea of an institution that takes the name of Stonewall—a site of seminal disruption by the most marginalized queers— now acting to censor a part of our community in the interests of what... Currying favor with disapproving straight people? With (sic) conservative homosexuals anxious to disown exactly the people and ideas that made Stonewall work.”

University of Miami Art Professor Dr. Gema Perez-Sanchez, a member of the Library, along with her partner and a former academic advisor to Larson, calls his photography an important link to “the long tradition of bourgeois and middle-class portraiture of Dutch painters from as far back as the 15th century… with an excellent and celebratory twist in support of our LGBTQ community.”

The library did allow Larson to hold his opening night reception on Wednesday, Sept. 12, but the compromise provided little solace.

Tom Tabor, chair of the Stonewall board of directors, admitted in an interview that the entire situation was “regrettable” and could have been handled better.  The museum did not have a formal approval process for art exhibits and he made the decision to cancel the exhibit, an action affirmed by the Library’s board of directors, on Saturday, Sept. 15.

He said the “provocative” nature of the photographs endangered Stonewall’s attempts to reach out to broader audiences and risked long-term plans to develop an educational role in public schools and attract greater corporate funding.

With schools clamoring for programs that promote LGBT history, understanding and tolerance, Stonewall has an important national role to fill, said Tabor, citing the rise in high profile anti-bullying initiatives and increasing number of children being raised by same-sex parents.

“We have our nose in the door, we don’t need to have the door slammed in our face,” he insisted.

Tabor also blamed the lack of space at the Sunrise Blvd. facility and the fact the exhibit was hanging right in the main entrance. He said the library is exploring options for exhibit spaces on Wilton Drive and in The Pride Center for works deemed too mature for student groups.

Currently, students make up the vast majority of visitors to the library with busloads of school groups arriving weekly.

“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,” he wrote in a statement provided to South Florida Gay News. “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.”

Tabor said he has personally responded to every email about the exhibit. The Stonewall board also agreed to establish a formal policy for any outside exhibits to be displayed at the library.

The Art Exhibit

Here are the four photos that caused all of this controversy:


Men In Living Rooms #709


Men In Living Rooms #680


Men In Living Rooms #309


Men In Living Rooms #709 EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of the more controversial pictures, which caused concern and consternation for the Stonewall Library Board.  The board did not allow this photo and others to be exhibited at the public library on Sunrise Blvd.

Here is a a full transcript of Tom Tambor's statement regarding the issue:

Exclusive to South Florida Gay News

September 15, 2012

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.

Tom Tabor, Chairman


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