7 Sweet and Brave Tomboys From a New Exhibition
By Christina Schlesinger’s art examines the intersections between gender, identity, fashion, sex, and representation.
I have written about Christina’s art since I first discovered it in the mid 1970’s. I was so delighted to see the Advocate magazine publish a feature on her recent show.
Gender Gulag is a story about how the best years of my life were stolen from me by reparative psychoanalysis. I have just completed the first draft of my book, Gender Gulag. It is the story of how a vulnerable 13-year-old dyslexic tomboy ended up at Quakerbridge School and Camp during the mid-1950s in Croton, New York under the guardianship of Dr. Samuel Kahn.
Just this morning on the heels of Gay Pride’s celebration of Stonewall 50, NBC news had an article by Gwen Aviles discussing Amazon’s removal of English language books by a man generally regarded as the “father of conversion therapy,” Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi was the founder of the defunct Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic as well as the infamous National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) But before Nicolosi was Samuel Kahn with his book Mentality and Homosexuality (1937). Five hundred men and women (New York Correctional institution inmates, of whom “seventy-five were investigated carefully” were the main subjects of Kahn’s study. The main object was to diagnose active homosexuality. Kahn referred to his subjects as “mental cases.”
I was diagnosed by him at the age of 13 as one of those mental cases. This is what he told my vulnerable parents, particularly my susceptible mother, when they came seeking help for my disruptive social behavior. Kahn regarded homosexuals as “degenerates.” This is a perception that wasn’t refuted by the American Psychology Association under pressure from gay professionals to declare “conversion therapy” a pseudoscience and discredit it. Today the majority of professional organizations are against it and refuse to engage in such bogus and harmful diagnosis and practices.
At the time I was placed under Dr. Kahn’s care, no such safeguards were in place. So why would I want to revisit my experiences in the penal colony of Quakerbridge where I was diagnosed and treated as a “moral defective and constitutional psychopath?” Who would want to read such a book? Parents, teachers, young adults, mental health professionals, and anyone interested in authenticity. My journey as a vulnerable girl of 13 lasted three-plus years under the rule of a man unfit to define “normality.”
The methods Kahn applied to me and others for a variety of reasons were popular during the cold war period when psychoanalysis became the rage in America. Kahn’s attempts at teaching homosexual children ethics and ethical qualities were often turned over to his physician assistants. This was certainly part of my experience after my first few months at Quakerbridge.
My story is important because it demonstrates that conversion therapies began much earlier than Nicolosi’s religious branding of these practices and damaged countless nongender conforming children and individuals seeking to change their “moral defects” according to the normative standards of the day. What I went through in terms of “treatments” was enough to drive any average, healthy teenager to suicide–and it did that to me. How I developed the resiliency skills and survived serves as a blueprint not only for survival but for finding your authentic self and transforming your life.
According to the Trevor Project’s 2019 National Survey of LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 2 in 3 youths reported that someone tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender identity, and kids who have undergone conversion therapy are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide as those who did not. This is why my book is so timely and needed. It is a girl’s own story of erasure at a time when there was no internet to turn to, no groups to belong to, no gay and lesbian centers for refuge.
Romaine Brooks would have been highly amused by the latest edition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s exhibit, Camp: Notes on Fashion. The show is an annual May fundraising event and comes on the heels of Romaine’s birthday which I recently blogged about with Suzanne Strohn( http://www.suzannestrohcreative.com/romaine-brooks-145-stonewall-50/ ).
CAMP: Notes on Fashion, reprises lesbian icon Suzanne Sontag’s groundbreaking essay published in 1964. Camp is many things to many people. Chaired by Gucci Creative Director, Alessandro Michele, energized by Vogue, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, and Harry Styles, Lady Gaga and Serena Williams and supported by Gucci and Conde Nast, this is an intentionally slick, safe, fun party for the rich and famous. Tickets are expensive and are snapped up by the wealthy and celebrated who strut the red-carpeted steps of the Met like royalty. Indeed, they are the cream of the art, fashion and corporate worlds.
Romaine was famously introverted yet she played hostess to the likes of Zelda and Scott, Virgil Thompson, and many other luminaries.
She loved to dress up and parties. What she did not like was being on parade at her lover Natalie Barney’s famous international salon. If Romaine had succumbed to attending the Met gala she would have been paradoxically flattered and disdainful of Thom Browne’s homage to her portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge which is prominently on display in the Camp exhibit.
Brooks and her muse and lover, Ida Rubinstein, the lady Gaga of her day set fashion and style in their individual performances. Both exhibited conspicuous outrage, a marker of high fashion. But, it is Brooks’s performative self-portrait of 1923 that takes center stage. You may ask why? The answer brings us right back to what distinguishes high camp from empty kitsch.
For gay people, high camp is the essence of resistance, subversion, and mockery as well as what Japanese gay author, Yukon Mishima define as, Miyabi--courtly elegance. It is radical, it is queer. Both Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks were well aware of these distinctions.
As lesbians they were both out and, they were both radical, lesbian feminists at a time when it was hardly fashionable to be so open about their love of their own sex. Natalie was notorious and shunned by many of the gratin (French high society) and wealthy Americans. Romaine entertained privately, usually small select groups of people. She painted the gay, lesbian and creatives who attended Natalie’s famous salon. But she also painted the Weeping Venus, a collaborative effort and highly political, inspired by Natalie’s poem of the same name that lamented the subservient status of women in society. Today, they would have both been at the head of any demonstration protesting the control of women’s bodies by men, ie. the states of Georgia, Ohio, and Alabama.
Lily de Gramont, a princess of the blood, part of the happy threesome that made up their complicated family, was a social commentator, a friend of Marcel Proust, and a great party thrower and goer. She would have loved the Met Gala and dressed to the nines while reporting on the various luminaries there. She was a taste-maker and breaker. A social arbiter as well as author and translator in her own right. But, Lily also was known as the “Red Duchess” because of her embrace of Communism. While she spoke for the workers, she nonetheless retained her aristocratic status, although being supported by Natalie after she left her abusive husband despite being a working journalist.
As New York gears up for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Stonewall riots of 1968, it seems all the cultural institutions in the city want to get in on the act. Therefore, the Met theme makes perfect sense.
I wish I could say I loved the show because I do love and admire camp and fashion. The problem for me as a gay person who has modeled and had my fling with fashion as a younger woman, is that having grown up with gay camp; think drag queens in Miami Beach, gay bars, and the gay entertainment scene I found the Met’s notion of camp lacking in radical, queer resistance. Missing from the Met’s pink boutique, Quentin Crisp, Keith Herring’s extraordinary self-portrait as one of his artworks (photographed by Sontag’s lover Annie Leibowitz) and where was Linda Stein’s Wonder Woman body armor?
The Jewel Box Review. Martha P. Johnson shabby street chic, Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater Company, or Jack Smith’s Flaming Closets. I simply point these well known, at least in the GLBTQI communities, as historical references easily accessible to any knowledgeable curator who has done their homework.
The problem with the Met’s Camp is that it exploits queer culture to set the stage for contemporary fashion design and its sponsors; Gucci and Condé Nast. In doing so it undermines the subversive and oppositional meaning of Camp as a critique of the 1% be they celebrities, industrialists, or politicians.
Clearly, what we have here is more Kitsch than camp. It is more about fashion and style than the opposition, it is the wealthy having fun and flaunting their wealth and privilege for a good cause i.e. Katy Perry’s chandelier and hamburger costumes.
that springboard off the originality of subversive gay culture into today’s fashion designers who have effectively taken the cutting edge of camp out of its natural element and moved it into a realm that is antithetical to its very essence.
Improbably filmmaker, John Water’s Pink Flamingos and shit eating Devine are now acceptable icons in today’s high fashion world. Add Judy Garland singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow which I suppose symbolizes something to the exhibition’s organizers but strikes the gay people who worshipped her as gratuitous.
if you love fashion and Gucci branded display by all means go and enjoy the spectacle. Feast on the rich and famous enjoying themselves and contributing to the Costume Institutes coffers to the tune of 15 million, but don’t think for one nano-second all the photo ops, dressing up and advertising in any way really represents Camp’s historical essence.
Romaine would have sniffed at it and thought it was a party full of posturing arriviste. Continue reading Camp or Kitsch? The Met Gala
Yesterday was Romaine Brooks’s birthday. I had the pleasure of sharing it with blogging friend and Brooks admirer, Suzanne Stroh. We had the pleasure of letting our active imaginations roam with us at http://www.suzannestrohcreative.com and pull up a chair and join us in the celebration of Romaine’s 145th and Stonewall 50.
Please stay tuned for the premiere of the YouTube channel Kulture-Re-View for my video interview, Paris Lesbos featuring the circle of Romaine Brooks highlighting Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont along with their friends–the real lesbians who made Paris the mecca of modernism’s in literature, art, dance, theater, fashion, and design; to say nothing of life and love styles
If anyone out there knows a good illustrator in the style of Philip Julian or Hillary Knight (think Eloise ) please let me know as I am looking for someone good at fluid line drawing style who would jump at a chance to create a Romaine style figure to illustrate some of her more pithy words to the wise concerning life, love, aesthetics and staying alive.
Romaine Brooks took a house in London during which time she painted her friend Una Trowbridge’s portrait. It featured a sky-lighted top floor and a lovely little garden.
Last year I had the pleasure of hunting for this very house with my adventurous editor and friend, Suzanne Stroh. The house is now for sale at over 9 million pounds. Romaine, an heiress with a substantial fortune paid nothing near that in the 1920s. Walking the streets where she lived I tried to feel her presence. I imagined her starting the day drinking a cup of black coffee so strong that Natale Barney said you could stand a spoon in it. Opening her door out to the garden, passing through the gate to gaze at the lifting fog over the river sans all the newly constructed architecture that now lines its bordering streets. I tried to feel the quiet of her London mornings and imagine her working days and evenings of entertaining carefully selected friends.
I got a little of the feeling from reading Radclyffe Hall’s novel, The Forge in which her main character is loosely based on Romaine with an appearance by a thinly disguised Natalie. Romaine did not like “Johnny’s” portrayal of her but it is a strong statement of character and shows Hall’s respect for Romaine as an artist if not a person. Among this circle of creative lesbians opinions and feelings about each other were fluctuating. What was not was Romaine’s demands when it came to her residences something Natalie remarked on in their correspondence.
Interior of a flat Romaine formerly lived in during her stay in London in the 1920s when Una Troubridge posed for her in a costume of her own choosing leading to the supposition that Romaine had satirized her testy friend.
Romaine characteristically depicted what she saw and knew of Una who could turn on a dime if offended by someone. The duality of Una’s character was forcefully captured by Romaine in her 1924 portrait now in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.
Try to imagine Romaine’s famous palette of grays in this appealing space and how she might have decorated it. Check out my book to get some idea of how bold and audacious yet subtle her color scheme would have been. Architectural Digest eat your heart out! I can imagine the charcoals, mauves grays and teal grays all subtly blended with touches of silver in the frames of her favorite foil leaf mercury. And huge charcoal drawings on blue or gray paper such as those that adorned her studio in the Carnegie Hall building in the 1930s.
My memoir dealing with conversion therapy is on-going and shaping up. The whole issue of conformity is a story in and of itself. Thinking back on being left-handed, dyslexic, introverted, a misfit calls to mind the entire normalization project of the 1950s in Education and psychology, particularly child psychology and the push for parents to conform and make themselves and their children little carbon copies of what a punishing society told them they should be. What I experienced was a virtual gender gulag.
Certainly my choosing to write about Romaine Brooks and compelled to understand what happened to her–what drew me to her was something in her self-portraits that drew me to her. It was intuitive, unthought through and totally compelling. Because her portrait embodied everything anyone who has been an outlier has felt despite outward appearances. While Romaine projected a picture of outward strength and absolute control the child within was more vulnerable and fragile than anyone gazing at her self portraits could ever imagine.
In a way, having completed my biograp freed me to write my own memoir of being a vulnerable girl thirteen being put under the dubious care of Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychoanalyst who ran a school/camp for disturbed children in Croton on Hudson based as his experiences with prisoners at Sing-Sing. More to follow.
The beauty about research is that one is ever having to revise. New information comes in over days, months and years. I post as soon as I have fresh information on Brooks and her circle.
Lately, I have discovered that one of the images in my slide presentation for the talk on March 14th at the Proust Society at the Jefferson Library from the last 6-7:30 has to be revised. Why? Simply because Jean Chalon’s book that has a picture supposedly of a very young Elisabeth de Gramont is in error and it’s all over the web. Yes the young woman illustrated was one of Natalie Barney’s lovers but she wasn’t Lily Continue reading The Revision Thing
Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and Lily de Gramont shared an interest in Astrology and Tarot throughout their lives, as was Natalie’s other lover Dolly Wilde. This does not strike one strange because during the 19th and currently, people are curious about what the future holds and how it will affect their lives and loves.
In 2014, author and translator, Suzanne Gerber-Stroh consulted an astrologer to construct birth charts for Romaine Brooks and her intimates. Here are the results.
Satisfy your insatiable curiosity and make what you will of how closely Mr. Mann’s findings correspond to the personalities of these highly creative and productive gay women.
For more go to Suzanne Stroh’s link and look for the 2014 entry.