Paintings are viewed on the green walls of Wrightwood 859, including through an archway.
From "The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930."

“The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930” embarks Wrightwood 659 visitors on a journey through queer history. While same sex desire predates the terms we use today, The First Homosexuals illustrates the evolution of how these relations were depicted in art before and after the word “homosexual” became popularized.

Jonathan D. Katz – art historian, queer activist, and curator of the exhibit – was inspired to study how language affected the perception and understanding of queer identities.

“What happened with the development of homosexual was that it became one side and sexuality became a polarity, and that’s what this exhibition tries to chart,” he explained. 

Though gender identity and sexuality have become closely intertwined, Katz says this wasn’t always the case.

“One of the earliest ways that queerness was visually represented was actually not to represent the erotic act but to represent a person who did not fully inhabit one or another gender… ” said Katz. “One of the things that I’m trying to make clear in the show is that we have falsely segregated under the rule of “homosexual”, gender from sexuality and now what queerness really means is the refusal of all those binary terms – homo versus hetero, male versus female.”

This exhibit consists of over 100 works, categorized into nine sections: Before Homosexuality, Couples, Before Genders, Pose, Archetypes, Desire, Colonizing, Public and Private and Past and Future.

Aside from sexual acts and same sex love, this collection also draws on the concept of attraction and how beauty standards have evolved over time. Much of the artwork depicts images of young men and a desire towards adolescent beauty, which is fluid in that clear gender indicators are less prevalent in youth. This was the epitome of male beauty in the late 1800’s. The Archetypes section shows society’s shift towards a more hyper masculine, muscular idealization of male beauty, depicted in works like Sascha Schneider’s Growing Strength oil painting. 

Paintings are displayed on the white walls of an art gallery, including through an archway.
From “The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930” at Wrightwood 659.

Katz believes some visitors may be surprised by the amount of works deriving from Asia and how open Chinese and Japanese culture was to same sex desire at a time. He notes an 1850 Japanese scroll that showed the education of a young man and his sexual ventures: seducing women, being anally penetrated by a samurai, sleeping with another woman, and being taken by a monk.

“And there’s just no distinction. Sexuality is sexuality and gender is not an operative category and you can actually see that happening,” said Katz. “As I saw that I thought man, that’s the dream and the paradox is my hope for the future is to return to 1850.”

So what changed?

Katz says colonialism. Europeans coined the term “homosexual” and spread negative associations with the word, bastardizing the concept of same sex relations in the cultures they touched.

A painting is viewed from far away. An inviting wooden bench sits facing three blue walls.
From “The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930,” an exhibit at Wrightwood 659.

“Now there are places in the world like Indonesia, where there’s a strong prejudice and legal sanction for queerness [that is] not indigenous to the culture,” said Katz.

Like race and other binaries that society clings onto, homosexuality as we now understand it in 2023 was a created concept. 

“How long until we come to realize that homosexuality is a blip in the historical timeline?” Katz asks.

“The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930” will show at Wrightwood 659 through Jan. 28. Due to the pandemic, the showing was cut into separate showings. The second installment will triple in size – consisting of 300 works and projected to use all three levels of Wrightwood’s exhibit space. It is scheduled to open in 2025. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit their website.

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