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by Julie Zando

Is the ‘right’ to free speech more important than the content of that speech? Ironically, yes. This would not be so if it were not for the racist, homophobic, and bigoted groups that actively seek to exercise their freedoms. The cancellation of public access television in Kansas City because of the Klan program "Race and Reason" is a clear reminder that if one group is prevented from exercizing their rights of free speech, everyone loses.

At the same time, we mustn’t let the cry ‘free speech’ ring hollow from hysterical repetition. As a slogan it doesn’t defend every expression. A Rochester photographer was recently intimidated by the police for his images of his 2 year old son-photographed both naked and clothed. Accused of child pornography, it is not enough to say ‘free speech’ in his defense. We must unite in saying that there is nothing inherently obscene about a child’s naked body, nor his father’s gaze. Nor of Mapplethorpe’s exhibitionism and sadomasochistic ritual. You may disagree, but I argue that we have nothing to gain from our disavowal of even the most extreme images, and everything to lose. Scores of images and representations, including my own work, have been attacked for their depictions of everyday events. The attack is so vicious, so revengeful, that it’s obvious that the New Right is over-invested in this project. Why? Because the New Right is trying to control the image of this nation, they have appropriated art and culture for their reflecting glass, a mirror that will smoothly project a conservative, ‘traditional’ identity. It then becomes a struggle to maintain the purity of this surface, an accomplishment realized by discriminatory practice. By participating in this pick-and-choose mentality of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ images in our culture, the rest of us will be participating in this fiction, this lie that our identity is composed of some projections but not others. Censorship, intolerance and bigotry is the inevitable result. We must protect ourselves from participating in a national identity that does not reflect our own reality, and more importantly, to recognize the limitations of all reflections and how their illusion prevents us from knowing our true personal and political power.

When George Bush gives a citation to a Boy Scout troop or United Way agency he refers to each as a ‘point of light.’ I haven’t heard of Bush using this distinction for the troop of AIDS educators, "Buddies," and professionals working against AIDS in the gay community. Why can’t they join the spectacle of a "thousand points of light" that makes up our pool of volunteer resources? Because, this spectacle is so politicized that it refuses access to all ‘others.’ The "thousand points" are those that help Bush in his effort to project an idealized image of civic duty onto the face of the nation. Bush, like Ronald Reagan, reminds us that our national identity is cinematic, it is a projection of values. These are packaged to resemble an ideal image of the perfect American citizen that we may seek to emulate, but will never attain. (Even those little Boy Scouts won’t satisfy the imaginary criteria of idealism.) These values, of the 'ideal' family, job, sex, etc., are a fiction and it is a mistake to project our own desire onto them in the hope that they will materialize. Personal and political power can, however, be realized if we are stridently conscious of how identity is constructed - by discrimination motivated by our desire to attain the idealized - and that real political power can be gained by deconstructing the 'ideal.' The first step is to refuse the standard of 'morality' in our debates over art. The second is to insure that democratic principles are shared by every sector of our society.

These democratic priciples, such as 'freedom of speech,' are all too often simply rhetorical language. We do not all share the same constitutionally protected rights, which creates a crisis not only for the oppressed, but for democracy itself. Because Gay and Lesbian civil rights are systematically eliminated from (most) municipal, state, and federal statutes, gay activism is on the front lines of the struggle. (1) And not surprisingly, the fight is being fought on the battlefield of gay and lesbian representation.

And although the Cincinnati acquittal suggests that there is ‘freedom of speech’ for gay expression (Mapplethorpe’s photos), this is just a symbolic victory. I'd like to give a few examples of how the 'principle' of Free Speech is applied with discrimination - how the rhetorical use of the 'principle' is used to oppose true freedom.

At a recent conference on censorship, (2) the director of one of our local arts councils described two incidents of censorship that she was confronted with. In one, a high school mural designed by students was painted over by school officials because it referred to drugs, teen sex and AIDS. The director describes the other:

Every six weeks we put our exhibition up at the New York State Power Authority Building....The best of show happened to be a photograph of a young man who had a rather delicate face. A very nice young man, I know him, but he had a very delicate face and so the director of the Power Authority decided that this might be a picture of somebody who was the day after the opening she took down his picture. She just took it and put it in a backroom.

Of the two cases of censorship, the Arts Council director chose to defend the school mural. If the principle of free speech was the impetus, why not defend them both? Certainly time and resources play a role, but the fact remains that defending student’s freedom of speech to the public and, more importantly, to the press, is more attractive than defending an alleged ‘gay photo.’ This photo was censured because the subject looked gay. Bush et al. don’t want to look into that reflecting glass and see a ‘faggot’ staring back. This incident reminds me of the strategies of Pol Pot who persecuted anyone who wore glasses because that identified them as an ‘intellectual.’ Not just harassed them, but mercilessly murdered them for wearing spectacles. What is going on here? A photograph was taken down because the subject looks gay, yet the arts director choose to ignore this while she’s busy upholding high school student’s ‘right’ to free speech??? There is a different logic being employed. The school officials who painted over the mural did so to protect the students from themselves, but the Power Authority official took down that photo to protect the ‘public’ from the ‘gay menace.’ The result is that ‘freedom of speech’ is rendered a convenient slogan to fight censorship, but as slogan it is rhetorical speech. It acts to mask the very real issue of ‘freedom of being’- especially sexual freedom and the varied ways in which it is expressed by consensual adults. Empty rhetoric is what allows some people to support ‘free speech’ while simultaneously trying to repress the content of that speech. For it is the ‘right’ to speak that is fundamental to the image of a traditional, unified democracy, while simultaneously the content of speech is perceived to be threatening to that unity. Therefore the ‘right’ to speech is triumphed while the content is repressed.

Another participant at the conference argued: " If we’re trying to create more bridges of communication between audiences and communities that don’t know what art is, you have to somehow speak their language. By throwing stuff that is offensive in their face and we know they’re going to be offended by it, I don’t know if that helps." It’s obvious to me why this strategy will fail. For how can we speak in ‘their language’ if it doesn’t even acknowledge the terms ‘gay love’ and ‘gay sex?’ We need to teach them our language, and show them what there is to appreciate about it. By focusing its attacks toward education and the arts, the New Right exposes its true agenda- the images and representations must be suppressed. In a recent issue of the New Art Examiner, Lynne Warren, associate curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, expresses her dissatisfaction with the 'product quality' of contemporary art:

Thus while it is disquieting that NEA (sic) is under siege, it is not really surprising....the arts community is now quite astonished that its freewheeling "anything goes"ethos is being questioned....Did the arts community really believe it could "reach a broader audience" without having to stop and think maybe that broader audience really wouldn’t know how to decipher those often morally bankrupt, cynical, obscure, self-referential, and downright self-indulgent products contemporary artists are spewing forth? Or does the community believe that because the jaded, safe thrill-seeking (cf. "safe sex") New York art world think Robert Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic imagery is the cat’s meow, the public-at-large should swallow it whole (pun intended)?

This makes me wonder what standards Warren would employ to raise the quality of the ‘product’ today?? Surely her formula would exclude gay and lesbian artists, who are made to feel culpable for the failure of the arts to reach a "broader audience." Don’t gay men and lesbians constitute a ‘broader audience’ than that traditionally served by the arts? How ignorant of her to describe the representations we make of ourselves as "morally bankrupt", even if those images are of the most marginally extreme sexually activities. Scapegoating gay and lesbian artists for the crisis on the national arts scene is the weakest, most cowardly response to conservative pressure. It’s not hard to guess what Warren’s political investment is in this debate when she makes a comment like: "If art is repressed and censored, the museum must reflect this reality. For better or worse, museums must reflect, not dictate artistic developments." More illogical thinking here- the shadow of censorship cast by conservatives is described as an "artistic development," which suggests that artists themselves are responsible. The entire arts community must condemn art administrations that subscribe to this tactic.

This same language of capitulation is evident, unfortunately, in traditional lesbian discourse that refuses to tolerate sadomasochistic expression. Traditional lesbian feminists(politicized by 70’s discourse) are intent on imposing one expression of sexuality on all lesbians, while furiously disavowing marginal sex practices. The battle is not ostensibly around acceptable behavior( if it was their intentions would clearly be aligned with the fascist struggle for social control), but rather over an ‘acceptable’ representation of lesbians- to themselves and to others.

Behavior is one thing, representation is another. Gay life is not conducive to an idealized image of the American family, which, as we know by now, is an outdated and irrelevant fiction that masks the alternative family structures in use today. For the general public to see gay experience recorded is too threatening to their world/view. It is the representation that is incongruent with their projected image of themselves, a gay ‘point of light’ that must be snuffed before it exposes the fiction of their own identity.

We can’t have it both ways. We can’t suppress content while hiding behind rhetorical slogans. It’s either free expression and some degree of legal and social tolerance for the content of our expressions, or censorship, repression and state control.

On September 1, 1990 I was arrested, along with seventeen Buffalo artists, for demonstrating against censorship at Artpark, in Lewiston, N.Y. Artpark had canceled a performance by Survival Research Laboratories that was to feature a machine covered with Bibles, modeled after the heat-resistant tiles that cover the space shuttles. As in all SRL performances, the machines destroy each other in fiery battle. This was misconstrued by the paranoid art administration at Artpark as ‘Bible burning." In a radio program aired in Buffalo the week after the arrests, the program host had the following discussion with a fundamentalist preacher:


We’re talking about a performance that was canceled at Artpark due to at least one scene that might have involved a symbolic destruction of...the bible.

We see all over this country a bashing of conservative values.

Well Bob, who’s bashing...?

Okay, let’s take one television station, Channel 17 recently last night had a promotion of the gay lifestyle.

How so?

How so? They promote how the gays are being undertaken, how the gays are being suppressed in society, how we need to help out and understand the homosexual community.

And you would prefer to suppress homosexuals?

I would prefer to call it a perversion, which it is. It’s not natural.

And should we suppress homosexuals? Should we punish them in some way?

Not punish them, no. I don’t believe they deserve civil rights or...they want to become a minority status.

They don’t deserve civil rights?

They want to become a minority status in America.

In other words if there is a black homosexual he doesn’t deserve civil rights?

No. I said he wants minority status because of his homosexual lifestyle. It’s unnatural.

In your eyes it is.

Well of course for many ultra-conservative Christians throughout America.

In many liberals too it’s’s considered...unusual.

Okay. In many liberals so it’s not just myself.

Unbelievably, a performance that did not involve a gay artist nor gay themes was attacked by using the ‘gay lifestyle’ as an indicator of the destruction of America’s moral fiber. The "gay’s are culpable" line of thinking once more. Again and again we see that gay rights are on the front line of defense against reactionary thinking. This radio program, which featured two Buffalo artists and a spokesperson for Survival Research Laboratories, was applauded by the arts community for its sympathetic treatment of the issue of censorship. Ignored was the fact that the radio host could not contain a homophobic remark when he argued that "liberals too" considered homosexuality "unusual." Curiously, he defends the civil rights of a ‘black homosexual’- but of course civil rights for ethnic minorities is a principle that any liberal won’t fail to endorse. Civil rights are easy to defend for gays if it involves the culturally and legally endorsed code of minority status. In the age of the sound-bite, we rely on those little tokens of meaning to define and understand the issues. ‘Black’ rights, ‘women’s’ rights, ‘free speech’ are all are slogans that help us to encapsulate the issues into digestible bits. But the meaning of these civil rights implodes in the slogans and jargon used to contain them. How many white people might ‘agree’ with civil rights for people of color while at the same time not wanting ‘them’ to move next door? Or men who ‘believe’ in equal rights for women while feeling threatened by feminists? The sound-bite works to universalize concepts and cultural codes while at the same time rendering them meaningless. This reductionist, sound-bite phenomenon of our mediated society cheats all cultures that are complex and layered, while it allows the most perverted misrepresentations to occur in the name of ‘tradition,’ ‘family values,’ and ‘free enterprise.’ (At the opening of the first McDonalds’ restaurant in China, an inflatable Ronald McDonald was perched in the lotus position on the roof.)

We are left with a crisis of interpretation. Gay men and lesbians have no constitutional referent for their rights. The state, having neglected its responsibility to the gay community, has been replaced by the church as the standard for interpretation. This is an ominous development. The forces that impose this bianarism on our lives must be opposed, and we must assert the right to diversity, in all public and private spheres of expression.

Idealization and the search for unity must be resisted in political life. When Hitler rose to power, the German people overinvested in the idealism which he projected, and the result was a radical divestiture of responsibility for their lives. Their search for a kind-of libidinal satisfaction from the spectacle of fascism had deadly consequences for millions. Is America going down the same path? Clearly, the vicious assertion of control over our sexual expressions is a warning signal. The control of our desire, and the propping of that desire onto ideology is the next step. If freedom for all peoples is to be obtained, the left must join forces and oppose the persecution of gays and lesbians. If they fail to do so, if their belief remains libidinally attached to the image of the ‘ideal,’ they will surely fail.


Julie Zando



1 - A comprehensive state civil rights bill that forbids discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation has been introduced in the New York State Legislature for the past twenty years but has never gotten onto the Senate floor.

2 - "Common Ground," organized by the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Buffal;o Arts Council, October 1-2, 1990, Buffalo, New York.