Pride and the Power of Diversity

For the month of June, the Jewish Museum invited writer and activist Adam Eli to explore works of art in the Jewish Museum collection that celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month through four themes: persecution, empathy, activism, and the diversity of identity. Part four of the series explores the power of diversity.

For the last installment of my Pride Month collaboration with the Jewish Museum, these works of art from the Jewish Museum collection explore the power that comes from diversity.

Dennis Kardon, Lover’s Quarrel, 1994. The Jewish Museum, New York.

I can easily identify with the subjects in Dennis Kardon’s Lover’s Quarrel: the mounds of dark curly hair, hidden under a baseball hat or a kippah, the need to wince my eyes and bring my hand to my temple to fend off anxiety, wearing glasses, and the hair on my back. I find that most artistic representations of gay men are youthful, confident, muscular, and certainly lacking in body hair. In 30 years from now I am going to look exactly like the men Kardon painted. And that is just fine with me so long as I have a lover to quarrel with!

Lisette Model, Albert-Alberta, Hubert’s Forty-second Street Flea Circus, New York, c. 1945. The Jewish Museum, New York.

This photograph by Lisette Model captures Albert-Alberta, a hermaphrodite, performing his “half man half woman” act at Hubert’s 42nd Street Flea Circus. Lisette, who is remembered for her humanistic approach to photography, befriended Albert-Alberta and once described him as:

“He was a Parisian, he had been a woman until the age of 35, with four children, and when the fourth child was born, he slowly but surely turned into a man.”

This photograph was taken in 1945, eight years before Christine Jorgensen, the first woman who made headlines for having sexual reassignment surgery, returned to the United States amid a flurry of publicity. This photograph serves as a reminder that transsexual, gender queer, and gender nonconforming people have always existed. The setting, the act of presenting the other for display, painfully reflects society’s continued inability to understand gender outside of the binary.

Kehinde Wiley, Alios Itzhak (The World Stage: Israel), 2011. The Jewish Museum, New York.

Artist Kehinde Wiley, in his series The World Stage: Israel, which was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in 2012, depicts young men of diverse religions and ethnicities living in Israel: Ethiopian-Israeli Jews, native-born Jews, and Arab-Israelis, posed in a manner of power and timeless dignity. The subject of this painting, Alios Itzhak, is an Ethiopian Jew. The background of the painting was adapted from a cut-out of a nineteenth-century Ukrainian Mizrah from the Jewish Museum collection. A traditionally marginalized person standing before the world stage defiant, bold, beautiful, and unwavering is the perfect symbol of Pride Month.

The first half of 2017 has been defined by global upheaval and political unpredictability. The changing tides of uncertainty have crashed upon the shores of Pride Month, presenting enormous challenges to the LGBTQIAA movement moving forward. When our community is on display, it forces us take a moral inventory of ourselves. Is Pride a political entity that advocates on behalf of all marginalized people? Or is it space where absolutely anyone can express pride in their gender or sexual identity?

I do not have the answers to these questions. I would argue that these questions cannot be answered by an individual, but that they should be answered by the movement as a whole. The only thing I know for sure is that Pride is essential. Pride is when we celebrate how far we have come and when we address what still needs to be done. So long as people are persecuted for who they are or whom they love, Pride Month serves a vital and uncompromising role.

The themes I selected for my Jewish Museum Pride collaboration are persecution, empathy, activism and diverse identity. If we channel the pain of persecution, the joy of empathy, and the power of diversity into activism, we can achieve anything.

— Adam Eli, Guest Contributor