Pride, Oppression, and Persecution

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 two of the series explores works of art that tell the story of oppression and persecution in the LGBT and Jewish communities.

Pride Month takes place in June to celebrate the Stonewall Riots of June 28, 1969, a series of demonstrations by the LGBT community against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — arguably the first large-scale protest against gay and queer oppression in history. At its root, Pride Month is a political celebration of a resistance to persecution. My gay and Jewish ancestors share a history of discrimination and brutality. When a people are subject to such violent treatment, their stories are reflected in art. This week’s theme is persecution.

In the 1980s and 90s, AIDS swept through the LGBT community like a plague. I have always viewed Pride Month, in part, as a memorial to these victims. How many lives could have been saved had Ronald Reagan and the FDA dropped their prejudice and acted faster? On the occasion of Pride, we assert our queer existence and march in honor of the fallen.

AA Bronson, Jorge, February 3, 1994, 1994, printed 2000. Sepia prints on Mylar

In this chilling 1994 photograph in the Jewish Museum collection, artist Jorge Zontal asked his friend and collaborator AA Bronson to take photographs of his body days before he died of AIDS. “Jorge’s father had been a survivor of Auschwitz,” Bronson recalls, “and he had the idea that he looked exactly as his father had on the day of his release. He wanted to document that similarity, that family similarity of genetics and disaster.” Zontal and Bronson, together with Felix Partz, formed the collective General Idea and created over 70 attention-grabbing public art projects that addressed the AIDS crisis from 1987 until 1994, when both Zontal and Partz died of AIDS-related causes.

Bronson’s photograph brings to light a rarely discussed but extremely important tragedy: in one of the darkest moments of human history, homosexuals and Jews walked, died, and survived side by side. In Nazi Germany, the more marginal the social position of the group, the more marginal their position was within the camp, leaving gay men and Jews in a perilous position.

Rico Lebrun, Floor of Buchenwald, 1956 or 1958. Casein, charcoal, and cardboard on Masonite

Artist Rico Lebrun’s drawing Floor of Buchenwald is a semi-abstract depiction of victims of the Holocaust. Buchenwald saw the persecution of many groups, including but not limited to the mentally ill, physically disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma, Sinti, Freemasons, Jews, and homosexuals. At Buchenwald, homosexuals were subject to “experimental operations” in an attempt to “cure” their homosexuality. The majority of these victims did not survive.

Lebrun’s drawing does not specify what types of prisoners are shown here. The anonymity of the subjects speaks to the indetermination of hate. A persecuted life is a tragedy, no matter the context of persecution. All human life is equally precious. Pride Month therefore is not about parades or drink specials. Anyone who has suffered because of who they are, whom they love, or what they believe should celebrate Pride Month. Anyone who has fought for human dignity should celebrate Pride Month. Pride is a call for empathy. Pride celebrates the triumph of humanity.

— Adam Eli, Guest Contributor