Protest Poster or Valentine?

Decades of Dissent installation shot. Photo by Christina Williams.

“Dear Erin” began a letter I received almost one month after the opening of Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action: 1960–1980. The letter continued, “You can imagine my surprise and amusement on finding my Gay-In poster reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. Produced 42 years ago, the poster had minimal exposure or impact. Today, it serves as a reminder of the time when gay people were beginning their journey to full equality.”

The letter was from Bruce Reifel, who had created one of my favorite posters in Decades of Dissent. With affectionate couples set against a bright background, Gay-In announced a gathering of gays and lesbians in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 1970. The event, organized by the Gay Liberation Front, was revolutionary. During a time when gays were expected to confine their social activities to private spaces, they asserted their right to inhabit public space.

Gay-In, Bruce Reifel, Silkscreen, 1970, Los Angeles, California

I had learned these things about the Gay-In poster in the process of curating Decades of Dissent. What I had missed, however, was the fact that Bruce had made it. The label I had written for the poster attributed the piece to the Gay Liberation Front. When Bruce’s letter arrived, the historian in me was extremely excited. Not only would I have a chance to correct my error, but I would likely deepen my knowledge of an object and the story behind it in the process.

I invited Bruce to visit Decades of Dissent at the Skirball. We were joined by Carol Wells, the founder of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics and originator of the exhibition. After I pointed out a modified museum label that properly credited Bruce as the creator of Gay-In, we walked through Decades together. Bruce and Carol traded tales about the protests they had attended, the people they had known, and the posters that surrounded us. After our tour, we sat down to lunch at the Skirball’s Zeidlers’ Café and eagerly pored over an album of photographs that Bruce had brought along.

As I suspected, fascinating details about the poster emerged. We were delighted to learn that Bruce had depicted himself as one of Gay-In’s subjects—there was no mistaking the resemblance between the poster and portraits of Bruce. My research had turned up no photographic documentation of the gay-ins, but Bruce had captured them in dozens of snapshots. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that the gay-ins were quite different from other protests of the era. As Bruce noted in his letter, “They were not rallies, no speeches were given, but simply gatherings of open gays claiming their space in a public venue.” Their laid back, playful nature made them more like frolics, he told us over lunch. Even the poster had a purpose beyond protest: “The clenched fist notwithstanding,” Bruce wrote, “Gay-In is really more a valentine to same-sex couples than a protest poster.” He added, “That the mere depiction of hidden affection could be considered a protest reminds us of just how quickly and dramatically the world has changed.”

Each time that I give a tour of Decades of Dissent, I emphasize that the protest posters in the show are not just beautiful works of art. They are also historical artifacts with incredible stories to tell. Even their rips and tears bear witness to the ways that ideas about democracy were communicated during a turbulent time. (If you want an earful about this, just ask me about Basta Con La Migra! or Peace sometime!) I’m grateful to Bruce for contacting the Skirball and reminding me that the stories behind these posters are richer than I can possibly imagine.

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Democracy Matters, Design, Exhibitions, Museum and tagged , .

About Erin M. Curtis

Erin M. Curtis is the Assistant Curator at the Skirball, where she has worked on Decades of Dissent: Democracy in Action, 1960–1980, Creating the United States, Gary Baseman: The Door Is Always Open, and Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, and most recently, Rock & Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip. When she is not finishing up her dissertation, she swims, reads, travels, takes photographs, and scours Los Angeles for donuts and handmade Chinese noodles.

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