There’s a sanctuary slipping away in Tom Bianchi’s “Fire Island Pines” exhibit, currently on display at the Throckmorton Gallery in New York through September. Within each enlarged Polaroid is a blown up blue sky, stretched out white sand, and—most potent of all—the flesh the flesh the flesh. It’s almost too vibrant to seem real. And, of course, isn’t that the theme: too good to be true. This is late 70’s New York, a time held in the gay canon as a paradise lost, a safe haven, a wild refuge in the history of our liberation. But from the first blown up image—a top-down shot of a crowded patio party—I can’t help but wonder exactly whose sanctuary this belonged to? It’s a sea of 70s ‘staches, short-shorts, and white skin. In each photo on display, save for one titled “Unknown Black Torso”, I inevitably run into the same theme: Beautiful Gay White Men.
For those chalking it up to “the times”, I’d challenge you to look at the imagery then and now: a party on the beach on Fire Island in 1978 versus the one last weekend. A flyer for a circuit party. Hell, just about any underwear ad on 8th Avenue. Beautiful gay white men. European features as beauty is certainly nothing new, so in an elevator eyes community like ours white abs will always get first billing. But if that first patio party photo is any indication, it’s not that Bianchi chose to shoot white men, it’s that he had little choice not to. So, where are all my black and brown gays? Well, for starters, wealth, accessibility, and racism are all plausible factors in this divide. If I walked into a Hell’s Kitchen/WeHo/Castro/Boystown bar today I know I wouldn’t feel very comfortable, or very welcome for that matter. Exclusivity and race are tied together in such a tight knot within the gay community it’s practically seamless—the very water we cross to escape into paradise is the same moat keeping people out of the sanctuary.
Now, if my discomfort in going to the above locales is all so mental, then where is that coming from? Isn’t that a “personal problem”? Let’s look back: the spectrum of gay history is overwhelmingly glossed over by the gay white male perspective. From liberation (Stonewall movie, anyone?) to the face of the AIDS crisis to the now token gay character in mainstream entertainment, black and brown gay men and women are left to find their own history. And—spoiler alert—it’s not on Fire Island. After recognizing I was gay, I immediately recognized the ideal to lust after: the clean cut white boy. That was the easy part— from Bruce Weber ads for Abercrombie to sneaking glances at Instinct and Out magazine, all roads lead to white abs. The hard part, and the most detrimental, was figuring out how a brown skinny kid placed into that ideal—was assuming that I had to fit into that ideal. Fortunately, I’ve managed to grow into my skin and into my heritage. This with little help from the mainstream gay community, which thinks that gay is “other” enough without adding the dreaded race card. Without adding another other.
In lusting after each Polaroid I’m accepting this communal nostalgia for the beautiful white ideal. I’m accepting that queer art, queer voices, and queer pride must be first funneled through white abs before I or anyone else gets a turn. To quote James Baldwin “[…] the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism”. Now, to be fair, Bianchi’s is a true talent, and his current work shows a varied array of ethnic backgrounds; however, even with this intersectional momentum, by consistently raising a white-washed history on a pedestal, disguised as a supposed paradise, our community loses integrity. And, painfully, I wonder if I’m able to relate to the community only as far as I’m able to become white. I wonder how many more gay POC will mute their own heritage just to play in the white sand.