The Velvet Silence: Mentoring Across the AIDS Queer Artist Gap

Detail from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by queer artist Keith Haring.

Photo by FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images

How can you produce art and culture about your community when your ancestors, the creators, guardians, and purveyors of that history, were lost prematurely?

The extent of the cultural void that AIDS created for queer people is hard to overstate, and yet it’s difficult for those born after, say, 1980 to feel that absence in a visceral way. Ira Sachs’ haunting short film Last Address, with its spare cinematography and matter-of-fact style, is a potent emotional aid. Opening at dawn in New York City, with only the quotidian sounds of the metropolis—honking horns, laughing children, slamming doors, rustling trees—as a soundtrack, the film shows the outside of buildings where 28 gay male artists, all of whom lived and worked in the city and died of AIDS-related causes, spent their final days. While some buildings are recognizable, most are nondescript, and a few are no longer standing. Of the artists invoked, from Reza Abdoh to Charles Ludlam and Assotto Saint, only four of them lived past the age of 50. The profound sense of loss—not only of these particular artists and whatever culture they might have produced, but of the mentorship they might have provided to countless younger artists—is palpable.

Given his sensitivity to the gay mentorship gap caused by AIDS, it’s not surprising that Ira Sachs, in partnership with writer Lily Binns, decided to do something about it. Queer Art Mentorship, founded in 2011, seeks to perpetuate a queer cultural legacy through mentorship, even as the corporate gay mainstream finds the very idea of a distinct queer culture obsolete or counterproductive to the “we’re just like you” assimilation model. “The term permission is one that I continue to think is the central concept that these programs create,” said Sachs, “the opportunity and the incentive to give people permission to create imagery that is different than what is expected or valuable in an economic sense.” QAM’s basic function is pairing up young queer artists with mentors in their fields for a year of loosely structured guidance.

With LGBT lives increasingly represented in mainstream media—from the women of Orange Is the New Black to Cyrus and James on Scandal to Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home at the Public Theater and countless other examples—and whole university programs dedicated to queer theory and LGBT studies, it’s fair to ask why young queer artists need a separate, specifically queer mentorship program. Indeed, why do artists need mentors in the first place? For starters, our image of creative geniuses toiling away alone is mostly based on a myth. Many successful artists, from Jasper Johns and Tennessee Williams to Holly Hughes and Penny Arcade—as well as anyone involved in the East Village’s longtime women-powered WOW Cafe—have thrived as a result of some form of mentorship. But more important, we need to understand the AIDS crisis not only as a killer of people, but also as an existential threat to entire strands of queer cultural production. The simple fact is that without mentorship from the queer people who survived the plague, the various traditions that make up the “queer sensibility” are at risk of dying along with those who pioneered them.

Think about it: Ethnic and religious groups often pass on their practices and histories through family structures, official foundations, and places of worship. All those traditions can be challenged, altered, and made more complex along the way, but identities are sustained as they are transmitted from one generation to the next. Queer culture, however, lacks those built-in conduits; because it evolves in the context of heterosexual society that does not understand it or is homophobic, it must create its own mechanisms and institutions to propel itself forward. The AIDS epidemic made queer culture’s preservation and advancement all the more difficult. From 1981 to 1996, New York City alone lost more than 80,000 people to AIDS, among them countless artists of every stripe.

At the same time, however, the epidemic sparked a wave of cultural production that was different from much of what had come before. The current generation of QAM mentors came of age in this transformative era. It may be hard to visualize in the current political climate, with the rise of same-sex marriage and Sean Saves the World gay-art blandness, but in the late 1980s there was a growing and urgent sense that the systems of oppression (government, media, religion) needed to be radically altered or dismantled: the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded in 1987, directly targeted the Catholic Church and the National Institutes of Health. Artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat produced visual art that questioned the status quo and powerful institutions. Queer ball culture, which delightfully parodied societal hang-ups around race, gender, and class, was flourishing in Harlem (documented in Paris Is Burning and later appropriated by Madonna). The field of LGBT studies was gaining a seat at the academic table while the work of Judith Butler, Gloria Anzaldúa, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Warner built queer theory into a teachable, relevant philosophy at universities across the country.

However, progress never moves in linear fashion, and the backlash against this brash queer claim of public space was swift. Conservative politicians used the AIDS crisis to bludgeon the LGBT community, with Jesse Helms calling it a disease “transmitted by people deliberately engaging in unnatural acts.” Queer expression was a battlefront in America’s culture war. Plus, by the 1990s, the queer politics of protest were being challenged within the community by a mainstream LGBT politics of inclusion, represented by pundits like Andrew Sullivan and the wealthy donor-driven, corporate-financed lobbying group, the Human Rights Campaign, now the country’s largest LGBT rights organization. From the perspective of queers of color or transgender people, who don’t necessarily experience sexual orientation as a compartmentalized part of their beings, institutional racism, xenophobic immigration policies, and transphobic systems are vital civil rights issues as much as (or more than) marriage equality. Rather than being drowned out by the mainstream rhetoric of conservative pundits and corporate gay organizations, QAM assumes and insists on the viability of a queer sensibility forged on the margins.

So, what does queer mentorship look like? Moe Angelos, a mentor with QAM who got her start at WOW Cafe, has been a successful queer theater artist for 25 years. She’s been working with her mentee, Melissa Li, for just over a year, and they have an easygoing rapport that speaks to the program’s intrinsic value and ongoing success. Angelos recently starred at New York Theatre Workshop in Sontag: Reborn, a one-woman multimedia production drawn from the journals of the legendary intellectual, that’s also on tour. Li, a songwriter and musician, has been working on Interstate, a concert musical that tells the story of a fictional queer activist band called Acupuncture for Fools: lead singer Dash Koi, a trans man, and singer and songwriter Adrian Song, a lesbian, are both Asian; Jess Young, the drummer they hire to join them on tour, is a young white lesbian. Forced to confront insecurities and jealousies while grappling with the expectations of mainstream fans and their significance within the larger queer people of color community, the three performers try to find their way as political artists. For Li, the mentorship program not only educates her as she leaps from songsmith to writer of music, lyrics, and book of a musical, but it also—this is at the core of QAM’s significance—teaches her “from a queer perspective.”

The perspective of a queer mentor, as opposed to a straight one, is key according to another QAM mentee, Camilo Godoy, a visual and performance artist. As an undergraduate at Parsons The New School for Design three years ago, he had an adviser—a straight white man—who couldn’t see the value in his interest in investigating the construction of queer identities in digital spaces. Godoy wanted to interview men posting for hookups on Craigslist and elsewhere as the start of his research, and his adviser just didn’t understand it. Through QAM, he thought he might find the leadership, guidance, and support that eluded him in school.

Even the world of musical theater, populated by gay men at all levels, isn’t always hospitable to specifically queer themes. Li is a member of the award jury for the Jonathan Larson Grant, honoring the work of talented early-career theater artists, which means that she reads dozens of applications and has observed some patterns: “Story after story, the protagonist is a straight white boy coming to the big city. Almost every show is about some small town kid coming to New York and meeting the girl of his dreams,” said Li. “Why are these gay guys writing about themselves coming to New York and falling in love with a girl?” In her own work, she proudly breaks with that tendency.

Meanwhile, Angelos will be mentoring another young artist for the next year, and she’s also in touch with Li, who is selecting new cast members and updating Interstate, which she plans to produce for a big audience off or on Broadway. In the meantime, as Sachs finalizes his plan to make QAM into a 501(c)3 organization, a few things are clear. The assimilation of LGBT people into mainstream institutions will continue unabated; at the same time, however, a queer and more nonconformist culture will flourish and grow at the margins. That growth—due in part to the guidance, historical perspective, and community-building mentorship of artists in QAM—ensures a bright, expansive future for queer culture, in spite of the lingering shadow of loss.