What Would Daddy Mapplethorpe Do?

On making sexually honest queer art in an age of “community guidelines.”

The Fathers Project Episode 4
The Fathers Project Episode 4.
Leo Herrera

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

In the vaults of the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco, there are boxes filled with the estates of dead gay men, donated by their chosen family during the plague years. Some of it is what you’d expect: journals, letters, newspaper clippings, trophies, pins, T-shirts, flyers to parties in clubs long gone. But there are also other treasures: leather jackets, sexy Polaroids, dirty jockstraps, dildoes, even a collection of spice jars filled with pubic hair, labeled with the names of lovers. These weren’t humorous gifts—these were offerings to a museum. These were important things. Artifacts of an era after Stonewall and before AIDS that viewed sex as integral to our movement.

Four decades later, after the epidemic nearly destroyed that passion, we are now in another era of personal sexual liberation. PrEP and undetectability have caused a massive paradigm shift in who is having sex, with whom, and how. But for queer artists like me who want to find ways to engage the past and present of queer sexuality in our work, the current moment can feel like the opposite of liberated. Indeed, for all the corporate pandering the community receives this time of year, images—even the very notion—of gay sexuality are being censored on online platforms like never before. It’s almost as if the powers that be are into celebrating sexual diversity just as long as it has nothing to do with actual sex.

Five years ago, I began The Fathers Project, a film series that asks, “What if AIDS never happened?Fathers blends real history with science fiction and imagines what our lost generation could have accomplished if they had lived. In the Fathers universe, we’ve established queer colonies, developed poppers that prevent STDs, solved LGBTQ homelessness, and provided care for all our elderly. We’ve created an archipelagic queer Utopia called Stonewall Nation.

Funding, shooting, and producing Fathers on my own is a full-time job. I travel the country to film queer gatherings (little flashes of Utopia in our timeline), interviewing survivors, and researching our history, all from a microbudget raised from crowdfunding. It has been an emotional journey, sometimes even a spiritual one.

The temperature of the world feels like it’s changed since the project started. It’s forced me to grapple with my own trauma around HIV and recognize uncomfortable truths of racism and transphobia in our historical records. I’ve even struggled with the use of a gender-binary title. I’ve come to understand that when you are a queer POC immigrant living in this America, making art about Utopia of any kind can make you very, very tired. Deep down, though, I think I expected, maybe even hoped for, these challenges. I wanted to learn about the lives of artists and activists who died at my age, to daydream a perfect world. Like most artists, I wanted the enormity of this subject matter to envelope me, and it has. It has been the most difficult project of my career, but overcoming all of its challenges has made it the most rewarding.

Yet one challenge has seemed insurmountable, and it’s one we’ve dealt with all our history: the loss of queer-run or supportive spaces. The hardest thing for Fathers, in this moment of sexuality without sex, has been finding forums in which people might actually be able to see it.

Since Fathers began, it’s gotten very difficult to express yourself as a queer artist in the town square we call social media. This is something that historically happens to us in times of ascendant conservatism and white supremacy. First, there was the shutdown of the classifieds on Craigslist, then the unfounded, homophobic raid on (Anonymous sex and safe sex work spaces are usually the first to go.) In a few short years, we’ve lost Tumblr, you can’t call yourself a “faggot bottom” ironically on Facebook, and Instagram can’t even handle Bob Mizer, a beefcake photographer from the ’50s. Twitter lets our president flirt with starting a nuclear war but saw fit to ban iconic drag queen Lady Bunny. Let’s not even get started on YouTube.

Every step in producing Fathers has been a battle with “community guidelines” on all of these platforms. Our crowdfunding campaign was shut down for violating vague decency rules. No matter how PG I make an episode, sponsored posts on Facebook and Instagram are routinely declined. It’s no mystery why this happens more often if there are two men kissing. Many artists and nonprofits in my circles are experiencing this as well. As a result, over the course of the series, viewership of Fathers has plummeted. Our first clips received hundreds of thousands of views, and our latest episode only got a few thousand. Even after winning a Northern California Emmy for a doc on the making of the series, good friends aren’t even aware the episodes are out. It’s frustrating to work so hard on something that not many folks will watch, and short of throwing a RuPaul’s Drag Race queen into the video, there’s not much you can do about it.

And all that was before the fourth episode, which deals with the leather community and sex. In the planning phase, I worried about jeopardizing my social media presence, which is crucial to the project. So I planned a SFW, tame clip to evade algorithms, filled with double entendres and absolutely no nudity. But it was naïve for me to think I could create an episode about sex without sex. Instead, I ended up with a (spoiler alert) fisting orgy and nowhere to put it. Because Fathers is filmed at actual events, sometimes the story writes itself based on locations. I’ve ended up on a Pride float in New Orleans with Kelly Ripa, an art car shaped like a gay sheep at Burning Man, and a techno retreat in wine country. During the post-production of Episode 4, I was given rare access to one of NYC’s most notorious gay sex gatherings. In an episode that opens with Robert Mapplethorpe’s Instagram, shooting there was a no-brainer. Before I knew it, I had my first X-rated art film, and I was left grappling with the same issues of censorship that Mapplethorpe dealt with in his work.

Faced with the choice of releasing only a heavily censored clip, I decided to do what Daddy Robert would have done and say, “Fuck it.” The adult site stepped in to distribute the uncensored episode for free, giving the project full artistic freedom. While this limits us heavily in the promotion of the episode, I am satisfied having the full experience available for those who want it as well as premiering a censored version here in Slate, hopefully to whet your appetite for the real thing.

[Editor’s note: While this censored version of the episode avoids serious nudity and blurs explicit sex acts, it’s clear that sex is happening! NSFW. View at your own discretion.]

There is less physical ephemera in a time of Facebook invites and digital photo albums. As a viral filmmaker, I worry about the future: What will happen to my films if the clouds come down or my social media accounts are deleted for linking to a porn site? What would our generation leave in those estate boxes for our museums? What I’ve discovered is that the most important thing a queer artist can offer an audience is still feeling, especially that combination of joy, history, and loss we call “Pride.” The way that Billy Porter makes us jump in our chairs to say, “Fuck yes, bitch!” at our Facebook feed, or the way Charlene Incarnate from HBO’s Wig has stripped down what it means to be trans in a sparkling dimension we’ve never seen. Those moments are life-changing and life-saving for many of us, especially our youngest. In an era of the fleeting moment, these are the signposts that tell us we’re headed in the right direction as an LGBTQ people. They must be protected at all costs.

Someone once told me, “If you are a progressive person, you have to be prepared to move.” That’s what the project has done with this episode. Whichever version you choose to view, please watch with an open mind, and for God’s sake, don’t do it at work.