How Gay Is the Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Hadrian Bust

"Hadrian and Antinous Bust British Museum" by SanGavinoEN | Photograph. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We all know that male nudes are a major theme in Western art, but according to classics professor Andrew Lear, New York's Metropolitan Museum doesn't have a lot. “I am the expert on male-male love in vase painting, and so of course I knew the Met had some important collection in that regard,” Lear explains on a recent winter day, with a mischevious look and eyebrow raised. "Although the Met doesn’t have a lot [of male nudes], on the other hand, it’s a gigantic museum, so there may not be a lot percentage-wise, but there’s a lot anyway. It’s kind of, it’s enchanting to find [them].”

Until last year, Lear taught classics at New York University, now he’s reinvented himself — as the founder and frontman of Oscar Wilde Tours, a company he created to bring high-end gay history tours to the high-earning gay masses. The concept began with the tour from which the company takes its name: the Oscar Wilde Tour. Beginning in Dublin, the city of his birth, the nine-day tour follows Wilde’s life through London and Oxford before ending, as the man did himself, in Paris. 

Given the expense and commitment of the original tour, not to mention that of his upcoming Gay Italy: From Caesar to Michelangelo and Beyond, the shorter Gay History Tours of New York emerged as a way to draw in wider audiences. For those wanting to learn more about the history woven into the fabric of the city, a bus tour or walking tours of Greenwich Village and the East Village. And for anyone with a penchant to go deeper, he plans on offering gay tours of the Met.

“I just hadn't really thought about it,” he explains, “Then it occurred to me that is New York has this gigantic gay history that, really, people ignore. New York is a mecca for gay Americans. And, you know, you can say that about other cities… but it’s just not true.”

Lear took me on an abridged and highly organic stroll through history, peppered with his unique way of engaging with his material. “There are a lot of very funny differences between the Greeks and the Romans,” he says as he moves through galleries. “One of them is that Greek statues have quite small genitalia. Because it represents self-control, those kinds of virtues. The Romans didn’t have those. There’s this funny scene in the Satyricon,” he begins, coming to an abrupt halt, “where one of the characters walks into the bath who has a really big cock, and the guys like, applause.” Folding his left arm across his body, he raises his right index finger to rest just below his lip before continuing. “Very different culture… from the Greek perspective, the Romans were a bit crude.”

It’s only a momentary indulgence in the delicately carved nudes, however, before he ushers me on to a collection of busts. One of the "cool emperors," according to Lear was Hadrian. "A military hero, Hadrian was very into Greece, and the cool thing is we not only have Hadrian but,” he explains, grinning as he points to the attractive face displayed directly adjacent, “we have his boyfriend. Because not only did he have Greek style philosophy, but he also carried on, very publicly, a Greek-style relationship with this guy. The first pouting fashion model of time: Antinous.”

There’s a momentary drop in his face when the name fails to spark a look of recognition. But, quickly collecting himself, he launches into an explanation of the young man’s importance in what, one realizes, is just his way. “Hadrian had him deified -- he became a god. At this point Christianity already exists. I think he might have been an attempt to create a pagan Jesus Christ, who also died. And so it’s the emperor’s boyfriend. He’s apparently the Roman version of Jesus Christ.”

Next, it’s off to Oceania, where Lear made a recent homoerotic discover. “Now these poles, which have penises of substantial proportion, are set up outside huts. The importance of the phallus … yeah it’s really important in their culture.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bis Pole (left) and Michelangelo's "Young Archer" | Photos: Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

From there, we wandered through the Renaissance, pausing at the feet of sinewy cupids in the throes of ecstasy and larger-than-life castrati superstars on canvas. And after making the jump into modern art, there’s even a sprinkling of lesbians, despite the fact that same-sex female love — like anything female — has historically been ignored in art. Thanks to the expansive collection, it’s a true whirlwind, and thanks to Lear’s boundless knowledge and excitement, it’s a true treasure. By the end, there’s the expectation of something homoerotic behind every turn!

While New York wasn’t initially on the radar for Lear — he talks longingly of hoped for tours through Italy and Greece, Spain, and Morocco, as well as Japan and China — he’s now quite clearly enamoured by the prospect. “It’s a story that hasn’t been told,” he says over coffee and cookies in the museum cafe. “I mean, you might go on a Jewish history tour of New York. You might go on a black history tour of New York. Why not a gay history tour?”

Find more information on Andrew Lear's Gay History Tours of New York here.

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