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Asking, Telling, Showing: Gays In 'Love and War'


A racy new exhibit chronicles man's love for his country... and other men

Cold Mountain. Casablanca. Gone With the Wind. What do these films have in common? War and romance. They're two pretty common themes in American culture, and they intersect pretty frequently--so it should come as no surprise that the Kinsey Institute (yes, that Kinsey Institute) has titled its next exhibition Love and War.

The exhibit, which opened Friday, has been in development ever since 2010--and it couldn't come at a better time. Love and War features quite a bit of gay content, comes soon after last year's official eradication of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." To find out more, we spoke with exhibit curator Catherine Johnson-Roehr. (And you can check out a slideshow of the images here.)

Many of the materials in the exhibit come from World War II. Why is that?

It just so happened that while Kinsey was doing research [for Sexual Behavior in the Human Male], the war broke out... so during the period of the war, he was going to New York, he was going to San Francisco... and he picked up lots of things for the collection... some cartoons, some buttons, some fine artwork, and some pop culture material.

One of the photographs from World War II features two sailors kissing. Weren't they worried about being outed?

Yes, it is pretty amazing that they decided to be photographed... but some of our photos [like that one] weren't really intended to be commercial products. Who knows what the photographer told them, they probably had a beer or two before going to the studio, and assumed it wouldn't be distributed.

Actually, there's this book that just came out, Gran Fury: Read My Lips, and there's a quote in it from one of the sailors in that photograph. He said he saw the photograph featured in the '80s ACT UP campaign, and called the office to tell them the picture was him and his boyfriend. He said he and his boyfriend got a little carried away, he didn't think anyone would see those pictures. But he ended the message by saying that it made him proud to think that he could have done anything good to help other gay people.

Where else did the Kinsey Institute find materials with gay content during the mid-20th century?

Some of the material came from individuals or collectors, but the Institute was actually able to acquire some gay male imagery and fetish imagery from police departments and prisons. Back then, that sort of imagery was illegal, so the Institute's staff made connections at police departments and asked them to donate the material for research instead of destroying it.

Did you find any other gay content from that era, besides photographs?

Yes, there are these things called eight-pagers, or Tijuana Bibles. They're little pocket-sized comic books that were popular in the 1930s and '40s. They're pretty crude, in production--they're cheaply stapled together--as well as content--they're very pornographic. Anyway, I came across one the other day called Cary Grant in Male War Bride. You know, he was actually in a movie called I Was a Male War Bride, but it had nothing to do with him being gay. In this eight-pager, though, you see him in a woman's dress having sex with several other men. I was absolutely thrilled to find an eight-pager with explicitly gay content, because that's pretty rare.

Some of the materials in this exhibit tend to romanticize war, which sort of plays into the exhibit's theme. Do you think war is still a bit romanticized in contemporary culture?

Absolutely. There's that movie War Horse, for one... I haven't seen it, but it looks like it would be a little bit warm and fuzzy. [Ed: It is.] I mean, Americans have always had a tendency to romanticize war, lovers being torn apart, people facing new environments, individuals stepping up and becoming heroes and all that. Our exhibit actually doesn't feature anything that plays into that idea. There aren't any pictures like that one of the man kissing the nurse [in Times Square]. There's nothing that plays into that romantic idea of the soldier falling in love with a girl he meets at the dance. There's actually more funny stuff and purely-sexual stuff than serious romantic stuff. There's one where the guy's holding a balloon that looks like a gigantic penis.There's a lot about [venereal disease], about educating soldiers on where in town they can get their [prophylactics] for when they're having sex. But nothing about lovers being torn apart.

"Love and War" will be showing at the Kinsey Institute Gallery in Bloomington, Indiana through April 6, 2012.

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Evan Lambert