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Why this lesbian photographer is an icon for generations of girls who love girls

Why this lesbian photographer is an icon for generations of girls who love girls

You might have never heard of Donna Gottschalk, but chances are you have definitely seen her. Or, in fact, seen through her eyes.

Gottschalk, 67, is a talented lesbian photographer now living in Vermont.

Despite not identifying as a photojournalist, she has spent a lifetime behind her camera, documenting her friends and lovers’ lives in beautiful black and white images.

‘I photographed them in their environment, using that as well to tell their story. I knew all their stories,’ she told GSN.

Their ‘courage, their struggle, as well as their beauty’ were the reasons behind Donna’s primal need to take pictures.

‘My subjects fascinated me. I needed to take their pictures for my own sake, for my memories. It was a compulsion.’

Those striking portraits of LGBTIs are now displayed in a solo exhibition at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York.

That famous sign

Donna Gottschak at the 1970 rally.
Donna Gottschalk at the 1970 rally. | Credits: Diana Davies

However, the artist also posed for a few pictures herself.

Those pictures, and one especially immortalizing her at the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day rally in 1970, turned Donna into a symbol for the LGBTI community.

At 19, she held a sign at the very first march for LGBTI rights in New York.

Short, messy, blonde hair, Donna’s piercing eyes defiantly look straight into Diana Davies’s camera. She is holding a piece of cardboard with a slogan by artist Michela Griffo.

‘I am your worst fear, I am your best fantasy,’ reads the sign.

Donna embraced the powerful dichotomy of that sign standing tall and proud.

‘We were assembling for the first gay march, sort of just standing around waiting for more people to show up,’ Donna recalled that day for GSN.

‘Michela Griffo made these great signs. I got lucky she handed me this one. Great tag. Michela was fantastically clever. [It was] such a provocative yet playful sign.’

As a lesbian ‘you felt like a walking porn show’

Donna Gottschalk, Donna and Joan, E. 9th St.,1970.
Donna and Joan, E. 9th St.,1970. | Courtesy of the artist via Leslie-Lohman Museum

It’s 1970. A year after the Stonewall Riots had taken place, being a woman who loved women wasn’t any easier than it is today. Discriminated against on one hand, overtly sexualized on the other.

‘I took a lot of shit at jobs when they found out I was gay. Even when they accepted you, the men would get sexual. You felt like a walking porn show. I had to quit jobs I needed when it got too much to bear.’

She opened up on the now historical Christopher Street Day rally. At the time, she recalled, it was terrifying.

‘It was chilly, and we were scared. Anybody tells you that when we started that march shouting “We’re Here, We’re Queer” that they weren’t scared. Well, maybe they had a few shots for courage that morning,’ she told GSN.

‘We started in the West Village and marched uptown to Central Park. I can’t remember what Avenue we took.’

‘We just needed to show the world we existed’

Chris Jimenez And Their Dog, Queens, 1969. | Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum

She had many memories of that day, which went on to hold a special significance in the life of any person identifying as LGBT.

‘There weren’t really that many of us, maybe 50 at most. Gay Liberation Front, homemade banners and scrawled signs: that was the first parade. As the day wore on, hundreds of us showed up at the Sheep Meadow in Central Park. But I didn’t stay for the party. I was tired, I wanted to sleep.’

They all traded those many nights of hiding in gay bars for taking to NYC streets in broad daylight.

‘I remember we just needed to show the world we existed. We were in their midst and we wouldn’t let them deny us anymore, make us hide, make us ashamed,’ she also said.

‘That’s what the first parade was about to me. Showing ourselves in the daylight, as a force unashamed.’

The constant abuse

Sleepers, Limerick, Pennsylvania, 1970. | Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum

If you were openly gay at the time, it meant you went for the less safe option.

‘Back then, to be in-your-face gay in the daylight shouting for your right to live your life your way was very, very provocative to straights. We were peaceful, but it was very dangerous.’

‘If they had their way, straight people, they’d beat the crap out of you. Many of us had been victims of these everyday physical threats and all of us were victims of mental abuse,’ she also said.

‘We were simply declaring to be victims no more.’

Being an LGBTI teenager in the 1960s

Alfie in Mary’s Dress Age 16, 1974. | Courtesy of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Donna Gottschalk got honest about her very lonely teenage years.

‘I’d been alone so long, you know. Being a teen and not being able to do the things kids do. Talk about their crushes, share fun times. All this could only be done in the gay bars, under the thumb of the Mafia,’ she said.

Even when she found her own people in high school, that didn’t last long.

‘Most of them dropped out. Thrown out of home by their parents, then they quit school. At least half of these great kids, one of whom became my lover.’

It shouldn’t be surprising Donna struggled with depression.

‘At 18 I felt so depressed I went to Bellevue [an NYC hospital specialized in psychiatry] and got a psych. I was afraid I might kill myself. The doctor put me on Stelazine.’

Donna Gottschalk joined the Gay Liberation Front

Helaine on her girlfriend’s lap, Provincetown, 1974. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Leslie-Lohman Museum.

‘Life back then was simply about ducking low if you wanted to keep a job or go to school without the constant stink-eye upon you,’ she said.

‘Then, I discovered the activists of Gay Liberation Front. I started to attend the meetings, I fell in love with one of the more active women, Arlene Kisner and I started to help out too, in any way I could.’

She then remembered the names of all the ‘brilliant’ friends she met along the way: Michela Griffo, Lois Hart, Barbara Love, Martha Shelley, Ellen Briody, Linda Rhoads, Karla Jay.

‘And the men of GLF, but mostly I listened to the women, of course,’ she added.

‘Most of them were older than I and veterans of other resistance groups. They had the chops, they had learned the tactics, peaceful tactics.’

Resistance today

Katz in the Big Chair, San Francisco, 1972. | Photo: Leslie-Lohman Museum

Asked about what resistance means in 2018, she said there is a similarity between the LGBTI movement of the 1970s and today’s groups.

‘Certainly. In fact, more than ever. After all, look at who has been elected president. Listen to the blatant unashamed hate of his base!’ she said.

‘We must fight and ban together. The infighting must stop.’

Donna Gottschalk’s Brave, Beautiful Outlaws exhibit is on display at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art until 17 March 2019. The opening reception with Gottschalk will be held on 29 September.

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