Controversy rattled many in the city after the Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission (ACAC) voted unanimously on Jan. 27 to not endorse the Tom of Finland exhibit. Some were aghast that the Creative City would dare censor gay erotic art. Others were profoundly disturbed by what they perceived was acquiescence by the commission – which includes three gay men and decidedly non-homophobic progressive LGBT allies – to old hurtful stereotypes suggesting gay men were a threat to children.
City Manager Paul Arevalo discussed a meeting he held Monday afternoon with a number of concerned Leather activists, including Sharp, VP of the Tom of Finland Foundation, Louie Pacheco, president of the LA Band of Brothers, and Arevalo’s Management Specialist, Mikel Gerle, who was Mr. International Leather in 2007.
Arevalo told the audience:
“I had the opportunity to express an apology to any insensitivity that may have come across. In fact, we all agreed that this was an opportunity for all of us to sit down and share ideas and to work on some of the sensitivity training that needs to occur….I thought the meeting was fruitful, productive, I expressed our continued support for the event. It’s been a fantastic event – we want to continue to partner with them and we see this as an opportunity for continued dialogue.”
Arevalo said he will try to coordinate a forum “where people can talk through some of these issues.”
Heilman noted that the controversy might actually draw more attention to the 16th annual Los Angeles Erotic Art Fair Weekend scheduled for March 25-27 in West Hollywood Park.
The usual 20 minute public comment period was extended to allow audience members to be heard. Sharp said that when he heard the decision, he wondered what he would tell the artists whose work would fill the very room in which the council was meeting.
Louie Pacheco thanked the council for their support, adding that he would like to see some sort of
Louie Pacheco, President of LA Band of Brothers
resolution to help prevent “something like this” from happening in the future. “A committee in charge of art and culture should not be allowed to censor art – just for being art, regardless of what that medium is. The reason we’re all her tonight – it’s not just the art, it’s not just the foundation but it’s my family. And it hurts us and we hope that you will take care of that.”
Sister Unity (aka Bennett Schneider, “sans eyelashes”) was erudite in his defense of Tom of Finland’s art: “often erroneously dismissed for its eroticism and the richness of its hyper-real paradigms is seen as cartoonish or mere illustration. The combination of these two things causes a homogenizing culture to lessen the art’s status from that of fine art. Andy Warhol’s images are equally exaggerated but his subject matter of culture appeals to homogenous American tastes. Sex, however, hits the Puritan button, gene of American consciousness – the one that says it’s dangerous, it’s certainly not acceptable” when out of an acceptable context.
West Hollywood, Sister Unity said, is about “providing a home for that which is deemed unacceptable.”
And that seemed to be the thrust of most of the comments, including by members of the West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board (LGAB) and members of the City Council. Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, for instance, said that the commission “made a mistake” and have since “probably had a profound change of heart.”
Dan Berkowitz, member of the WeHo Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board
Dan Berkowitz, member of LGAB and former President of the Tom of Finland Foundation, said he was “disappointed” with the vote and noted that the successful exhibition generates revenue for the city. He said:
“The reason for voting down the fair could be interpreted as antigay. Having interacted with members of the commission for several years, I can’t believe that’s what they intended to say – but nonetheless, that’s the message that came out of the meeting. Anyone who speaks in public – including me – as you may remember from about a year ago, must know that one’s words, if not chosen carefully, can be misconstrued. And I think that is what happened in this case. So I would hope that we would chose to use this as a teaching moment rather than as a punative one. It’s easy to lash out at the right wing when it slurs gays – but it’s critical to recognize that even members of our own community and our friends can send alarming messages without intending to. We owe it to them and to ourselves to find out calmly what they were really trying to say and then move on. And I personally look forward to working with the commission in the future.”
Ivy Bottini, LGAB member and “proud lesbian” who is “always vigilant” said:
“Words aren’t just words. They lead to thoughts. And I don’t believe that the members of
Ivy Bottini, member of the WeHo Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board
the ACAC commission are prejudiced – I don’t believe they’re homophobic – and that’s the really scary part because the words that they used linked gay men and children together as if they shouldn’t happen, the proximity shouldn’t happen. Our community has struggled with this for centuries – people believe that gay men should not be near children….Three gay men [on the commission] – I believe didn’t know what to say. They didn’t say anything because I think they went into some sort of shock that, ‘Oh, my God – here it is again!’
So I’m concerned that people of such good will could say those words that linked a badness with gay men and children as if a sanitization of our community was starting to begin. And we cannot allow this. We will not be sanitized. We are who we are and we have to be able to celebrate who we are. So I look forward – City Manager – to the meeting between LGAB and ACAC to sit down and talk about it. There’s a lot we have to say to each other.”
Councilmember John Duran also advocated some deep thinking on the changes happening in West Hollywood:
“When I first heard that my commissioner Dallas Dishman couldn’t get a second to his motion to endorse the festival, I was stunned about what was happening – or continuing to happen in the city of West Hollywood. This is the home of Spike, while the Spike existed – a bar that for many years enjoyed a Levi and Leather profile and posture until it was closed down. And if you got to the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Huntley today, 667, you’ll see all the accoutrement of the Leather community right there in the center of Boys Town.
West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran
So how is it possible that six out of seven members were stunned into silence over something that shouldn’t have ever been an issue at all?
There’s a creeping going in. I talked to Ivy Bottini earlier today about what was this all about? I’m going to speak with the LGAB on Thursday night about the subject they’ve chosen about the ‘thinning’ of the lesbian and gay community in the city of West Hollywood. Actually, I joked with her – it’s more about thinning hair in the city of West Hollywood because many of our lesbian and gay residents are aging. They’re becoming middle aged. And somewhat boring. And we’ve lost a lot of that energy existed in incorporation  when a lot of 20 year old idealists came together to form this city and to give it life and creativity and make it on the edge and make it pretty. And 20 years have passed and a lot of these same people are aging in place comfortably in their rent controlled units.
We’re still here. Our population hasn’t thinned. It’s just graying. And a graying population brings new challenges in terms of the visibility of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community because many of the people that are now visible are coming from other communities to come here. And that’s kind of the reality of what’s going on.
There’s a creeping scrubbing up of West Hollywood that continues to concern me – that somehow we have to adapt to the changes going on – not just in West Hollywood but within the LGBT community. We fought vigorously for marriage equality and for families with children and for gay and lesbian parenting. We fought vigorously for that because people wanted that particular lifestyle as part of their lives. But at the same time, we can’t abandon or forget the Leather Daddies and the Slaves, and the drag queens and the transgenders and all the marginalized people that have given us the essence of who we are as a culture.
It’s time for the pendulum to start to swing the other way. We have gone as far as we possibly can now with marriage and families and children and stroller as we can go. The pendulum has to swing back – to remember that we have to make room for everybody and not have one particular lifestyle trump the other. Yes, there is a West Hollywood lifestyle called ‘healthy and smoke-free and eat your vegetables and exercise daily’ Yes. That is one healthy West Hollywood lifestyle. There is also a West Hollywood lifestyle called ‘grinder and leather and late night encounters and nightclubs and smoke-filled rooms’ and yes, that is a West Hollywood lifestyle. And there are gym bunnies who smoke and there are Leather Daddies who are married and there are exceptions to the rule. But if we really are going to be a tolerant community, we have to make room for the entire picture of the diversity within the LGBT community or we will lose our soul.
So with that – I look forward to the continuing conversations with Ivy and Dan and the Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board about how we bring our communities visibility back to the forefront so there will never be another time when anybody who is seen as making others ‘uncomfortable’ – whether it’s guys in leather or drag queens or anything else – the Sisters [of Perpetual Indulgence] or the transgender sex workers – Yeah, they may make people uncomfortable. But we won’t marginalize them – not here in West Hollywood.”