I began this project in 1986 because the advent of AIDS had led me to think about the prevalence, variety, and longevity of gay and lesbian relationships—the opposite of the promiscuity that was getting so much play in the press. My ambition was to make pictures that challenged and moved people and that were interesting both visually and psychologically. In the 1980s, many same-sex relationships were still discreet, or a bit hidden. It was a time when many gay men were dying of AIDS, which made a particularly poignant backdrop for the project. This was before successful drug cocktails were devel- oped.
I began with friends, and friends of friends. Wherever I traveled, I put ads in local gay newspapers and found more couples and networked from there. I went to gay bars and tea dances, gay parades, and a March-on-Washington and met still more couples. It was surprisingly easy to find couples who were willing to be photographed. It was the beginning of a turning point, and more and more gay and lesbian couples wanted to be seen, wanted their relationships to be recognized and valued.
I was interested in how, as a culture, we weren’t used to looking at two men touching, and was struck by the visual novelty yet total ordinariness of these same-sex relationships. The visual ambiguity of same-sex relationships also intrigued me: were these sisters or friends or lovers or a mother and daughter? Because contextualizing the subject seemed important, I also taped (and later edited) extensive interviews with most of the couples. The interviews were intended to amplify and occasionally contrast with the impressions that a viewer might get from the photographs. A photograph derives its strength from the singularity of its assertion, but people’s lives and beliefs are more complex than that. I was fascinated by my subjects’ stories and how they chose to put them into words.
One evening in the late 1970s, my cousin Jackie happened to see my father dancing with a young man at a club in New York. When she reported this to me and my sister, we realized, rather belatedly, that our father must be gay. We were intrigued and relieved by this revelation. He had split up with our mother when we were toddlers, and had kept us at arm’s length for many years. Perhaps it was his wish to hide his lifestyle, and not our imagined deficiencies as daughters or wom- en, that explained his distance. It also explained why such a good looking and eligible bachelor had not remarried. Now in our early twenties, my sister and I began reinterpreting history and realized that somewhere in our teens the beautiful young women he brought out to dine with us were replaced by beautiful young men, each one introduced as “a colleague from my law office.”In the spring of 1988, I was just finishing my same-sex couples project. It had taken me almost halfway into the project to realize that I had been inspired to a great extent by my lifelong curiosity about my father and more recent curiosity about his lifestyle.
I was in New York showing the work to galleries and museums, and decided to call and see if my father was in town. He invited me over for lunch the next day; I had my portfolio with me, but figured I would never get up the nerve to show it to him. His partner, Lee, answered the door when I rang. He had long blond hair pulled back in a pony tail, a Southern drawl, and was about my age. Lee made sandwiches for us while I chatted with my father. I mentioned my project and, after some urging from Lee, showed them my photographs. My father appeared to be interested, amused, and touched. As we kissed goodbye later, his eyes teared up. His emotion and relief at my coming out for him was palpable.
‘At home with themselves’ is now an exhibiton and a book. Looking at these pictures now what do you realize?
I realize that it took a good deal more courage to stand up and be photographed as a same-sex couple in the 1980s than it does today, and I think the photographs somehow convey that. In some, there’s a tentativeness, in others a kind of not-to-be-taken-for-granted raw tenderness. People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.
It’s a wonderful step forward for the civil rights of this country and our collective humanity that same-sex relation- ships and marriages have become accepted and celebrated. It’s important, though, to recognize that these relationships have always existed, and, in many cases, thrived. They were often discreet, and many lived their lives in the margins. But the success of the same-sex marriage movement would not be possible without the efforts of all those couples who came before and who worked to achieve this goal. Their private love, and their persistence in going public with it, should never be forgotten.
All photos are copyrighted © 2014 Sage Sohier