Karen Ocamb

Controversy Erupts Over WeHo Tom of Finland Exhibit

Filed By Karen Ocamb | February 08, 2011 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Media
Tags: FAIR Education Act, tom of finland, West Hollywood

This legislative session, Equality California and Sen. Mark Leno will strongly advocate for the FAIR Education Act, a natural extension of last year's historic Harvey Milk Day. tomoffinlandart.jpgThe bill requires that LGBT history and contributions be taught in the California education system.

The need for such education became excruciatingly clear recently when a controversy erupted after the city of West Hollywood's Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission unanimously voted not to endorse the Tom of Finland art exhibit in West Hollywood Park, as had been done for at least 10 previous years. The 16th annual Los Angeles Erotic Art Fair Weekend is scheduled for March 25-27 in West Hollywood Park.

The Tom of Finland exhibit itself - which includes drawings and art work from all over the world and requires attendees be 18 and over - was never actually in jeopardy. The West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Council had already approved it, which was noted in an agenda item on the consent calendar for the City Council meeting on Feb. 7. No controversy there.

"I am supportive of the Tom of Finland exhibit taking place in West Hollywood, and have been for years," said longtime straight ally, Councilmember Abbe Land. "We look forward to hosting the exhibit in West Hollywood again this year."

But the Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission vote touched an increasingly exposed LGBT nerve.

Jaws dropped and blood pressure skyrocketed when word spread that the reason for the non-endorsement was fear that the exhibit might be offensive to families and children in the public park. Immediately there arose the mythic specter of gay men as sexual predators - the cruelest of contentions that has been used against LGBT people from Anita Bryant and her "Save the Children Crusade" in 1977 to Prop. 8 today. Additionally, among the "No" votes were three gay men and strong LGBT allies dedicated to diversity, public art and progressive issues. How could that be?

Unlike other commission meetings, the Arts & Cultural Affairs meetings are not recorded, and minutes of actions taken are only made public after the minutes are approved by the commission. In trying to piece together what happened, I interviewed a number of people involved with and impacted by the vote by phone and via email - a number of whom requested anonymity - and found an extraordinary example of how well-meaning, non-homophobic people can be in the same room and emerge with two sincerely believed interpretations of the same thing.

For a parallel example, consider the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, explaining how men and women experience the same thing differently. The late LGBT pioneer Harry Hay used to say that gays were like a third people, with characteristics of male and female but uniquely different in the universe. Ergo, gay people just naturally think differently than straights. Other LGBT historians and activists believe that the long history of anti-gay hatred and oppression has been seared into the LGBT DNA, much as the history of slavery and racism is in the collective unconscious of African-Americans.

But LGBTs do not yet have a societal awareness akin to Black History Month, wherein racism is exposed and discussed, along with the contributions of black people.

It was against that unconscious backdrop that the Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission took its vote and gays and progressive straight people with little-to-no-understanding of gay culture created a misunderstanding that shook an LGBT community fearful of losing its historic sense of place, its mecca of gay West Hollywood, as represented by the iconic 1960s/1970s symbol of gay liberation - the hyper-masculine sexualized art of Tom of Finland.

"It was a perfect storm," said one person about how the incident unfolded. The Arts & Cultural Affairs Commission is considered one of the hardest working commissions in the city, often meeting three times a month for long hours with intensive discussions in subcommittees over the nature and public placement of art. As described by several people, the Thursday, Jan. 27 meeting in Plummer Park a conference room in City Hall was at the end of a long day, after a "difficult" discussion in a previous meeting. The commissioners were under a time constraint to get through their packed agenda in time to vacate the room for another meeting. But a vote was required for the exhibit in order before the City Council vote, which included waiving fees for park facilities. Otherwise the already financially struggling Tom of Finland Foundation would have to pay several thousand dollars, which it doesn't have. And that, some feared, might mean the end of the nonprofit.

But by many accounts, the Tom of Finland Foundation representative made a perfunctory presentation, handing out postcards and making available brochures from past exhibits and making little effort to connect the iconic history to the city of West Hollywood. Some felt that he took the vote for granted, since the City Council was expected to endorse the exhibit anyway.

Commissioner Whitney Weston, an appointee of Councilmember Jeffrey Prang, was perturbed that the foundation already boasted of the commission's vote on their website even though the vote had not been taken. For Weston, this was the third year of hearing the exact same presentation. The first two years, she went along with the endorsement because she is a fan of erotic art and Tom of Finland - but didn't know about the history or the foundation. She had concerns about the way the exhibit was being presented.

"To have an arts event in the city of West Hollywood that's shrouded in secrecy in the corner of the park - I just think it's in bad taste. I don't think it's something that I necessarily want to put my name on. I think it's something that should be celebrated, that should be promoted," Weston told me. "I said that I didn't really hear that much about the event with the exception of it being presented at our commission. I also said I felt like we should be moving forward and it felt like it was something that was moving backward."

That's not what Dallas Dishman, Councilmember John Duran's gay appointee, heard. Dishman is an executive with a nonprofit who did his Ph.D. dissertation on hate crimes in West Hollywood and firmly believes Weston and the other commissioners are well-intentioned and not in the least homophobic.

However, Dishman told me, "my recollection of that conversation," is that Weston said: "I just think that the families who have children in the park would be really uncomfortable to know that this stuff is on display inside the community center, even though it's been made very clear there's no way they're going to accidentally walk in there, they're not going to see anything through a window, there's no potential exposure to this - I just think it's in poor taste and people would be really uncomfortable to know that while the kids are playing here, that this is happening in the building right next door."

Dan Berkowitz, the co-chair of the city's Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board and a foundation supporter, attended the meeting. He, too, believes that Weston and the other straight commissioners are strong LGBT progressive allies with no hint of homophobia in their bones.

But, Berkowitz said, "As a writer, I'm attuned to what words mean, and no matter what your intentions, if your words say something else, it's a big problem. And what I took from the meeting was 'Gay men don't belong near children and families' - which I have to believe they didn't intend, but which was what came out. And if this comes from people who are gay and gay-friendly, and well-educated, and of good intention ... what the f*ck can we expect from the rest of the world?!?"

News of the vote spread like wildfire. Prang called Weston and explained how painful the vote was to him and the LGBT community. She reiterated her point to him and said she was unaware of the history.

"I've apparently hit a hot button and I didn't mean to and it was not my intention to offend anyone. And if I offended anybody, I apologize," Weston said. "But I think I was misunderstood. And maybe I didn't choose the right words. I'm a huge supporter of diversity in West Hollywood and the LGBT community. I voted against it because I felt the event itself should be celebrated and promoted. I just feel it should not be shrouded in secrecy in some dark corner of the park. It just didn't feel right to me."

"I don't know why it stirred such a controversy," Weston said. "That's why I'm so sad over this - that was not my intention at all. I wouldn't live in the city of West Hollywood if I didn't love the diversity of the city and I'm very supportive of the community - I always have been. It's not my intention to do anything to hurt anyone. It's been twisted into something that was not my intention at all."

Weston "wracked her brains" and then adamantly insisted she never said anything about children and families.

"I absolutely did not say that," Weston said, though her discussion about how to define a park might have been misconstrued. "I would be very careful not to say that - I'm aware of that [the historical anti-gay implication]. But I was not there as a parent. I feel unfairly targeted. I'm in the middle of something that is totally beyond my control, something bigger."

Dishman said he first voted not to endorse when the motion looked like it was going to fail - and then thought better of it and tried to change his vote. "The outcome of the decision is unfortunate and I think it reflects a lack of general knowledge of LGBT history and cultural aesthetics that have played an important role in the lives of people in West Hollywood. And we have a responsibility to share that history and its significance with those who might not be aware of it, even among our allies of which I could count everyone on the commission," Dishman said. "We all have to look at our own behavior and ask the difficult questions about internalized homophobia. This is an opportunity for all of us - gay and straight - to look at if our own internalized homophobia might have impacted our thoughts and behavior. And that is precisely what art is supposed to do - make us think and question."

Ivy Bottini, Berkowitz's co-chair of the WeHo LGAB, also is concerned about internalized homophobia and the "thinning" of the gay community and gay culture in West Hollywood.

"The sad thing is that these remarks came from a very progressive commissioner who I don't believe is homophobic," Bottini said. "But even she went to that fear that pervades society. We need to talk."

Apart from the discussion about how we educate others - and ourselves - about LGBT history and contributions, there is also a need to grapple with the perception and reality about whether the visible disappearing of LGBT culture is that same as the actual loss of LGBT residents. Is the LGBT community "losing ground" in WeHo, "losing control of community?" Or is the LGBT population aging and hanging out more at home than at bars and clubs?

The 2010 US Census reports this about WeHo:

In 2005-2009, West Hollywood city had a total poluation of 36,000 - 16,000 (44 percent_ females and 20,000 (56 percent) males. The Median age was 40.5 years. Five percent of the population was under 18 years and 17 percent was 65 years and older.

According to Helen Goss, Director of Public Information for the City of West Hollywood, the city's LGBT population, according to the city's 2006 Community Report, is 37 percent gay men and 4 percent lesbians.

Perhaps this controversy can create an opportunity for a community discussion about where and how the history and contribution of LGBT liberation and the unfulfilled civil rights movement will be archived and recognized in the city that still is a gay mecca for the world.

Cross-posted at LGBT POV, from a shorter version that appeared in Frontiers in LA. Art courtesy of the Tom of Finland Foundation.

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Chitown Kev | February 8, 2011 9:28 PM

Karen, this is some great reporting.

Sorry, but if this had been a different exhibit, I'd find it more worth defending. Tom of Finland's illustrations are too white-male, and his fascination with military uniforms is disturbing. But I also think people are too worried about erotica hurting children in this case -- the exhibit's in a building and is open only to those over 18. People should be more worried about their kids being exposed to violence and militarism.