An Introduction to the History of LGBTQIA+ Art

The fascinating history of LGBTQIA+ art is long and diverse. It’s a story of bravery, activism, and freedom.

Mar 23, 2024By Maria Kruglyak, MA History of Art, BA History
lgbtqia art history introduction


The history of LGBTQIA+ art is as old as the history of mankind. Not many openly LGBTQIA+ artists have, however, been immortalized by the art history canon. In the West, many artists expressed queerness in veiled ways up until the 20th century. Even during the 20th century, it took quite a few brave, outspoken, and revolutionary artists to change the art world’s view on LGBTQIA+ rights.


What Is LGBTQIA+ Art?

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Ignorance = Fear by Keith Haring, 1989. Source: Keith Haring Foundation


The LGBTQIA+ abbreviation collectively denominates gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual people. The plus sign holds space for the expansion of the word. The term LGBTQIA+ art is used here not so much for artists who identify as LGBTQIA+, but for artists who fight for LGBTQIA+ rights or whose art concerns topics directly related to LGBTQIA+ lives.


A Brief History of LGBTQIA+ Art and Rights

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Mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Welcoming the Newcomers by Kent Monkman, 2019. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Artifacts and vases from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia depict homosexual relations as commonly as heterosexual relations. Sappho, the Greek poetess from the island of Lesbos, wrote openly about same-sex desire. In pre-colonial Hawaiian language, the word moi aikāne stands for relationships with the same gender. A similar term is takatāpui in the Māori language spoken by the indigenous people of mainland New Zealand. In pre-colonial South Asia, the Urdu word khawajasira was used for transgender, intersex, and eunuch people. In the art world of today, this can be seen in the work of modern indigenous artist Kent Monkman. Monkman is known as a Swampy Cree two-spirit filmmaker, performance artist, and painter notable for his two-spirit alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle.


With the rise of medieval civilizations, the acceptance of LGBTQIA+ declined. By the late 13th century, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism had criminalized non-heterosexual relations and non-cisgender identifications. By the 16th century, criminalization entered the secular courts in Europe. As European power spread across the globe with the age of colonialism, the criminalization of LGBTQIA+ spread all over the world.

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From the 1920s onwards, some countries started to slowly decriminalize LGBTQIA+ relations and expressions. Just like the road to racial equality, the path to equality between people of varying sexual orientations and gender identities was not so straightforward. The fight continues to this day. Artists have played a significant part in this fight, often being instrumental in changing people’s perception and understanding of the members of the LGBTQIA+ communities.


Early LGBTQIA+ Performance Art Questioning Gender

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Untitled by Claude Cahun, 1927. Source: Another Magazine


Performance art has played a significant role in LGBTQIA+ art. Artists often play with questions of gender and sexuality through performances. These artistic performances can either be shown on stage, enacted in happenings, or documented in photography and video. One of the first major performance artists was Claude Cahun.


Cahun was incidentally also one of the first LGBTQIA+ artists in the Western world to outright discard gender, stating that neuter was the only gender that would always suit them. Together with their partner Marcel Moore, Cahun created artworks through performance and photography that have since become iconic expressions of non-binary identity. Cahun used their bodies in artworks to question masculine and feminine stereotypes and imagery. At the time, Cahun only had a small, surrealist following. In the 1990s, however, Cahun’s work was rediscovered by the masses and the queer community was quick to embrace them as a queer icon.


Early 20th Century LGBTQIA+ Portraiture

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Chasseresse by Romaine Brooks, 1920. Source: Aware Women Artists


The early 20th century also saw the formation of an elite queer circle of artists. This included portrait painter Romaine Brooks, who went from poverty and heterosexual marriage to financial independence and prominence. Brooks was born into a wealthy American family, but her early life was not fairytale-like. Her mother was abusive and her father left the family soon after her birth. By the time she was seven years old, her mother had also abandoned her, so she ended up coming of age in poverty. As a young girl, she moved to Paris, where she tried to become a cabaret singer. She also studied art in Rome as the only female student in her class. Continuous harassment led her to flee to Capri, which had become a safe haven for LGBTQIA+ artists since Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895.


Brooks’s life changed drastically in 1901 when her mother and brother died, leaving her with a huge inheritance. This made her financially independent. She also found her place in the queer art circles of New York and soon became famous for her portraits of women, many of whom were her lovers.


Life as Art and the LGBTQIA+ Muses of the 1960s

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Andy Warhol with Factory Superstar Candy Darling in 1969. Source: WNCY


In the 1960s, a group of so-called Warhol Superstars gained incredible fame. These superstars included Andy Warhol’s friends whom the artist took everywhere. He also made films about them and portrayed them in his artworks. They were the heart and soul of Warhol’s famous Factory. Many of the Superstars were, in fact, transwomen. One was Candy Darling, who starred in Jackie Curtis’ play called Glamour, Glory and Gold together with the young Robert De Niro.


The Pop artist and Paul Morrissey cast both Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling in several of their films. The most famous one was Women in Revolt from 1971. Starring three transwomen, the film was a satire of the Women’s Liberation Movement. It alluded to Valerie Solanas, a radical feminist who attempted to murder Warhol four years earlier. Candy Darling was also a favorite of the band Velvet Underground. The band’s frontman Lou Reed wrote a song about her titled Candy Says in 1969. She was also mentioned in the second verse of his famous song Walk on the Wild Side in 1972. In the history of pop culture, Darling became known as a socialite and visionaire of transgender beauty.


Resisting the AIDS Epidemic 

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Larry and Bobby Kissing by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1979. Source: MoMA, New York


Robert Mapplethorpe was one of the legendary artists fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. Much of his life is known from the memoirs of Patti Smith, whom he lived with for five years after meeting her in 1967. By the 1970s, Mapplethorpe embraced photography as well as his sexual identity. His photographs of beautiful, nude men with stark contrasts quickly made him famous. Many of his works have been described as queer BDSM with their portrayal of the male GBT subculture of New York that Mapplethorpe described as pornographic. These provocative, erotic photographs were also seen as high art. The popularity of Mapplethorpe’s photographs certainly helped fight homophobia during the AIDS epidemic.


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Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, 1991. Source: MoMA, New York


Another artist who fought against the deep homophobia that followed the AIDS epidemic was Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Cuban-born and US-based, Gonzalez-Torres created installations that involved the audience directly. By forcing viewers to take part in his art, the artist managed to create political pieces that subverted people’s feelings. In the 1990s, his work helped spread empathy for the loss of lives that the AIDS crisis brought to the LGBTQIA+ community.


One of the most famous pieces made by Gonzalez-Torres is called Untitled (Perfect Lovers). The artist made the work in response to the AIDS-caused death of his partner Ross Laycock. This poetic piece is made up of two identical clocks that run in perfect synchronicity. However, with time, one of the clocks becomes slower and slower, until they are no longer in sync at all.


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Talk to Us Posters by Keith Haring, 1989. Source: Artificial Gallery


Perhaps most impactful of all in fighting the AIDS epidemic through art was Keith Haring. The graffiti artist made anti-crack, anti-apartheid, pro-LGBTQIA+ works in the subways of New York. He wanted to educate people about these issues. Shortly after his diagnosis, Haring was commissioned by the New York City Department of Health to create posters for the AIDS hotline that provided information and HIV testing.


21st Century LGBTQIA+ Art

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Bona, Charlottesville by Zanele Muholi, 2015. Source: Dazed


At the turn of the millennium, LGBTQIA+ art entered a completely new era. As some countries slowly begin to pass protective legislation for LGBTQIA+ rights, artists also express their sexuality in their art even more. This slowly improving situation allows for the artistic discourse in support of LGBTQIA+ rights to come out, leading to a great diversity of voices. Many artists who are fighting for queer rights make artworks in the fields of performance, installation art, photography, and film. By doing so, they’re continuing the traditions we see in the iconic works from the prior decades. One of these artists is Zanele Muholi who uses film and photography to elevate Black LGBTI people from South Africa.


cassils becoming an image 2012
Becoming an Image by Cassils, 2012. Source: Cassils


Cassils is another example of a contemporary artist working towards a better future. Cassils’s work Becoming an Image was commissioned for the ONE Archives in Los Angeles, the oldest active LGBTQ archive in the United States. In this piece, which mixes performance and photography, the transgender artist performs almost in slow motion on top of a one-ton clay obelisk.

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By Maria KruglyakMA History of Art, BA HistoryMaria is an art researcher, writer, and editor specializing in contemporary and modern art. Her research focuses on community and activist art practices, East Asian art histories, and the use of language concerning marginalized and cross-cultural art movements. She holds an MA in History of Art and Archeology from SOAS, University of London, and a BA in History specializing in Intellectual History from King’s College London. Maria is the founder and editor of Culturala, an independent art and cultural theory journal.