How Has Nan Goldin Addressed LGBTQ+ Narratives in Her Work?

Nan Goldin’s photographs showcase a diverse range of queer personalities and identities who are always captured with respect and love.

Mar 30, 2024By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art
nan goldin lgbtq narratives work


The American photographer Nan Goldin lived through the crucial decades for the Western LGBTQ+ community. From the oppressive laws to the Stonewall riots, the emergence of underground culture to the horrific AIDS epidemic, she lived through and documented all these events not as a passerby but as a member of the community. Let’s take a look at the way Nan Goldin works with queer narratives in her artistic oeuvre.


The World of Nan Goldin

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Cookie and Sharon Dancing at the Back Room, Provincetown, by Nan Goldin, 1976. Source: Fotomuseum Winterthur


Nan Goldin is an American photographer famous for the radical sincerity of her works. Her main subject matter is her own life or, particularly, the people she loves and respects. Goldin is often labeled as a photographer of marginalized groups, but she does not agree with this characterization. She documents the lives of drag performers, drug addicts, broke artists, and sex workers. Goldins’ characters represent the norm of their own community, largely ignoring the constraints of the external world. Many of the artist’s works feature LGBTQ+ members, celebrating their ways of expression and showcasing their personalities.


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Siobhan in my Mirror, Berlin, 1992, by Nan Goldin, 1992. Source: Berlinische Galerie


One of the key works in Goldin’s oeuvre is the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The series shows the turbulent lives and dramatic relationships of Goldin and her friends in the 1980s underground world of New York City. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a narrative of love, drugs, parties, and heartbreak shown through the eyes of several couples, both gay and straight. The works explore the range of human emotions.


Nan Goldin herself is a bisexual person. She often includes the images of her partners in photographic projects, exploring their personalities and the nature of their relationships. For several years, British sculptress Siobhan Liddell, a then-partner of Goldin, was her favorite model. The collection of Liddell’s images shows her amidst ordinary actions like getting ready in front of a mirror, taking a shower, and sleeping with her cat. This is, therefore, an intimate portrait of a woman that goes beyond her public persona.

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Drag Queens as the Third Gender

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Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, by Nan Goldin, 1991. Source: Tate, London


Soon after running away from home and gaining independence, Nan Goldin found herself living in a community of Boston’s drag performers. She was immediately fascinated by them. She saw drag as a separate gender that made much more sense than the other two. In her eyes, drag queens present a completely different model of gender expression based on the utter rejection of standards and norms.


Unlike many other photographers expressing interest in non-conforming gender expressions, Goldin never thought of ridiculing her subjects or demonstrating their images for shock value. As in most of her works, the need to create and share comes from deep love and admiration of her subjects.


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Bea, Ivy, and Susan in the Corner, The Other Side, Boston, 1972, by Nan Goldin, 1972. Source: Marian Goodman Gallery


A significant part of Goldin’s early works concerning drag was created in the Boston club The Other Side, which she frequently attended to watch her friends’ performances. The Other Side was a self-contained community separated from the outside world in order to keep its members safe. As a cisgender woman, Goldin never felt excluded and she saw herself as one of the queens.


Goldin’s Trip to Asia

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C. Putting on her Make-Up at Second Tip, Bangkok, 1992, by Nan Goldin, 1992. Source: Artnet


In the early 1990s, Nan Goldin traveled to Thailand and the Philippines to explore and document the drag scene and queer identity of the region. Asian LGBTQ+ culture has roots and influences vastly different from the Western ones. Experts on the region often say that before European colonization the attitudes towards gender, sexuality, and cross-dressing were considerably more inclusive and accepting.


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Yogo Putting on her Powder, Bangkok, by Nan Goldin, 1991. Source: Mutual Art


Just like in New York and Boston, Goldin quickly became part of the nocturnal world of her subjects. She spent several months in Bangkok and Manila, meeting drag queens and their partners, sometimes even visiting their families. Goldin was pleasantly surprised by the fact that only a small minority of queens were alienated from their families because of their ways of expression. Back in the US, most of her gender-nonconforming friends had to sever ties with their parents and siblings. In her writings on the matter, she maintained that, contrary to popular belief, drag queens had no intention of mocking women or transforming into them.


The Reading Prison Project: Tribute to Oscar Wilde

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Fragment of Nan Goldin’s installation in the Reading Prison. Source: Format Magazine


In 2016, Nan Goldin and a group of her fellow artists, including filmmaker Steve McQueen and activist artist Ai Weiwei, presented a group project inside the walls of the now-defunct Reading Prison. Topics of imprisonment and alienation were familiar to Goldin, yet she chose to focus on one particular inmate of Reading. In 1895, the Irish writer Oscar Wilde was convicted of two years of hard labor inside the Reading prison. His crime was called gross indecency with other men. In other words, he was punished because of his homosexuality.


Most historians and literature experts link Wilde’s death in 1900 to the harsh conditions and emotional distress he experienced behind bars. Goldin wanted to explore Wilde’s obsession with the wrong person—his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as Bosie, which directly led to the writer’s incarceration—through a series of photographs of German model Clemens Schick pinned to the prison cell walls.


In another cell, she placed a video installation compiling silent films based on Oscar Wilde, different elderly gay activists who were convicted for the same reason in their youth, and young queer people who were still concerned about their safety. The figure of Oscar Wilde was seminal to the global queer community. Some historians believe that Wilde’s public trials, appearances, and speeches forged the concept of homosexuality and bisexuality not as a behavior but as a multifaceted identity.


Barbara Goldin: Sister, Saint, and Free Spirit

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Nan Goldin and her sister Barbara. Source: WBUR


The topic of inner freedom conflicting with the restraints of mainstream society is reflected in one of the most tragic and heart-wrenching pieces ever created by Nan Goldin. The film Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls follows three narratives at once: the story of Goldin’s sister Barbara, who was institutionalized by their parents and later committed suicide; the biblical tale of Saint Barbara who was executed by her father; and the story of Nan Goldin’s recovery from drug addiction. The segment dedicated to Barbara Goldin includes a medical report explaining the reasons for keeping her medicated and under surveillance. The biggest concern of her family and doctors was Barbara’s expression of romantic and sexual feelings toward other girls.


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Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, by Nan Goldin, 2004. Source: Museum of Modern Art, Frankfurt


Nan Goldin’s sister was the first rebellious and outspoken woman she ever encountered. In her early teens, the future artist already knew how powerful and dangerous one’s sexuality could be. While still hurt by the tragedy of Barbara’s suicide, Goldin decided to escape the constraints of her time on her own terms. In the works centered around addictions and dependencies, Goldin would return to the same torturing feeling of being trapped by external forces.


Nan Goldin and the AIDS Crisis

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Gotscho Kissing Gilles, by Nan Goldin, 1993. Source: Sleek Mag


As a queer person living in 1980s America, Nan Goldin remembers the AIDS crisis very well. The sudden emergence of a new virus quickly turned into an epidemic. The government and the general public were indifferent to it, blaming the victims for contracting the virus through drug use and unprotected sex. The most affected and stigmatized group was the American gay community, among which were many of Goldin’s friends. The experimental medication never became publicly available. It was only provided to white, rich, and influential patients. Those excluded from the privileged group sometimes resorted to toxic makeshift substances that made their deaths even more horrifying.


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Cookie in Her Casket, NYC, 1989, by Nan Goldin, 1989. Source: High Museum of Art, Atlanta


For Nan Goldin, photography functions as an attempt to keep her friends close to her by surpassing the limits of life and death. Her projects of the early 1980s documented loss, grief, and anger. However, Goldin never intended to show her friends dying—she created full narratives around their lives from the years preceding their diagnosis. In 1989, she lost her best friend, actress Cookie Mueller, to AIDS-related pneumonia. Cookie was one of Goldin’s most popular subjects throughout her entire photographic career. Photographs of Cookie—following her life from her bohemian days in New York to her deathbed and the empty living room of her fancy apartment—formed the project called The Cookie Portfolio.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.