How “Radical Perverts” Created Space for Queer Activism

The Museum of Sex looks back at 25 years of activists moving out of the closets and into the streets—and then into the bathhouses, movie theaters, and public parks.

“Klitz Sex Club, San Francisco, CA, 1991” by Phyllis Christopher. Image courtesy of the Museum of Sex

The history of the built environment is, in many ways, the history of sex, of humans creating spaces to explore their natures. Queer people are inseparable from these histories, but in the last quarter of the 20th century in America, they became vibrant actors in determining the possibilities of public sexuality.

They demanded presence, the end of those strictures that kept them hidden because of whom and how they loved and lusted. They asserted the right to be in public—and they appropriated public space to create more private queer spaces in which they could build cultures outside of the straight gaze.

Radical Perverts: Ecstasy and Activism in Queer Public Space, 1975-2000” shows what can arise when queer people have architectural and cultural agency. It takes its name from a declaration by San Francisco lesbian S/M organization Samois, and its checklist from many of those most adventurous queer artists of their times: Nayland Blake defines space early in the show with their Workroom 2, a screen that also might function as a series of glory holes for an enviable broad assortment of bodies.

Deeper in, photographer Frank Morello’s The Fairoaks Project documents the men who populated a hotel turned gay commune-cum-bathouse in late-’70s San Francisco—and the rooms they found each other in—for a series of Polaroids that vibrate with the erotic charge of interior design.

“The Fair Oaks Project” by Frank Morello. Image courtesy of the Museum of Sex

Christian Walker’s early-‘80s The Theater Project transforms the decidedly grungy Pilgrim Theater into a dreamscape in which bodies penetrate the blurred balconies of one of the notorious “porn palaces” littering the Combat Zone neighborhood in Boston. This kind of site-specific glamorizing transforms architecture into activism, asserting queer potentiality that seems drained from the public bathrooms Dean Sameshima photographs in his South Bay Tearooms series. And yet, here there are ghosts, or at least ghostly phallic shadows of worlds both natural (palm trunks) and man-made (plumbing, trash cans), darkening the walls queer people once made into furtive sexual playgrounds.

That sense of play radiates from the revelers in Phyllis Christopher’s Klitz Sex Club, San Francisco, CA, 1991, a very welcome reminder that people of all genders found freedom in nightlife—in this case, a lesbian sex club that made itself at home in San Francisco’s Night Gallery on Folsom Street. Imagine if Manhattan art spaces made that their work instead of glorifying past efforts.

“South Bay Tearooms” (1995) by Dean Sameshima. Image courtesy of the Museum of Sex

“Radical Perverts: Ecstasy and Activism in Queer Public Space, 1975–2000” will be on view at the Museum of Sex (233 5th Ave, New York) until April 14.

All Stories