Interviews

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Lollipop Knick Knack (Let’s Talk About You), ca. 1968–69, foil, printed material, linoleum, glitter, staples, Magic Marker, found objects and other media, 9 x 16 x 5 1/2".

I first met Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt in the mid-2000s, while I was working at SAGE (“Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders.” SAGE originally stood for “Senior Action in a Gay Environment,” which I preferred. Who doesn’t love the naughty ambiguity hanging around that word, Action?)

At SAGE I worked with Gay Liberation Front cofounder Jerry Hoose on two panel discussions about the activism inspired by the Stonewall Riots. The apocrypha generated by people who claimed to be there drove Jerry crazy, and he told me that there was no realer deal than Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. Jerry was so proud of Tommy’s development as an artist, and when I looked up Tommy’s work I too was in awe of his glittering gay sorcery. Jerry was the first person Tommy met on Christopher Street, so it made cosmic sense when President Barack Obama invited Jerry and Tommy together to the White House in 2009 to commemorate Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary.

A quadruple bypass surgery last month has kept Tommy in a rehabilitation center, away from the golden anniversary spotlight shining on Stonewall Veterans. I told him that as a patron saint of Pride Month, we would send him lots of queer healing energy. But what Tommy needs more than white light is an elevator building in Manhattan. For more than forty years he has lived in the same rent-controlled fifth-floor walk-up, and after his heart attack he will not be able to handle the stairs.

Tommy’s lucky to have lots of friends and his great gallery, Pavel Zoubok, on the case. But it’s a tough situation, and as I walked through the West Village absorbing all the corporate Pride window displays, the precariousness of his living situation hung in my mind. It was hard to muster the blinders that usually allow me to focus on the magical aspects of our annual celebration of queerness. I get it, corporations won this turf war, but here is a living, breathing embodiment of all that we are honoring this month, and he can use our help. New York, make me proud again. Give Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt the recognition he deserves.

Ryan McNamara

Fred W. McDarrah, Celebration After Riots Outside Stonewall Inn, Nelly (Betsy Mae Koolo), Chris (Drag Queen Chris), Roger Davis, Michelle and Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, 1969. Getty images.

THE SMELL OF LIGHTER FLUID on a certain kind of summer night always sparks memories of the Riots. Sometimes I’ll be walking down Eighth Avenue and I’ll catch a scent, a mix of beers and bodies, that comes out of the bars. It’s a very sexy smell and it takes me right back.

But the actual events of those nights in June 1969 are a blur. I don’t remember going home or coming back.

I ALWAYS KNEW the street kids had it in them. They were tough. It’s like the Bob Dylan lyric, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The femme queens were the most fearless. If you look at the famous Fred McDarrah photo from the Riots, there is one queen standing on the other side from me holding her purse. Her name was Drag Queen Chris, and if you look at the purse’s shape, you can see the outline of a brick. They didn’t go around starting trouble, but they were always ready to defend themselves, and that brick in the purse came in handy. That was just part of life. They famously threw a parking meter during the Riots—although to be fair it was already pretty loose. It wasn’t firmly planted in the ground. Before the Riots the street queens loved to spin it like a merry-go-round and sing “Ring Around the Rosie.”

When Fred approached us around dawn during the Riots to take that picture, half the kids—the ones who passed as straight—ran away. We called them the husbands. They were participating, I have to give them credit for that, but they didn’t want people to know that they were participating.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, The Mirror of Youth (Spritzer Thaw), 1970–72, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, pipe cleaner, holographic tape, pipe cleaners, glitter, staples, mirror, colored marker, 13 x 10 x 9".

THE STONEWALL was the center of my universe because it was the only place where we could slow dance. It wasn’t the first gay bar I went to: That was the Tenth of Always—great name, terrible bar. You couldn’t dance there. I think the fact that dancing was allowed at Stonewall had something to do with the Mafia management having drag queen girlfriends. Everywhere in the world, drag queens are a subversive element. Wherever gay people are persecuted, there’s always a drag queen that has a boyfriend who’s a powerful political person.

It was the drag queen girlfriends who picked the songs for the jukebox, and that changed everything. The music there was the music that high-school kids liked back then. It wasn’t like most bars that would play what we considered old-fashioned music, like Judy Garland. The jukebox at the Stonewall had Otis Redding and Carla Thomas. One of my favorites was “Third Finger, Left Hand” by Martha & the Vandellas, a 1967 song that was about hoping for a wedding ring, but if you count the fingers, the third finger could also be your middle finger. So we would all dance with each other while flipping off the outside world.

The actual events of those nights in June 1969 are a blur. I don’t remember going home or coming back.

It was the dancing together, being able to hold each other, that made Stonewall so special. That’s a small thing, but a big thing. To have something like that trivialized is a huge insult when it’s the only place in the world where you can do that. That gave it an enormous importance. You could go to the trucks in the Meatpacking District for quickie sex, but dancing creates community. At Stonewall, you would ask someone to dance. It wasn’t a hippie free-for-all.

It was very sweet, and there was nowhere else that sweet. There was an emotional connection that is very different from just a political discussion. It’s stronger and deeper, because it transcends intellectual and class boundaries. I was one of the lucky ones who had his own apartment in the Lower East Side—for thirty-five dollars a month!—and that meant I could bring people home. Often, when I would bring back guys my own age, I would take off their shirt and see they had dog tags on, which meant they were in the Army. That also usually meant they were on leave, so they would stay for a couple of days and, since we were young, it was nonstop sex, and that would be nice.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Mysterium Tremendum, late 1980s, mixed media on aluminum tray. 13 x 10 1/2 x 2".

I MOVED TO NEW YORK and started at the Pratt Institute in 1966. My father had got me a job digging ditches, and I ran away from home immediately, because I just would have been murdered.

I had actually been coming to the city throughout high school to meet men for sex. I went to Forty-Second Street to look for other gay people, but it was just too fast. No place where you could sit and reflect. So I worked my way down to the Village. Christopher Street from Greenwich Avenue to the Hudson River was the spine of our world. You could fan out onto the side streets, sit on a stoop and talk with your friends. There was no place else in the world that we could run around using gender-switch language. I love how Jerry Hoose put it: We had found nirvana.

It was here that I met other teenage runaways, some as young as thirteen. The younger they were the harder their lives had been, because they had no reason to live on the streets other than that their parents hated them and threw boiling water on them or tossed them through windows. They were all in and out of juvie, a place called Spofford in the Bronx. They had been raped, beaten, all kinds of horrible things. That hairpin trigger was what emboldened us to riot.

EVERYONE WENT TO CHRISTOPHER STREET, so sooner or later you would end up at the Stonewall. But an important thing about the Stonewall is that the windows were covered with black plywood, so passersby would never think anything was in there. Even on a Friday night, you’d see two people go in, then maybe another. When you finally entered you’d find three hundred people carrying on inside.

It cost around two dollars to get in but I never even knew you had to pay, I would just run past the guy. I think the street kids and some other young people were let in as bait for older johns. The management had a clipboard where you were supposed to sign your name, because one of the ways it survived was the legal fiction of being a private club for members. But everyone just signed “Betty Boop” or whatever. We called the waiters the Gestapo because they would harass you to buy a drink. We were street kids with no money. We would find cans of beer and fill them with water, so when the waiters would shake the can to feel the weight, they would leave you alone. It was an important survival trick.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Twinky as a Royal Princess (Self-Portrait), 1967, foil, printed material, linoleum, glitter, staples, Magic Marker, found objects and other media, 10 x 7 1/2 x 4 1/2".

There was an amazing crosspollination on Christopher Street. I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was that within these few little blocks of land, these few little stoops, this diverse group of people came together to share ideas. Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith would go to the Stonewall. I actually feel like Jack Smith predicted Stonewall in Flaming Creatures. He envisioned all this same-sex dancing in 1963, four years before Stonewall opened. Charles Ludlam could teach you through discussion. Jack Smith never had a discussion. Jack Smith just did it.

The runaways interacted with the teenagers at Columbia or NYU. Henry Geldzahler, a patron and curator at the Metropolitan Museum, would bring people from Yale. Henry was there because of Chris Scott, his private secretary and boyfriend. Chris used his salary to finance Charles Ludlam’s playwriting, and Charles and Chris were the first people I knew who used the word queer in a good way. They were seeing it as both an intellectual and a sexual space. Henry had his feet in two different worlds: He was backing Warhol but also hanging out with street queens. A lot of things were brought together through him.

The art world plays a cagey game. It ignores things, pretends they don’t exist, and then forty years later, when they can’t avoid it anymore, they just act like they always accepted it.

Civil Rights were being discussed on campuses, and making the connection between Civil Rights and gay rights made sense to the street kids. The college kids would have more sophisticated terminology, and it was amazing to see this intellectual perception growing alongside the street perception.

It quickly became apparent that the Riots were an event of huge, solidifying charisma. The people who had the organizational skills, like the NYU kids, took the energy that Stonewall let loose and gave it cohesion. The Gay Activist Alliance was formed less than a month after the Riots. That was followed by some small marches, and then a year later there was a big commemoration that eventually became the gay rights parade. There’s no myth padding there or anything. That’s just the way it is.

On the cover of Artforum’s 2019 summer issue: Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Allegory of The Stonewall Riot (Statue of Liberty Fighting For Drag Queen, Husband, And Home), 1969, foil, plastic wrap, pipe cleaners, linoleum, glitter, acrylic paint, acrylic floor shine, food coloring, staples, wire, printed material, found objects and other media, 12 X 7 X 4".

THE PEOPLE I MET THROUGH THE STONEWALL had a profound impact on my art. But I actually met Chris Scott on my first trip to the Museum of Modern Art. I thought the museum was going to be a public service, like a municipal swimming pool, so I didn’t bring money and couldn’t get in. I left and walked out onto the street behind it, and along comes this guy wearing a brown leather bomber jacket, World War II–style, and with very short hair. I said to him, “Did you just get out of jail?” Because the police would always shave the kids’ heads as a way of humiliating them, especially the drag queens, even though they said it was to prevent lice.

Chris and Henry lived a block away from MoMA. He asked if I wanted to go over and smoke a joint or something. Their place was full of Warhols and Oldenburgs—at first I thought they were fakes. So here I am, basically a street kid, suddenly entering this highbrow art world. That’s when I started to see a different way of organizing and presenting my art. They would take me out to the Hamptons, and while other people went to the beach, I would spend time with Henry’s big stack of Artforums. I would read them out loud, to get the rhythm of it. I was inspired by Martin Luther translating the Bible into German. I was determined to get a knack for those words.

This was the world of Frank Stella’s copper paintings. It was all about these big, macho, expensive expressions made with the entire arm. I was more about the wrist, like how people would make fun of gays. I wanted my art to be very consciously about delicate wrist movements. So I made those copper paintings into earrings.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Chalice Iv, ca. 1990s, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, holographic tape, pipe cleaners, glitter, staples, colored marker, 12 1/2 x 7 x 7".

I wore those earrings in these performances where I would give people tours of my art in my apartment. I adopted a persona named Ethel Dull, based on the collector Ethel Scull. They were very interactive, with music and lighting coming through the drapes, and they could go on for hours and hours, although some people would run away in the first five minutes. Through Henry and Chris, I saw how art was regarded as something sacred, like the way church things are. That’s when I started making chalices with rats and things like that, which would all be a part of the tour. Then I would give everything away, because I wanted to be very Franciscan. I gave a bunch of my art in shopping bags to a friend, who threw them in his bathroom. The collector Holly Solomon came to his place for a studio visit and had to do a number two. She saw my art in the bags and asked to do a visit with me. Some of the collectors Henry Geldzahler sent around, rich people with limousines, had bad experiences visiting my neighborhood. So when Holly called I said to her, “Listen lady, don’t wear a fur coat, and don’t wear jewelry.” So she wore a cloth coat and a little babushka, seething with resentment.

The Stonewall was the center of my universe because it was the only place where we could slow dance.

That was all in the early 1970s. Fast-forward twenty-five years. I’d been with Holly’s gallery for a long time and she comes for another studio visit. She walks into the building and says, “I smell smoke, Tom.” She grabs my hand, pulls me out in the street and asks, “Where is the fire department?” We head over and Holly marches right past the front desk and into the room where the firefighters are eating and playing cards and says, “Men, fire.” They all are hypnotized, like she’s the Queen of England, and follow her across Eighth Avenue while still putting on their gear. As the traffic stops for this parade led by this woman in a fur coat, she turns to me and says, “See, Tom? It pays to have women who wear furs and jewelry around.” She held that against me for a quarter century!

Thomas Lanigan-Achmidt, Untitled (Crown), 1995, aluminum foil, plastic wrap, holographic tape, pipe cleaners, glitter, staples, 12 1/2 x 8 x 10".

Holly was something, but she could be homophobic in her own way. She wouldn’t show my Allegory of the Stonewall Riot [on the cover of Artforum’s Summer issue] until 2000, and even it was in a display case in the back of the gallery. She wouldn’t outright say, “I don’t want you to show that,” but she would make sure it was not given preeminence. She started to change a little because gay people were more publicly assertive as a group, and so she couldn’t get away with being dismissive. The art world plays a cagey game. It ignores things, pretends they don’t exist, and then forty years later, when they can’t avoid it anymore, they just act like they always accepted it.

I ALWAYS FELT I had a vocation to be an artist. Art has always been first the heart, soul, and guts. The mind comes in, but later. The totality of the person. That’s what makes art different from any other intellectual undertakings. It’s a supply for society’s need for representation, which has remained the same since cave paintings. If a person was making art in a cave, then others would have to go out and hunt and bring back food so the artist could focus on making art. The community could come together in the cave for cooking and eating, but with art they could reflect collectively. It’s a very different sense of unity when art is present, rather than just aimlessly going on from one kill to the next. It is important to be able to look at something and say, “This is us.”

This unity is so special in the LGBT community. I’ve always thought gay culture should realize the power of our diversity instead of using it to separate us. We are a group that comes from every other group. We come from rich people, we come from poor people, we come from all over. That should be emphasized more and more and more, so there is always that unity. We are diverse, and we were diverse from the get-go.

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