PRINT January 2019



Donna Gottschalk, Marlene, E. 9th St., 1969, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

“LESBIANS TORTURE DRAG QUEEN” reads the headline of a tabloid that once hung on a wall in Donna Gottschalk’s apartment. As captured in her photograph Marlene, E. 9th St., 1969, her subject, Marlene, turns away from this clipping as if refusing its absurd sensationalism, challenging the dominant narrative of lesbians as vicious. She looks directly into Gottschalk’s camera with her arms crossed against her bare chest, her pants slightly unzipped to reveal a shoreline of pubic hair. She smiles widely without showing her teeth, barely containing her pleasure in being seen in all her butch glory. One of thirty-five works by the artist featured in “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk” at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Lesbian and Gay Art, this image, and the exhibition as a whole, confronts the Daily Mirror—read as a proxy for compulsory heterosexuality—for its phobic, divisive stance toward lesbians, queers, and trans people who in the late 1960s and early ’70s were in the incipient years of fighting for a language with which to name themselves.

Gottschalk was only nineteen when she first photographed Marlene. As a newly out lesbian on the verge of joining the Gay Liberation Front, she had just begun renting her own apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where she grew up, one of four children of a supportive but overworked Irish-Italian single mother. The caption for this portrait of Marlene—transcribed from memories Gottschalk shared with the show’s curator, Deborah Bright—reveals that Marlene, having survived juvenile detention and foster care, arrived on Gottschalk’s doorstep at the recommendation of a mutual friend. Gottschalk was known to rent a spare room to young lesbians who had no safe place to live. At the time, Gottschalk was preparing to graduate from the High School of Art and Design and taking night classes at Cooper Union, all while juggling odd jobs like life-modeling and horse-carriage driving. In the early ’70s, her photographs of the movement circulated in Come Out!, the GLF’s newspaper, as well as in the print manifesto announcing the GLF’s separatist offshoot, Radicalesbians. But as her involvement with lesbian feminist activism waned in the mid-’70s and the demands of supporting herself and her younger siblings became greater, she turned her lens on her private life. Since then, she has kept her photographs out of the public eye, as if preserving a personal album.

Donna Gottschalk, Donna and Joan, E. 9th St., 1970, gelatin silver print, 11 × 14".

Gottschalk’s relationships with her friends, lovers, and siblings provide the narrative thread for the photographs on view, spanning from 1967 to 2012. Marlene appears in five of them. Marlene and Lynn in their yard, San Diego, 1972, captures her with her girlfriend, barefoot in the sand, leaning against the open passenger door of an old car. Marlene was an auto mechanic who, because she was openly queer, lost many jobs. Two more pictures of Marlene show her in action. In Marlene working on Donna’s car, Eugene, OR, 1974, she is on her back below the undercarriage, smiling, tools in hand. In Marlene resting with a beer, Oregon, 1974, she proudly sits on an automobile’s bumper, its engine splayed out on the gravel before her. Twenty years later, in Marlene and Vincent, New York, 1993—the last photo Gottschalk took of her close friend, who died in 2005—she stands in a park in New York City behind Gottschalk’s youngest brother, Vincent, as if she were an honorary sibling.

Joan E. Biren (JEB), Donna in her kitchen, E. 9th St., 1970, digital silver halide C-print, 14 × 11".

Images of Joan E. Biren (who goes by JEB) also appear throughout “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws.” JEB and Gottschalk became lovers after JEB followed Gottschalk into a bathroom at the 1970 Revolutionary People’s Convention, organized by the Black Panther Party, in Philadelphia, where fellow gay women of GLF had been invited to speak by Angela Davis. In an early self-portrait, Donna and Joan, E. 9th St., 1970, Gottschalk and JEB spoon in bed, their hair messy from rolling around together. Gottschalk had set the timer on her recently acquired 35-mm camera and counted down the seconds for the shutter to release: “It was like waiting for a firecracker to go off . . . every exposure was full of apprehension and wonder.”1 Over the course of their approximately year-and-a-half-long relationship, the power of the camera to record their intimate world galvanized them both; JEB went on to devote her life to photographing lesbian and queer life and activism. In fact, it was JEB who introduced Gottschalk’s work to Leslie-Lohman in 2016, bringing her photographs out of obscurity.

The exhibition maps the tender outer limits of Gottschalk’s political and cultural context, but the essential theme is her enduring love for her family and for the friends who became family.

Gottschalk was also not afraid to pose before other photographers’ cameras at a time when being documented as queer was dangerous. A wall-size print of Diana Davies’s 1970 portrait of the artist welcomes visitors to the exhibition. Gottschalk stands at the first Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which memorialized the Stonewall riots that happened a year earlier; a hand-written sign around her neck proclaims to the straight world, i am your worst fear / i am your best fantasy. It remains one of the era’s most widely circulated images. Three vitrines filled with ephemera—from a typewritten list of NYC’s pre-Stonewall lesbian and gay bars (“The Love Cage,” “Snookies”) to a rumpled T-shirt that Gottschalk silk-screened with the words lavender menace2—offer additional historical texture. One five-by-seven-inch black-and-white photograph, taken by JEB in the early ’70s, provides a glimpse into Gottschalk’s editorial process, capturing her with three friends sitting on a couch in her Ninth Street apartment. Behind them, below high shelves stacked with books and art supplies, a lopsided grid of photos is tacked to a wall. The group is entranced, poring over Gottschalk’s contact sheets as she sits perched on the arm of the couch, affectionately looking toward JEB. In her own apartment, she received feedback more freely than she did in art school, which had been hostile to her work.

Donna Gottschalk, Alfie, San Francisco, 1972, ink-jet print, 16 × 20".

The exhibition maps the tender outer limits of Gottschalk’s political and cultural context, but the essential theme is her enduring love for her family and for the friends who became family. Perhaps the most moving of her photographs are those she took of her younger sibling, Myla. Displayed as a show within a show, the portraits of Myla depict her from age eleven until just months before her death, at fifty-six, in 2012. Myla was a trans woman; these pictures bring to the fore for a contemporary viewer the way in which common language impedes the process of one’s gender being recognized. The task of aligning the past with the present moment—of properly honoring and remembering the life of a trans person via historical images, especially when the person cannot speak for themselves—prompts tangled questions regarding representation.

In the exhibition’s captions and wall texts, written by Bright and approved by Gottschalk, Myla’s birth name is used for the seven pictures on view that were taken before her medical transition. As Bright explained, “I wasn’t willing to erase that long journey from identifying as a gay boy-man to becoming a woman.”3 We also learn from the wall text that Myla battled drug addiction and aids, her struggles a further testament to the ways in which our world is bent on destroying transgender people. As if to make this harsh reality more vivid, the photographs of Myla are the only images in the show taken with color film. In Alfie, San Francisco, 1972, a portrait suffused with natural light, shot in the apartment Myla shared with her older sister during their stint on the West Coast, she leans against a yellow wall while lounging on a bed with mint-green and pastel-pink sheets. She looks saintly, as if still dreaming after a disco nap. The most visceral record of physical violence in the exhibition, Alfie after hate bashing outside a club on the Upper East Side, 1976, shows Myla and her friend Teddy after the pair were beaten up by white teenagers. When Gottschalk met Myla at Bellevue Hospital, she photographed her sibling’s swollen eye and gashed nose in uncharacteristic close-up. It appears almost as though she were gathering forensic evidence for a restorative-justice task force.

Donna Gottschalk, Myla in her apartment, 2010, ink-jet print, 20 × 16".

Gottschalk’s images both amplify and complicate the history of LGBTQI liberation, documenting how lesbians, trans, and gender-nonconforming people have lived both inside and outside the rigid enclaves history allocates for them. Gottschalk, who once claimed lesbian separatism as a temporary tactic to undo patriarchy, always maintained a close relationship with Myla, deviating from the ideologies of cis lesbians who espouse biologically driven trans exclusionism. Marlene, Gottschalk recalls, was also ostracized from groups of “normal gays,” and later in life “was simply taken for a man,”4 often passing as a way to self-protect.

The haunting temporality of Gottschalk’s photographs is also a product of the daunting conditions under which the artist struggled to make art while supporting her family. Gottschalk never “left photography”; she worked for over thirty years producing other people’s photographs as a printer in commercial photography labs. To frame Gottschalk as “unsung” or finally achieving “fame,” as certain mainstream critics have done, fails to admit her resistance to normative culture.5 The commercial art world’s appetite for “queer images” in the service of the market’s relentless feasting on the new has already led to Gottschalk being labeled as a “discovery.” To characterize her thus is to risk dispossessing her of the nuanced relationships and communities she captured in her images. As her loved ones featured in “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws” generously reveal themselves to Gottschalk’s camera, they ask that we cultivate a richer, more detailed narrative of their lives. In that way, we might not congratulate ourselves for rescuing them from obscurity, but instead focus on the way history erases society’s most vulnerable.

“Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk” is on view through March 17 at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York.

Ariel Goldberg is the author, most recently, of The Estrangement Principle (Nightboat Books, 2016). They are currently working on Heavy Equipment, a book on how LGBTQI photographers related to their subjects before digital photography.


1. Donna Gottschalk, email interview with the author, November 2, 2018.

2. Gottschalk silk-screened the LAVENDER MENACE T-shirts at Cooper Union, where she was a student. They were worn by lesbian activists participating in the “Zap” of the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York on May 1, 1970.

3. Deborah Bright, email interview with the author, November 27, 2018.

4. Donna Gottschalk, email interview with the author, November 26, 2018.

5. See Kerry Manders, “The Most Famous Lesbian Photographer You’ve Never Heard of—Until Now,” Lens (blog) New York Times, August 14, 2018,; and Allyssia Alleyne, “The Unsung Photographer Who Chronicled 1970s Lesbian Life,”, September 21, 2018,