There’s something about placing an art exhibition called “Looking for Lesbians” in the middle of West Hollywood that works.
As a queer woman, I was looking for lesbians the moment I walked through the supposed LGBTQ epicenter of Los Angeles, sadly to no prevail. It wouldn’t be long before I learned the city that prides itself on having a self-identifying 40% LGBTQ population was heavily lacking in WLW, or woman-loving-woman representation. In fact, the last lesbian bar in West Hollywood closed almost a decade ago when The Palms Bar shut its doors following LA Pride weekend in 2013.
Like any person facing the woeful realization that societal male dominance extends to the queer community, I turned to Netflix for a new sapphic love story called “First Kill.” This extremely low-budget, eight-episode vampire romance arc was cringeworthy, but bingeable. It was filled with a lot of death — but not of the two main female, queer characters. Success! Unlike the trend of killing off prominent queer-femmes in mainstream shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Orange is the New Black” and “The 100,” story creator V.E. Schwab’s supernatural teen drama finally served media justice for the sapphic community.
That is, until Netflix canceled “First Kill” two months after its debut. Bummer.
The “Looking for Lesbians” exhibition, which closed on Sept. 10, filled a gallery space on Robertson Boulevard with work by artist-in-residence Sarah-Joy Ford and curation by Alexis Bard Johnson, accented by egregiously pink wallpaper, floor mats, seat cushions and collectibles. Most of its materials were pulled from the ONE Archive at University of Southern California Libraries, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world.
The new body of work brought a lesbian pulp fiction collection and response together, coupled with other sapphic literature. The heart of the exhibition, according to ONE Archives, is a series of artworks examining “the sorority as a site of same sex intimacies and lesbian desire,” a theme drawing from the earliest lesbian love novels written by women in the 1950s like Vin Packer’s “Spring Fire” and Ann Bannon’s “Odd Girl Out.”
Ford’s addition to the exhibit included her preferred craft: a sewn pink and orange quilt. Hung in direct sight for viewers upon entering the gallery space was an eye-catching tracksuit formed with embroidered patches and made-up sorority symbolism — handmade paper created from archival waste was also present. On this paper, Ford crafted a visual record of the 126 lesbian pulp fiction novels from the archive collection. This may seem like a lot, but Ford and Johnson both heed to how small ONE Archives’ collection of lesbian pulp fiction is compared to gay male pulp fiction, such as Don Holliday’s “The Man from C.A.M.P.”
The handmade record cross-references sapphic icon and author Barbara Grier’s Lesbiana rating system for lesbian literature. During the 1960s, the Grier rating scale assigned a letter grade to how prominent a lesbian subject was to a story. An “A” with three asterisks was the highest rating a work of fiction could receive, meaning the story included lesbian characters with very sympathetic portrayals. The lowest grade on the scale, “T” for trash, was assigned to stories with demeaning representations of sapphic characters.
“T” wasn’t an uncommon rating for most lesbian pulp fiction of the 1900s. These stories often ended one of two ways: Lesbian characters would realize their “wrongdoings” and marry a man regardless of their established sexuality, or the characters would die in mysterious or explicit ways — a strange illness or murder — before they could fully act on their sexuality. In order to maintain the illusion of a happy ending alive for their favorite sapphic roles, it’s believed that many readers of the time never finished reading these novels.
It seems the trend of killing off or unexplainably disrupting sapphic romance in fiction isn’t so detached from 2022. “Looking for Lesbians” visualizes the question of why sapphic representation is presented the way it is. It’s not just asking, after 70 years since “Spring Fire,” “Where are the stories about lesbians?”
It’s asking, “Where are the favorable stories about lesbians? Where are the stories about lesbians of color? Where are the stories about gender-nonconforming lesbians? Where are the stories about bi and pansexual women?”
As of August 2022, 24 lesbian bars remain open in the United States, according to Out Traveler, an LGBTQ blog site. Meanwhile an NBC news report from 2021 records close to 1,000 gay male and mixed-gender bars in the country.
As far as representation has come in the sapphic community — acknowledging Amazon Prime’s “A League of Their Own” as arguably the most influential show of 2022 — there’s still a long way to go in art and in reality. We’ll continue lacking in tasteful deliniation of this community if the heterosexual patriarchy that fetishsizes sapphics in media remains in power.
For six weeks, “Looking for Lesbians” shined as a beacon of pink satin light in West Hollywood’s male-dominated nightlife district, bringing long-deserved attention to queer-femme artists, literature, artwork, curated materials, stories and women from all walks of life under a unifying theme of softness, love and loss in the sapphic culture.
The body of work — Ford’s new and ONE Archives’ curated additions — would likely garner an “A***” on the Grier rating scale.