In the opening scene of Barbara Hammer’s 1974 film Dyketactics, a group of women lounge around, touching and kissing each other, in the hazy pink light of an afternoon. Ground-breaking for its frank and utopian depictions of lesbian sex, the work is a paradigm of pleasure in ‘Queer California: Untold Stories’ at the Oakland Museum of California. From photographs of protests and direct action, to archival documents from queer societies such as the Daughters of Bilitis, to the erotics of the queer body in works by Wu Tsang and The Cockettes, this expansive, interactive exhibition examines how desire is always political.
‘Queer California’ foregrounds this complicated relationship between queerness and land(scape) as an issue rooted in the colonial history of the state. The exhibition asks how Spanish, Mexican and US settlers preserved forms of domination. Genealogical records from California’s Early Population Project show how, beginning in 1769, Spanish Catholic missionaries enslaved indigenous people throughout California and enforced strict gender binaries. Medical records, meanwhile, reveal how castration and eugenics laws violated the reproductive freedom of those with non-normative sexualities and genders well into the 20th century.
At the end of the exhibition, a three-dimensional timeline outlines how European conquest affected indigenous queer identities. ‘Gender and sexual diversity are an integral part of early cultures in the region before the arrival of European settler colonizers,’ one didactic text declares. The timeline also includes archival materials from baptismal registers from the late 1700s to the 1830s, in which priests have used words like amujerado (Spanish for ‘effeminate’) to describe gender non-conforming indigenous individuals. The exhibition’s timeline also highlights little-known legal, social and political milestones long before the 1969 Stonewall Riots, from the 1860s sex tourism along San Francisco’s Barbary Coast District, to the 1966 Compton Cafeteria Riots.