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Donna Gottschalk: Documenting LGBTQ history

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Donna Gottschalk

Donna Gottschalk: Documenting LGBTQ history

Among the few that has helped to document LGBTQ history, photographer Donna Gottschalk holds the distinction of not only capturing the memorable moments of our community, but of also being part of history with one image.

In a picture by fellow photographer Diana Davies, Gottschalk is a 19-year old during a 1970 Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day rally, the very first march for LGBT rights in New York.

In that now iconic picture, Gottschalk can be seen– defiant and confident– holding a sign that reads, “I am your worst fear/ I am your best fantasy.”

But Gottschalk will also be remembered for her own work: photographs that documented the beginning of the Gay Rights movement in North America and the LGBTQ people that lived it.

Donna Gottschalk: Growing up alone

Born to a family of five in New York in the 1950s, Gottschalk was raised in a small apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

She remembered her independent mother as running a beauty parlor while her father had been exiled from home because he was always violent.

She realized that she was a lesbian at a young age. She said: “I’d been alone so long, you know. Being a teen and not being able to do the things kids do. Talk about their crushes, share fun times.”

She went on to study art at the prestigious Cooper Union in the 1960s, met other lesbians in school, and went to the gay bars. She said: “I was trying to leave New York from the moment I was born.”

That was when she met with activists of the Gay Liberation Front and started attending their meetings. She also fell in love with one of the women there, Arlene Kisner.

In 1970, she moved to Washington with her then-girlfriend Joan Biren and then to San Francisco, recording for posterity those around her in photographs.

Donna Gottschalk: March for rights

In 1970, a year after the Stonewall Riots, the LGBT community began to make their voices heard. For Gottschalk, being a woman who loved other women was hard.

“I took a lot of shit at jobs when they found out I was gay. Even when they accepted you, the men would get sexual. You felt like a walking porn show,” she told Gay Star News.

“Back then, to be in-your-face gay in the daylight shouting for your right to live your life your way was very, very provocative to straights. We were peaceful, but it was very dangerous,” she added.

During that now-historical Christopher Street Day rally, she said: “It was chilly, and we were scared.”

On that iconic photograph, she related: “”Michela Griffo made these great signs. I got lucky she handed me this one. Great tag. Michela was fantastically clever. [It was] such a provocative yet playful sign.”

“I remember we just needed to show the world we existed. We were in their midst and we wouldn’t let them deny us anymore, make us hide, make us ashamed,” she further said.

Donna Gottschalk: Taking pictures

Gottschalk was used to taking pictures back then, whether the radical organizers of New York or the lesbian separatists in San Francisco.

“I got my first camera at 17 and discovered all of these noble, marginalized people who were entering my life. I forced myself to become brave and ask to take their pictures,” she explained.

But she refused to see herself as a photojournalist. She just wanted to document the lives of the “interesting people who hadn’t managed to get themselves killed.”

“The people that I was taking pictures of were not people that, ordinarily, people thought to photograph. They were my personal friends and family,” she said.

Gottschalk cited Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, and August Sander as her inspirations. Likewise, many of her subjects lived on the margins of the margins: the poor, the homeless, the sex workers, drug addicts, and abuse survivors.

She never had any intention to share her work; she wanted to create personal keepsakes. She told the subjects of her pictures: “If I get to be old, I want to remember you. I want to remember you just the way you are now.”

Donna Gottschalk: Remembering friends

Presently, Gottschalk is living with her long-term partner in a small farm in Victory, Vermont.

Her work, stored away for 40 years, was recently presented at her first solo show, “Brave, Beautiful Outlaws: The Photographs of Donna Gottschalk” last year at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York.

When asked why show these pictures now, she said most of the subjects of her work are dead: “I’m almost 69, you know, and I didn’t know what the heck would happen to (my archive). I’m getting up there.”

“I’m ready to release them because I don’t want these courageous lives to be lost. They were brave and defiant warriors who insisted on being, whatever the consequences,” she said.

“Understand, people didn’t care about them or my pictures of them back in the day. I had to,” she declared.

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