The Magazine

The New Blacklist

Freedom of speech--unless you annoy the wrong people.

Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Strange times we live in when it takes a ballot initiative to confirm the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Stranger still when endorsing that definition through the democratic process brings threats and reprisals.

In November, the San Francisco Chronicle published the names and home addresses of everyone who donated money in support of California's Proposition 8 marriage initiative. All available information, plus the amount donated, was broadcast. My name is on that list.

Emails started coming. Heavy with epithets and ad hominems, most in the you-disgust-me vein. Several accused me, personally, of denying the sender his single chance at happiness after a life of unrelieved oppression and second-class citizenship. Some were anonymous but a sizable number were signed, an indication of confidence in collective clout that belied howls of victimhood. New York's Gay City News asked for an interview because I was "one of only four New Yorkers who contributed more than $500."

I ignored the request, trashed the emails, and forgot about them. But the West Coast bureau chief of the New York Daily News did not forget.

One night in early February, I drove home to find two cars, two men, waiting for me, unannounced, in the dark. Reporters for the Daily News, they were publishing a story on me and Prop 8 the next day and wanted a live quotation. Serious interviews are arranged ahead of time. Besides, I had filed enough newspaper pieces on deadline to know that copy is well into the can at 7 P.M. This was intimidation, not fact-gathering.

Where is the story, I asked, if I have not said anything? The response was: "We have documents." Sound familiar? For half a second, I thought of saying that Prop 8 left intact all the legal advantages of civil union. It took nothing away. But I was too surprised by having been singled out. After a few heated words--none of them equal to what, in hindsight, I wish I had said--I went into the house.

Next day, I discovered in the Daily News that I am known as a painter of gays and lesbians; gay activists felt betrayed by my contribution. It was a sparse article. The only accurate quotation to appear was a sentence cribbed from my own website, which seems to be the "document" from which the story was spun. (The sentence, from an old interview about a gallery show of my paintings, referred to New York's gay pride parade as "an erotic celebration loosed for a day to keep us all mindful that Dionysus is alive, powerful and under our own porch.") Compensating for the interview that never took place, the reporter constructed an exchange over the question he obviously wanted to ask but never got the chance. The article reads:

When asked how she could have donated money to fight gay marriage after making money from her depictions of gays, she just said, "So?"

Set aside the non sequitur. The question was an undisguised indictment that triggered a barrage of virulent mail and threats of blacklisting. Suddenly, I was "a vampire on the gay community" who should be put out of business. As one note put it: "Your career is over, you nasty piece of s--. F-- off! WHORE!"

To make sense of this, backspace to the early '90s and a series of paintings I exhibited called Guise & Dolls. It was a singular body of work based on images from New York's annual carnival, the gay pride parade. I could have used a New Orleans Mardi Gras or Munich's Fasching, but Manhattan was closer. At times funny and poignant, the parade was also--in the age of AIDS--tinged with sexual danger. The spectacle of it made a splendid analogy to the medieval danse macabre.

Festive misrule and the politics of carnival, deeply rooted in cultural history, are a compelling motive for painting. Think of Bruegel the Elder's Fight Between Carnival and Lent. The flamboyant Dionysian heart of the gay pride parade was the subject of Guise & Dolls, not homosexuality itself and certainly not any policy agenda. A public event free for the watching, it is staged to provoke audience response. I responded with a suite of paintings; they bore no relation to my prior or subsequent work. All suggestion that I "make a living on the back of the gay community," as my mail insisted, was a hysterical fantasy brewed in the grievance industry's fever swamp.