Like @Art! – Militant Eroticism: The Art+ Positive Archives – An LGBTQ+ History Book Recommendation

Inspired by the theme of last month’s LGBTQ+ History Month – ‘Medicine – #UndertheScope’ – I have decided to highlight a book in the Art Library’s collections that I feel very enthusiastic about.

Front cover of the Art Library’ Militant Eroticism. Image credit Ashley Parry

That book is the exhibition catalogue Militant Eroticism: The ART+Positive Archives. The exhibition which it documents – curated by Dr. Daniel S. Berger and John Neff – took place in Chicago in 2015 and combines ephemera and art-pieces from Art+Positive. That collective formed in 1989 as an affinity group of the famous ACT UP / New York.

Sheet of Art+ Positive protest chants on page 5 of Militant Eroticism

There is an understandable reticence to discussing the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s as it is very easy for such discussions to focus solely on tropes of fatalism and tragedy. However, it is my belief that focusing down on the specifics of the lives and works of activists – ‘under the scope’ – reveals examples of resilience and strategies for care that can inform discourses on health and art today – relevant not only within LGBTQ+ communities, but potentially to us all. The Militant Eroticism exhibition provides many such examples, blending as it does, ephemera, such as lined sheets of scribbled notes and protest chants, with artworks by the likes of Ray Navarro and David Wojnarowicz. As John Neff, one of the exhibition’s curators, describes it, ‘Art+Positive’s project was irreverent, hysterical, pleasurable, and deeply serious.’[1]

In particular, it was Navarro’s piece Equipped, which was a centrepiece of the exhibition, that spoke to me most strongly. This triptych of photos features various prosthetic devices with cheeky, innuendo-laden captions – an upside-down wheelchair entitled Hot Butt, a walking frame on its side called Studwalk and an upside-down cane dubbed Third Leg. I was struck by how the piece manages to succinctly convey a powerful message about disabled queer life, which its humour serves to enhance. The fact that queer disabled people not only exist but have active sex lives should not still be a radical statement in 2024, but, even though awareness is growing it is something that is often forgotten. For evidence of this forgetfulness one only need look at examples of inaccessible queer-friendly venues and Pride events.[2] [3] [4]


The Equipped triptych from pages 26-27 of Militant Eroticism.

But, there is even more to be understood about this piece and this book, and some further enlightenment can be found in Debra Levine’s essay on pages 37 to 51. In the essay, Levine explains not only the story of how Navarro’s piece was made, but also how it fits into its wider context.

Ray Navarro photographed at the 1989 “Stop the Church” demonstration in New York City, from page 36 of Militant Eroticism.

She describes how, as Navarro was, at that time, blind and unable to walk, he called upon Aldo Hernandez and Zoe Leonard to be his amanuenses, and recounts how Leonard described this not as a collaborative effort, but ‘understood [herself] as a prosthesis for the disabled body.’ Levine tells this story as just one concrete example of what she calls ‘prosthetic politics’ – a practice which she argues was a key feature of AIDS activism and which ‘enabled members disabled with physical complications from HIV and AIDS to retain their own creative, sexual, and political identities.’[5] Through her vivid evocation of the creation of Equipped, it is easy to see how valuable this ethos could be in other settings and crises. Indeed, Levine herself briefly brings up similarities between this practice and Haitian responses to AIDS,[6] but it might also be useful to think about prosthetic politics in responses to, for instance, those suffering from Long COVID.


However, Levine highlights how, despite these positive aspects, ACT UP was still a predominantly white and male movement, and so those who did not fit that demographic often felt side-lined or as if they had to work harder to make their voices heard. She points out how the frames of the photos in Equipped made of ‘wood sprayed to a high-gloss finish with Crayola “flesh”-colored paint to simulate plastic prosthetic material’, show how this work was an extension of Ray’s previous collaborations with Catherine Gund. Through that work, ‘as a lesbian and a gay Chicano male, they highlighted the price minority subjects pay by joining a predominantly white gay male movement.’ Levine points out how through using ‘pinkish-coloured’ medium for the frames, ‘Ray’s metonym for his brown body is both circumscribed and supported by this artificial white flesh.’


These insights are an important look at the intersections between healthcare, disability, race, and queerness – not only during global health crises, but in daily life – and that is extremely important, because the truth is that all people will become ill at some point in their life, and many will experience some form of disability. Time and again, queer communities have shown how to meet the specific needs of individuals and groups dealing with illness and disability, and I think that this exhibition catalogue provides a compelling example. I think it would be wonderful if, as the curators wished this, book could be ‘a vehicle for […] knowledge, elation and rage.’[7]


But, of course, this is only one of the LGBTQ+ history-related items available in the Art Library and Bodleian Libraries’ collections. For a place to start, I recommend checking out LGBTQ+ History Month blog posts from previous years.

Ashley Parry, Library Assistant
Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library, Bodleian Libraries

[1] D. S. Berger and J. Neff. Militant Eroticism : The Art+Positive Archives, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017, p. 10.

[2] G. Coi and A. Hernández-Morales. Disability rights activists fight for access to cities’ Pride events – POLITICO. POLITICO. 22-06-16. (Accessed 2009-08-24).

[3] Gwenyth Withers. Why are there so few accessible LGBTQ+ venues. Leonard Cheshire. 22-01-13. (Accessed 2009-08-24).

[4] Alaina Leary. If Your LGBTQIA+ Pride Event Isn’t Accessible to Disabled People, You’re Missing Out.. Rooted in Rights. 18-06-19. (Accessed 2009-08-24).

[5] Debra Levine, Another Kind of Love: A Performance of Prosthetic Politics, in Militant Eroticism : The Art+Positive Archives, 42. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017, p. 42

[6] Ibid. p.47

[7] Ibid. p.10