Culture Control, and the Fight for San Francisco: Tina Horn Interviews Dorian Katz
Last fall, the West SOMA Community Benefits Board (WSCBD) censored public art for the Big Belly trash can project in the SOMA neighborhood. The artists (Justin Hall, Axeish Guy, James Hion and Dorian Katz) were commissioned because WSCBD reached out to the Leather & LGBTQ district, but they were subsequently censored for their leather and queer content. The art had been approved and was at the printers. The artists were paid. When the cans went up, however, the artists didn’t see their art. Reportedly, no one from WSCBD informed the artists or the Leather & LGBTQ district.
The WSCBD Executive Director told the artists why the art was removed from the project during a meeting with us after the Leather District inquired why our art was not up. Apparently, a board member googled the hanky code, then had a knee-jerk reaction. He panicked that queer leather sexuality, no matter how hidden from plain sight, would be associated with WSCBD’s brand. This then led to going through the rest of the art and pulling out more designs. The censored work includes two sets of images with hankies, gay male affection and solo figures suspended by rope. We are featuring these drawings in this article.
Tina Horn: Tell me about the art you made for the commission. What does it represent to you? What did you hope it would mean to the people who were supposed to see it (both locals and visitors to the area)?
Dorian Katz: Before I began the drawings, I took a few days to think it out. I needed a way to address the question of doing leather art in view of the general public. I was mindful of the precariousness of this and figuring out how to work within that context. This makes the experience of getting censored more frustrating. I was paying attention to the fact that, someone may freak out and tried to make art that’d be ok. My work was full of ideas of the context it was in and the vanilla squares couldn’t even hold their end of the public bargain of being ok with us after seeking our participation through the Leather Cultural District board.
So, how do our people do leather stuff in public? We cruise around with this secret code hanging out of back pockets, the hanky code. Each of the three drawings features a different colored hanky plus the animal-human creatures typically populating my art. For 15 years, I’ve been world building as the character Poppers the Pony.
The pony with the parasol character is a self-portrait. I’m fashion forward donning this yellow hanky around my neck. The droplets Poppers catches on her tongue should make perverts giggle but are raindrops to the untrained eye.
The Wonder Womanesque cat critter with gray hanky at her hip riffs on Tala Brandeis’ photo of Midori at either Dore or Folsom. Tala and Midori are members of our local leather community. Midori is a rope expert, educator and conceptual artist. I curated Midori’s first solo exhibition at Center for Sex and Culture (CSC) when I was Gallery Director. Tala died in 2014. She was a renaissance woman of sorts and if you’ve seen the movie BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism, you’ve seen her cracking her 10 foot long bullwhip in the middle of the 1993 March on Washington for LGB Rights. Tala was a trans woman and in our dyke leather community beginning in its early days of Samois. This photo was printed in “Cuir Underground,” a local paper covering the queer erotic scene in the mid 90’s. My girlfriend and I picked up Tala’s archive and brought it to CSC. I curated her photos into shows. I love Tala’s photo of my friend and I want folks to know about Tala.
The last image is of 3 critters and a magenta hanky moving through the air. A giraffe is holding a piggy and a poodle is reaching up to get their attention or catches the hanky. Did you know giraffes have all male orgies? This is scientific fact!
I kept going with this group of drawings and there are seven so far. I enjoyed the flirtation with being less explicit. It was exciting to find a way of depicting leather culture with art that is G-rated enough for an all ages public. Well, at least until the cans went up! I figured those who are part of leather community would see art that reflects aspects of them and theirs. I had assumed that if someone weren’t familiar with the hanky code, they’d just see sumptuous drawings of anthropomorphic critters.
TH: What does the leather culture of SOMA mean to you personally? What does it mean for it to be lost? How could the preservation of that cultural history through public art make a difference in that loss?
DK: Local leather culture to me personally is always about people and our relationships. I remind myself it’s about the people rather than just a building every time we lose a crucial space, like The Stud. Still, the Stud collective lives on with programs, mutual aid and plans for the future. The Stud lives through all our overlapping friendships, lovers, fuck buddies, sweaty dancing, and culture building. And knowing this, feeling this, is what made the loss of a brick and mortar Center for Sex and Culture bearable. I was CSC’s gallery director for 8 years involved in sexuality culture making, fostering relationships and the preservation of our history.
Public art by community members provides visual representation. Experiencing this kind of art is a great way of saying welcome home. You belong here and welcome home. Community art can serve as a beacon. Think of Chuck Arnett’s big mural at the Tool Box. It was indoors at the bar, but went public when featured in Life Magazine’s salacious 1964 article “Homosexuality in America.” That was a goddamn leather beefcake siren song to thousands of us who thought maybe I belong in San Francisco. Maybe here I’ll be at home.
TH: To me, being a creative person is inextricable from my sexuality. Both are inextricable from my orientation towards building community through culture (and vice versa!). This describes my leather identity, which means that censorship of my art or my sexuality represents a repression of my identity, sense of belonging, right to free expression. Does this resonate with you? What do you think people misunderstand about the relationship between sex and art?
What do you think we can change, on a civic level, in San Francisco, so that this kind of censorship doesn’t happen?
DK: Your statement absolutely resonates with me. I think a lot of people don’t understand much about sex or art. Art about sex is as important as art about anything else. Yet artists making this work have fewer opportunities to develop careers or have their art seen simply due to our content. Surprisingly, I have found this to be the case in San Francisco where the art scene consciously avoids being “too San Francisco.” Fear of art, sexuality and its existence in public spaces is at the root of much art censorship.
Art censorship is often about the ideas in the art rather than the art itself. In the case of this project, a board member freaked out when he learned about the hanky code. He brought others into his knee jerk reaction. And yet the actual images by us 5 artists are all very G-rated. So, they can’t even handle the idea of being associated with our existence.
I’m guessing art censorship has been with us since before cave paintings. We can’t get rid of it. We can continue embarrassing people for their bigoted actions. When it happens we make noise about it so the next artist it happens to knows they aren’t the first. We can continue making our art and saying their bigotry is what’s shameful, not our sexuality.
“Community benefit district” boards are filled with muckity mucks in finance, real estate development and other people who benefit from gentrification. Even the mini-park in front of the Eagle is partially funded by AirBnB. Now that you’re either houseless or moved because you can’t afford the Bay Area, here have a few bougie plants in front of the bar! Who in the world thinks these businesses have any community’s backs? Most of the leathermen of SOMA have already been pushed out of the city. They have a community of ex-pats in Palm Springs. The same kinds of businesses that caused this social damage now have sway over public art and over preserving the memories of the neighborhood they largely destroyed. Until San Francisco stops giving cultural control to people who keep buying and selling the lives of those of us who create culture, nothing will be operationally different. We need to keep speaking out and pushing the city to end delegating hunks of the city money meant for common good to big business people at the helms of CBDs.
Dorian Katz is an artist and curator living in and near San Francisco since 1986. She makes art as Poppers the Pony since 2006, was Gallery Director at Center for Sex and Culture (CSC) in San Francisco (2011-2019) and 2018 SF Bay Area Leather Alliance Woman of the Year. Katz self-published over 20 zines. Her drawings are in titles like Morbid Curiosity, LGBTQ Resistance Fighters, Salome’s Modernity and Sex Still Spoken Here. Katz’ art has been exhibited in galleries, museums, community centers and kinky dungeons. As CSC’s Gallery Director, Katz’ highlighted art generally shunted by galleries and museums for its explicit or transgressive content.
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