“Coming Out Under Fire”

By Greg Marzullo, June 2016 Issue.

One year after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling and five since the repeal of the military’s McCarthyist “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) is reviving an LGBTQ-themed exhibit by artist and psychologist Mel Roman (pictured).

Originally titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for the 2000 premiere, the new iteration, which includes detailed biographical information about the artist, “Coming Out Under Fire” is a nod to a seminal book and documentary of the same title chronicling the indignities suffered by gay and lesbian service members during World War II.

“Like so many people, I was thrilled about the Supreme Court decision last year. We have so few civil rights successes in Arizona,” said Claire Carter, curator for the Roman exhibit. “Xenophobia and prejudice is winding up again. The presidential election is coming up. Before all the shit hits the fan … it would be good to take a moment to reflect on the general successes we have.”

While the exhibit is, in some ways, a celebratory moment for LGBTQ viewers and their supporters, it still asks timely, hard-hitting questions about identity and how institutionalized bigotry – in government, media, cultural psychology – effects the formation of an individual and a society.

Upon entering the exhibit, which is on display May 21 to Oct. 2, one room is dedicated to a group of large mirrors placed in such a way that when the viewer gazes into one, they see themselves replicated ad infinitum. But the real jolt comes from the words written on the mirrors: Some are emblazoned with pejorative labels like “fag” and “dyke” and another states “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a not-so-subtle reminder of how members of the military needed to watch themselves as if they were observing a third person, a performer hoping to convince an unfriendly audience that the character they played was real. Yet another mirror asks “how can one be what one is,” and it’s in that question, perhaps, that the heart of the artist can be found.

Portrait of artist Mel Roman in his New York co-op, c. 1979. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist’s estate. © Robert Brooks

Meet Mel

Roman, who died from complications of colon cancer in 2002, might seem like an unlikely candidate to tackle such a topic. He was a straight WWII veteran, but he was also the son of Trotskyist Jewish immigrants, both of whom were heavily involved in union organizing in New York. A well-regarded psychologist, Roman concurrently developed and expanded his artistic passions, which dovetailed with his commitment to social justice issues.

“I see [‘Coming Out Under Fire’] as part of the continuum of Mel’s life,” said Louise Roman, Mel’s widow who later married local architect Will Bruder. “This social justice issue was … one of a lifetime of such concerns and passions and works of advocacy. He had multiple voices that he used to raise those concerns. One of those was art. The other was writing. The other was teaching. I know that in his therapy work he employed the kind of humanist perspective that underpins all of his work. All injustices were to be battled and to be witnessed and to be confronted and to hold up a mirror to ourselves and say, ‘Really? Is this the best we can do?’”

“Mel saw his work as a way to deal with his anger,” said longtime friend Scott Jacobson. “If you’re pissed off, do something about it, then you don’t feel like you have no power anymore. We live in the city where John McCain lives. Figure it out.”

Roman moved to Scottsdale in 1989, and subsequently experienced a bit of a political culture shock having grown up in the Bronx. As an adult, he spent numerous summers in Provincetown among political radicals, writers and artists. He could talk as easily with feminist writer Betty Friedan as he could with the blustery novelist Norman Mailer. Yet it’s not hard to imagine how the political attitude of the country toward LGBTQ issues, exacerbated by Arizona’s own special brand of conservatism, helped feed Roman’s creative output – this exhibit, in particular.

“We don’t live in an urban environment that fights back,” Jacobson said. “Mel was a fighter. This was his gift to the gay community and to the whole community. He would have done it for any other marginalized group that had suffered such absurdity.”

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Era

Back in 2000, more than a decade before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the United States was embroiled in a divisive presidential election that would end with the Supreme Court handing George W. Bush the presidency, a disastrous blow for LGBTQ rights. Gay and lesbian service members were still nursing their wounds from the beating they took during the Clinton administration’s failed attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military, which birthed the Kafka-esque DADT policy.

Mel Roman, detail, Nature/Nurture, 1998. Laminated print on board in wood frame with neon; 96 x 96 inches. Collection of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of the artist and the Arizona Human Rights Fund. © Estate of Mel Roman

Yet when the exhibit premiered that year at SMoCA, the museum staff – who had prepared for protests – were surprised by the response.

“There was no real controversy over the show,” said Carter, who, although she wasn’t yet working at SMoCA, researched the exhibit’s reception. Even the use of an American flag in one of the artworks – draped over a pristine, white coffin that had “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” printed on it – didn’t provoke any outcries against the museum.

Yet it’s hard to say how the show will land today. Will it be a historical curiosity, or an apt commentary on how flimsy LGBTQ advancements are? The country is poised at a similar juncture in its national politics as it was in 2000. The presidential scrum is, once again, in full play, but all decorum seems lost as both sides claw their way to Pennsylvania Avenue. Blatant homo- and transphobia is cloaked with religious pieties, while racism and misogyny are cheered by crowds that look suspiciously like stills from 1940s Fascist Europe.

“Why have we not had more anger and more revolution in this country?” Jacobson asked. “There’s so much absurdity. You cannot find a sword big enough to knock your windmill with.”

Much like Roman, both Louise and Jacobson, see the issues of LGBTQ equality, socioeconomics, women’s rights and racism as interconnected. As gay, trans, lesbian, bisexual, black, Chicano/a, poor, rich, straight visitors to the museum stare into those mirrors, each person must confront what impact their choices have not only on themselves but on the thousand reflections that emerge from them.

“Sometimes, these very powerful images [provide] an ‘aha’ moment inchoate,” Louise said. “We have to hope that museums have that ability to … raise a different way of looking at the world, make us enter into a dialogue with ourselves and with our neighbor [about] what is before us.”

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