IRVINE, Calif. – A University of California, Irvine Chancellor’s Professor of English and a professor of the arts collaborated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City.
The project began with a box filled with photos given to Chancellor’s Professor Jonathan Alexander at a family reunion in 2014. Inside, there were photos of his uncle, Glen Fusilier, who passed away decades ago. Alexander remembers always being curious about his uncle and the photos were able to give him a glimpse into his uncle’s life.
“My uncle was a gay man. He moved from rural Louisiana to New Orleans to find a better life for himself to pursue the kind of intimacies and loves that were important to him,” said Alexander.
This was big for Alexander since he is also gay.
With the photos in his possession, he started to imagine what his uncle must have gone through as a gay man figuring out his life in a big city and how his story is similar to so many other LGBTQ people. When his uncle was alive, openly identifying as a gay or lesbian person would’ve been seen as morally wrong and even criminal.
The photos also reminded Alexander about the Stonewall Riots, which happened 50 years ago this June, when a section of the gay community in NYC took a stand against the police department for targeting them.
“They weren’t the first major push for gay rights in this country, but they are probably the one that’s the most remembered, the most publicly visible. They really did in some ways inaugurate a lot more public understanding about the plight of gay people and their own push for their own civil rights,” said Alexander.
Alexander shared his uncle’s story with Professor Antoinette LaFarge, a professor of the arts.
“When Jonathan approached me about this and started telling me about his uncle and his uncle’s life, I realized it had resonances with the life of a gay man who I partly grew up with. He lived for a couple of years with my family. He was an artist and a gay man in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He was my first mentor in art. He taught me painting and drawing at a level that was not accessible to me through my high school,” said LaFarge.
The two scholars collaborated and created Burning Time: A Graphic Book Collection where Alexander wrote the literature and poems while LaFarge created panoramic paintings and colorful pieces of art. LaFarge included photos of Alexander’s uncle and pictures of Louisiana.
Their project was turned into an exhibit which is open to the public on UC Irvine’s campus. The poems and paintings bring to life the story of a young gay man arriving in New Orleans in the late 1950s to start a new life.
Alexander says his uncle did eventually find a welcoming community and love in New Orleans just like how he has also found tolerance and happiness in Orange County.
“In many ways, tracing my uncle’s journey or imaging what that journey would’ve been like is a reminder of my own journey,” said Alexander.
UC Irvine is presenting this free exhibit from May 7 to May 23 at the Viewpoint Gallery in the Student Center. The School of Humanities is hosting an open reception on Friday, May 10th at 4:00 p.m.