7 World-renowned Artists Exploring LGBTQ+ Identity

Art has always been a powerful form of activism. Today we’re celebrating 7 artists who have stood up and spoken out for LGBTQ+ rights.

Zanele Muholi, David Hockney, Keith Haring, Catherine Opie, Gilbert & George, Annie Leibovitz, and Robert Mapplethorpe have each used their medium of choice to speak out against social injustice, break down barriers, subvert gender norms, or draw attention to, normalize and celebrate queer identities and relationships. To celebrate Pride month, here we take a look at some of their most iconic works of art.

Zanele Muholi

Zanele Muholi is a South African photographer and co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW)–a black lesbian organization based in Gauteng–and Inkanyisa–a platform for queer and visual activism.

A self-described ‘visual activist,’ Muholi uses her camera to fight against inequality and make post-Apartheid South Africa’s LGBTQ+ population visible. Living in a country where honor killings and “corrective rapes” are a real threat to lesbian women, Muholi documents the lives of those who are in constant danger. “We live in fear,” Muholi has said. “And what are we doing about it? You have to document. You are forced to document.”

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Zanele Muholi
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Zanele Muholi

David Hockney

Born in Bradford in 1937, Hockney was one of the big artists involved in Britain’s pop art movement in the 1960s. While he is probably best known for his world-famous swimming pools, his work includes a range of subjects.

When Hockney started out as an artist, homosexuality was still illegal in both the United States and Britain. A staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and openly gay, he has never shied away from depicting the male form and exploring queer domestic life. His bright color palettes are declarative statements in support of sexual freedom. "We Two Boys Together Clinging" (1961) is an abstract and delicate love letter to queer identity.

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We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961, David Hockney
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Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, by David Hockney

Keith Haring

Both an artist and an activist, Keith Haring’s cartoon drawings and colorful murals provided important cultural commentary on issues including AIDS, drug addiction, environmental issues, illicit love, and apartheid. One of his earliest works, a simple image of two men holding up a heart, was a strong statement and a precursor to Haring's later much more sexually-explicit work. He dedicated much of his life to raising awareness of the AIDS crisis through the movement ACT UP.

His work, “Rebel with Many Causes,” is an example of his recurring inclusion of the theme 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil,’ which criticized those who chose to ignore devastating social and political issues, especially the AIDS crisis in the 80s.

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Keith Haring
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Rebel with Many Causes by Keith Haring

Catherine Opie

Catherine Opie is an LGBTQ+ artist whose groundbreaking fine-art photography explores a diverse mix of subjects, from local football teams to the Los Angeles Leather Dyke community, to S&M erotica and self-portraits.

Her socio-political documentary photography examines American identity. “Self-Portrait/Pervert” was a fierce response to aggressively conservative American politician Jesse Helms and his allies in Congress campaigning against funding AIDS research.

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Catherine Opie
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Catherine Opie

Gilbert & George

Gilbert & George are a gay couple and collaborative art duo whose work screams for attention and sets out to shock, using controversial images, provocative slogans, and dry British humor (and possibly a bodily fluid or two).

Gilbert & George make their relationship a focal point of their work, insisting that the viewer acknowledge their relationship–a radical act in 70s Britain. At the time, few queer subjects were depicted in art unless it was to condemn queerness or be sensationalist. Instead, Gilbert & George were presenting homosexuality as ordinary. Over the years, the pair have created a huge catalog of homoerotic material, which includes Sperm Eaters (1982), Hard Cocks (1982), Fingered (1991), and Bum Holes (1994).

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Happy, Gilbert & George
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Naked Eye, Gilbert & George

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer known for his highly stylized black and white portraits and still lifes. He shot the likes of Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith. His exploration of homoeroticism and BDSM in his photography caused great controversy.

In 1990, The Perfect Moment was the first exhibition to come under fire on the grounds of pornography, indecency, and obscenity. Mapplethorpe’s acquittal reaffirmed the right to freedom of speech and set world-changing legal precedents for the LGBTQ+ community. His portrait of the world’s first Women’s Bodybuilding Champion, Lisa Lyon, is one of the ways in which Mapplethorpe explored the intricacies of gender identity and challenged preconceived notions of masculinity.

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Lisa Lyon photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe
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Robert Mapplethorpe

Annie Leibovitz

Born in Connecticut in 1949, Annie Leibovitz is one of the world’s leading portrait photographers, having gained international acclaim in the 70s and early 80s as chief photographer for Rolling Stone Magazine. In addition to Rolling Stone, Leibovitz's work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Life Magazine, TIME Magazine, Esquire, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. For the latter, Leibovitz, whose work has always championed diversity, shot Caitlyn Jenner for a July 2015 cover story introducing the world to her new name and appearance.

In her book “A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005”, published by Random House, Leibovitz documented 15 years of her life, including an intimate look at her relationship with Susan Sontag, her long-term partner until Sontag died in 2004. On its release, she told The New York Times, “With Susan, it was a love story. With my parents, it was the relationship of a lifetime. And with my children, it’s the future. I just tried to create an honest work that had all those things in it.”

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Susan Sontag photographed by Annie Leibovitz
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Portrait of Ru Paul by Annie Leibovitz

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