Her work has only recently come into public view – but Donna Gottschalk’s photographs of lesbian culture change the image of history for many, especially those who have lived in the socio-political peripheries in the US. Gottschalk’s personal archive has been unearthed for an exhibition at The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, where many of the poignant images are being shown for the first time.

Gottschalk grew up poor, in the tenements of the Lower East Side, New York, in the 1950s. She spent a lot of time out in the streets, an experience that shaped her and the way she saw the world: raw, real, and up close.

In the 1960s, Gottschalk attended the High School of Art and Design, where she studied illustration and met other lesbians for the first time, who took her out to iconic New York bars like Kooki’s, Paula’s, and Colony. It was dangerous, and the mafia were never far away. Threats and abuse after closing time were common – but it was a space of their own.

Sleepers, Limerick, Pennsylvania, 1970, by Donna Gottschalk, silver gelatin print. Collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum

In 1967, Gottschalk became involved with the Gay Liberation Front, a liberation organisation fighting for gay rights. She was present at pivotal protests, including the 1970 demonstration against feminist group, the National Organisation for Women Congress (NOW), after it expelled lesbians. It was Gottschalk who designed the t-shirts, worn by the women who famously walked into the NOW assembly in New York, emblazoned with the words ‘Lavender Menace’ – a direct response to the words of then-NOW president Betty Friedan.

Many of the posters, papers and other political material Gottschalk designed and printed has been forgotten or neglected, but the extensive archive of personal photographs she took at the time, documenting radical lesbian lives, friends, family and her community in their struggle to be seen and recognised on the East and West coasts, bring that era vividly back to life. Her pictures pinpoint important factions in the feminist and lesbian movements, details of which were largely repressed and unrecorded by the mainstream media at the time.

‘I got my first camera at 17 and discovered all of these noble, marginalised people who were entering my life. I forced myself to become brave and ask to take their pictures.’ Gottschalk explains. ‘Sometimes they asked me why and my answer always was: “Because you are beautiful and I never want to forget you.”’

Many of Gottschalk’s subjects died too young. She held on to the images, she said, for fear of how they might be presented. Now the time is right for her to be brave again. ‘I’m ready to release them because I don’t want these courageous lives to be lost. They were brave and defiant warriors who insisted on being, whatever the consequences.’ §