Phyllis Christopher chronicles ’90s San Francisco’s lesbian community in party and protest

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To come out was to risk one’s job, children, and safety. For these communities, “the party was the victory”

“This generation decided to party as hard as we were protesting,” says photographer Phyllis Christopher of her time spent documenting LGBTQ life in San Francisco between 1988 and 2003. Indeed, Christopher’s magnetic images oscillate between party and protest: in one, a cop in riot gear slams an activist’s face to the floor; in another, lesbians dance in a crowded nightclub. Christopher was photographing during the height of the AIDS crisis: a time when queer individuals faced rampant homophobia and political vitriol with little to no legal protection. To come out was to risk your job, your children, your safety. And for these communities, “the party was [also] the victory”.

These communities’ triumph lives on in a new exhibition of Christopher’s work, Contactsat the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 20 March 2022. In it, her dreamy photographs capture lesbians in moments of safety and danger, celebration and dissent. “The sexual openness in San Francisco felt revolutionary, but it also felt completely natural,” she says. In her charged images of protest, sex, intimacy, and community, Christopher paints a picture of lesbian life in an irreplicable moment in time.  

In San Francisco, “a huge community of women came from all over the country to live healthy lesbian lives”. Lesbians built a “queer economy”: women would hire each other to work at gay newspapers, magazines, shops, and clubs to ensure no one lost their job from coming out. It was the “gay mecca,” as Christopher put it; upon arrival, lesbians “just said yes, I am beautiful – photograph me”. One image [above] pictures six topless women slung over a windowsill waving down to Christopher. They clench their fists in symbols of power. Movement fills the photograph: objects flying from the window, bodies bursting into the frame. However, although these women are unselfconscious, naked, playful, free, their precarious position upon the windowsill evokes the figurative and literal dangers of being “out”.

© Phyllis Christopher.

Each of Christopher’s images vibrates with political potency. “There was a hunger out there to be seen and heard,” Christopher says. Her images nourished that hunger. On a macro level, the photographer captured an unprecedented era of lesbian freedom and fight. In the clubs, they danced; in the streets, they protested. But Christopher’s collection also includes stunning solo photographs: Lex [above], in a cowboy hat, smokes a cigarette; Elvis Herselvis [below], an Elvis Presley impersonator, screams into a microphone. “Mainstream culture tells lesbians they are ugly. My work has always been to make the women in my photographs look as beautiful as they are.”

Depicting lesbians’ sex lives was essential to this project of representation. Christopher’s images show lovers embracing, kissing, licking and touching. “Sexual exploration during the 90s was kind of our main activity: it was like our sport,” she explains. Documenting sex was not only about freedom – but it was also about safety. During the AIDS epidemic, “staying alive depended on knowing what and what not to do in bed, and the government was no help at all at disseminating information,” says Christopher. Photographing queer intimacy destigmatised what mainstream media had characterised as diseased. And, in the time of AIDS – and at a time when lesbian life specifically was unseen and unspoken – documenting sex was the ultimate party-protest.

© Phyllis Christopher.

Christopher’s erotic images, although often candid, relish in their performativity. Her stylised and euphoric depictions of sex function as testaments to the era’s uncurbed freedoms and sense of play. Although more prominent in her book, Dark Room, than her exhibition, these images show lesbians having sex in clubs, trucks, an empty warehouse – sometimes with multiple partners. They are joyful, exciting, and vivacious. The trust between subjects and photographer is palpable in the images: “I was photographing my community,” Christopher says. “We wanted to show how beautiful and erotic our lives were.”

Christopher’s images are all black-and-white as this format allowed the photographer to develop her negatives at home without worrying about how film developers might respond to them. “I never censored myself this way, and the women I worked with felt safe because they trusted that I would ‘okay’ the images with them before they went out into the world,” she explains. By rendering her images in black-and-white, Christopher also imbues them with a dream-like quality. In one photograph, a blonde woman stares at the camera, mid-embrace with her topless lover. The light radiates from her lover’s bare back, the centre point of their embrace. The shadows dance off their leather and lace garb and the graffiti-covered concrete walls, but their bodies glow. “Monotone is romantic to me. It breaks reality down into shapes: it allows you to dream while you are viewing the images,” Christopher says. 

Christopher’s love for her subjects is visible in every photograph. There is an awe and admiration for everyone depicted: Contacts is, after all, a window into a community thrumming with love and life. 

Contacts is on show at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art until 20 March 2022. Phyllis Christopher’s book, Dark Room: San Francisco Sex and Protest, 1988-2003 is available here.

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.