Queer Liberation and Intimacy: A Collective Journey | by Cleveland Museum of Art | CMA Thinker | Jun, 2022


Finding Peace and Power through Connection

By Clovis Westlund, Student and LGBTQ+ Youth Advocate

LGBTQ and racialized people have long been excluded from spaces that foster connection. With casual and repeated socialization, the mechanisms of othering and isolation take an immeasurable psychological toll on those deemed unfit for these spaces. Such trauma has cost many queer and trans people their lives. The key to survival is found in the overlooked corners of the world. There, these marginalized people discover a subversive intimacy. One may think little of chosen families, night clubs, theaters, online forums and communities, and the occasional classroom due to their places on the fringes, but liberation is born through the interpersonal connections forged there.

In D’Angelo Lovell Williams’s 2018 photograph Take My Hand, he portrays queer rebellion with delicate warmth and unflinching normality. With the audience’s assumptions engineered to center whiteness and heterosexuality, Williams demands that the viewer recognize the humanity of his subject. Dressed in a well-worn T-shirt and jeans and positioned in a hallway with unassuming lighting, the subject of this artwork is unremarkable. And thus, the intimacy expressed in Williams’s image feels completely commonplace.

Take My Hand, 2018. D’Angelo Lovell Williams (American, b. 1992). Inkjet print; 126.7 x 84.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, L. E. Holden Fund 2020.281 © D’Angelo Lovell Williams

The power of this image cannot be overstated. While standing prominently in the composition and looking directly towards the viewer, the subject is unashamed of the vulnerability he exudes a notable distinction from other artwork that focus on queer isolation like Jared French’s Evasion, Take My Hand doesn’t seek to comment on the psychological trauma associated with growing up Black and queer but instead demonstrates the strength one gains from queer intimacy.

On closer inspection, this photograph demonstrates two forms of love: the kind you show yourself and the kind you accept from others. One arm clasps the hand of a figure outside the frame, and it first appears that this figure extends their arm up to the subject and cradles his face. However, this is Williams’s intentional deception — the subject’s face is truly being supported by his own hand. For many queer and trans people, the constant chatter of internalized oppression and external reminders of otherness makes existence in a cisheteropatriarchy, or the socio-political system where cisgender and heterosexual males have authority over cisgender females and people with other sexual orientations and gender identities, debilitating. Peace can only be achieved by gaining power over both of these voices. Take My Hand reminds us that these two battles are not removed from each other but are instead fought simultaneously. The journey towards self-love is bolstered by spaces that foster a certain queer camaraderie — for me, the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Cedar Lee Theatre and the passenger seat of my childhood friend’s car. The path towards psychological liberation is one defined by mutual growth in spaces of vulnerability. D’Angelo Lovell Williams knows this well; the continuity between the main subject’s hand and the other figure’s arm reveals that psychological liberation is as communal as it is personal. Such growth is only made possible by the accessibility of spaces that foster queer connection.

In reality, messages promoting queer self-love are nothing new for our time. With unprecedented queer and trans visibility in media and international recognition of PRIDE Month, does intimacy among LGBTQ people remain powerful?

Queer love itself has become commodified, whether reduced to a reality show tagline to boost viewership or exploited via rainbow logos and corporate PRIDE sponsors.

While its rebellious nature has been traded for wider visibility, the power of queer love persists. In a sociological sense, the centrality of whiteness and heterosexuality has not shifted but has only recognized LGBTQ people as a potent consumer base. This recognition has benefits, such as greater social acceptance, greater safety, and less dangerous policies. In this respect, queer intimacy has shed its subversion for a place in the mainstream — but the power of Williams’s message in Take My Hand goes beyond this.

The aforementioned benefits most help LGBTQ people with the greatest proximity to the heteropatriarchal standard, namely, white upper-class cisgender gay men. From movies like 2015’s The Danish Girl (2015) to Love, Simon (2018), the elevation of the most privileged of the LGBTQ community in mass media narratives is self-evident. Williams’s work highlights one story of navigating the world with intersecting Black and queer identities, and it is a story of finding peace and power through intimacy and self-acceptance.

I aspire to the tenderness and strength shown in Take My Hand. My journey towards self-love is unfinished. Much like the queer and trans elders I look up to for their self-assurance and freedom, I will turn towards the ones I love and look for affirmation in our shared connection.

Celebrate PRIDE month by searching for and viewing more artworks in the galleries and by u
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