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On his NYC tours, art historian reveals ‘Gay Secrets’ at the Met

The new AIDS Memorial, in the shadow of what was once St. Vincent’s Hospital, in New York City.
The new AIDS Memorial, in the shadow of what was once St. Vincent’s Hospital, in New York City.

The annual LGBT pride celebrations taking place in June are, above all, defiant shows of visibility. But for gay historian Andrew Lear, who offers engaging and informative LGBT-themed art and history tours, often what’s most fascinating about gay life in the past is how much is hiding in plain sight.

On a recent visit to New York City, I participated in one of the Boston-born Lear’s regular “Gay Secrets” tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lear offers a similar tour by appointment only at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as multi-day guided art tours in Europe. His two-hour Met tour started at the statue of the Diadumenos by the sculptor Polyclitus, a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze from 430 BC and an example of the ancient Greeks’ idealized representations of young male athletes.


Ancient Greece is Lear’s specialty, with particular expertise in gender and sexuality and male-male love in poetry and art. So it makes sense that his appreciation and knowledge is often more illuminating than the art itself. The Met’s collection of ancient vases and wine vessels are just utilitarian pottery until Lear gives context to the drawings of bearded men with younger pupils. Quoting from one of his students, he describes the relationships as “tutoring with benefits.” Renderings of men far outnumber women, not surprisingly, but there are pots (only seven survive) with drawings of women with women.

Lear earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard and has taught at Columbia, Pomona College, and New York University. When his academic career met a crossroads, he decided to start a tour company, and in 2013 launched Oscar Wilde Tours.

“I had done tours for 15 summers during college and grad school, so I knew the tour industry pretty well, and I decided to try to put together tours focused on the kind of gay history issues I work on as a scholar. But people kept asking if I couldn’t do tours in New York City, so I started running local tours as well,” he says.


At the Roman sculpture court, we stop at the bust of Roman Emperor Hadrian next to a bust of his wife and Hadrian’s young Greek male companion Antinous. Though certain homosexual relationships were not considered unusual in ancient Rome, the intensity with which Hadrian mourned Antinous’s premature death (a possible suicide) was unprecedented. Hadrian had Antinous declared a god.

Once Lear points it out, it’s hard to miss the depictions of male-male sexual initiation rituals atop totem poles of the Asmat of New Guinea. Even more conspicuous is the penis smack in the center of “Marcantonio Pasqualini Crowned by Apollo” by Andrea Sacchi (1641) which Lear calls “the gayest painting I ever saw.”

Moving the modern era, Maine painter Marsden Hartley’s “Portrait of a German Officer” (1914) memorializes a Prussian lieutenant, Karl von Freyburg, killed in World War I. The prominent placement of Freyburg’s Iron Cross in the middle of the image begs the question of how it came into Hartley’s possession, a telling gesture if the coveted medal was bequeathed to him.

Picasso’s famous study of Gertrude Stein, which she gave to the Met in 1946, presents the writer in a severe pose uncommon for portraits of women (“she’s ready for whatever’s coming at her,” says Lear). “The Sofa” (1894-95), one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s brothel works, “is one of the most intimate paintings in art,” says Lear; the casual nudity and placid facial expressions the women are trained on one another and defy voyeurism.


French animal painter Rosa Bonheur’s “The Horse Fair,” a huge oil on canvas given to the Met by Cornelius Vanderbilt, is representative of “gay secrets” as the lesbian cross-dresser puts herself right in the center of the image dressed as a man atop a horse.

These last three paintings are included in Lear’s Met tours that focus on women: “Shady Ladies” highlights an assembly of courtesans, mistresses, and professional beauties throughout the ages, from ancient Greek hetaerae to Sargent’s Madame X. The newly minted “Nasty Women” tour showcases images of women who shattered glass ceilings in Ancient Egypt, Imperial Rome, and Revolutionary France.

Oscar Wilde Tours also offers, by appointment only, two-hour tours of New York’s Greenwich Village, for decades the center of bohemian life and once of the best-known gay neighborhoods in the world. Starting and ending at the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots that mark the beginning of the gay liberation movement, the tour includes lesser-known spots such as Julius’s, a still-operating gay bar where in 1966 members of the Mattachine Society — one of the first gay rights groups in the country — decided to stage a “Sip-In.” In New York then, bars could refuse service to homosexuals. The Julius management, going along to make a point, refused the men service, sparking an investigation from the New York City Commission on Human Rights and a successful challenge to the law in court.


Other sites include the new AIDS Memorial, in the shadow of what was once St. Vincent’s Hospital; and 44 West 11th Street, where Oscar Wilde once lived, an address marked on his letters from 1884, Lear says.

The Village is so dense that an alley can hold layers of history. Patchin Place, a dead end squeezed onto West 10th Street between 6th Avenue and Greenwich Avenue, was home to, among others, lesbian writer Djuna Barnes. Marlon Brando visited his sister Jocelyn, who lived there, just as his career was taking off in the 1940s. Nearby is the shuttered entrance to the former Ninth Circle bar where, legend has it, Village resident Edward Albee read the line “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled with soap on a bathroom mirror.

Though many of the buildings have vanished or have morphed into new businesses or residences, the rich history and colorful lore remains alive in Lear’s retelling.

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.