Gay art: The Catholic League responds to commentary on ‘anti-gay bullying’

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The Catholic League dropped a line the other day to complain -- again -- about something I wrote in connection with the Smithsonian Institution’s hasty and ill-informed decision to censor an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. As with the league’s first e-mail in December, this one also makes a claim that is not supported by the facts.

Here’s what I wrote that generated the latest complaint:


‘The Smithsonian’s dilemma was ginned up by a single source: the Catholic League, which New York Times columnist Frank Rich has aptly described as ‘a right-wing publicity mill with no official or financial connection to the Catholic Church.’ Wojnarowicz’s video partly laments widespread official apathy early in the AIDS epidemic and uses a crucifix as a specific symbol of general Christian indifference. The Catholic League called it anti-Christian, but the symbol is in fact more correctly described as anti-Catholic League and its ilk. Here’s why: William Donohue, the $400,000-a-year head of the organization, and L. Brent Bozell III, who is on the league’s advisory board, are ardent anti-gay activists.’

Here in its entirety is the e-mail I received this week from Donohue:

‘Instead of relying on Frank Rich, you should do your own investigation. We are listed in the Official Catholic Directory, which demonstrates our nexus with the Church. Also, I had no idea that the vile video was part of a gay exhibition until after I called it hate speech. In any event, we won and you lost. Get over it. You are sounding like a narcissistic brat.’

And finally, here is an excerpt of Donohue’s first news release on the exhibition, issued Nov. 30 by his ‘right wing publicity mill’ (you can find the Catholic League’s release in its entirety here):

‘The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is currently hosting an exhibit, ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,’ that features a video that shows large ants eating away at Jesus on a crucifix. The exhibit is replete with homoerotic images.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue comments as follows:

According to Penny Starr of, David C. Ward, co-curator of the National Portrait Gallery, says the video, ‘A Fire in My Belly,’ is one of the ‘masterpieces’ of this exhibit. We call it hate speech.’

In short, an exhibition Donohue’s news release says is ‘replete with homoerotic images’ -- it’s not, as you can see in the museum’s video walk-through -- is then characterized as featuring ‘hate speech.’ Donohue’s denial now -- that he didn’t know the exhibition concerned gay subject matter when he spoke out -- doesn’t jibe. Even the factually challenged Penny Starr column Donohue refers to clearly identifies the show’s gay subject matter.

The false claim, however, does underscore the deceptive nature of the inflammatory complaint the Smithsonian has had to deal with. Anti-gay bullying, even if the disapproval of homosexuality derives from a religious doctrine, drove the attack. The exhibition is the first in the nation’s capital to examine homosexual identity in 19th- and 20th-century American art, and it has the establishment blessing of the popular Smithsonian Institution. As I noted at the time the controversy first erupted, that’s the real reason anti-gay activists are so upset.

-- Christopher Knight