/18 Family

Sage Sohier

At Home With Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s America

I began this project in 1986 because the advent of AIDS had led me to think about the prevalence, variety, and longevity of gay and lesbian relationships—the opposite of the promiscuity that was getting so much play in the press. My ambition was to make pictures that challenged and moved people and that were interesting both visually and psychologically. In the 1980’s, many same-sex relationships were still discreet, or a bit hidden. It was a time when many gay men were dying of AIDS, which made a particularly poignant backdrop for the project. This was before successful drug cocktails were developed. I was interested in how, as a culture, we weren’t used to looking at two men touching, and was struck by the visual novelty yet total ordinariness of these same-sex relationships. The visual ambiguity of same-sex relationships also intrigued me: were these sisters or friends or lovers or a mother and daughter? Because contextualizing the subject seemed important, I also taped (and later edited) extensive interviews with most of the couples. The interviews were intended to amplify and occasionally contrast with the impressions that a viewer might get from the photographs. A photograph derives its strength from the singularity of its assertion, but people’s lives and beliefs are more complex than that. I was fascinated by my subjects’ stories and how they chose to put them into words. Looking at these pictures now, I realize that it took a good deal more courage to stand up and be photographed as a same-sex couple in the 1980’s than it does today, and I think the photographs somehow convey that. In some, there’s a tentativeness, in others a kind of not-to-be-taken-for-granted raw tenderness. People in my father’s generation had grown up feeling that being openly gay was just not an acceptable option. In my generation that began to change, and I was grateful to be witness to it.