Jill Layton
November 01, 2014 10:00 am

In the 1980s, gay men lived in a marginalized community that many ignorantly deemed diseased and contagious. Since AIDS (HIV) was such a new, unknown virus that had not really been studied, people were afraid to even shake hands or be in the same room as gay men, fearing that they too, would get sick. All we really knew about AIDS back then, was that it was quickly killing young, healthy gay men. And lots of them. People (including the scientific community at first) weren’t really sure how the disease was spread, so many kept their distance from the gay community, stigmatizing homosexuality as a whole. One person, however, did not keep her distance. Photographer Sage Sohier took her camera into the homes of many same-sex couples — both men and women — and photographed them doing every day things, such as cooking, eating, bathing, exchanging vows, comforting each other and simply being in love.

What we’ve learned about Sage Sohier, is that she is more than just a photographer. In her new book, At Home With Themselves: Same-Sex Couples in 1980s Americaher photographs and interviews tell an intimate story of the longevity and diversity of same-sex couples in the 1980s. From the photographs, it’s not hard to recognize the sense of normalcy and ordinariness that naturally accompanies any loving relationship.

We are fascinated by Sohier, her photographs and her motivation behind shooting them, so we asked her a few questions about her process and why she felt drawn to the gay community in a way that compelled her to start the project in 1986 — a time when homosexual relationships weren’t widely accepted. She was kind enough to answer them:

JL: Why did you take the pictures?

SS: The 1980s were the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when many gay men were dying. This made a particularly poignant backdrop for a project like this. It was before successful drug cocktails were developed. It seemed especially important to make these pictures in order to provide a counterpoint to the promiscuity that was getting a lot of play in the press. There was a lot of paranoia about the disease and a lot of negative press about the gay community. Also, I had discovered about 10 years earlier that my father was gay. He and my mother had divorced when I was a child and he had kept me at arm’s length for years, so I had always had a lot of curiosity about his life. And now I became intrigued too by his sexual orientation and interested in the men he was living with.

JL: What made you decide to release them now?

SS: Last spring, Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon invited me to show the work this October. They had a vote coming up in November on same-sex marriage. As it turned out, same-sex marriage in Oregon was legalized in May — it was settled in the courts. In the meantime, though, I had committed to the show. And I realized that with more and more states voting on and legalizing same-sex marriage, this would be a great time to bring out the book. Aside from their relevance, the photographs now also provided an interesting historic perspective.

JL: How did you find the people you took pictures of?

SS: I started by spending a week in Provincetown, Mass. in August of 1986. I went to tea dances, approached couples, and talked to them about what I wanted to do. There was a lot of interest in the project, and that week I photographed six couples. After that, I photographed friends and friends of friends. And then I decided I needed to get out of New England and take pictures across the country. Wherever I traveled, I put ads in local gay newspapers, found more couples, and networked from there. I went to gay bars, gay parades, and a March-on-Washington and met still more couples. It was the beginning of a turning point, and more and more gay and lesbian couples wanted to be seen, wanted their relationships to be recognized and valued.

JL: Are you still in contact with any of them?

SS: I’m in touch with a handful of the couples. Back in the 1980s, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no e-mail. There were really only home telephones. So, once a couple moved, it was easy to lose touch with them. However, many have been in touch with me since the book came out, and it’s been lovely to hear from them and fascinating to learn a bit about how their lives have changed and evolved over the years.

JL: Why do you think the photographs are important for people to see?

SS: I think that the pictures, and especially the interviews, show how much has changed in the LGBT community since the ’80s. They provide cause for celebration, and also help one to reflect on the times, then and now. Also, because the pictures are of everyday intimacy, they are relatively easy for anyone, straight or gay, to look at and hopefully be moved by.

Sohier was also kind enough to share some of her photographs with us (but you should definitely buy her book if you want to see a lot more):

Ultimately, Sohier’s book has emerged at the most significant time in our country’s history for legal and social inclusivity of same-sex relationships. The final passage of her book reads, “It’s a wonderful step forward for the civil rights of this country and our collective humanity that same-sex relationships and marriages have become accepted and celebrated. It’s important, though, to recognize that these relationships have always existed, and, in many cases, thrived. They were often discreet, and many lived their lives in the margins. But the success of the same-sex marriage movement would not be possible without the efforts of all those couples who came before and who worked to achieve this goal. Their private love, and their persistence in going public with it, should never be forgotten.”

Featured images © 2014 Sage Sohier

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