Family faces from across gay America

July 23, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Nancy Andrews thinks there is still a lot of prejudice against gays and lesbians in America.

"I think essentially little has changed," says the 30-year-old photographer. "What has changed is that there is more open discussion now about gays and lesbians because there are [gay] newspapers and organizations. The result of people coming out is if you know a gay person there is less likely to be discrimination."

That, essentially, is why Andrews, a prize-winning Washington Post photographer and a lesbian, created "Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America." It is both a book, with Andrews' photos and texts quoting the subjects, and an exhibit now at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.

In the book, Andrews writes, "This is the book I looked for eight years ago when I began to realize that I was gay. I was in college, all my friends appeared straight, and my head was filled with only gay stereotypes. These stereotypes didn't fit my self-image, and I began to feel the need to learn more about myself and others like me. Gay men and lesbians were all around me, but with their chameleon-like quality, I didn't realize they were there."

They're there, and Andrews found them all over America: from a New York couple who have been together for 64 years, to a California development consultant; from an Oklahoma rodeo rider, to a window installer from Mississippi and the pastor of a gay church in Detroit.

Along the way, Andrews came across herself, too.

"Sometimes a photographer's work can be a picture of the photographer as well as of her subjects," Andrews writes. "When I talked with Jean Mills, working the Alabama land her father once farmed, I recalled my childhood on my family's farm in Caroline County, Virginia. Dan Stevens of Maine, who rattled on about his ancestors, reminded me of my late Aunt Margaret, who diligently traced our family back to Jamestown in 1619. When Allen Spencer talked of singing in his church choir, I thought back to my hometown Southern Baptist church, where my mother was the organist and I sang in the church choir."

Even as a child, Andrews was interested in photography, and in the eighth grade she spent her life savings, $200, on a camera. She later became the student body president in high school, and managing editor of the daily newspaper at the University of Virginia (class of 1986). "I was one of those persons that work was my love," she said in a recent interview. "I was an overachiever. I channeled my energies."

It was at UV that Andrews began to realize she was gay.

At first the realization proved difficult. She took a course called Problems of Personal Adjustment. One day she told her counselor in the course she was gay. "She hadn't got to that part of the book yet," Andrews says. "She actually backed away from me where we were sitting. It was a horrible experience for me. Saying I was gay haunted me."

Gradually she came to grips with herself, and she came out. "Coming out was a long process. There was the first friend I told. There were my parents I told. There were different degrees of out."

She came all the way out when she went back to college three years after graduation (she was working at the Fredericksburg [Va.] Free Lance-Star). She spoke to the personal adjustment class in which she had had such a bad experience. "If there was any one moment that I came out, that was it. It was in a huge room, and I told my story. I cried twice. I had people glued to their seats, so silent and staring at me. For some I'm sure it was the first gay person they had ever encountered."

The stimulus for doing a book of photographs of gay Americans, she says, "goes back to Eric Marcus, who interviewed me for his book, 'Making History,' which was oral histories of gays and lesbians. I always had the idea, and I talked to him about it and he said, good, you should do it. That was about 1988."

Four years later, she had gone to work for the Post and the book was still not done. Marcus had to give her another push. "He said, 'Someone else will do it and won't do it as well as you would, and then you can't do yours.' "

Getting the project done involved taking a seven months' leave of absence from the Post to travel America. Her parents provided a car and money. She found people through clippings from gay newspapers, through gay social service agencies and similar organizations.

Some were willing to be in the book and some were not. "People didn't have to think about it. They either were or weren't willing, and I think everyone who's gay can understand that. There was a time in my life when I wouldn't have wanted to be in this book."

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