Visual Culture
The Lesbian Artists Who Reclaim Homophobic Slurs with Provocative Posters
fierce pussy façade installation, Leslie-Lohman Museum. Photo © Kristine Eudey, 2018.

fierce pussy façade installation, Leslie-Lohman Museum. Photo © Kristine Eudey, 2018.

Courtesy of fierce pussy

Courtesy of fierce pussy

As the young lesbian artists and activists of fierce pussy came of age in the late 1980s and early ’90s, they witnessed their government turn a blind eye to the lethal AIDS epidemic. Their anger burned as tens of thousands of their LGBTQ+ community members died from HIV-related diseases. It became clear that inaction meant erasure—so they decided to take action.
In 1991, following an open recruitment call, the members of the collective decided on an inaugural project: They would reclaim derogatory language through a series of typewritten posters, beginning with “I AM A,” followed by slurs such as “bulldagger” or “lezzie,” and ending with “AND PROUD.” After the design was completed, two members used Xerox machines in the offices of the magazine publisher Condé Nast—where they worked at the time—to print the posters. Spreading the word throughout the group, they met up in the wee hours of the morning to wheatpaste their messages all over New York.
fierce pussy façade installation, Leslie-Lohman Museum. Photo © Kristine Eudey, 2018.

fierce pussy façade installation, Leslie-Lohman Museum. Photo © Kristine Eudey, 2018.

As they headed home, covered in starch and water, they hoped that their street art would give members of the LGBTQ+ community a feeling of acknowledgment amid the rampant, deadly discrimination that otherwise surrounded them. Twenty-seven years later, four of the original members—, , , and —are still working under the pseudonym fierce pussy, and an updated version of their early art can be found in the windows of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art until next summer.
The group’s project, “AND SO ARE YOU” (1991–2018), stages posters from that body of work, as well as a series of “family photographs,” which face out to a busy corner in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Here, their posters are massive, well-printed, and secured beneath a pane of glass—a far cry from their earlier DIY, ephemeral installations. Along with these changes, a few new derogatory terms, like “trannie” and “tomgirl,” have been introduced to the list. In this updated form, the group hopes that their message will not only resonate with lesbians, but anyone who has been subjected to these slurs.
Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

“‘Femme’—that’s not just for lesbians. ‘Butch’—that’s not just for lesbians. ‘Queer,’ ‘Amazon’—trans people and gay men can find themselves in those original posters, too,” noted fierce pussy, who wish to be quoted collectively.
“We’ve always been really interested in a kind of multiplicity, in saying, ‘I am not just one thing, I am all of this whole long list of things,’” they explained. “We were conscious of the fact that we wanted to enlarge our umbrella, so we remixed it to expand the definitions.”
One part of their “remix” that is especially striking is the edit of the last line; instead of the poster closing with “AND PROUD,” their new posters end with “AND SO ARE YOU.” The shift from “I am” to “you are” introduces a sharp directness to the work. Suddenly, passersby who might not initially identify with “androgyne” or “pervert” are stopped in their tracks and made to reflect on the power behind these words.
Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

The second poster series, “Family Pictures and Found Photos” (1991), also gives onlookers pause. For this endeavor, fierce pussy members sourced images of themselves and their friends as children, then paired the images with a stigmatized term like “dyke,” or a statement such as “lover of women.” In one poster, a photo-booth film strip of two children is paired with the phrase “find the dyke in this picture”; another work features a photograph of a toddler with the word “muffdiver” punched in above.
These pairings are not just startling because of their jarring language, but because of the juxtaposition they create between impressionable children and homophobic terms. For many LGBTQ+ people, names like “dyke,” “muffdiver,” or “tomgirl” have been applied to them from a young age, and have made the process of coming out—and feeling comfortable with oneself—more difficult. For those viewers, the posters offer a moment of recognition, solace, and maybe even a laugh. Here, typically derogatory terms become a proud tool for self-identification, and a place where differences are celebrated.
Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

Courtesy of fierce pussy.

“We can have our differences, we can have our conversations and arguments, but especially right now—under this crazy administration—we need to be together to fight and hold our ground,” fierce pussy said. Indeed, through their installation, they are able to fill a New York City block with messages that are still relevant, decades after they were originally created.
Eli Hill