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Family faces from across gay America


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."

Just as she planned variety in her photos -- studio-type portraits and candid shots, groups and couples and individuals, close-ups and longer shots -- she sought out variety in the people she included: stockbroker Jim Dean, Holocaust survivor Joseph Dittfeld, mental health counselor Gloria Johns, Elvis impersonator Polly Wilmoth, former Los Angeles Dodger baseball player Glenn Burke. Old and young, black and white, single and partnered, a boxing club (men), a garden club (women) and a college fraternity.

"There are so many points to the book," says Andrews, "but above all I want anyone seeing the exhibit or the book to see someone they can relate to. To see a commonality. People have to stand for more than one person. The professional athlete has to be someone not just a black gay man can identify with, but a straight white female athlete.

"We all have stereotypes. Even gay people have stereotypes of gay people. If you say gay people you think young, 20 to 40, but there are old gays, too. The people in this book who are 60 were 20, 40 years ago."

The reaction to the book and the exhibit has been enthusiastic, Andrews says. "At the first signing in Richmond a group of my friends came so there'd be someone there in case nobody showed up. They sold 170 books and ran out, and the bookstore took orders and later they brought three cartons of books to Washington for me to sign."

In May, the Post ran excerpts from the book, and after that a man called Andrews up. "He said he had a son who's 11 or 12 and it's at that age that if you want to put somebody down you call them a faggot. He said he showed his son the pictures from the Post piece and asked him if he knew what the article was about and his son didn't have any idea. So he told his son the people were all gay, and he said, 'No. Get out. Really?' "

Last week there was a reception at the Corcoran. Hundreds of people showed up, including gay Congressmen Barney Frank and Gerry Studds, who are in the book, and 94-year-old Ruth Ellis from Detroit, who's also in the book.

"The best scene for me," says Andrews, "was to see at the reception the 94-year-old sitting beside my mom and she and Ruth both signing books, my mom signing 'Nancy's mother Phyllis Andrews.' It was a great time."


What: "Family: A Portrait of Gay and Lesbian America" by Nancy Andrews

Where: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue, N.W., Washington

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays)

Call: (202) 638-3211

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