Tom Bianchi, the master of homoeroticism: ‘Gay people of my generation believed that we were going to die sad and alone’

His photographs of male nudes and his fight against homophobia have made him a gay icon. As he is about to complete 50 years of his career, some of his works are being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

El fotógrafo estadounidense Tom Bianchi.
American photographer Tom Bianchi.Getty Images / Blanca López (Collage)
Martín Bianchi

“Before we start, is your surname also Bianchi?” asks photographer Tom Bianchi, 78, on the other end of the phone. The Chicago-born artist, a gay icon, famous for his photographs of male nudes and his fight against homophobia, is surprised by the coincidence.

When the interviewer from EL PAÍS explains that it’s a very common surname in Italy, the photographer is even more surprised. “I didn’t know. An Italian friend told me that the Bianchis (White Guelphs) were the people who fought against the Pope (Boniface VIII) and in favor of the king of France (Philip the Fair). Dante (Alighieri) was a Bianchi,” he continues over the phone, from his home in Palm Springs. The California city has been called the “courtyard of the stars” because of the large number of rich and famous residents.

Bianchi has spent his entire life and career honoring his rebellious last name. His work, both sensual and provocative, challenges traditional power structures, social conventions and messages of political and religious hate. “Yes, everything I’ve done has been a challenge to homophobia,” he confirms during his conversation with EL PAÍS.

In 1975 he walked away from a successful career as a lawyer at Columbia Pictures to begin photographing friends, lovers and acquaintances with his Polaroid camera on the wild beaches of Fire Island, just outside of New York. This spot has been an oasis for the LGBTQ+ community since the 1920s. Those images, drenched in sexuality and centering on men in (and without) skimpy Speedos, have become a mainstay of queer culture. Today, some of those polaroids are being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in the Fragile Beauty exhibition, which brings together a selection of pieces from the enormous photography collection of Elton John and his husband, David Furnish.

“I’m HIV positive, so I was never bold enough to think that I would reach this age, or achieve everything I’ve achieved,” Bianchi admits. “Gay men of my generation believed that we were going to die sad and alone. I didn’t know that I would live to be 78 years old, or that I would have a husband as intelligent and attractive as the one I have... and 29 years younger than me!” he adds triumphantly.

Athletic, tan and full of vitality, the artist continues working every day. He’s also writing his autobiography, chronicling his life from the gray Chicago of the 1940s to the sunny California of today, by way of the turbulent New York of the 1970s and the lively beaches of Fire Island in the 1980s. “My mother had me very young, after being raped… a raped woman was considered to be ‘damaged goods.’ She then married a man who never wanted to be my legal father. She came to think that my homosexuality was the result of all that. I’m writing about this now and it’s been cathartic. Reviewing one’s life is cathartic,” he emphasizes.

Question. You arrived in New York in the summer of 1969, shortly after the Stonewall riots. What was life like for the LGBTQ+ community at the time?

Answer. It was a hopeful time, when people were starting to come out without worrying about the consequences. But it was also a time when people were still being arrested for their sexuality. Stonewall didn’t end prejudices: Stonewall helped us present ourselves as real people [who were going to] stop putting up with those prejudices.

Q. Was that when you came out?

A. I came out in law school (he studied at Northwestern University, in Chicago). In high school, I had an affair with the captain of the football team… but he broke my heart. At the time, the mere idea of a boy dating another boy was strange.

Q. Many of us suffered bullying as children for being gay. Did that happen to you?

A. Of course. I remember the feeling of having to hide a part of me. From a very young age, I knew I was gay [and] I believed I had to keep it a secret. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I couldn’t even say that I wanted to be an artist. That would have sounded [very gay], so instead, I answered that I dreamed of being an architect.

Q. In the end, you studied law and practiced as a corporate lawyer. How did you become an artist?

A. By ignoring my parents’ advice. I was born in 1945, in the American Midwest. So I wasn’t born to be an artist. At the time, and in such a place, that wasn’t an option. I studied law and became a lawyer for Columbia Pictures. At a conference, they gave me a Polaroid SX-70 camera. I was already starting to paint and make sculptures. [After that], I started taking Polaroid photos on Fire Island. I did it for a reason: back then, no one knew such a wonderful place for queer people existed. I didn’t want any other gay person to grow up not knowing that the Fire Island gay community existed. This is how I began to document my life and that of my friends, in 1975. I was 29 years old.

Q. Do you remember what was the first photograph you took?

A. Yes, it was a picture of a dick on a chaise longue. At the time, I was dating a boy named Tom. He was my first model. He was an attractive, athletic man who had posed for adult entertainment magazines… so it wasn’t unfamiliar territory for him.

Q. Which photographers influenced your early work?

A. One photograph in particular made me go in the opposite direction to everything that was being done at that time. The photo in question was Fred with Tires, by fashion photographer Herb Ritts. Back then, in West Hollywood, every gay man had a poster with that photo in his house. It was a disturbing image, because the model was heterosexual and unattainable. Why did we gays have to worship a heterosexual and unattainable man? Was there something wrong with us? I had a lot of gay friends who were very attractive, so I started photographing them.

Q. Your polaroids from the 1970s and 1980s portray a liberated, beautiful and sexy LGBTQ+ community. Was it as idyllic as you made it seem?

A. Yes. When I arrived at Fire Island, I discovered paradise. Those men were like angels. I wanted all [LGBTQ+] people to know that this place existed. [It was] the opposite of the Chicago suburbs where I grew up.

Q. Do you miss anything from that time?

A. No. It was an exciting time to be alive and I discovered that the gay community was full of interesting men, full of talent and creativity. The only thing I miss about that time is how cheap it was to live in New York! You used to be able to be an artist and live in a loft. Today, you have to be rich to live in a loft in New York. It’s very sad.

Q. You always say that your work is a fight against homophobia. Where are we in this fight?

A. There are still many places in the world where a gay person can be murdered just for being gay. There are still many Christian missionaries who go around the world preaching their gospel of hate against [the LGBTQ+ community], as well as many people who continue to believe that message. A friend of mine, one of the most attractive men I’ve ever photographed, was told by a priest that he was gay because he had a distant relationship with his father. Years later, when my friend began to show the first symptoms of HIV, he returned to his parents’ house, went to his father’s office, opened a drawer, took out a gun and shot himself. These things continue to happen in many places. Nowadays, we have to fight for the trans community, for the bisexual community and for all types of sexual identities and orientations. Even in the United States, there are still places where you can get in trouble for being LGBTQ+.

Q. You’re a survivor of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that devastated the world in the 1980s and 1990s. How do you remember those years?

A. At first, when the pandemic broke out, the press talked about a “gay cancer.” We thought it was a hoax, that this couldn’t happen to us. We believed that they just wanted to demonize us, that they wanted to label us as “sick.” But when the disease progressed and we began to lose many friends and acquaintances, it was terrible. I describe it as sleepwalking. Everything we [in the LBGTQ+ community] had fought for was threatened by HIV. And it continues to be threatened. Look at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits us from [expressing our sexual identity]. The only good thing about those years of AIDS is that we came out stronger as a community. I spent 10 years of my life fighting for alternative AIDS treatments. Today, I’m alive because I received one of those treatments. If I hadn’t entered an experimental program in which I was a guinea pig, I wouldn’t be here.

Q. What impact has PrEP, the antiretroviral drugs that prevent HIV transmission, had on the LGBTQ+ community?

A. In my case, [these drugs have been] very important. I’m HIV positive and my husband, who is 29 years younger than me, is negative and takes PrEP. This allows us to live a life free of fear. PrEP is a very liberating force for our community.

Q. When you started taking photographs 50 years ago, there was no Instagram or OnlyFans. Isn’t there too much technology in our lives?

A. I’m in favor of everything that keep us in touch with other people. Fifteen years ago, I met a guy on a website called DudesNude. We started exchanging photos… you know, like everyone does today. He lived in another city and came to visit me in Palm Springs. The day we met in person, we knew we wanted to be together. We’ve been together for 15 years.

Q. That’s a beautiful love story.

A. It is. A marriage blessed by DudesNude.

Q. Today, thanks to OnlyFans, anyone can be a porn star. What do you think about this phenomenon?

A. It seems wonderful to me. Sex is a divine gift and we must enjoy it. I think about all those guys who live in Iowa or any other remote place and who now, thanks to platforms like OnlyFans, can have access to a vibrant gay community anywhere in the world. Isn’t that wonderful?

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