We’re all familiar with the “Communist aesthetic”—its bold graphics, hyperrealism, and often stark color schemes. Less familiar is the tender side of this ideology. In The Gay Agenda: Homoeroticism in Communist Propaganda, a provocative online discussion last month between film historian Bader AlAwadhi, Chinese-born designer Zipeng Zhu, and Angelina Lippert, Chief Curator at the Poster House museum, an interesting question was posed: What if, through coded graphic design, the visual architects of Communism had sought not only to normalize queerness but to idealize it. “So many Communist propaganda posters feature men holding hands, kissing, or clutching each other in a passionate embrace—all to symbolize the great bond between men of different cultural backgrounds unified under Communism,” explained the event listing, “But what if the artists behind these posters were just creating the least-subtle depictions of a gay utopia?”
There is a cheekiness to this alternate history. Russia, famously, has had a history of homophobia, which culminated in Putin’s banning of Gay Pride in 2012. In China, explains Zhu, where effeminate men have long held a place both in popular culture and in the royal court, acceptance was more a matter of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” There have always been the “three nos” as Zhu puts it, “no approval, no disapproval, but also no promotion.” The designer, who moved to the U.S. from Shanghai at 18, recently returned home and visited the Museum of Propaganda, noting that many of these posters, to his now Westernized eyes, were clearly homoerotic.
“I would say that many of the artists commissioned to make these posters were probably in the queer community,” asserts Zhu, who believes these works were potentially a way for the LGBTQ community to survive the Communist regime, particularly during Mao Zedong’s brutal Cultural Revolution, when “contributing to the cause” often permitted other aspects of one’s personality or history to be papered over. “They were trying to be rebellious in a very clever way, and I don’t think the Communist party was really aware of the code artists were sending out using public propaganda.” He explains that within the Communist party, men would frequently refer to each other as Tóngzhì, or “comrade” in Chinese, a word that today has been appropriated by the LGBTQ community to signal gay or lesbian.
On appearance alone, it’s hard to deny the radical homoeroticism of many of these works. The depictions range from sweet—two men offering each other flowers— to, in Zhu’s words, the “totally inappropriate.” (Zhu cites an image from the event of a mostly naked Soviet man hiding his genitals behind a large boat. “I just don’t know how else the creative direction could be explained here,” he says.) “There is ample homoerotic imagery or, at the very least, imagery that can be interpreted as homoerotic in the Socialist Realism movement,” explains AlAwadhi. “Especially if you are looking at posters that were promoting fraternity and unity between nations, particularly the USSR and China, India, and Egypt.”
AiAwadhi adds there is little evidence that the artists intentionally portrayed homosexuality in these images, but a reading of them as homoerotic isn’t uncommon and was often played up in guerrilla street art. As an example, he references the infamous mural painted on the Berlin Wall, “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” by Dmitri Vrubel, which depicts a real-life “socialist fraternal kiss” between Erich Honecker, General Secretary of Germany’s Socialist Unity Party, and the Soviet Union’s General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev during the 30th-anniversary celebration of the founding of the German Democratic Republic.
AiAwadhi and Zhu first had the idea for “Gay Agenda” while exploring the catalog for Poster House’s recent exhibit, The Sleeping Giant, which explores China’s economic history through poster design. Both are members of Poster House’s CMYK Council, an advisory board of BIPOC designers, creatives, and educators, and felt like there was a subversive untold story embedded in the evocative images.
“The disclaimer that we gave at the beginning of the show is that, culturally, the pieces would not have been seen as homoerotic at the time. We’re putting a very contemporary lens on it,” says Angelina Lippert of Poster House, whose specialty is Russian and Soviet poster art. “Yes, all the posters look like the happiest gay couple in the world to us, but they wouldn’t have been seen as such at the time.”
Lippert explains that the concept of fraternity, especially between countries fighting the pre-established system of capitalism, often drove these intimate portraits, adding that when Stalin came to power, the only acceptable style of art became Socialist Realism. Much of this public-facing design was meant to celebrate hearty, robust workers, rosy-cheeked and clearly enjoying themselves. “In reality, people were starving and dying, so these posters were obviously an idealized, utopian view of what the proletariat looked like,” she says. As far as gay overtones are concerned, Lippert believes the graphic designers may have been simply trying to show a bond between nations. “The fraternal kiss was very common back then, and if you go to certain countries now that aren’t Western, men still kiss on the mouth, and that’s not considered a sign of homosexuality.” These images would have represented two countries coming together to share a love of Communism and raising their children. “Not even their children—just their sons—to be Communists.”
Still, she admits, it was fairly common under Communism for artists to incorporate subliminal messaging into their design. In Poland, for example, circus posters often featured a lion, which patriots understood to represent the Motherland rising up against its Soviet oppressors. With Chinese propaganda posters, however, graphics were often designed by a group. “So, unless everybody in the group was gay, the theory kind of falls apart,” she says.