LGBTQ+ History Without Liveliness is Like a Bernice Bing Painting Without Emotion

May, 2022
Sylvia Woolner, Blog Correspondent

LGBTQ+ History Month was started in 1994 by Rodney Wilson, a Missouri teacher who wished to celebrate and spread awareness of LGBTQ+ history and accomplishments. It is distinct from June’s Pride Month, which celebrates LGBTQIA2S+ people past and present, as well as LGBTQIA2S+ activism. LGBTQ+ History month typically engages with LGBTQ+ history and teaching through its annual list of 31 LGBTQ+ leaders, or “Icons,” from various points in history. Reading the biographies of these “icons” made me think about the ways in which LGBTQIA2S+ history is simultaneously comprised of communal and personal histories.

–   Yet these forms of LGBTQ+ history, especially those collectivized in these Icon lists, somehow remained abstract to me; it felt as though they lacked something. I believe current methodologies of history are, in part, to blame for the sense of abstraction or obscurity I felt. Historiographical methods have relied on, perpetuated, and operated within hegemonic perspectives and approaches. These methodologies necessarily produce a flattening, a silencing, and a muffling of the living quality that exists within LGBTQ+ history, and the personal histories within it.

Rather than dwell on the stifling effects of current historiographical methods on the entirety of LGBTQ+ history, I’d like to explore the personal history of Bernice Bing. Examining a personal history demonstrates the problems of historicizing, and glimpses at how these silences could be addressed, and how history and the seemingly “non-historical” function and develop significance on an individual scale.


Bernice Bing was a Chinese American artist born in 1936 in San Francisco, whose work combined elements of Abstract Expressionism, Chinese calligraphy, and Buddhist spirituality. Bing passed away in 1998, and was inducted as an Icon into the LGBTQ+ History month in 2014. On the LGBT History Month website lives a brief biography of Bing’s childhood, her approach to art and the influence of her education, her travels to Korea, Japan, and China, and her relationship to Chinese calligraphy within her art. Her “Icon” page lists tags circumscribing aspects of her life: “Artist,” “Asian American,” “California,” “Lesbian,” “Painter,” “San Francisco.” From this brief biography and these tags, we come to know about her, but remain entirely abstracted from who she was. Bing has been flattened into disparate features. Her existence is parceled into elements of her identity—as though her intersectional and temporal experiences could ever be separated from one another.

In my light research on Bernice Bing—her life, her art, and what she had to say about them in interviews and artistic statements—I came to learn of the events of her life and what her work meant to her communities. Yet, I never seemed to uncover the living person who connected these events, moments, organizations, places, and people. Like her art, she had “fallen through the cracks” of history. In these texts, Bing and her experiences feel pushednto the past despite being her being described as an active, impressive, talented, curious, and a devoted member of her communities.

Bernice Bing, nicknamed “Bingo” was born in and lived most of her life in the Bay area. In her young adulthood, Bing was heavily involved in the West Coast Beat scene as she participated in Beat art galleries and exhibitions despite the pervasive white heteronormative biases. During this time as well, Bing was beginning her lifelong exploration of Abstract Expressionism, and finding inspiration from late 50s Avant Garde artists from poetry, jazz, theatre, and film. She also found great inspiration in the work of Eastern poets and philosophers. Bing’s time with the Beat community showed her as a vibrant, sociable party goer whose work was equally as youthful and experimental. Her early work grappled with explicating herself against the white heterosexual middleclass idea of ‘normalcy’. While I’d like to comment on such works, most of them are inaccessible, having been destroyed, stolen or lost.

Over the years, her work changed to be increasingly intimate and inward looking. For instance, following her time in school and with the Beat community, Bing took a vineyard stewardship in Mayacamas for three years, where she produced pieces that (unfortunately, like much of her art) are now missing or destroyed. These lost pieces speak to who is privileged to be included and conserved in history, but also to the potentialities that these absences can voice, and how they might be understood within a larger context.

In 1967, Bing attended a retreat to Esalen in Big Sur where she explored “New age psychology and philosophy,” through which she and others tried to reach the “essential self.” This retreat produced one of my favorite works by Bing, Big Sur (1967), where there is something striving to be seen, a subtle tracing of something natural and internal. The painting feels like an intermediary between a representation of landscape, a figure caught between transparency and opaqueness, and a transfixing flurry of color in layers, meant to coalesce into a canvas depicting the internal self; within this calm yet brooding landscape, amidst a beautiful whirl of something other.

Late into her life, Bing visited Korea, Japan, and China for three months, where she learned and practiced Chinese calligraphy (the form came to influence her work profoundly). She explored her identity as an Asian American artist being influenced by both western and eastern thought. Bing’s art was intellectual and often a thoughtful reflection on her identity, as well as the theories of existentialism, the practices of Chinese calligraphy, and Zen and Buddhist philosophies. Her pieces engaged spiritual ideas, especially in relation to Buddhism, which she practiced in various forms throughout her life. Cosmic Gap No.1 (1990), includes abstracted elements of Chinese calligraphy, and the contrast between the yellow and dark blue smoke swirls amalgamate to emit from the “Gap,” an aura as though there is both loss and release occurring in this fracture or break.

Bing was not “out” to her entire community, yet she interacted with and existed within lesbian spaces. Bing’s sexuality is rarely (if ever) discussed as an active part of her personal history; instead, it is usually addressed in passing, often by means of comparing her to masculinist beat artists or in commentary of her wittily-named piece, Cuntry.

I found out all this and more about Bernice Bing, but I still didn’t sense who she was, even as these events and contributions were used to describe her life. Yet, by viewing her work and reading her interviews and artists statements, I found glimpses of her.


Examining Bing’s work and its sheer emotionality brought into fruition her liveliness, and the palpable agency behind her history. There is an effusiveness in her work that grips the viewer through color, brushstrokes, and the deliberate interplay between abstraction and recognition. Simultaneous melancholy and exuberance tell who she was, and of her experiences, including her sexuality. Desire expresses itself through form, texture, and materiality. This desire and sexuality is not just present in pieces where its influence is undeniable—such as Cuntry—but also exists in A Lady and a Road Map, Lotus #5, and more. Bing’s work holds a visceral emotionality which refuses to lay hidden or contain itself.

So too, in her interviews and artistic statements, does the immediacy of her words speak to the wholeness of who she was. In one statement she discussed mystery, expressing both her method of artistry and her personal perspective which involved a courageous sense of a deep surrender.

     The mystery is the work in process. Visually, I sense a great
     order of things and attempt to transpose this mystery into a
     picture. I used to look for meaningful order in life, now I am
     accepting things as IS. That nothing is certain, and my imagery
     is ever-changing. We are at an epoch of a brave new world, and
     my hope is that our views will change about how we see our
     world, not to stay with the things familiar, but to reach out for
     the unknown.

          — Bernice Bing Artist Statement for the Triton Museum Exhibition,

Bing’s unmediated self is conveyed through her words and in her work, through the simultaneous sense of understanding and distance. Through her voice, she seeks to challenge her audience and their notions of a “finished product,” as well as the idea that her work, and the world which informs it, is ever static.

This capacity of a direct artistic production, or that quote to intimate the liveliness of Bing made me wonder why her art is not understood as part of the means to comprehend her history—or, that of a shared LGBTQ+ history. It occurred to me that, through historiographical methods LGBTQ+ individuals, their histories and their innumerable experiences and forms of intersectionality, are forced into efforts at containment – of ourselves, others, and our temporalities – so that we might “fit” into specific modes of comprehensibility.

To redress this compression, history would be better served by applying a queer methodology to express LGBTQ+ histories. If we shift our historied methodologies, it could permit things such as artwork, or the gaps in personal histories, to enrich and develop our historical understandings. LGBTQ+ existences and temporalities push against definition, generalization, and containment. History’s current methodologies attempt to distill the past and people into distinct forms of palatable history depriving LGBTQ+ history and people of their vitality. Histories that fail to encompass this vivacity reproduce stagnant, static, and suffocating senses of orderliness within pre-existing hegemonic conceptions of history. By being so alive, LGBTQ+ histories challenge the marginalizing effect of historical methodologies, and the normative perspectives present within them, thereby producing the need for new methodologies better equipped to speak to this effervescence.


Historical analysis has typically adopted practices that perceive history as events produced in either linear or cyclical chronologies. [1] It is these chronologies that form historians’ narrativized temporalities. [2] Historians are aware that this narrativization is a pitfall of their practice, and try to escape it by holding only to the “truth,” or what can be known absolutely. [3] They try not to apply presentism or present contextual understandings to the past. [4] However, these practices have yet to reconcile the trickiness of “truth” and “history” as being equally constructed by each other as interdependent notions, making either (and both) relatively impossible to verify. History dwells as much in misunderstanding, silence, shadow and unknowability as it does in “truth” and what we know. Without applying queer or trans* historical practices to LGBTQ+ history, we continue to perpetuate, through methodology, problematic garbling elements of history. [5]

To queer history would be to adopt elements of unhistoricism, such as those developed by Goldberg and Menon, requiring an acknowledgment that present hegemony is unable to contain queer methodologies as the histories sought remain unknown to us. [6] Queered history rejects the notion of full knowability of the past or the present, it contests the idea that history is something concrete, permanent, and clear. [7]  In turn, unhistoricists recognize themselves as engaging with something “precisely not history”. [8] By acknowledging that perspectives of the past and present work upon history, and by actively choosing to work in the spaces between comprehensibility, unhistoriscists avoid diminishing the humanity, dynamism, and incomprehensibility within both history and its people. [9]


“Trans* historicities” emphasizes the concept that our full comprehension of past or present deprives individuals and past temporalities “the right to opacity”. [10]  Due to the impossibility and presumptive qualities comprehension fosters, queered history ought to explicitly develop self-aware utilizations of subjectivity within methodologies to make the space of history active, openly imperfect, and present with possibility of difference and instability. [11] It is through imaginative subjectivity and shifting practices that we might attempt to vitalize history by accentuating its potential for narrativity. Queered history would be an enactment of the uncertainty and imagination of history. [12] Developing a queered history, ultimately, is a refusal to separate histories, or parts of histories, out from one another. By doing so, the effusive, unpredictable, and ever in flux life within LGBTQ+ histories can be better understood by means of incompleteness, unhistoricism, imagination and atypical sources. [13]

LGBTQ+ people are never static, and never have been, and to present them and their histories as such is reductive. Their human experiences are too full; they burst the seams of sutured comprehensibility, of attempts at historicizing. Current historical methods try to content us with the idea that we and our pasts are fully knowable—fully translatable to a page—and that what remains untranslated is unnecessary or irrelevant, as it exists outside verifiability.[14] As I saw in the work of Bernice Bing, what might not be translatable or verifiable on the page is equally as capable of carrying historical weight. If we are to glimpse at the liveliness of our own existences in history, how we understand history must necessarily embrace itself as caught between, as in-the-making, and as influenced by imagination and the limits of what we are capable of knowing. [15]


Further Reading

On Bernice Bing:

On Queered History:

Bychowski, M. W., Chiang, H., Halberstam, J., Lau, J., Long, K. P., Ochoa, M., Snorton, C. R., DeVun, L., & Tortorici, Z. (2018). Transhistoricities: A roundtable discussion. Transgender Studies Quarterly5(4), 658–685.

DeVun, L., & Tortorici, Z. (2018). Trans, time, and history. Transgender Studies Quarterly5(4), 518–539.

Doan, L. (2017). Queer history queer memory: The case of Alan Turing. GLQ23(1), 113–136.

Goldberg, J., & Menon, M. (2005). Queering history. PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America120(5), 1608–1617.


[1] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 662, 667, 668.

[2] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 662, 667, 668.

[3] Doan, 2017, pp. 125-26.

[4] Doan, 2017, pp. 125-26.

[5] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 662.

[6] Goldberg & Menon, 2005, p. 1616.

[7] Goldberg & Menon, 2005, pp. 1609, 1615-1616.

[8] Doan, 2017, pp. 126-27.

[9] Doan, 2017, p. 128.

[10] Bychowski et al., 2018, pp. 661, 676-678.

[11] Bychowski et al., 2018, pp. 676-677.

[12] Bychowski et al., 2018, pp. 667, 668, 676-677.

[13] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 662.

[14] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 672.

[15] Bychowski et al., 2018, p. 672.

Examining a personal history demonstrates the problems of historicizing, and glimpses at how these silences could be addressed, and how history and the seemingly “non-historical” function and develop significance on an individual scale.

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