Rick Heffner

CRUIS'N: Uncovering Gay Design History Through Collecting

I am obsessed with collecting historical gay ephemera.

What started as an eye-ogling attraction for hunky beef-cake models, my collecting intensified and deepened because of my ever-growing curiosity for gay history. I wanted to know more than what I was taught through the lens of white heterosexual America. I wanted to uncover as much as possible about the stories and heroes who were kept from me in my youth.

The result of my obsession is a collection of visual storytelling. One that uncovers how postwar gay men found their identity and fostered community. How gay artists and photographers used books, magazines, pamphlets, and posters as means to not only showcase their artistic talents, but also to introduce the gay lifestyle to the public at large. How gay men developed secret codes for sex and survival. How heroes like Frank Kameny, Marsha P. Johnson, Silvia Rivera, Harvey Milk, and the members of ACT UP refused to be silent in the face of prejudice and oppression.

This thesis captures my journey of discovery into the histories behind each of these people and moments, and the ways graphic design and print media acted as tools for homosexual men to discover and nurture their identities in an analog world. Decades before the internet and hookup apps put our history and our bodies at each other’s fingertips, it was print culture—easy to disseminate and difficult to track—that helped gay men find their sexual compatriots.

Working on this thesis for the last two years meant moving beyond my comfort zone as a graphic designer. Some days I was a researcher—other days, a collector, curator, or archivist. My aspiration for this collection is to become an accessible archive that preserves this history, rather than being tossed into the fire. After all, the equality sought by the generations of artists and activists profiled in these pages is an equality we’re still fighting for today.

Rick is an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at George Mason University School of Art, Fairfax, VA, and owner and Creative Director of his design practice, Fuszion.

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