The entire weight of the US Department of Homeland Security, set up to protect us from terrorists, is being used to crush an avant-garde queer filmmaker and visual artist who has created more than 30 experimental films since 1983 that deal largely with homosexuality, homophobia, AIDS, and related topics –– yet there has been hardly a word written about this case in the LGBT press and nary a squeak of protest from treasury-rich national gay institutions.
Lawrence Brose, now 60 years old, was a well-known member of Western New York's artistic community, the long-time executive director of Buffalo's CEPA Gallery –– a distinguished haven for the visual arts –– and a noted advocate for public arts funding when he was arrested in November 2009 by agents of the Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division (ICE) and charged with possession of what the federal government claimed was "child pornography."
"There is no allegation of Brose creating these images, sending the images on to anyone else, or trying to make contact with minors," Brose's attorney, Paul Cambria, said.
"I'm not just saying, 'I'm innocent,'" Brose told Gay City News, "I am innocent!" I, for one, believe him.
Yet if convicted, he faces up to decades in prison and registration for life as a sex offender.
One of the few organizations to embrace Brose's case up until now is the National Center for Reason and Justice, which has declared, "We believe that the case of Lawrence Brose is an instance of child pornography laws destroying an innocent person's life without the remotest possibility of protecting any child. Supporting him affords the NCRJ an opportunity to educate the public about the irrationality and injustice written into existing child-pornography law."
The Homeland Security agents seized Brose's computer, and the indictment charges him with possessing "1300 images" of child pornography, some of which were downloaded from a website in Germany, where images illegal here may be legal.
"The complaint says there are a few that were downloaded from a site in Germany and that's it," Cambria said. "There isn't any suggestion of trafficking or passing on."
The figure of 1,300 illegal images was inflated by including more than 100 images taken from Brose's best-known film, "De Profundis," a surrealist meditation on homosexuality inspired by Oscar Wilde's famous letter from prison of the same name.
Wilde's semi-autobiographical essay, widely considered a classic and one of the most moving things the playwright ever wrote, is an introspective meditation on the nature of art and the soul as refracted through what history's best-known queer criminal learned about memory, persecution, bitterness, and forgiveness after he'd been imprisoned for homosexuality. It is considered a defense of "the love that dares not speak its name," the phrase that became famous during his trials to describe his same-sex orientation.
To understand the horror that has happened to Brose, it is necessary to understand the nature of his art. As his Legal Defense Fund website describes it, Brose "is working in a well-established tradition of image appropriation, drawing specifically on images of masculinity in home movies, old films, Gay erotica and documentaries. Brose collects found still images, which he then processes and re-processes to find more depth in the picture, producing complex layers of imagery that are highly conceptual and offer a poignant commentary on normative conventions of gender and sexuality. The final product is as abstract as the paintings of Willem de Kooning, and a seizure of source material entirely misrepresents the final outcome."
One of the few major queer voices to come to Brose's defense is the distinguished novelist, essayist, playwright, and scenarist Sarah Schulman. (See this reporter's November 2009 review of Schulman's 14th book, "Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences.")
On November 18, Schulman moderated a panel on the Brose case at MIX, the Bleecker Street center for experimental queer film she co-founded.
Schulman, who believes Brose's indictment has enormous civil liberties implications, told Gay City News, "There are a number of different questions raised by this case: First, there have been a number of similar cases that have been thrown out recently based on computer forensics. Apparently because of the way that porn hubs are constructed, most people who have looked at porn online do have links that lead to child pornography on their hard drives, and we know that in Larry's case it was a shared computer" to which a number of other people had access.
"But," Schulman added, "beyond his specific circumstances, much larger questions are raised. In the US, sexual images of minors are the only thing that no one is allowed to look at –– not consumers, not lawyers, not psychologists or scholars. Murder is illegal, but we watch images of murder, but in this case the state is applying the idea that seeing equals action, and that has never been proven. I am not convinced that someone who looks at sexual images of minors should be incarcerated and labeled a sex offender."
Moreover, noted Schulman, "the law applies equally to teenagers having sex with each other as it does to children coerced into sex with adults. I had lesbian sex as a minor, and based on that experience this convergence seems cruel and absurd."
Finally, Schulman reminds us that "100 exhibition prints from Larry's film 'De Profundis,' which we screened at MIX this past week, were collected by the FBI as evidence about his character. Queer and feminist artists often have their art work used against them and, having just seen the film, it is terrifying that these images could be used against someone in court. Media artists are particularly vulnerable as a video counts as 75 images, according to the FBI. Because MIX, now in its 24th year, is the primary advocacy organization in the world for queer avant-garde artists, we felt it was our responsibility to air these issues in a public forum."
Since neither the public nor the press has been permitted to see the images for which Brose has been indicted, it is impossible for this reporter to judge whether or not they meet the legal definition of "child pornography" under federal laws, which are altogether too vague. The Brose case will be the subject of an evidentiary hearing on December 12, and his attorneys intend to challenge the evidence against Brose on a number of constitutional grounds, including First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendment rights regarding free expression, criminal searches, and fair and speedy trials. They also intend to present forensic evidence from computer experts which they say is completely exculpatory for Brose.
Moreover, as the Buffalo News recently reported, "Men convicted of looking at child pornography on their computers sometimes get longer prison terms than men convicted in state courts of actually molesting kids. Now, the issue is getting some national attention… from the federal judges who hand out the sentences. Many federal judges throughout the nation have asked the US Sentencing Commission to revise the advisory sentencing guidelines for cases of child pornography possession. Western New York's chief district judge, Richard J. Arcara, is one of them: 'I'm not sure that the guidelines, as they are currently written, assist judges in identifying factors that distinguish a defendant who is a threat to the community and likely to re-offend from one who is not.'"
Recent criminal indictments of adolescents for "sexting" messages they sent to each other point up even more problems in overly broad and ill-defined child pornography laws.
But if the Brose case does eventually go to trial, given the recent and entirely justifiable national outrage over the Jerry Sandusky case and its coverup by Penn State authorities — — but despite the lack of any similarities between the two cases — will Brose be able to get a fair trial?
If the very mention of "child pornography" has been enough to scare gay organizations away from questioning the odiferous indictment of Brose, what effect will just the charge have on juries and on judges who have to face re-election or reappointment?
There is no evidence or suggestion that Brose's sexual tastes run to children. He had three long-term lovers, all adults, who died of AIDS, and his current partner of seven years is the same age as he is.
Brose's original indictment was tossed out by a federal judge who found the evidence wanting, but he was re-indicted by an ambitious federal prosecutor who sneered in the press at Brose defenders' assertion that his collection of Internet images was for "research." This betrays an ignorance of the artist's interest in Wilde's "De Profundis," which is replete with references to children, including his horror at being forbidden to see his own offspring and his statement, "When one comes in contact with the soul it makes one simple as a child, as Christ said one should be."
Brose is not a pornographer. He is an experimental artist who turns still images into illustrations of our social ills and hypocrisies, as anyone may judge for themselves by consulting his website.
His indictment and defense have left Brose penniless, and he told this reporter his life had been "shattered" by "this awful travesty of justice that has come crashing down on me for no reason." Today, he told me, "I'm being kept alive by my friends."
Brose gave up his job as director of the CEPA Gallery in order to protect that institution. "Lawrence resigned in the best interest of CEPA, he wasn't asked to leave," the vice president of the gallery's board, Robert Travers, told the Buffalo News, and the board's public statements reflect a belief in Brose's innocence.
From what I've been able to learn, as a journalist of four decades experience I believe Brose to be the victim of a tragic miscarriage of justice. I feel so strongly about this case and the threat Brose's indictment poses to civil liberties and artistic freedom, that I intend to donate my modest fee for this article to the Lawrence Brose Legal Defense Fund. I hope readers of this article will likewise donate to his defense.
Like many gay men in the age of AIDS, I'm an occasional consumer of Internet pornography — and who knows what links from porn hubs to illegal images lurk, unbeknownst to me, on my computer. Or on yours? You could be next…
The Brose Legal Defense Fund is holding an online art auction to help raise money for this brave and valuable artist's defense. On offer are original art work from "The Simpsons," "The Jetsons," and a host of artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Ken Heyman, Tseng Kwong Chi, and Jeffrey Hoone. You can visit this auction at lawrencebrose.com/sale/index.html.
The Lawrence Brose Legal Defense Fund is at tinyurl.com/cmx9hhj. You may see Lawrence Brose's art work and images from his films on his web site athttp://lawrencebrose.com. The text of Wilde's "De Profundis" is at upword.com/wilde/de_profundis.html.
Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.