Clark Henley reimagines America as a gay paradise

[Jesse] Clark Henley, A Butch LOOK at America. No place [but New York? Los Angeles?] Clark Henley, 1982.
Pictorial map, 17”h x 24”w at border plus margins, uncolored. Minor foxing and a hint of marginal soiling, minor edge wear including a ½” edge tear at upper left. Very good.

Only the second-known example of this 1982 pictorial map reimagining America as a gay paradise adorning a very, very short pair of denim cutoffs. 

Much as the Green Books had catered to African-American travelers of the 1930s to 1960s, so did Guy Strait’s The Lavender Baedeker and the many editions of Bob Damron’s Address Book help gay men (and lesbians) find shops, bars and restaurants, and cultural venues catering to their needs. That said, I have spent the past few years chasing maps documenting 20-century American culture and counterculture, and this is one of the very few maps I have found picturing any aspect of LBGTQ life. And it does so to a manner that is in-your-face and unvarnished, by turns “in-the-know”, exuberant, raunchy, and just perhaps gently mocking.

Mapmaker Clark Henley has reimagined the United States as a pair of very short cutoffs halfheartedly concealing a pair of buttocks, complete with a bandana in the right-rear pocket and keys hanging from a belt loop, both readily-recognizable sexual signals in the gay community. Henley also radically shuffles the nation’s interior geography, basically dividing it into California (the left cheek), New York City (the right cheek), and the Midwest and Grand Canyon (the, er, intergluteal cleft). Throughout he has scattered familiar locales and landmarks: The Castro, Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevards, Laguna Beach and Palm Springs in the West; Broadway, Central Park, The Cloisters, “Bloomies” (Bloomingdale’s), and the West Village in the East, among many others. As a native New Yorker, I particularly appreciate the “Gay Year” blimp and the hypertrophied alligator standing Kong-like atop the Empire State Building.

In yet another act of re-imagining, artist Henley has rendered the nation’s inhabitants as alligators, all wearing sunglasses. I am uncertain as to why he chose alligators; it must be some kind of inside joke, perhaps a reference to the alligator logo on the Lacoste shirts that were for a time “de rigueur in a portion of the gay community.” (The Washingtonian, Sept. 1980, accessed online May 2022) The explanation could also be as simple as a phonetic play on the central syllable in the word (alli-GAY-tor). In any event, the alligators are engaging in the full range of “human” activities: driving, dining, dancing, shopping, hanging out, working out, ogling one another, and occasionally having sex, often in very public spaces. None, however, appear to be working. Viewed in retrospect, the upbeat tone makes for a sad counterpoint to the emergence of the AIDs epidemic, which was first recognized as a public-health crisis in 1982, when the map was copyrighted, and which within a few years would claim the life of the mapmaker.

Jesse Clark Henley was a writer, model, and artist, born in San Francisco in 1950, where he established both his career in the 1970s. In 1976 he published Alligator Oz: Tails of the City, a map of San Francisco populated exclusively by mustachioed alligators, which clearly anticipates the Butch Look at America but is much, much raunchier. In 1979, Henley moved to Los Angeles with the ambition of further pursuing his career, and in 1982 Plume (New York) published his Butch Manual, which offers facetious advice to gay men seeking to adopt excessively masculine behavior (Perhaps he designed this map to help promote the book.) After being diagnosed with HIV in 1986, he returned to his native San Francisco to live with his family, and he died there in 1988.

Both of Henley’s maps are extraordinarily rare. I am aware of but one other example of A Butch Look at America, held by the University of Southern California.

OCLC 1157422659, recording a single holding at the University of Southern California (Aug. 2022). Some background from “J. Clark Henley,” in the Bay Area Reporter for Sept. 8, 1988, p. 17, accessed online, May 2022.