Almost one month ago, the queer internet exploded when it seemed that the Gap had stolen art from a lesbian activist for a Pride t-shirt campaign. On May 19, I saw a tweet by @rachelcorbman about one of the Gap’s “Pride T-Shirts” which featured the iconic logo of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct action group started in 1992.
I wish the Gap's Lesbian Avengers t-shirt was a hilarious Dyke Action Machine campaign. pic.twitter.com/q9TsHc1l1j
— rachel corbwomyn (@rachelcorbman) May 19, 2021
Predictably, Queer Twitter was horrified. On May 20, @roxsamer posted a photoshopped image, correctly attributing the original design to Lesbian Avenger Carrie Moyer and linking people to the Lesbian Avenger’s website, suggesting that folks should learn more about the activist group and not support a corporation such as the Gap.
— Rox Samer, Ph.D. (@roxsamer) May 20, 2021
Finally, also on May 20, INTO published a piece titled Did the Gap Steal a Lesbian Artist’s Design and Put It on a Pride Shirt? which incorrectly reported the original design was created by lesbian artist Carolina Kroon (it was created by Carrie Moyer, who is correctly credited in the graphic tweeted above) and concluded: “So far, the Gap hasn’t responded to the accusations.”
But the answer to the question is no. The Gap did not steal lesbian artist Carrie Moyer’s design and put it on a Pride shirt… because Carrie sold it to them.
On June 1, I sat down to chat with Carrie Moyer and Maxine Wolfe, two of the founders of the Lesbian Avengers, over Zoom. We connected through a mutual friend who had told me they were interested in explaining what had really transpired.
Carrie explained that back in 2019, Avram Finkelstein reached out to her to see if she’d be interested in talking to an art director at the Gap about a line of Pride t-shirts the company was working on in honor of Stonewall’s upcoming 50th anniversary. Avram, an artist, writer, and activist most famous for his work with Silence=Death, is someone Carrie considers a “partner in crime” when it comes to agitprop. Carrie, a faculty member at Hunter College as well as an artist, said she’s been concerned about the “shortage of knowledge about recent history” in the queer community for quite some time, and in that context was interested in talking to the Gap. She assumed they would want to talk about Dyke Action Machine, the public art project she founded in 1991 with photographer Sue Schaffner, that had previously spoofed the Gap (as seen in the original tweet above), but was pleased to hear they were actually interested in The Avengers. “That is also history that needs to be exposed,” she said. “You know, [The Lesbian Avengers are] pretty unknown to most people.”
When I asked Carrie about the inspiration behind her original design, she spoke about her excitement of public art and activism coming together in the 80’s and the 90’s with a level of creativity and inventiveness. “There was this feeling that something both explosive and seductive was possible,” she said. “The idea of creating something… really potent and kind of suggestive… that felt really important and energizing for people, that’s always the goal.”
Carrie described a lot of back and forth with the Gap, but she eventually agreed to have her work featured in the line of 2020 Pride shirts, thinking it would be a good way to get the history of The Lesbian Avengers out to a large group of people. “I’m interested in getting the history of this group out,” she said. “And maybe it’s because Dyke Action Machine is embedded in my brain, but the idea of having this sort of mass dispersal of t-shirts, was like, wow, this is a way to get information out that seems really expedient and interesting to me.”
She sold the design for $7000, with the intention of donating the entire sum of money to The Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, and Carrie’s wife got sick with COVID-19. Suddenly the partnership with the Gap was not really at the top of anyone’s mind, least of all Carrie’s. “The truth is,” Carrie said, “we sort of all forgot about it.”
The next time Carrie and Maxine thought about the Lesbian Avenger Gap t-shirts was last month, when a friend reached out and asked if they had signed off on it.
The Gap had started advertising its Pride collection — but had not bothered to inform Carrie or Maxine that they had gone ahead with the Lesbian Avengers design. While the original plan was to launch shirts featuring multiple activist organizations in 2020, the Gap instead included the Lesbian Avengers design in a more generic 2021 rollout, which is currently billed on its website as “The Gap Collective Pride: an ongoing product collaboration celebrating the spirit of activism and the energy of forward movement. Featuring artists from around the globe and within our own community.” Carrie said the Avengers shirt is a limited-run contract that only applies to this year and that only 1100 shirts have been produced.
When I saw the conversation about these shirts splashed across social media, it was with outrage at the assumption that the Gap was profiting off of lesbian activism. Many community members felt protective of the logo and the original Avengers, and felt angry and disgusted that the Gap stole Carrie’s work. Others were dismayed about the text that went along with marketing the shirt, which originally looked like it included individual names of the founding Avengers without their consent.
When Carrie and Maxine learned about the shirt and the controversy, they were just as surprised as anyone. Though they had signed off on the logo and written a text description to go on the back of the shirts, they did not receive notification from the Gap that the shirts were in production.
Maxine looked up the text on her laptop and realized the description that was upsetting everyone, the one that included specific names of activists, was indeed what she and Carrie had originally written. They had been asked to come up with about 100 words describing the Lesbian Avengers to go on the backs of the t-shirts, and they used documents from Maxine’s personal collection at the Lesbian Herstory Archive to put together a description. Initially they actually wanted to use the individual names of the founders, because, as Maxine explained, when it comes to lesbian activism people often leave out the names and as an archivist she believes it’s important to name people. But the Gap insisted they remove the names because of potential legal issues.
Maxine said that as far as she’s concerned, the names are part of the public domain now, but she acknowledged that companies and brands get nervous about these kinds of things. So they removed the names from the description, but made sure to keep the information about the Dyke March because it felt important to acknowledge that history and celebrate the future of that action. “We really wanted to have it be forward pointing, like this is the genesis of where Dyke March has come from, this is the group that founded that,” Carrie said. “Yeah,” Maxine said, “we changed the last sentence so that it said that there were Dyke Marches that were being held all over the world now.”
However, sometime between the original back and forth and when the shirt and the description on the website were created, Carrie’s contact at the Gap left. She and Maxine suspect that the person who took over the project wasn’t clear on the final decision about the text and mistakenly put the original language, including the founding activists’ names, on the website, not knowing that the Gap itself had asked Maxine and Carrie to remove those details.
When we spoke back on June 1, Carrie was waiting on confirmation that the actual text on the back of the t-shirt would not include the names of the original activists, and she was confident the mistake would be corrected on the website shortly. Now, the text on the website advertising the shirt shows what should be on the back of the actual shirts, per the contract Carrie originally signed.
While trying to figure out what happened between their last interaction with the Gap and the actual printing and advertising of the shirts, Maxine and Carrie were frustrated that people seemed more interested in speculating than actually listening to what happened. They both mentioned Facebook posts written by people hinting at something untoward occurring, but as far as Carrie and Maxine were concerned, as long as the Gap confirmed that the correct final text was written on the shirts and updated their product description accordingly, all was well.
“People just say whatever they want to, and nobody checks it out,” Maxine said.
There is an idealogical question lurking behind the anger some folks in our community felt when they first witnessed these shirts: is it ever okay to work with a large corporation like the Gap? I suspect some people won’t be satisfied to know that the Gap actually didn’t steal this logo but rather the creator behind it willingly sold her work for the project.
To this concern, Maxine and Carrie both seemed to be impatient.
Maxine pointed out that the logo and the original text on the back (“WE RECRUIT,” goddess bless) have both been ripped off by many for-profit companies in the past and Carrie never received a cent for that work. At least in this case the Gap did reach out to Carrie through the appropriate legal channels and compensated her in what she described as a standard fee for content, and the money will go directly to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. “People started going on and on about doing business with a capitalist company,” she said, “but… we’re not doing anything for that company. We’re doing something for the Lesbian Herstory Archives and for the lesbian community by getting the information out to people who would not otherwise know it. So you know, that seems fine to me. I won’t apologize for that.”
Maxine also noted that the founders of the Lesbian Avengers are not a monolith, and that different individuals may take different routes with their continued activism and with the ways they document the group’s contributions. “There’s a website that is labeled the official Lesbian Avenger website,” she said. “…Nobody asked me about it, and that’s fine! Go for it!” (Full disclosure: if you visit lesbianavengers.com you will find a headline stating “SUPPORT LESBIANS! NOT THE GAP!” with a link to purchase a t-shirt with the Avengers logo on it, where profits will support the Lesbian Avenger Documentary Project.)
For Maxine and Carrie, choosing to work with the Gap to get the logo and the history of the Lesbian Avengers out to the masses still remains a choice they stand by.
“I think for me, the issue is still about avenues of propaganda,” Carrie said. “The idea that some kid somewhere is going to open up the Gap Pride Collection and see the Lesbian Avengers t-shirt, there’s just something about that that makes me very happy.”
Editor’s Note, 6/17/21, 12pm: Today, on June 17, I heard back from Carrie with another update. After waiting almost three weeks to hear confirmation from the Gap that the copy on the back of the shirts would match what both the company and the artist agreed upon, excluding the names of the original founders, she finally received word that they did not. As previously mentioned, the art director she was working with left in the middle of the pandemic. The correction was never made.
Because of this, Carrie has asked the Gap to take the shirts off their website and out of circulation for resale. The “take down” is supposed to happen tonight.
“It seems like the baby dykes in the hinterland won’t be able to get their Avengers t-shirt after all,” she concluded.
Editor’s Note, 6/17/21, 5pm: Later this afternoon, I was contacted in the comments of this article by Anne-christine d’Adesky, one of the founders of the Lesbian Avengers, who disputes some of Carrie’s claims. This story is ongoing and will be updated with further reporting as it’s made available.
Editor’s Note, 6/18/21: On Friday, June 18, Cofounders Anne-christine d’Adesky, Ana Maria Simo, and Sarah Schulman of the NY Lesbian Avengers released an open letter to The Gap and to the media. The letter states “Our lesbian history and movement are not for sale.” You can read the full text to the letter here.