A #tbt cover story interview and photo shoot with award-winning filmmaker and LGBTQ+ activist Wolfgang Busch, and the June 2022 cover story of A&U Magazine
Text and Photos by Alina Oswald
Many might describe Wolfgang Busch as a dream chaser; others, as a kind and patient mentor; as an artist and activist whose work always comes from the heart. Busch’s name is synonymous with documentaries preserving the history of the LGBTQ+ community, and the HIV and AIDS pandemic. Examples include How Do I Look (2006), an award-winning documentary capturing an intimate, multi-layered, and real-life portrait of the ballroom community; and A Flow Affair (2010), exploring the evolution of the art of flagging (brief flagging performances can be seen at Pride Marches across the country).
Wolfgang Busch has won numerous, prestigious awards for his art and activism–such as the 2015 MLK Humanitarian Award “for his social and artistic activism for the Black and Hispanic LGBTQ+ Ballroom community,” and the A-List New York 2021 Award honoring remarkable men who “make a difference in their work and […] communities.” Busch has also served on the Producers Committee at Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN) and as Vice President of the Metropolitan Community Athletic Association NY (MCAANY). For ten years, he produced New York New Rock, a weekly TV show “highlighting cultural and educational aspects of various communities.”
In 2006, Busch founded Art From the Heart Films, which is best known for its “edu-tainment and docu-feature films promoting trend-setters in under-served communities” and highlighting the LGBTQ+ community, as well as preserving the HIV and AIDS history.
Why Art From the Heart? “Because to me, art-making is a natural artistic progression. And if it doesn’t come from the heart, then it’s not natural,” Busch explains. He adds that Art From the Heart also protects artists from outside corruption and manipulation.
I met Wolfgang Busch in 2006, at a promotional event for his then-new documentary How Do I Look, which I ended up reviewing for A&U. Recently, we’ve reconnected on Zoom and reminisced about common histories, and the importance of using activism and art to preserve the history of HIV and AIDS, COVID, and much more.
Born and raised in Heppenheim, Germany, Wolfgang Busch grew up in an upper-middle-class family. He and his brother were raised Catholic, and were altar boys in the church. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was the mayor’s “right-hand man.”
“My father was a second-generation soccer player, and the president of the local soccer team,” Busch says, enthusiastically explaining the role soccer has in his homeland. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps and had to make straight A’s to be able to join the local team.”
When he was just shy of twenty, he had his “first homosexual experience.” He recalls, “I didn’t find it exciting. I didn’t know anything about sex. And the only thing I’d been told about homosexuality was that it was a bad thing. My religion rejected it, and I was lost, confused, uncomfortable, and ashamed, thinking that there was something wrong with me.”
So, he turned to spirituality for guidance. And, over time, he started feeling more and more comfortable with himself, and more confident in who he was.
…Confident enough that he decided to come out to his family and friends. “I couldn’t live with the guilt of not being honest to them anymore. But I couldn’t tell them in person, either. So, I wrote a letter and left it in the kitchen, so that my mother would find it.” She did find and read that letter, and he refers to the conversation that followed as “a turning point” in his life.
Also, at the time, Busch was studying to become a dental technician, and going to school in Frankfurt. That’s when he first heard about gay bars.
After a while, he moved out of his parents’ house and got a place of his own. And he was still traveling to Frankfurt on Saturday nights to party in the rock clubs and gay discos.
Yet, soon, he found himself at a crossroads. He realized that, while he loved music and dancing, he had to figure out his future. Was he to move to Frankfurt, to the “party town,” or go to Mannheim and start a career in the music industry? And he decided that his career was more important.
Also, around that time, Busch began noticing that his friends were getting sick with a myriad of “strange diseases.” And he started thinking that something was about to happen, something that would have “no happy ending.”
As he was soon to realize, those were the pre-AIDS days announcing the arrival of a virus that was about to wipe out entire communities around the world. “By then, they didn’t call it AIDS, they called it [gay] cancer,” Busch says, “and my people were dropping dead, and we didn’t even know why. Soon, my best friend, someone I was looking up to, was no longer around to guide me. I was completely lost.” Busch pauses, and then adds, “…And today the AIDS pandemic is still with us.”
At the time, in the German gay community, it was fashionable to be friends with American soldiers, because they knew how to party, and their personalities attracted many Germans. “The [Americans’] mentality was ‘hello, how are you, I love you,’ which was so very strange to us, Germans, because we were raised just the opposite,” he explains.
“I’d never heard ‘I love you’ at home, yet the Americans were using it like it was some type of candy given out to children. It was very strange to me, in the beginning, to learn about the American culture.”
In 1976, when he was twenty-one, Busch visited New York City for the first time, to see his aunt in Bayside, New York. “I was young and very naïve,” he recalls with a faint smile. “My American friends had told me about Christopher Street. I was very shy and afraid to go there at night, so I made a trip during the day to scout out the place and make sure I was comfortable going there at night.”
He ended up at a bar, with his camera around his chest and looking “like a typical German tourist,” he recalls. “Little did I know that I was fresh young meat in town and before I knew it, I had five cans of beer in front of me. People were buying me drinks, and I didn’t know how to react. I got so scared that I ran out of the bar.”
While in the city, Busch also sneaked into the famous Studio 54. “There was a huge crowd outside, and I thought I’d never get in.” He smiles at the memory. “But for some reason, I turned around and saw a stretch limo pulling up. A few people came out of the limo and I saw the doorman waving them through the crowd. And I thought to myself, let me just follow the last person and pretend I belong to this party. Before I knew it, I was standing at the cashier to pay my admission to go to the world’s famous Studio 54. It was a memorable moment, and I’m so grateful I have this experience.”
After following his military friends all around the country, Busch fell in love with America. Meanwhile, in Germany, the dentist he worked for had closed his practice. His sound engineer career didn’t take him where he wanted to go, and because of a back injury from a motorcycle accident, his soccer-playing days were over.
And so, in 1982, Busch decided to move to America, to live in Virginia with his boyfriend. Yet, when he landed, his boyfriend told him that they weren’t together anymore. Busch was devastated. This was not the welcome he was hoping for.
He also realized that he had to find a job. He eventually got hired to tour in the South with a band. But because they had a Black bass player, not too many bars were willing to book them. Hence, the band had to break up. The experience was the first to inspire him to become an activist. It also left him jobless.
“I ended up taking the bus to Bayside, New York, to live with my eighty-two-year-old aunt,” Busch says. “I had twenty dollars in my pocket, and right away, I looked for a dental technician job to support myself and take care of my aunt. And even when I found [a place in the city], I [continued to] take care of her until she passed away.”
One day he saw an ad in the Village Voice. The Musicians’ Union was looking for volunteers. He decided to respond to that ad and soon became part of the rock R&B committee producing seminars and showcases for local bands. That’s when he started noticing stereotyping of female musicians, and discrimination against Black and Hispanic musicians. It marked the beginning of his changing the New York City musical landscape as an artist and activist.
Busch has worked at clubs across New York City, including at the famous Limelight, and also Danceteria, and The Tunnel. It was the start of his long career in the entertainment industry. Soon, he became known as “the camera guy,” always in bars, filming, capturing, and preserving history.
In 1987, while “hanging” at the Tracks club, Busch noticed that all of a sudden, they started “something called a ball. Experiencing it—the voguing and dancing—was fascinating,” Busch says. “I remember thinking that maybe one day I could work with this community. Then, in 1989, I met Kevin Omni [Founder of the House of Omni, ballroom historian, and activist] at a fundraising event.
“Kevin [Omni] and I ended up working together, and became friends, and then he introduced me to the ballroom community. I think it was [in the mid-nineties] when he suggested that maybe I should work on a documentary, a follow-up to Paris Is Burning”…hence, the idea for How Do I Look.
“At that point, I’d been a booking agent and working with bands for a while,” Busch comments. “But despite all my experience and all the big guns in the industry describing me as ‘refreshing,’ I couldn’t get a break. So, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to make any movies in Hollywood.
“So, I said to myself, OK, who in the gay community has been exploited the most and could benefit from my experience the most? And the ballroom community came to mind. While it has been the most exploited, I don’t think another community brings more talent to the table. And so, I became curious about the ballroom community and how they set new trends in fashion, music, and dance.” Hence, his motivation to record its history, including related to HIV and AIDS, in his documentaries.
As we chit-chat about preserving history through art, I recall yet another one of his projects—the Rockumentary Project. “Ah, that is a mouthful,” Busch says, laughing. “So, you know, first we had demo tapes, and then records, and then CDs,” he reminds, “I’ve digitized them all, trying to preserve the performances, the history of those bands, and the oral history of the behind-the-scenes people.” And that’s how it started, his documentary about the history of rock and roll.
Busch’s achievements also include the Pink Pong Foundation, the first mostly gay, ping pong group in the country. “When I lived in Brooklyn with a boyfriend from Brazil, we discovered that we both ‘had a thing’ for ping pong (table tennis),” he explains. And so, they decided to start playing ping pong in Brooklyn. Through word of mouth, they ended up with several people who’d get together and play once a week. “It was more social than competitive,” he adds.
Then, the Gay Games were about to take place in Germany. “They have different divisions,” Busch says, “and a few of us decided to participate. We signed up for the Recreation Division, and we came back with several medals. I won two gold and one bronze, and that was very surprising to me.”
Using art to document and preserve history is in Wolfgang Busch’s DNA. “The HIV and AIDS pandemic has left such a vacuum for many of us. And if we don’t document [the pandemic], at the time when we can, all these stories get lost,” Busch says. “I’ve experienced this kind of loss. I’ve lost many of my friends and leaders. And then I asked myself, who was I to follow, who was going to guide me?”
Nowadays, people are looking up to Wolfgang Busch to guide them. He’s an inspiring artist, activist, and mentor. “But the transition from follower to leader was not voluntary,” he points out.
“We still cannot comprehend how much we’ve lost because of HIV and AIDS,” he adds, noting that “even with COVID, people are already starting to forget” and mentions the “similarities in people’s behaviors” in response to the two pandemics. “You want to be on the proactive side of the pandemic,” he adds.
When I ask about upcoming awards, Wolfgang Busch laughs. “Not that I know of. But, you know, it’s always appreciated when people acknowledge your work. And receiving all these awards doesn’t pay the rent or mortgage but reminds me of what I do. Activism is a labor of love, and I can’t help myself.”
To find out more about Wolfgang Busch and his work, please visit online at http://www.artfromtheheartnyc.org.