Gallery Night

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

by Caryl King

Opening the Country?s First GLBT History Museum
By 6:00 pm downtown San Francisco is starting to quiet down. The population density has dropped dramatically in the last hour as corporate cubicles closed for the night. It?s happy hour, time for cocktails, sunsets, and Satie on the piano. But when the elevator doors opened, everyone was smiling like New Year?s Eve in June. It was opening night for the International Museum of GLBT History. The inaugural exhibit, ?Saint Harvey: The Life and Afterlife of a Modern Gay Martyr,? movingly filled the gallery. The crowd was dressed San Francisco elegant, sporting everything from jeans and leather to ties and gowns. And that was just the men. Actually, diversity of style describes everyone. A rainbow of genders and sexes made it a grand night for GLBT History.
The reception area was full of luminaries. San Francisco Board Supervisors were everywhere you looked. I counted three: Bevan Dufty, Chris Daly, and Board President/mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano. State Assemblyman Mark Leno, who sponsored the legislation that covered SRS for city employees when he was a Supervisor, was legislating in Sacramento and couldn?t get away. He sent Lisa Williams from his office with a proclamation honoring the Museum. From the world of queer philanthropy were Empress Chablis of the Imperial Court and Sister Dana Van Iquity of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. I heard many people refer to IMGLBTH by its vernacular name, the Historical Society. It?s easier to say. I-M-G-L-B-T-H is really a mouthful.

The Historical Society has had three homes I know of. This new location feels likes they?ve arrived. It?s on Museum Row. Around the corner is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On the next block is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The California Historical Society?s museum is across the street, and the Cartoon Art Museum is in the same building. African-American and Latino museums are planned.
The IMGLBTH doesn?t allow food or drinks in the gallery, and I?d missed lunch. So, I hit the reception for snooping and sustenance. History can wait. Isn?t that what it does best? With a bite under my belt and Tanqueray in my glass, I cornered Ms. Bob Davis, secretary of the IMGLBTH board. Ms. Bob writes the ?Drama Queen? column in Lady Like and ?Regina Antiqua? in Transgender Community News. She described herself as an amateur historian, ?a buff, not a scholar.? IMGLBTH, she tells me, is a project of the GLBT Historical Society, founded in 1985. It started as an archive, a bunch of boxes under Willie Walker?s bed. Walker, as he?s usually called, is largely recognized as the organization?s founder, but the first group he assembled included FTM transsexual Lou Sullivan. Lou was also founder of the FTM support group, which evolved in to FTM International. That bunch of boxes is now IMGLBTH, ?one of the largest collections of queer historical materials
in the world.? And transgenders have been part of the organization since the beginning.

Ms. Bob introduced me to ?a real historian,? IMGLBTH executive director Dr. Susan Stryker, a noted gender scholar and a MTF transsexual. Susan said IMGLBTH has a special mission to preserve the history of underrepresented communities such as the transgendered. ?Historically, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities have suffered from discrimination and prejudice that discouraged the collection, preservation, and even study of our own history and culture.? Susan?s commitment to our history could not be doubted.

Harvey Milk, the subject of the exhibit, was America?s first openly gay elected official. He was assassinated twenty-five years ago, on November 25, 1978, less than a year after being sworn in as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

The exhibit is composed of an impressive array of artifacts from Milk?s rich life. He seemed to devour experience. You see snapshots of a Jewish boy growing up on Long Island. Suddenly, he?s wearing cufflinks in the Navy during the Korean War. There are a wall of posters from Broadway shows he co-produced. Then he went west, morphing from a Wall Street Republican to a counterculture gay activist. A few years later he cleaned up his image to run for the Board of Supervisors. To prove it, the exhibit has the ponytail he cut off.

Most striking is the suit he was wearing when he was assassinated. With bullet holes and bloodstains, arms spread almost in greeting, it stands in his shoes. In a case below are bullet-riddled letters from his breast pocket, the box that held his ashes, and the flag that was draped over his coffin. A jubilant Harvey in a photo by Dan Nicoletta on the adjacent wall contrasts this solemnity. It could be the same suit. It?s the same position, but here the arms are spread in joy, trying to hug the whole world. It?s election night, November, 1977, and he just won.

The final section is devoted to the
legacy of this unexpected martyr. There are Harvey Milk plazas and schools. His story is the subject of an opera, documentary films, books, and even a children?s book. Suddenly you realize you?re standing in a reliquary, a room full of Harvey?s possessions and ephemera, and now he?s a saint. In the 21st century we need a Jewish, atheist, gay saint with a sense of humor, a background in finance, and Navy training. I can?t imagine anyone else could stand a chance at saving the world.

As I was leaving the reception, Susan invited me back to search the Museum?s archive for images to run with this article. A few days later archivist Kim Klausner guided me through the collection. There are millions of items?magazines, letters, flyers, paintings, posters, and records from businesses, non-profits, and political campaigns. The catalogue at their web site will tell you more than I can here. But what impressed me most was the care lavished on these holdings?specially made storage boxes, clear protective shields, and air conditioning. Many items, like photographs, can be handled only while wearing white gloves. It was impressive to see their professionalism. They?re saving photos of crossdressers from the 1970s and female impersonators from the 1930s; gowns worn by Empress Jose I, The Widow Norton; books of transgender interest from the 19th century; and oral histories from transsexuals who were patients of Dr. Harry Benjamin. This is the kind of history that?s been lost for untold generations and that few are preserving today.
The IMGLBTH is the first public exhibit space for GLBT history in the United States, providing a nexus for both collecting GLBT history and exhibiting it for the public. With this exhibit they?re off to an auspicious start.

Though this is the first such museum, it shouldn?t be the last or the only showcase for community history. Our history is too important for that.

<>International Museum of GLBT History
657 Mission St. #300, San Francisco, CA 94105