CULTURE It’s kind of insane that San Francisco hasn’t had a queer history museum until now. My goddess, we’ve even had a Barbra Streisand museum called Hello Gorgeous!! — not to mention museums dedicated to ophthalmology, old video games, Bigfoot, Walt Disney, and antique vibrators. So basically in the recent past, you could more easily explore the pedigree of a masturbating Yeti singing Yentl with a monocle than revisit the days of Harvey Milk and the Daughters of Bilitis.
Yet here was Amy Sueyoshi, co-curator of the brand new GLBT History Museum’s tremendous first show, “Our Vast Queer Past,” standing before an antique vibrator — and a huge box of dildos — in a display case marked “Sex Toys: Implementing Erotic Expression,” telling a group of attendees that high schools are booking tours at a brisk rate. “The kids don’t have any problem with the sex stuff. They want to know more about what the whole thing was about,” she said. “The only backlash we’ve had is in the comments section of SFGate.”
Sure enough, at a subsequent visit on a rainy weekend afternoon, there was an exuberant scattering of younger people inside the sleek, tiny, white-and-turquoise Castro storefront, checking out a wide and challenging array of queer historical inquiries. For despite the rather stodgy “GLBT” in the museum’s name — better, I guess than just Schwules Museum, or “gay museum,” the name of the only other institution of this kind, in Berlin — “Our Queer Past” is queer through and through, from its non-hierarchical “cluster model” curation, to its breathtaking range of diversity, to its unabashed approach to sex. There’s even stuff about straight people! Granted, it’s about the Rev. Lou Sheldon, but still.
Despite the ambitious scope of the exhibit, though, it’s anything but preachy or dry. On entering the museum, you’ll encounter instantly accessible items like the iconic Easter Egg pantsuits that Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin wore when they married in 2008 — already it seems so long ago — and Harvey Milk’s kitchen table. These items are part of the ongoing “Great Collections From the GLBT Historical Society Archives” display, which also includes oral interviews with local activists and personalities and rare video footage (scenes from the 1989 Miss Leather Contest played while I was there). A screen projecting archival photos from personal collections, many in black and white, casts its own spell: without any commentary or context, the pictures invite you to examine every detail for clues to the subject’s sexual identity.
ACT-UP protest chants and the sounds of White Night Riots scuffles lead you into “Our Vast Queer Past,” which is broken up into 23 small displays, each taking a different approach to aspects of the queer experience. “Vast” doesn’t just refer to the centuries of buried and unmeasured queer history, but also to the collection of the GLBT Historical Society, which forms the basis of the museum’s resources. Started in 1985 by a collective group of queer history enthusiasts headed by Willie Walker, a nurse driven by the growing AIDS crisis to preserve the gay present and past, the society’s archives are currently housed downtown, but the dream of an actual museum was never far off. Two years ago, perhaps encouraged by the Milk mania that gripped the gay community, the society set up a temporary exhibit at Castro and 18th streets. When the museum’s current space, a former flower shop, became available, the plan was set.
But that also meant, in preparation, sorting through the society’s 75,000 images and acres of papers, objects, and video and audiotape to form an engaging and cohesive narrative. Sueyoshi, associate professor of race and resistance studies and sexuality studies at San Francisco State, and her co-curators Don Romesburg, assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at Sonoma State, and Gerard Koskovich, an independent scholar, have done a fantastic job. At a recent public talk about how they faced such a daunting task, Koskovich explained the cluster concept of the individual displays. “We each picked out single objects that we thought represented a larger slice of the queer experience, and then built the displays around that to fill out the story in interesting ways. We let the object guide us, in a sense. We didn’t want to impose a huge timeline and struggle to fit everything in.”
The approach leads to an absorbing experience, with grouped-together objects pinging their implications off one another. The more you look, the richer the relationships become. Koskovich pointed out two objects in an display marked “Consuming Queers: The GLBT Marketplace.” One was a pink Xeroxed hand-drawn flyer from 1989 announcing “Let It All Hang Out Day,” inviting large, bare-breasted women of all backgrounds to “hang out” in the male-dominated Castro. The other was a slick brochure advertising Lazy Bear Weekend 2003 with a big Miller Lite logo on the cover. “You can see the contrast,” Koskovich said, “how larger size had been completely commercialized, if only for a certain ‘desirable’ population.”
Beyond body politics — and there are fascinating displays concerning that important subject, including “Lesbian Sex Wars,” which illustrates a contentious period in the 1970s when women faced off about pornography, S–M, and penetration — some of the displays evince a poetic quality. I was particularly drawn to the story of Jiro Onuma, a compulsive self-documenter whose records, letters, and photographs tell an eloquent story of what life was like for a Japanese gay man in America in the 20th century. From his 1919 Japanese passport to a striking picture of him with two male friends in the Topaz internment camp during World War II (“showing that even in these places of restriction, there can be room for pleasure,” as Romesburg described it), his tale is somehow a gentle rebuke to the stereotypical narrative of doomed and anguished closeted gay men in the middle of the last century.
Other things that stayed with me: the giant butterfly nets that were used by the Butterfly Brigade to catch gay bashers in the Castro in 1976; the artwork of Adrienne Fuzee, which emphasized queer women of color; a look at Lou Sullivan, trans man pioneer and one of the Historical Society’s founders, who died of AIDS at 39 in 1991; and the “On the Margin: Queers and Poverty” display that maps out queer life in the Tenderloin in the 1960s.
And of course I was drawn to “Bar Life: Going Out,” with its crazy quilt of matchbooks, dozens of them, culled from the extensive network of gay bars that used to make up North Beach and the Polk, among other neighborhoods. The Fickle Fox, Mind Shaft, Kokpit, Carriage Trade, Febe’s, The Plantation, The Baj — the names all call up images of hot pickled ghosts, still cavorting through whatever those places became. But the matchbooks also raised a question about the scope of the Historical Society’s holdings. At the public talk, I asked whether tokens like those matchbooks, which used to function as souvenirs of gay travel, had now been replaced in this smoke-free, online world with Facebook invites. And was the society collecting those?
“You know, I used to feel stressed out because we’re only now capturing just a tiny fraction of what’s going on the Internet,” Romesburg replied. “But not everything is virtual. Even without the Web, there’s just so much.”
That may be debatable. But I do know that “Our Vast Queer Past” and the GLBT History Museum are giving queers a sense that we live history in our daily lives, and presents us with a fascinating IRL Wikipedia of our once subversive activities.
“OUR VAST QUEER PAST” through December. Wed.–Sat., 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Sun, noon–5 p.m., $5. GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St., SF. www.glbthistory.org
As the stars and St. Sylvester would have it, this is a perfect moment to open this museum — interest in the queer past, especially among smart nightlife denizens and young image makers, is still at a peak. In that spirit, and with the intention of creating a sense of living history beyond the museum’s walls, local DJ collective Honey Soundsystem is hosting a fundraising party for the museum called “SPKR: Evolution of the Queer Dance Floor” at Pubic Works on Saturday, March 12. The event will weave together sounds and photographs of five quintessential venues from San Francisco’s gay nightlife timeline: I Beam, End Up, Trocadero Transfer, Townsend, and The Box. Old school legends DJ Bobby Viteritti, DJ Steve Fabus, and lights and sound man Randall Schiller will make the past come alive and you all sleazy-sweaty.
SPKR: EVOLUTION OF THE QUEER DANCE FLOOR Sat/12, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., $20 advance. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com, Facebook: SPKR