Prizm News / May 14, 2019 / By David-Elijah Nahmod

A visitor viewing the “Faces From the Past” display in the Main Gallery at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. Photo: Gerard Koskovich

The Past Comes Alive At San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society Museum

By David-Elijah Nahmod

Anyone who visits San Francisco knows that you can practically feel the LGBTQ history in the air. From the steps of City Hall to Compton’s Cafeteria to the Pink Triangle Park, the city is teeming with sites that represent the evolution of our community’s fight for equality. 

For a one-stop shop in making the city’s queer past come alive, you need to plan a visit to the GLBT Historical Society Museum. Located in the heart of the famed Castro District, the Museum packs a lot of our past into a pretty small space. 

Your LGBTQ history lesson begins as you walk down Castro Street toward the Museum. Embedded in the sidewalks of the historically queer neighborhood are bronze plaques that honor the memories of accomplished individuals from across the LGBTQ spectrum. 

Known as the Rainbow Honor Walk, its honorees include Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), the bisexual artist; transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989); Sally Ride (1951-2012), a lesbian who was the first American woman in space; and Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), a gay man who revolutionized 20th century modern dance. To date, forty-four plaques have been installed, and there are undoubtedly many more to come. 

Visitors in the Main Gallery at the GLBT Historical Society Museum.
Photo: Gerard Koskovich

A few steps away from the plaques sits the Museum, the first stand-alone edifice dedicated to LGBTQ history. Opened in 2011 as a project of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society, the building also maintains an extensive trove of queer memorabilia.

Open only by appointment, the archives include periodicals, oral histories, personal diaries, home movies, art, posters, and banners from both individual collections and organizations. Some of the items date back 150 years, a century before the rocks were thrown at Stonewall on the other side of the country. 

“One of the takeaways of our work is a sense that things have gotten better for LGBTQ people,” says Terry Beswick, Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society. “I think people also learn that our queer ancestors gave a lot, suffered a lot, and fought hard to get the freedoms we enjoy today.”

With a mission to “collect, preserve, exhibit, and make accessible to the public materials and knowledge to support and promote understanding of LGBTQ history, culture, and arts in all their diversity,” the Historical Society prioritizes the access of knowledge about our diverse past as a means to achieve future social justice. The challenge is containing that rich history in a space that only measures 1600 square feet.

 “In this amount of space, we have to try to represent 150 years of history of not only every letter of LGBTQ, but every racial and ethnic group and every intersection between them,” explains Beswick. “The real power of a museum that’s built around identity is when people can come in and recognize themselves in the stories of their forebearers.”

Latinx transgender elder Felicia Elizondo recalls life in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood in the 1960s during a talk at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. (August 2016)
Photo: Gerard Koskovich

The museum is divided into two parts. The back half houses permanent exhibitions that celebrate San Franciscan Queer history, such as a tribute to Jose Sarria (1922-2013), an activist and entertainer who performed in drag. Sarria made history in 1961 when he ran as an out gay candidate for the city’s Board Of Supervisors. He didn’t win, but Sarria is often credited for paving the way for Harvey Milk’s successful campaign as an openly gay man for the Board over a decade later. There are, of course, numerous artifacts from Milk’s own candidacy and groundbreaking political activism included in the permanent exhibits. 

The front of the museum is devoted to temporary exhibitions. One recent show captured the story of the Briggs Initiative. During the 1970s, California State Senator John Briggs sponsored a ballot initiative that would have prevented LGBT people, as well as anyone who supported gay rights, from teaching in California public schools. Thanks to a grassroots effort on the part of gay activists, notably Harvey Milk, the measure failed, but the lessons in activism must not be forgotten. As co-curator Sue Englander notes, “The differences between 1978 and today aren’t as big as they may look.”

Currently on display through May 6, 2019 is a show entitled “Two Spirit Voices: Returning To The Circle.” This exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits, an organization committed to activism and service for the Two Spirit and ally communities of San Francisco, while also highlighting the incredible resiliency of the two-spirit population throughout the decades. 

The museum also welcomes the public in more structured ways, offering community forums on a variety of topics, often linked to exhibits that are on display. Visitors to the daily hours and the special events come from all over the world and, it bears reminding: you don’t have to be a member of the LGBTQ community to get through the front door.

“Many of our visitors aren’t gay,” says Beswick. ” When people come to the archives or Museum, they learn about our past struggles. Maybe they learn a little bit about what worked, what didn’t work, and maybe they get a little inspiration.”

A visitor to the GLBT Historical Society Museum listens intently to the recorded will of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who was assassinated in 1978.
Photo: Gerard Koskovich

With our history still being written, full equality not yet achieved, and figures like Lori Lightfoot, Pete Buttigieg, and our trans siblings serving in the armed forces all carrying the rainbow flag forward, there are countless more exhibits to be displayed. Unsurprisingly, there are hopes to one day expand the Museum.

“Our long term goal is to establish a much larger museum,” says Beswick. “This would be the first full scale museum in North America to celebrate Queer history and culture. We don’t have a site yet. It’s at the feasibility stage. We need donations, and we could get donations if we had a site people could get excited about. Our work isn’t done.” 

David-Elijah Nahmoud is a San Francisco-based writer whose career includes work for LGBTQ and Jewish publications as well as monster magazines. You can follow him on Twitter at @DavidElijahN