Sadly, it’s easy to forget history. We get caught up in the day to day hustle and bustle of our lives. We worry about how much money we’re making, how many carbs are in that slice of lasagna that we’re really craving, and whether we have a shot at getting that hot guy at the bar into bed. On a recent trip to San Francisco I had the chance to visit the GLBT History Museum. I realized that our gay history seems even easier to forget, with so much of it hidden, forgotten or merely ignored. Travel can help us reclaim it if we want to though.
We can go to Dauchau and Sachesenhausen, sights of incomprehensible atrocities, or visit Stonewall where the modern gay rights movement found its foothold, or cry at any of the multitude of AIDS Memorials that blanket the world. Each of these sights tells but a small portion of a bigger story. San Francisco’s part can be seen and felt in the heart of the Castro District.
The GLBT History Museum is the first full-scale, stand-alone museum of its kind in the USA. The unassuming glass street front belies the fact that this space uses the GLBT Historical Society’s vast archives to celebrate 100 years of the city’s queer past. A trip through the museum allows visitors to see the humble beginnings of the gay icon that is the city of San Francisco. As my partner Marc and I moved through the exhibits I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a flood of mixed and sometimes disturbing emotions.
The Front Gallery housed “Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in San Francisco 1985-1990”, works of five photographers who documented the emergence of militant AIDS activism in San Francisco. Black and white photos capture the agony, the rage and the courage of a city under attack by the disease. Our community’s response to an uncaring city government through civil disobedience reminds you that it was only a little over 20 years ago that activists fought tooth and nail on the streets for the basic civil and human rights of our brothers who were stricken by the new “gay” plague.
Past the Front Gallery, the space opens up and you are engulfed in a kaleidoscope of exhibits. The quality of the artifacts on display boggles the mind: Harvey Milks kitchen table, bullhorn, and Levi’s sit across from the Singer sewing machine that produced the first rainbow flag. San Francisco’s queer history makers are remembered. Some are well known; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Lou Sullivan and Adrienne Fuzee, and others, like Jiro Onuma, are not.
Jiro left Japan in the early 20th century and found his way to San Francisco. He was able to express himself in ways here that he would have never been able to back home. Jiro created what is thought to be the first gay Japanese group in the city, where he and a few of his closest friends discovered what being gay was all about. During World War 2 Jiro, like all Japanese in America, was given one week to sell everything except for a small cache of his most prized possessions. He was to be transported to an internment camp and the only items he could take with him had to fit inside a small suitcase. A few of those treasured items can be seen at the museum.
Many of the other displays tell the quintessential story of the city’s gay past. You can see tableaus presenting a wide array of topics: bars, bathhouses and the leather scene are all candidly portrayed alongside letters that talk of equality and how political strategy is important. All of the items on display have been handpicked to help convey the tale of this great city.
The GLBT History Museum is an excellent opportunity for gay travelers to San Francisco to see some of the varied queer experiences that have helped shape it into one of the world’s leading gay destinations. Some of the exhibits will make you smile or laugh, some will bring tears to your eyes, but all of them contribute to our collective history.