Mighty real

New GLBT History Museum brings "Our Vast Queer Past" to light.

A photo of Jiro Onuma and friends in the Topaz Internment Camp, 1942, displayed at the GLBT History Museum


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.

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