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