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San Francisco's GLBT History Museum

Showcasing a Century of Gay Experiences


Image (c) GLBT History Museum Visitors

Visitors to the GLBT History Museum viewing a display on gay community efforts to address poverty and homelessness among gay and trans youth in 1960s SF.

GLBT Historical Society

In January, 2011, the first GLBT History Museum in the United States opened in San Francisco. The opening was attended by members of the gay community of all ages, including an important figure in GLBT history: 86-year-old Phyllis Lyon, who in 1955 cofounded the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States.

As one of the museum's curators, Gerard Koskovich, said, "Seeing all the generations of our LGBT community in one place, interacting and sharing stories, was a very moving experience. It also was thrilling to see the young people reading the texts and closely studying the objects on display. Their thirst to learn about our history was evident."

The museum, which is run by the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society opened with two exhibits, "Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating GLBT History" and "Great Collections of the GLBT Historical Society Archives." It contains everything from an assortment of Harvey Milk's personal belongings, to matchbooks from local gay bars, manuscripts, photos and multimedia presentations.

Only the second museum of its kind in the world (the first is located in Berlin), the GLBT History Museum is intended both to showcase the collections of the GLBT Historical society, and is also dedicated to, "Raising new questions about familiar gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender stories and evoking largely untold stories that speak eloquently about our diversity."

Such untold stories include those of GLBT youth who in the 1960s began streaming into San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. But how in a pre-Internet era did they know that was the place to be? According to Koskovich:

"Gay and transgender people in their teens and early 20s from across the U.S. who had been kicked out by their families or had run away to try to live their lives with the freedom to be who they were...learned about San Francisco as a place with a dynamic LGBT community and an early movement for equal rights by word of mouth -- and because the mass media had started running articles on the subject. For instance, LIFE magazine, one of the most widely read national magazines at the time, published an illustrated feature in 1964 that referred to San Francisco as the gay capital of America."

Like so much else about the GLBT experience, this fascinating aspect of history is not often taught in high school history classes. Good thing there is now a museum to fill in the gaps!

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