Sam McManis

Discoveries: History of Gay Civil Rights Struggle Has a Home in The Castro

In the front gallery at the GLBT History Museum find a selection of the personal belongings of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco.
In the front gallery at the GLBT History Museum find a selection of the personal belongings of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco. Gerard Koskovich

I name-checked Anita Bryant to someone a decade or three younger than me the other day – the subject had been Kim Davis, the anti-gay marriage Kentucky clerk – and received a blank stare in response.

It’s easy to dismiss it as a generational thing, yet another example of a fogey referencing some obscure factual nugget – in this case, the saga of the 1970s singer and orange-juice pitchwoman who led a repeal of an anti-gay discrimination ordinance a Florida – to come off all learned and worldly.

In a way, though, that exchange shows a lack of historical consciousness about gay rights among some young people, especially whose who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Easy, perhaps, to lay sole blame on school civics books, which, at best, have glossed over this particular civil-rights issue. Popular culture has done only slightly better, taking a seven-year hiatus between the bio-pic “Milk,” about slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, and the recently released “Stonewall,” about the landmark 1969 gay-liberation riots in New York City.

But here in the heart of the Castro District, in a storefront space that once housed, in the words of curator Gerard Koskovich, a “cruisy gay laundromat,” the GLBT History Museum had made it its mission to educate and inform visitors about both the big events in the history of the movement, such as Milk’s assassination, and the intimate, everyday plight of generations of people oppressed and even incarcerated based on sexual orientation and whom they chose to love.

Opened five years ago as the first historical venue in the nation dedicated solely to gay rights, the museum has rotated exhibits from its vast archives, which includes 80,000 photographs, 5,000 posters, 500 oral histories, 2,000 hours of footage and sound recording belonging to its owners, the GLBT Historical Society. Its focus is San Francisco-centric, mostly. But then, the Bay Area’s vital role in the equality struggle cannot be begrudged.

What’s most important, Koskovich stresses, is that the museum is more than just a nostalgia trip for people graying around the temples; it’s a teaching tool.

“Occasionally, I hear older LGBT people saying, ‘Oh, the young people, they don’t care about our history and what we went through,’” Koskovich said. “I don’t find that at all. You have to ask the question, ‘Where are they supposed to learn about that?’ It’s our job to ensure there are institutions like the archives and museum that preserve that history and pass it along and help younger people see that they have a place in time, that they are part of a heritage.

“At the same time, it’s a tremendous place to honor the elders and let them know their lives and struggles will be remembered, that the work they did, the loves they found and the challenges they faced, their successes and setbacks will be honored.”

One thing I noticed, on a recent museum visit, was another demographic in attendance: heterosexuals.

Opposite-sex couples pushed strollers through the 1,600-square-foot space. I spoke – or tried to, since my German is lausig, and their English halting – with two couples, pensioners from Leipzig, who said the GLBT Museum was merely part of their San Francisco “list,” like visiting Coit Tower and Alcatraz.

“We see a lot of non-LGBT tourists,” Koskovich said. “I’d say possibly half our visits, overall, are non-LGBT. It’s a real chance to share this history. Yes, LGBT people have been deprived of our own history by the social erasure from the traditional places where history has been preserved and told, but we’re not the only people deprived. This history belongs to everyone. It speaks about finding love, courage in the face of exclusion, about being who you are even when society thinks you shouldn’t be. Those are stories resonant to a wide range of people. That’s the response we get from visitors.”

Though exhibits rotate seasonally, one of the museum’s fixtures in the Harvey Milk wing, the biggest corner of the space. It features a large video screen and audio recordings of Milk, his signature red bull horn and other ephemera. Koskovich said the director of the biopic “Milk,” Gus Van Sant, spent six weeks poring over the Historical Society’s collection, housed in another part of the city, to re-create period details.

(Digression on the naming convention: Koskovich said gays are mentioned before lesbians because, back in 1985, when the historical society was founded, it was more common to refer to the community with the “G” before the “L.” “It’s like the NAACP,” Koskovich said. “Nobody uses the term “colored people” anymore, but that organization didn’t change its name for historical reasons.”)

Proud as they are of Milk’s legacy, museum officials want to depict, in Koskovich’s words, “everyday people who lived these amazing lives, whose stories would be lost to history if it weren’t for the archives.”

To that end, current exhibits include oral histories, on video, of older Asian Pacific Islanders who, as late as the 1990s, had to hide their sexuality. As one middle-aged, HIV-positive gay man from Guam, Vince Crisostomo, tells a younger interviewer on a video: “As minorities, we were as minor as you could be. Early in my diagnosis, my mother disowned me. But the community did not.”

Other exhibits feature weathered copies of the groundbreaking 1960s periodical, the Lesbian Ladder; the 1955 formation of the lesbian group “Daughters of Bilitis” (led by power couple Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon); the story of Jiro Onuma, a gay Japanese immigrant incarcerated in interment camps during World War II; the significance of Compton’s Cafeteria to transgendered males in the Tenderloin neighborhood and the riot in 1966 after police crackdowns; and the career of Jose Sarria, a popular drag queen who, in 1961, was the first openly gay candidate for public office in the nation when he ran unsuccessfully for a Board of Supervisors seat.

“Jose is one of those great figures who should be as internationally well known as Harvey Milk, but nobody’s made a biopic about him yet,” Koskovich said. “In 1965, it was suggested he be named the queen of San Francisco, and Jose, with a tremendous wit, said, there are lots of queens but only one empress. So he declared himself to be the widow of the Emperor Norton, the famous eccentric of the 19th century who’d died 80 years before. Jose actually bought the grave site next to Emperor Norton’s grave in Colma, and when Jose died in August of 2013, he was interred along side his ‘late husband.’”

Koskovich said the Historical Society has scores of Sarria’s personal papers, photographs and costumes just waiting for Van Sant, or another curious movie director, to peruse. In fact, in 30 years of collecting, the organization has accumulated “70 linear feet of ephemera,” according to Koskovich.

“The possibilities for future exhibitions,” he said, “are endless.”

GLBT History Museum

4127 18th St., San Francisco

Hours: Closed Tuesdays. 11 a.m.-7 p.m Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Cost: $5

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