You might expect the city’s new GLBT History Museum to be little more than a pep rally for the gay community’s current political concerns: marriage and the military. But in San Francisco, the town where City Hall has seen not only gay weddings, but also gay riots, history is hard to streamline.
The GLBT History Museum opened in January. It’s the first of its kind in the country, the second in the world, and a small but intricate account of a city’s change measured by iconic belongings. Two examples: tattered matchbooks and aquamarine pantsuits, the former belonging to long-shuttered bars like the Purple Pickle and the Blue Lagoon; the latter from the 2008 wedding of Daughters of Bilitis founder Phyllis Lyon to her long-term partner Del Martin at City Hall. In short, the museum is a glorious place. It’s less a traditional historic center than a community attic, a repository of letters, curios, flyers, and buttons, some donated, others found at flea markets and yard sales.
But that’s just the tip of a collection of faded but illustrative and personal items. Several times over the past two years, while working on a documentary project about San Francisco pornographer-turned-philanthropist Chuck Holmes, I had the opportunity to paw through the amazing archive of the GLBT Historical Society, the 26-year-old organization that birthed the museum.
Exhibits at the museum rotate; below are a few of my favorite items in the Historical Society’s collection, some of which are currently on display for the “Our Vast Queer History” exhibit.
Director John Waters once told me that San Francisco was much gayer in the late 1960s than it is today. The collection of matchbooks on display at the museum bears him out. A quick look at the addresses shows long-forgotten bars in areas of the city that might surprise us liberated homosexuals. At the foot of Telegraph Hill, a gay bathhouse (Dave's). Drag shows in North Beach (Finnochio’s). And gay bars all over downtown including Trinity Place (owned by Chuck Holmes prior to his involvement in pornography) and the legendary Sutter's Mill.
Willie Walker founded the GLBT Historical Society in 1985, while working in the AIDS ward at SF General and watching entire lives disappear. The belongings of the deceased were often sent to their families, and very few relatives cared to preserve what they couldn’t even stomach. Walker began collecting materials in his apartment: papers, photographs, scrapbooks, love letters, magazines, dresses, art, flyers, videotapes. Included is his own donation to the Historical Society; on display at the museum are dozens of dildos and sex toys, including a rubber fist as erect as a hand in an old horror movie, pushing up through the dirt to keep from being buried alive.
In 1977, Bois Burke checked into a bathhouse only to be asked to leave once he reached the locker room. According to court documents in the archives, the manager suggested that a man of his age might be apt to fall and hurt himself. He also remarked that Burke was not especially welcome at the baths, as he was “a fat old toad.” Burke responded by filing a discrimination lawsuit against the baths in 1978, and rallying other older gay men who had also been called toads, or trolls, or barred outright from embracing the sexual revolution.
Before Gaga, there was the Sylvester, San Francisco’s “mighty real” drag diva. And in a box on a top shelf in the archives is a coral-and-sequin dress with thousands of tiny sequins sewn into dragons and birds, countless hours of fire and plumage. The archive also has dresses from José Sarria, who in 1961 became the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States. Sometime after 1964, Sarria commissioned an elaborate recreation of Audrey Hepburn’s black-and-white dress from My Fair Lady. The lace on the dress is yellowed, but opening the box is like looking into a gay Ark of the Covenant, the rituals and jewels from a lost civilization.
The Historical Society focuses on small personal stories that give a window onto San Francisco, rather than just headliners. Not much is known about Gene Weber, an amateur photographer who also loved scuba diving and S&M sex. But in glorious color photos he captured both: naked men diving in the deep blue of the Caribbean, the black scuba gear secured against the bare skin like an aquatic Folsom Street Fair. There may be nothing new under the sun, but fisting underwater? That’s a new one on me.
Polaroids. Drawings. Physique magazines. 8mm movies. Nearly everyone had a collection of what is politely called erotica, but in 1985 few people thought it merited keeping. Twenty-five years later, it’s a remarkable record of how lives and loves not fit for print – not in the New York Times or the Chronicle, anyway – were being lived.
Though the GLBT History Museum strives to represent all communities, the Historical Society’s archives are mostly biased toward the middle-class gay men whose letters were at the genesis of the collection. The legacies of lesbians, bisexuals, and people of color are underrepresented. But Elsa Gidlow, a poet who openly published lesbian verse as far back as the 1920s, is a notable exception. The Historical Society has dozens of boxes of unpublished novelettes, photos, and correspondence with like-minded women (including Well of Loneliness author Radcliffe Hall). Gidlow formed an artists retreat in Marin in the 1940s and is a testament to women who refused – even in the days before Lesbian Avengers or The L Word – to live outside the closet.
The GLBT History Museum is open every day and features rotating exhibits. General admission is $5, but the first Wednesday of each month is free of charge.
Though many of the items in the Historical Society collection are used in exhibits, the archives are available to researchers by appointment only . But even if you’re not a researcher, you can get a great sense of the collection with the Historical Society’s video tours of the archive , and past exhibits, including this one of the Society’s 2008 show Dykes on Bikes: 30 Years at the forefront.