Gay history: there’s more to it than Harvey Milk | KALW

Gay history: there’s more to it than Harvey Milk

Jul 14, 2014

Gay Pride events take place in June in many communities around this country, and increasingly in other countries as well. The one here in San Francisco was among the first ever organized.

While many (if not most) Pride events can be described as a combination of Carnivale, Mardi Gras, Burning Man and Halloween, at least one organization in San Francisco takes it more seriously: the Gay Lesbian Bisexual History Museum. Located on 18th Street, in San Francisco’s famously gay Castro district, this museum is the first of it’s kind in the nation, and only the second permanent gay history museum in the world (the other is in Berlin).

The new exhibit that residents and visitors saw during this year’s Pride is titled “The Queer Past Becomes Present.” It will remain on display at least through the end of this year.

“One of my favorite objects,” says exhibit co-curator Jim Van Buskirk, “is the key to the door of The Black Cat Café.” That may seem like a minor artifact until you discover some of the history behind the door that this key unlocked.

The Black Cat Café was known as “the most famous Bohemian bar in the world” in the late 1950s and early 1960s – a time when “being queer” was considered a malady, not a lifestyle, and the term “gay” hadn’t yet come into general use. That meant the club’s patrons were not exclusively homosexual, just “different.”

What attracted them to the club was Jose Sarria, a scandalous performer who dared to dress as a woman as he sang opera arias, show tunes, and risqué songs of his own making. That may not be so shocking now, but 50 or so years ago it was a criminal offense. Any club with female impersonators was in danger of being raided by the police vice squad. Customers and performers alike could be arrested – and would find their names and addresses in the morning papers.

Another one of the eight sections in the exhibit is titled “The Lesbians of ‘The Ladder’: Courage Under Attack,” which explores the early days of The Daughters of Bilitis. This group started as a lesbian social club, and included many women of color. Founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon soon took on the task “of changing the public’s attitude toward lesbianism,” a courageous move in 1955. This was a time when anyone challenging the perceived norms of the traditional “American Way” would be investigated and their activities stopped, where possible.  Copies of the group’s newsletter, “The Ladder,” are in the exhibit. “It quickly became a lifeline for women across the country struggling to come out in a virulently homophobic society,” according to Van Buskirk.

San Francisco’s GLBT Museum likes to play up its uniqueness. Executive director Paul Boneberg notes with a slight exaggeration that “you can see Monet’s water lilies in every museum in the world.” But if you’re looking for queer history, there’s only one play to go: “We’re right here off Castro Street.”