The rainbow flag flying over the Castro District is symbolic of the gay community. But back in Harvey Milk’s day, San Francisco was not as gay-friendly. Consider the words of Milk’s speechwriter, Frank Robinson, from a promo for the film 2008 Milk: “When he came to town, there were a lot of gays living in town but there was no such thing as a gay community per se. People were friends of the community who would be your friends until you got between a rock and a hard place, and then they didn’t know you.”
Almost four decades after Milk came on the scene, San Francisco is home to the first gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender historical museum in the country, and only the second such museum in the world – the first is in Berlin.
If all you know about gay culture is what you see at annual gay pride parades – namely, men in too little clothing or too much mascara, and Dykes on Bikes – then you might learn something by visiting San Francisco’s new Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, Transgender Historical Museum, in the heart of the city’s Castro neighborhood.
“I think what this museum really does is to talk about sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, as a social and political process,” says Amy Sueyoshi. Sueyoshi is one of three curators for the exhibit, titled “Our Vast Queer Past.” She says one of the museum’s goals is to “normalize sexuality.” But these displays also try to address broader issues.
“It’s also very much an issue of social justice. Not just around issues of sexuality, but also for folks of color, for immigrants,” says Sueyoshi. “The ways in which people of marginalized sexuality have also aligned with other marginalized communities in America makes this very much a story of social justice.”
One of the first things a visitor encounters in the museum is a beat-up circular wooden table. You would be forgiven for thinking that they forgot to put this away during construction – if it were not encased in Plexiglas and labeled.
“This is Harvey Milk’s kitchen table,” Sueyoshi says of the table. “It was actually in Harvey Milk’s kitchen. It’s the table that he organized on, that he ate on, that he laughed at – not laughed at, but laughed upon, and cried upon, likely.”
When he was running for supervisor, or at least thinking about doing it, it was probably planned around this table.
Milk was the first “avowed homosexual” – to use a term from that time – to be elected to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors, or anywhere else, for that matter. He acknowledged the depth and diversity of the gay community in this local San Francisco TV interview from 1978: “How close am I to the gay community? Nobody can be close to the entire gay community, because we go from the extreme left to the extreme right. I’m a good old-fashioned Harry Truman/Adlai Stevenson Democrat. I sit in the middle. Those on the extreme left think I’m too conservative. Those on the extreme right think I’m too liberal.”
Supervisor Milk was assassinated in his City Hall office, less than a year after his election. Last year, the State of California designated May 22 as Harvey Milk Day, in his honor. TIME magazine includes him on their list of “Heroes and Icons of the Twentieth Century."
The museum includes video and audio excerpts from groundbreaking gay rights demonstrations and parades, matchbooks from many early gay bars, and even a few sex toys. Visitors can see the sedate outfits worn by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon when they received the first same-sex marriage certificates in San Francisco, along with Harvey Milk’s flamboyant pink sunglasses.
More poignant than such public materials, however, are what appear to be mundane showings of home movies made by “regular people” prior to the Gay Liberation Movement. Nothing racy here, just picnics and swim parties. But the fact that these were same-sex gatherings could have gotten these people arrested or might have led to violent attacks, as explained by Del Martin in this archival tape from the museum: “We were really dealing with people who had internalized homophobia, although we didn’t know that word then. And with due cause, because we were considered illegal, immoral, and sick. And that’s heavy-duty to deal with.”
Martin and her partner, Phyllis Lyon, are included in the oral history feature at the museum. The two women were pioneers in gay rights, starting in the 1950s – a time before such an idea had even been formed.
Curator Sueyoshi says histories of gay people can be difficult to locate, “particularly if they led lives that were more discreet.” That’s because friends or families often toss out any evidence that could be associated with a homosexual lifestyle, either to save the family from embarrassment, or because they just don’t see the significance.
The Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Transgender Historical Society, which runs the museum, is trying to change that.
“It’s really just to collect the histories of everyday people,” says Sueyoshi. “So that’s why we’re a community kind of organization, that preserves people’s everyday lives – particularly people’s lives who would be erased, overlooked, and neglected or deemed inappropriate.”
Sueyoshi notes that the stories of these individuals, known and unknown, foster discussion about sexuality. Sex may be a private affair, but sexuality doesn’t have to be.
There were major risks to such openness before the 1970s, and they continue today. “Known homosexuals” can still face loss of jobs, loss of contact with family, and even loss of life. Harvey Milk was well aware of this, as we hear in this tape that he recorded to be played in the event of his death: “I stood for more than just a candidate. I have never considered myself a candidate. I have always considered myself part of a movement, part of a candidacy.”
The GLBT History Museum hopes that putting this once-hidden movement on display can help visitors – whether gay or not – to better understand gay life. And perhaps that understanding will even lead to acceptance.
The GLBT Museum is offering free admission tonight until 7pm.
This story originally aired on May 19, 2011.