A few days ago, a friend posted a viral YouTube rant called “Show Some F*cking Respect!” In the video, a young gay activist who calls himself Davey Wavey laments his queer peers’ disrespect and ageism towards their elders, accusing young, entitled gays of taking the LGBT community’s hard-won victories for granted. The video racked up more than 5 million views in less than a week.
Being a homophile of a certain age, I of course appreciated his point of view and the wide reception it was receiving.
Isn’t it true, I thought, that today’s LGBT kids are all ungrateful pups who don’t appreciate where they would be now if not for all the battles their elders endured? How many marches have they been on? How many friends have they buried? And now they’re going to run around getting married, fucking without condoms, and giving me attitude?
But later that night, I attended the GLBT History Museum’s fifth anniversary party in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood, where I live — and was impressed to see a packed, diverse crowd that included a fair proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people mixing with their elders.
At the party, Alan Guttirez, a 26-year-old man in a motorcycle jacket who was among our first docents at the museum, took the mike and gave a short, informative talk about José Sarria, the drag performer and founder of the Imperial Court system who in 1961 was the first openly gay candidate for public office anywhere in the world.
I thought, Well then, maybe there’s hope yet.
I then chatted with an octogenarian or two, several 20-somethings, and everything in between. I enjoyed a fantastic performance by Momma’s Boyz, a duo of young African-American drag kings. I chatted with Tina Takemoto, who curated one of the exhibits on display. All of us were mixing it up to celebrate the power of the queer past. Intergenerational history buffs embodying the glorious diversity of our community. How cool is that?
It occurs to me that the fact that young people are increasingly able to enjoy their lives without fear of persecution simply due to their sexual orientation or gender differences is not a bad thing. If they don’t have to worry so much about dying from a sexually transmitted disease, that’s more than OK too. In fact, isn’t that exactly what we were fighting for, not only for our own survival and freedom, but so that the next generation would not have to live in fear as we had?
But what about remembering our stories so we can honor those who fought the battles and learn from what they went through? So we can know where we came from and where we are going next? What about collecting and passing on our stories?
Just in the last 30 years of my adult life, there has been so much struggle for historic change in the LGBT community: legalizing consensual sex between adults, opening up the military, domestic partnerships, marriage equality, electoral representation, the rise and fall of AIDS, transgender visibility — with all the amazing individual stories of courage and profound love, and of tragedy and triumph along the way.
The museum, run by the 31-year-old GLBT Historical Society, is a destination for visitors from all over the world — more than 15,000 a year — but it is only the most visible part of the organization’s work.
The GLBT Historical Society also maintains extensive archives — the heart of the organization — chronicling more than 100 years of queer life and culture. Popular with students, authors, filmmakers, and other researchers from around the world, the archives are a growing treasure trove of papers, photos, periodicals, art and artifacts, ephemera, and audiovisual recordings gathered by hundreds of people and organizations with an amazing array of stories to tell.
The materials in the archives range from the complete papers of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, founders of the first lesbian organization in the United States, to the research files of groundbreaking bisexual activist Maggi Rubenstein,to the personal archives of groundbreaking trans man organizer Lou Sullivan to the suit Harvey Milk was wearing when he was assassinated.
The value of collecting, preserving, and retelling our LGBT stories goes far beyond rubbing the noses of young people in war stories of yore. The individuals and communities represented in the GLBT Historical Society archives are as diverse as the broader population, and the richness of these stories reveal their resonance not just for LGBT people, but for other marginalized communities and for society as a whole.
Although the GLBT History Museum is a gem, due to its limited size we currently are able to exhibit only a small sampling of materials from the archives as well as a rotating series of small exhibitions from guest curators. And we can accommodate only about 100 people for our popular public history talks and other programs.
As the new executive director of the historical society, my vision for the future is to take the museum and archives to the next level. Our community has indeed fought many battles, endured great tragedy and enjoyed great love and victory. We want to do our community’s stories justice and capture them in all their breadth and individuality before they are lost. We want to give them a home that they deserve here in San Francisco, where so much of our history took place and where so many travelers visit every year.
We plan to continue growing and preserving our archives, and with the community’s support, we aim to establish a new cultural facility to house both our archives and museum. Our wonderful and proud communities deserve a world-class museum where we can proudly display our rich history to the world, to our elders, to our young people, and to future generations.