Pieces of lockers from an old bathhouse, a vast collection of matchbooks from gay bars, a flashy sequined dress, and a display of various sex toys in all shapes and sizes are not typically items found in a museum.
Yet nestled between a busy nightclub and a Walgreens entrance on a bustling block of 18th Street in the Castro is the new GLBT Museum, the only queer history museum in the country, which features these items in its collection.
The current main exhibit, “Our Vast Queer Past”, features a display of items illustrating the story of gay life throughout the last century, particularly in San Francisco.
“25 years ago, in the midst of the AIDS crisis, young men’s things were being destroyed, but some people decided it was important to save these items,” said co-curator Amy Sueyoshi, a SF State associate professor of race and resistance studies and sexuality studies.
“Now we think of it as, oh, of course queer history is important,” she said, “But back then, it wasn’t thought of that way. It was highly stigmatized.”
Exhibited items include Harvey Milk’s kitchen table, around which he planned events and protests; glittery costuming showing the history of drag queens in the city; and diary pages and letters from Bois Burk, describing his difficulties as a gay man and the harassment he faced despite spending much of his life hiding his sexual orientation.
Burk was the son of the first SF State president, Frederic Lister Burk.
The GLBT (Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) Museum officially opened to the public January 13, but it grew out of an earlier incarnation on the corner of Castro and 18th Streets, according to Aimee Forster, operations director for the GLBT Historical Society, which created the museum.
“We had over 25,000 visitors in nine months there, and we realized we needed a bigger space,” Forster said.
Primarily staffed by volunteers, the museum has been attracting “between 35 and upwards of 50 people a day,” Forster said.
Volunteer Dan Liefker, who mans the entrance desk Sunday afternoons, said, “I would estimate that we take in $100 to $150 on Sundays. We’ve been very steady.” The museum charges $5 for admission of non-members.
The society now has a five-year lease on the space in the Castro, Forster said.
In addition to the main room exhibit, there is also a smaller exhibit in the Front Gallery, which is currently showing “Great Collections from the GLBT Historical Society Archives,” featuring oral histories from members of the GLBT community as well as other items from the society’s periodical collection.
“It is important to collect, preserve and share these pieces,” says Sueyoshi.
The community-based Historical Society was founded in 1985 as members realized that it was important for the stories and struggles of the gay community to be preserved, according to Sueyoshi.
“These histories would have been erased if these people had not collected these items,” she said.
Sueyoshi said that the current exhibits will most likely be installed for about six months, with the main exhibit possibly staying longer.
According to Forster, the museum features “just a sample of our collection.” The majority of the society’s large collection continues to reside in their primary archives on Mission Street.
In addition to their sizeable research archives and the museum, the society also works on other ways of creating a lasting presence for GLBT history.
Leifker became involved in the museum after being involved in such a project. A few years ago, the society began working with the Bay Area Reporter to create an online searchable database of all obituaries since the newspaper, which focuses on the GLBT community, began printing them in 1979.