Freedom is never free and who would know that better than those who have lived and fought through the toughest of times in their quest to achieve it.
Just yesterday (8 Jul 2018) in San Diego at the New History Centre in Balboa Park, an exhibition was inaugurated showcasing the LGBT freedom movement and all that it has endured and achieved towards recognition and equality.
Matchbooks from gay bars that no longer exist.
A diorama that convinced Pride parade directors to allow a police chief to join the march.
A logbook from the early days of Auntie Helen’s Fluff’n’Fold, a laundry service for men with AIDS, and its handwritten notation next to one client’s name: “When he dies, don’t call his mother. Call his sister.”
The lead curator of the exhibit Lillian Faderman, a gay-rights scholar and author explains the exhibit as,
“It’s a story of triumphs, and also of struggles,”
Billed as the first-ever exhibit of LGBT history in Balboa Park, it will fill three galleries of the museum and is scheduled to be in place through the end of next year.
The design emphasizes the local connection, with eight pillars that spell out “SAN DIEGO.” Each pillar focuses on a different aspect of the LGBT experience.
“Persecution” is the first one, reaching back to the 1770s, when Spanish explorers encountered Native Americans tolerant of same-sex relationships. The Spaniards vowed to stamp out these “nefarious practices.”
Among the other pillars is one called “Love Flourishes,” which traces the arc of romances from secrecy to state-sanctioned marriage, and one called “The Plague Years,” which details the devastation wrought by AIDS before effective drugs were developed.
There exhibition also houses pillars about the struggle for equal rights, the arts, and the significance of the annual Pride events.
Elaborating on why this exhibition is relevant not just for the LGBT and allies but also to the others at large Faderman says, “ We all need to see this to know what can happen when a group of people faces prejudice — and then rise past it to claim a place at the table of American life.”
Recently, when Faderman was at a play commemorating Anita Bryant the Miss America contestant and orange juice pitch-woman whose crusades against homosexuality in the 1970s energized the fledgling gay-rights movement, she heard some among the audience murmur that they had no idea who Anita Bryant was.
She says she’s had a similar reaction to the subject of her newest book, San Francisco gay icon Harvey Milk, whose 1978 assassination became another important LGBT rallying point.
“Young people think things were always the way they are,” she said. “One reason for the exhibit is to show them things weren’t always like this. They were hard.”
San Diego and the LGBT Movement
The History Center, aptly describes itself as the “steward of American heritage” with a mission to preserve and explore the region’s diversity. It celebrates its 90th anniversary this year.
Bill Lawrence, the Center’s Executive Director remarked that, “An exhibit on LGBT struggles and triumphs fits that bill. This is a story that needs to be told here in Balboa Park.”
The center is partnering with Lambda Archives, a non-profit repository of books, newspaper clippings, oral histories, posters, artwork and other LGBT memorabilia that dates to the early 1970s.
Faderman, the author of a dozen books, has used the archives before, but combing through them this time she was struck by San Diego’s early involvement in activism, belying its reputation as a conservative, military town.
For example, San Diego was one of the first cities to have a gay-Pride Parade says she. In 1974, an impromptu march downtown drew about 200 people, some of them wearing bags over their heads, and a year later organisers got a permit and held a parade.
“In 1970, there were parades in big cities like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago,” Faderman said. “So for a relatively small city like San Diego to have one in 1974 is really quite astonishing.”
The annual parade to be held on 14 July 18 is the centerpiece of a weekend festival that now draws an estimated 200,000 people. In 2012, it became the first parade in which LGBT military personnel were allowed to march in uniform.
San Diego was also one of the first cities to have a gay center for social services (in opened in 1973 in Golden Hill) and one of the first to have a gay and lesbian theater (the Diversionary).
In politics, San Diego’s trailblazers include Bonnie Dumanis, elected district attorney in 2002, the first openly gay top prosecutor in the nation, and Toni Atkins, who in 2014 became the first lesbian speaker of the state assembly and the first to serve as acting governor.
Atkins had earlier been on the San Diego City Council, part of an unbroken string of lesbian and gay legislators who have held the same district seat since 1993, when Christine Kehoe became the first LGBT member elected to the council.
Others who have held the seat: Chris Ward, the current council member, and Todd Gloria, who walked the streets campaigning for the office in 2008 while wearing purple shoes.
The shoes are part of the exhibit at the History Center.
Beautiful Pieces In History
This exhibition provides a space to tell the personal and communal histories of (LGBT) San Diegans,” said Joel Steward, president of the archives’ board of directors. “It is designed to build bridges between our region’s communities, to adjust inaccurate perceptions, and to provide resources to the previously uninformed.”
Walter Meyer, the archives’ manager, helped Faderman select the items to be displayed. In some cases, he reached out to people who owned memorabilia that the curators thought would be worthwhile, and borrowed them.
Some of the items, such as the matchbooks from the defunct gay bars, are designed to spark memories in those who view them.
“That’s where you went to make friends, form associations, feel like you belonged,” Meyer said. “Lots of important organisations came out of the friendships that were formed in the bars.”
Other artifacts — military uniforms worn by local gay leaders, for example — speak to a life in the mainstream, not on the fringes.
And some items have interesting back stories.
The Pride diorama was built after event directors denied a request by then-Police Chief Bob Burgreen to march in the parade. Hard feelings remained because of earlier police crackdowns on the gay community, including a raid in 1974 at a Mission Valley department store, where 31 men were arrested in a restroom and charged with sexual perversion, lewd conduct and solicitation.
Then a local artist made a diorama that imagined Burgreen riding in a horse-drawn wagon in the parade, tipping his hat to the crowd.
The diorama charmed directors so much they lifted the ban. And now law enforcement officers are a fixture in the parade.
There’s also a certain poignancy to the notebook from Auntie Helen’s Fluff’n’Fold. Gary Cheatham started the laundry service for AIDS patients in 1988. He wrote the names of the clients in the book, and added notes in the margins.
When someone died, Cheatham put a line through the name and added the date of death.
In closing, Faderman gets sentimental and says, “I hope the exhibit is going to speak to everyone in San Diego. I hope it shows how hard it was to get to where we are today, and how we’re not yet finished.”
Written by: Delshad Master