Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

History a passion, not profession, for new historical society director


Longtime AIDS activist Paul Boneberg, the new executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, stands amidst the society's archives. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Paul Boneberg is not a history professor. He isn't an author of any historical books or anthologies on queer culture. He is someone who spent several decades living on Castro Street, witnessing firsthand the decimation of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

As friends and neighbors were lost, Boneberg devoted his life to fighting back and caring for those living with HIV. Now he is safeguarding and caring for a different aspect of the gay community – its history.

 Boneberg, 53, is the new executive director of the GLBT Historical Society.

"I am passionate about LGBT history. I love history," said Boneberg, who served on the board of directors of the 1979 gay rights march on Washington. "I am not an academic. I am an AIDS activist."

He began January 2 in the $42,000-a-year part-time position. His hire is a departure for the society, whose last two executive directors were history scholars from the academic world. Boneberg rose through the ranks of the AIDS movement over the last two decades.

Early on he worked with the group Mobilization Against AIDS and served as executive director of the Global AIDS Action Network. Two years ago he went to work for AIDS Coalition Silicon Valley as its part-time executive director. He expanded the San Jose AIDS group's focus from just hosting an annual AIDS Walk and grew its budget by 50 percent, from $250,000 to $360,000.

Boneberg moved to Vallejo six months ago after his longtime partner, artist Joe Norton, bought a house in the North Bay city. He had been living in Oakland, and from 1979 to 1992 lived in the Castro.

In 2004 the couple of 28 years – "We've been together since disco," joked Boneberg – was one of the thousands to marry after Mayor Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to wed same-sex couples. This year he is once again in the midst of historical change, living in a town that could be the first in the Bay Area to elect a gay mayor [see the Political Notebook column on page 9].

Walking through the society's headquarters and archives this week, Boneberg at times acted like a kid in a candy store, awed by the artifacts and materials he will oversee. At other moments it was more a stroll down memory lane, pointing out items donated by past friends and longtime acquaintances.

"What makes us a community is not just a network of people, it is our history which makes our culture possible," he said.

Don Romesburg, who with Denise Bellotti, co-chairs the society's board, said directors purposefully looked for someone with a strong background in development and fundraising as it searched for a new executive director. In Boneberg, the society found someone with the right credentials to help it mature into an organization with a multi-million-dollar budget and construct a new museum and archive center, he said.

"Paul is part of our vision to expand beyond the modest budget we have," said Romesburg, adding that this year's fiscal budget is $235,000. "What Paul is going to help us with is getting to a place, a size, and a fiscal strength that we could engage in a capital campaign."

Romesburg hopes by the end of the year to make the executive director position full-time. The board and Boneberg plan to revisit the society's budget in March with the hope of revising it upwards, he said.

"We're absolutely looking toward significant growth, and 2007 will be the first big push for that effort. But we also want to grow in a fiscally responsible way, minimizing risk and articulating clear, achievable ways of getting there. So we'll be conservative in our first quarter and then move ahead," wrote Romesburg in an e-mail after the board met Tuesday, January 9.

The historical society currently rents space in a building located near the Yerba Buena cultural district a block away from where the new Jewish and Mexican museums are being built and doors away from the recently opened Museum of the African Diaspora on Mission Street. The lease expires in 2011 and society officials expect by then they will need a larger space.

When Romesburg walks along the city's museum row, he said, "I think of the need in this world for a GLBT history museum. Where else could it possibly be than in San Francisco? We should be the queer Smithsonian."

Since 2004 Supervisor Bevan Dufty has been pushing society officials to relocate to the Castro and build a world-class museum and archival center to draw tourists and researchers to the city's LGBT district. He secured city funding for the society to hire a consultant to explore building such a facility and has advocated it be built on the parking area adjacent to the Eureka Valley Harvey Milk Branch Library on a section of 16th Street renamed last year Jose Sarria Court.

The library is moving ahead with an expansion and remodel plan of its branch. Under the latest proposal the renovation project would not hinder the society presenting the city at a later date a proposal to build on the parking lot.

The Gensler Consulting Group is studying the issue and is expected to release its report in several months. Dufty was unavailable to be interviewed this week about the fate of the project he has ballyhooed. But in an e-mail he praised the hiring of Boneberg and expressed optimism about the fate of the new museum project.

"I am very pleased that Paul Boneberg is returning to San Francisco. He was an incredible leader in our city's response to AIDS," wrote Dufty. "It is wonderful to welcome him home to lead the effort to create a world-class institution that protects and advances our community's history."

He said he plans to meet with Boneberg and Gary Brandau of Gensler within the next few weeks to discuss the project. An aide to Dufty said he also continues to dialogue with library officials on the Castro branch project.

"This is an important year for the GLBT Historical Society and to refine options to create a world-class institution, that I hope will be in the Castro. Paul's abilities in fundraising and development are vitally important to this effort," wrote Dufty.

In the past, society officials did not at times appear as enthusiastic about the project as Dufty. The hiring of the consultant languished for months and its fundraising materials barely mentioned the museum project.

Romesburg said the board is committed to the project and its hiring of Boneberg is a reflection of its desire to move forward with the plans. In the past, the society was dealing with budget problems and had to focus on establishing sound financial footing first.

Now, he said, "The city has a great opportunity to partner with us as we grow."

But just where, and when, the society will build such an institution remains unanswered. Boneberg did not rule out locating the building outside the Castro.

"I don't have an opinion on where the location of the museum is. The most important thing is that it be a viable plan fiscally and culturally," he said. "We have to proceed carefully so it doesn't fail and the museum is a success."

In the meantime, the society is already at work on its next exhibit, "Out Ranks: GLBT Military Service from World War II to the Iraq War." It is reported to be the first exhibit in the country to look at the experiences of LGBT veterans and is set to open in June. And in 2008 the society, working with Boneberg, plans to open an exhibit detailing the early responses to the AIDS crisis.

This Sunday, January 14, the society will be the beneficiary of the weekly beer benefit at the Eagle bar. The cover charge is $10 and grand prize of the weekly raffle is a pair of season tickets to the San Francisco Ballet's 2007 season. The event runs from 3 to 6 p.m. and the bar is located at 398 12th Street in the city's South of Market neighborhood.

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