Gay history museum opens in Castro
by Matthew S. Bajko
A spot of LGBT history can now be found in the heart of the Castro, giving visitors to the small exhibit a taste of what could be on display should dreams of seeing a full-fledged museum built in the gay neighborhood come to fruition.
Within the first five days since opening prior to Thanksgiving, the satellite location for the GLBT Historical Society saw 1,000 people walk through the doors. Timed to coincide with the opening of Milk , the biopic on slain gay supervisor Harvey Milk now playing at the Castro Theatre, the archival show has drawn many in line to see the film.
But also dropping in have been tourists, straight and gay alike, who had seeing the Castro on their to-do list while in town, said Paul Boneberg, the society's executive director.
"Some are going to the film, some are in the Castro because it is a tourist destination and some are just walking by," Boneberg said. "It is a good sign that there is broad appeal for the exhibit and not just from GLBT people or people who live in the neighborhood."
The sell-out crowds who flocked to the Castro Theatre to see Milk during the long holiday weekend have certainly helped drive up attendance to the museum. A slideshow featuring the new exhibit space ran prior to the film, and theater personnel also plugged the exhibit to the audiences.
"We wanted the people who saw the film to see the exhibit. The Castro Theatre has been wonderfully supportive," said Boneberg.
According to the Web site Box Office Mojo, Milk debuted at 36 locations last Wednesday, including in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, and landed in 10th place with $1.45 million in box office receipts over the weekend. Its domestic total as of Sunday, November 30 was $1.9 million.
Dan Jinks, one of the producers of the film, said he was pleased so far with the movie's box office receipts.
"Already, it is doing very well, particularly with gay audiences," said Jinks, who attended the annual memorial to Milk while in the area visiting family for Thanksgiving. "Of course the number one theater is in the Castro."
The movie will continue to be rolled out to other cities throughout December. And as more people see the film, the historical society is hoping they will plan a trip to San Francisco and stop by the museum.
The curators included the suit Milk was wearing when he was shot and killed. Neatly folded in a display case discreetly placed behind a banner, the suit is already attracting national attention.
"The Los Angeles Times ran a major story this weekend about the exhibit and the suit," said Boneberg. "What it means is people in L.A. who care about GLBT history might be motivated to come to San Francisco to see the exhibit, which is exactly our point. By having that exhibit and that kind of attention, we draw people to the Castro."
Due to construction delays, the historical society raced to fix up the old camera store space at the corner of Castro and 18th streets in order to be open in time with the film's release. The outside awning has yet to be painted over with the society's logo, and the official opening ceremony won't take place for several more weeks.
"It was an extraordinary effort to turn that very raw space into the exhibit it is in five months," said Boneberg. "Three weeks before opening we were still sheet rocking the walls because of problems with construction. But off-site we had organized the exhibit."
Society staff and the nonprofit's outgoing board co-chair Don Romesburg, who helped curate the exhibit, worked late into the night to ensure everything was in place for the opening last week. By Wednesday afternoon the curators were still checking for typos as they welcomed their first guests.
"It is miraculous we got here and did it," said Romesburg. "We will see how this goes for the first few months. If it is as popular as we hope it will be, it will give us our first foothold at having a permanent home in the Castro."
Society officials expect attendance to drop off to roughly 1,000 people a month. One of the first visitors was Robert Prager, 52, who has lived in San Francisco on and off since 1980 and knew some of the people whose belongings are now in the show.
"It was great. One of the best things to happen in a long time," said Prager. "History is about the future."
Romesburg, a professor of gender studies at Sonoma State University, and Amy Sueyoshi, director of the ethnic studies program at San Francisco State University, oversaw a 12-person committee that helped select which items from the society's vast archival holdings would be part of the show, dubbed "Passionate Struggle: A Century of GLBT History."
"It allows us to remember our past in a way to inform our future," said Romesburg.
Broken into four sections, the exhibit covers the categories of places, politics, pleasure, and people. Highlights include the key used to lock the doors to the famous North Beach gay bar the Black Cat for the last time in 1963; a map from 1982 showcasing women-owned businesses along the lesbian-friendly Valencia Corridor; and 1991 mayoral candidate Frank Jordan's shoe he left behind after he was run out of the Castro by protesters upset with his record as the city's police chief. Under Jordan's watch officers attacked ACT UP members in what is known as the Castro Sweep of 1989.
Other items on display include a purple sequin outfit worn by disco diva Sylvester; the first lesbian S/M publication; the sewing machine Gilbert Baker used to create the first rainbow flags; and the rugby ball dedicated to Mark Bingham, a local gay man killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"We wanted to show the rich diversity and fullness of LGBT history," and Romesburg. "We also wanted to show how critically vital the GLBT Historical Society is to our community. Every single object in here is from our collection and it barely scratches the surface of what we have."
The Castro museum space is located at 499 Castro Street at the corner of 18th Street. It will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week except for holidays. Admission costs $3.