San Francisco GLBT Historical Society names new ED

  • by Eric Burkett, Assistant Editor
  • Monday October 3, 2022
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Roberto Ordeñana has been hired as the new executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society
Roberto Ordeñana has been hired as the new executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. Photo: Courtesy GLBT Historical Society

Just in time for LGBTQ History Month, the San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society has chosen a new leader, and it's a familiar one to many in the community.

Roberto Ordeñana who, until now, had been working as deputy executive director of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, will take over as executive director of the society in mid-October, the society announced in a news release October 3. He'll make his formal introduction at the organization's Reunion gala on October 19.

The hiring comes just over a year after former executive director Terry Beswick stepped down as executive director of the society, which includes significant LGBTQ archives and a small museum in the Castro.

Ordeñana, a 45-year-old gay man, is a San Francisco native, the son of Nicaraguan immigrants, and a graduate of San Francisco State University, from which he received his B.A. in social sciences with an emphasis in human sexuality studies.

Saying he was "thrilled" to join the society as its new leader, Ordeñana noted in the release that the work of the organization is more important than ever.

"We are at a pivotal moment of history for LGBTQ+ people, women, immigrants, and communities of color," he stated. "Our hard-fought gains are under attack by political extremists who wish to force us back into the closet, lock us up in cages, or make us disappear altogether. Now more than ever it is vital that we preserve and exhibit our queer history and contributions to culture and society."

Although he grew up in San Francisco, Ordeñana told the Bay Area Reporter he had, as a kid, been bullied at school for being gay. That experience, he said, directed him to the career path he's followed for nearly two decades, working his way up the ladder at the community center where he served in a number of leadership positions, including director of community programs and director of development and marketing, before assuming the post of deputy executive director.

Ordeñana also brings a great deal of additional community service to the table. He has served as president of the board of directors of Bay Area Young Positives and as a member of the LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. In 2012, Ordeñana was appointed to the San Francisco Arts Commission, where he served as president of the Commission from 2019 to 2022. He is, however, stepping down from that position, he told the B.A.R.

"I'm very concerned about any perceived or real conflicts of interest," he said. "I will be stepping down. That's very bittersweet."

In its search for a new leader, the historical society hired a firm that interviewed 11 candidates for the position, said society board Vice Chair Lito Sandoval.

"It was less than we thought it would be, but pretty much everyone was solid," said Sandoval. "But in terms of going through everything, Roberto stood above the pack."

Sandoval, a queer man, said Ordeñana was exactly the person they were looking for.

"Roberto's going to come into a lot," Sandoval continued. "But his experience and demeanor are exactly what we need, with politicians, stakeholders, and museum patrons. For me, it was definitely his experience and also his presentation skills. It was obvious he did his homework on the organization and seemed to ask the right question of someone who would be leading an organization."

For Andrew Shaffer, director of development and communications, Ordeñana's hire means he'll be able to step down from the temporary position of interim co-executive director, which he has shared with society archivist Kelsi Evans for the past year. But he won't be leaving the post entirely right away.

"I think it's going to take a couple of months, especially for a job of this caliber," Shaffer, a gay man, said, adding that he was excited to work with Ordeñana.

"The most exciting thing about this job is getting to know and work with all the people who support us and like us," he said. "I think Roberto is adept at building those relationships and building new relationships, as well."

Museum plans

Ordeñana, who will earn a base pay of $150,000 as executive director, inherits an institution that has grown considerably over the past five years. When Beswick, a gay man, took the position in 2016, the society was in debt and operating on a budget of just over half a million dollars per year. When he left five years later, the organization was financially stable and had more than doubled its budget to $1.2 million. Beswick, who now leads the Golden Gate Business Association, an LGBTQ chamber of commerce, also secured $12 million in funding from City Hall to build a full-scale LGBTQ history museum. The task of finding a location for that museum, preferably in the Castro, now falls to Ordeñana, who said a new location is of great importance.

In addition to the city funding, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) secured $5 million in state funds for the museum project, bringing the total to $17 million in public funding.

"The current museum receives three times the number of visitors per square foot compared to similar cultural organizations," Ordeñana said, referring to the small storefront location at 4127 18th Street in the Castro. Last month, Queen Máxima of the Netherlands stopped by the museum and had a brief tour during her visit to the Castro.

Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the LGBTQ neighborhood, recently told the B.A.R. during an editorial board meeting that property owners of potential locations in the Castro want too much money. He said that if the historical society was willing to look outside the neighborhood, it could probably find a building quicker.

While Ordeñana didn't say he was opposed to building the museum in other parts of the city, he stressed the importance of its location in the Castro, saying he has heard "loud and clear" the need to do so.

"We have to hold that as a priority, and not take anything off the table," he said.

As the B.A.R. reported in October 2019, the archival group had determined it made the most sense for it to construct a full-scale LGBTQ museum and research center somewhere in the Castro neighborhood based on the recommendations of a feasibility study it had conducted. The consultants estimated that a combined facility would require a gross building size of 40,000 square feet, with around 20,000 square feet dedicated for the exhibit area, and draw upward of 106,000 attendees per year.

Ordeñana joins the historical society at an important juncture in its history, and he sees the role of the museum as critical to the well-being, and survival, of the LGBTQ community.

"I think in the best picture for me, I think we're at this really pivotal moment in the history of the LGBT movement," he said. "Extremist political forces are trying to erase us. They're attacking the most vulnerable members of our community, trans and trans children."

Ordeñana said he wants to strengthen the society's archives to make sure they "represent the entirety of the LGBTQ community. We're lifting up the history of marginalized communities."

To do that, he said the society "must ultimately land in a space that allows us to exhibit the incredible collections the archives hold."

"I think it's a challenge and opportunity to sit down and really listen," said Ordeñana. "This is an organization that has grown for nearly 40 years."

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