Learning our history is more important than ever

  • by Daryl Carr
  • Wednesday June 10, 2015
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Daryl Carr stands in the archives of the GLBT Historical<br>Society. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Daryl Carr stands in the archives of the GLBT Historical
Society. Photo: Rick Gerharter

In 1985, in the depths of the AIDS pandemic, the GLBT Historical Society was established at a meeting attended by some 50 people at the old San Francisco Main Library. As illness, death, and homophobia combined to threaten our community's existence, virtually no museums or libraries would accept the documents that recorded our lives and our contributions to history. Our founders had the foresight in that trying time to establish an archive to preserve the stories of LGBT people. These brave and visionary leaders ensured that our vast queer past would not be forgotten.

Now one of the nation's preeminent collections of queer historical materials, the archives of the GLBT Historical Society have made possible the work of many of our most celebrated and influential historians, writers, and filmmakers. What's more, we have welcomed students from middle-schoolers working on papers to grad students working on dissertations, as well as researchers of all kinds who are simply curious about our history. And since 2011, we have brought to life the surprising stories of our past for visitors from far and wide at the GLBT History Museum in the Castro district.

Thirty years after our founding, we live in a very different world and in a much-changed city. We have banded together to transform HIV into a serious but manageable disease. We have seen the movement for marriage equality achieve stunning success. Yet the history of our movement for social change is far from over. Many LGBT people even in northern California still face exclusion and discrimination " and our own community still works to ensure dignity, respect, and support for all its members in all their diversity.

Locally, we no longer find comfort in predominantly LGBT enclaves. Many residents and business owners alike are now priced out of the Castro, a neighborhood where we once created a safe space for at least part of our community. And others feel less connection to, or need for, a gayborhood. At the same time, the latest development boom has created an influx of more than 1,000 new residents to the Castro " most not only younger but fewer identifying as LGBT " while more than 30 storefronts remain empty or are under development in the Upper Market.

It seems clear: The Castro and the wider LGBT community are in the midst of an identity crisis. We may know who we are, but not necessarily where we are or where we should go. At times like this, as we look for guideposts and resources that will help us deal with rapid change while maintaining our vision of social justice, learning about our history is more important than ever.

And that also means that our museum and archives have essential roles to play. As the Bay Area LGBT community spreads out geographically, it's important that we have spaces where we come together to remember and celebrate, research and educate, share our concerns, our stories, and our hopes. And it's incumbent upon us to leverage our compelling history and collective voices to help secure rights for all queer people and for all facing discrimination and exclusion. Not just in San Francisco, but across the globe.

So as the historical society celebrates its 30th anniversary, it's not a time to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. It's a time to redouble our commitment to owning and honoring and sharing our incredible and diverse past. It's a time to engage archive researchers and museum visitors of all genders and orientations from around the world and to invite them to understand and embrace our life-affirming and history-affirming stories.

Much like our community, the GLBT Historical Society now stands at a moment of great change and opportunity. We have secured a five-year lease to keep the GLBT History Museum open in the Castro, but we must move our archives and reading room from their current downtown location to a larger and more affordable space within the next year. The good news: as a city and community, we have the means " but only if we make preserving the stories of our past a priority.

Working together, we can build on our successes to expand our capacity and become a truly world-class cultural institution. Working together, we can solidify our reputation as the international go-to destination for research and as a model for promoting LGBT history. Working together, we can ultimately build a permanent combined home for our museum and archives that honors San Francisco's central place in America's LGBT liberation movement.

Great dreams require great resources. More than ever, this vision for the GLBT Historical Society's future is a worthy and attainable endeavor for all of us. Whether you're a recent arrival to the Bay Area or a longtime resident, whether you can offer major financial support or a modest amount, you have a vital role to play. We have identified four immediate steps to ensure the institution's growth as we move forward:

- Secure a new space to expand our archives and support researchers.

- Revitalize our commitment to forceful and engaging museum exhibitions and programming.

- Grow our staff and infrastructure to meet the needs of the community.

- Build a cash reserve to secure our collections and museum for future generations of visitors and researchers.

So how can you get involved in this exciting project? Next time you're in the Castro, come visit the museum at 4127 18th Street and see what we're doing. If you're interested in research, make an appointment to use our archives. Next time you're online " maybe even now " make a donation at http://www.glbthistory.org. And please spread this message to your friends, family, and colleagues.

Let's do this. Together.


Daryl Carr is the acting executive director of the GLBT Historical Society. For more information, visit www.glbthistory.org.