Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's As If We Don't Exist

Forty-five years ago this month, four years before the Stonewall riots sparked what many consider the modern day LGBT Rights movement, a handful of men and women, dressed appropriately and politely, put their lives and their careers on the line to march in front of the White House carrying carefully hand-lettered signs demanding "First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals".

Those men and women might be gone now, but their picket signs remain. And four years ago, those very signs were donated to The National Museum of American History because the fight for LGBT rights is history. But the signs were never displayed; no curator fashioned an exhibition. Those signs are stored in a vault at the Smithsonian.

The protest signs were donated to the Smithsonian by The Kameny Papers Project, funded in part by former Congressman Michael Huffington and other allies. The Kameny Papers Project is named for Frank Kameny, considered the still living father of the gay civil equality movement in Washington, D.C. [for those of you who don't know, Frank Kameny led many such picket lines back in the day, and was subsequently fired by the federal government for being gay.]

And this makes one wonder how and why the Smithsonian chose to place these icons of the LGBT movement in a vault and keep them from the public eye? Well, the short answer is that it takes time for any museum, much less one the size and scope of the Smithsonian, to ready an exhibition.

But, more shocking than that, is the fact that if you are to visit The National Museum of American History today, you will find there is not one single gay or lesbian story told in the entire museum.

It's as if we don't exist. It's as if we never existed.

Go there. You'll see the struggle for Civil Rights, Equal Rights For Women, but no LGBT Rights on display. There are major exhibitions detailing "American Ideals", "Public Opinion", "Communities", "The Price of Liberty", "Culture" and "Science in the Public Eye," but they make absolutely no reference whatever to LGBT Americans. Most disgusting of all, is that you won't find a piece of the AIDS quilt, or any mention of LGBT involvement in politics, civics, culture or war.

It's as if we don't exist.

At least, within the confines of the Smithsonian.

The same year, however, that the Kameny Papers Project donated those early picket signs to the Smithsonian, they also gave some 50,000 items to The Library of Congress, and all of those items have been catalogued and are now fully available to anyone with a Library card.

In fact, this month, the Library of Congress will launch an innovative, new web portal that focuses on the Kameny archive, along with the papers of gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and other prominent writers and doers, with a very generous Introduction by our national Librarian James Billington.

The Library of Congress tells the stories of all Americans who helped build and define what this country is, and what it can be, while The National Museum of American History only tells the story of certain freedoms, and the fight for certain freedoms, from the abolition of slavery, to granting women the right to vote, to the African-American civil rights movement of the Sixties, to defending the rights of the disabled. But not the LGBT Rights movement.

It's as if we don't exist there.

It's sad that such a place as the Smithsonian opts to omit our stories, which have been as much a part of the fabric of this country as the stories of anyone else. Because, while we are gay, we are men and women, Black and white, and every other color, and religion and age and ethnicity and, well, we are everyone.

But not in the Smithsonian.

1 comment:

Joy said...

I learn a lot from your blog.