June 25, 2009
One of the first Smithsonian efforts dedicated to gay and lesbian Americans is tucked away on the first floor of the National Museum of American History. The small show, located outside of the Archives Center, denotes the beginning of the modern gay civil rights movement. The display was assembled in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the riots in Greenwich Village, New York. It will be on view through August 2.
On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on the lower east side. Raids were a fact of life for the gay men and women who sought community in the nightlife, but years of oppression and aggressive police actions, sparked a flame among the bar’s patrons. For the first time, gay men and women fought back, resulting in five days of protest.
No artifacts from that night are on display, but what visitors can see are samples of some of the victories won and lost since the riots. Artifacts include advertising for the Showtime television show Queer as Folk, a Gay Games program, and HIV/AIDS paraphernalia. For this exhibit, the Smithsonian’s Franklin Robinson chose items from the Archives Center, which specializes in collecting primary sources for research, documenting a few aspects of gay history and culture in the United States.
“We hope the exhibit will spur useful and conductive conversations for the people who view it,” says Robinson. And in fact it has already, just two days after the cases went on view, a D.C. charter high school teacher contacted the American History museum to say that his ninth-grade students were studying gay rights and other movements and that he would be bringing his class to see the display.
As the nation struggles with the question of gay marriage and gays in the military, the museum’s collection as it represents gay history, is a story waiting to be told. The collection, Robinson says, is shaped entirely by donations. Two years ago, Frank Kameny, a pioneer of the gay rights movement, gave the Smithsonian his protest signs and papers. John-Manuel Andriote, author of “Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America,” has also donated his extensive research and interviews.
Because there is no staff member at the Smithsonian, yet, who actively collects objects or materials related to gay history, perhaps figures from historical and current civil rights battles need to reach out to the museum. This first exhibit is a historical moment itself, but should not be the beginning and end of the conversation about gay Americans.
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