GLBT Historical Society

The GLBT Historical Society (for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender Historical Society) maintains an extensive archive of materials relating to the history of LGBT people in the United States, with a focus on the LGBT communities of San Francisco and Northern California. The society also sponsors The GLBT History Museum, a stand-alone museum that has attracted international attention.[1]

Referred to as San Francisco's "queer Smithsonian,"[2] the society is one of approximately 30 LGBT archives in the United States—and is among the handful of such organizations to benefit from a paid staff and to function as a full-fledged center for exhibitions, programming, research, and production of oral histories.[3] It is recognized by the Internal Revenue Service as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 educational association and is registered with the State of California as a nonprofit corporation.

The archives, reading room and administrative offices of the GLBT Historical Society are located at 657 Mission St., Suite 300, in San Francisco's South of Market museum district. The GLBT History Museum, which serves as a separate center for exhibitions and programs, is located at 4127 18th St. in the city's Castro neighborhood.

Organizational history


The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society was launched in the mid-1980s when Willie Walker, a nurse, realized that gay history was dying along with victims of the AIDS epidemic. Walker was actively involved in a private study group, the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian History Project, which included among its members a number of individuals who would go on to make major cultural contributions—among them historians Allan Bérubé and Estelle Freedman, independent scholar Jeffrey Escoffier, author and community organizer Amber Hollibaugh, and anthropologist and queer theorist Gayle Rubin.[4][5]

Each member of the Gay and Lesbian History Project was asked to develop a major project for presentation to the group; as his contribution, Walker produced a proposal for a historical society to preserve the records of Bay Area gay and lesbian history and to make this history available to the community.[5] With encouragement from the History Project, Walker and several other individuals subsequently announced a public meeting on March 16, 1985, to discuss founding a historical society.[6] Some 50 individuals attended, and they voted to form the institution initially known as the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society.[4][5][7]

Name changes

Over the course of its history, the Historical Society has renamed itself twice to better reflect the scope of its holdings and the range of identities and practices represented in its collections and programs. In 1990, the organization changed its name to the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, thus clarifying the geographical reach of its primary collections.[4][6] In 2000, responding to concerns raised by bisexual and transgender community members and their allies, the institution adopted its current name—the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society—to more clearly state the inclusive mission the society had pursued since it was founded.[4][6] In everyday usage, the institution generally employs a short form of its name: the GLBT Historical Society.


The archival collections of the Historical Society initially were housed in the living room of Walker's apartment at 3823 17th St. in San Francisco.[4][6][8] In 1990, the society moved into its own space, in the basement of the Redstone Building on 16th Street near South Van Ness—a building which also housed the gay and lesbian theater company Theater Rhinoceros.[6] The collections grew constantly, and by 1995 the Historical Society moved into a 3,700-square-foot (340 m2) space on the fourth floor of 973 Market St.[4][9]

It moved again in 2003 to a location on the third floor of a building at 657 Mission St. that also housed other cultural institutions: the Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco Camerawork and the Catharine Clark Gallery. The 6,600-square-foot (610 m2) space included two dedicated exhibition galleries, a reading room, a large reserve for the archival collections, and several offices for staff and volunteers.[6] The society regularly used one of the galleries for presentation of history talks and panel discussions, many of which were videotaped for posting on the Web. In November 2010, in anticipation of the opening of its new GLBT History Museum, the society closed its galleries and program space at 657 Mission St., while maintaining its archives, reading room and administrative offices at that location.

Executive directors

The Historical Society has had four executive directors during the course of its history. The organization was run directly by the Board of Directors from 1985 to 1998. In 1998, the board hired the first paid executive director, Susan Stryker, Ph.D.[6] Stryker was succeeded in 2003 by an acting interim executive director, Daniel Bao, who served until the board hired Terence Kissack, Ph.D., in 2004.[6] Kissack served until the end of 2006.[10] The current executive director, Paul Boneberg, took over the post at the beginning of January 2007.[11]

Archival holdings

The GLBT Historical Society is home to one of the largest LGBT historical archives in the United States, with more than 500 manuscript collections and nearly 200 non-manuscript collections; 70 linear feet of ephemera; approximately 4,000 periodical titles; approximately 80,000 photographs; approximately 3,000 imprinted t-shirts; approximately 5,000 posters; nearly 500 oral histories; approximately 1,000 hours of recorded sound; and approximately 1,000 hours of film and video.[12] The archives also has extensive holdings of historic textiles, works of fine and graphic arts, and artifacts.[5]

Among the noteworthy manuscript collections are more than 200 boxes of material donated by early lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.[2] Lyon and Martin were cofounders of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization in the United States, and their papers at the society include the complete surviving office records of the organization.[13] The society's holdings also include a substantial group of administrative records from the Mattachine Society, the first enduring homosexual rights organization in the United States. The records form part of the papers of Donald S. Lucas, who served as secretary of the Mattachine Society during much of its history.[14] In addition, the society's archives house the records of José Sarria, who as a candidate in the race for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1961 was the first openly gay person known to have run for elected office anywhere in the world.[15]

The society likewise holds numerous manuscript collections documenting the history of transgender individuals and movements in Northern California, including the complete papers of Lou Sullivan, founder of the pioneering female-to-male transsexual organization FTM International.[16] Holdings focused on the history of bisexuality include the typescript and research files for "Bisexuality and Androgyny: An Analysis," the 1975 master's thesis in psychology by Maggi Rubenstein, cofounder of San Francisco Sex Information and the San Francisco Bisexual Center.[17]

The GLBT Historical Society's artifacts collection includes the personal effects of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California.[18] Milk's executors preserved a significant selection of his belongings after he was assassinated in 1978; they ultimately were inherited by the mother of Milk's former partner, Scott Smith (activist), who donated them to the GLBT Historical Society. The collection includes everyday objects such the battered, gold-painted kitchen table from Milk's apartment and several antique cameras that had been displayed at Castro Camera, his shop in San Francisco's Castro District. The collection also includes the suit, shirt, belt and shoes Milk was wearing when he was shot to death by assassin Dan White.

Searchable catalogs of the society's manuscript collections and periodicals holdings are available on the institution's website, and complete finding aids for the ephemera collections and many of the manuscript collections are available through the Online Archive of California (a project of the California Digital Library).

Periodical publications

From June 1985 through November 2007, the GLBT Historical Society published 50 issues of a print newsletter. Produced at various points in its run as a bimonthly, a quarterly and an irregularly issued periodical, the publication appeared under several titles: San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society Newsletter, Newsletter of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, Our Stories and It's About Time.[19] In February 2008, the print newsletter was succeeded by an ongoing monthly electronic newsletter, History Happens.[20] In addition, the society published three issues of a twice-yearly print journal, Fabulas, which appeared in 2008–2009.

Pop-up museum (2008–2009)

From November 2008 through October 2009, the GLBT Historical Society sponsored a pop-up museum in the

Among the objects displayed were a preliminary study for the "Maestrapeace" mural on the façade of the San Francisco Women's Building, the sewing machine used by designer Gilbert Baker to create the first rainbow flag, and the suit worn by openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk when he was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.[22] Approximately 25,000 people from throughout the United States and around the world visited the exhibition during its 11-month run.[23]

GLBT History Museum

On Dec. 10, 2010, the GLBT Historical Society opened its GLBT History Museum in the Castro District for previews. Located in a storefront at 4127 18th St. near Castro Street, the 1,600-square-foot (150 m2) space houses two historical galleries with room for public programs, a small museum shop and a reception area. The society has signed a five-year lease for the space; the extensive build-out of the museum, along with a significant discount on the monthly rent, was donated by Walgreen Company, which holds the primary lease and is using about one-quarter of the storefront to expand the operations of its adjacent satellite pharmacy.[24] The institution is believed to be the second full-scale, stand-alone GLBT history museum in the world, following the Schwules Museum in Berlin, which opened in 1985.[25]

Grand opening

The grand opening of the museum took place on the evening of Jan. 13, 2011. The newly appointed interim mayor of San Francisco, Edwin M. Lee, cut a rainbow ribbon to officially inaugurate the museum; in addition, he presented a proclamation declaring the date "GLBT History Museum Day" in San Francisco. It was Lee's first appearance as mayor at a public event. Also in attendance was Scott Wiener, newly elected as the member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for the district including the Castro neighborhood — the seat once held by Harvey Milk — as well as openly gay Supervisor David Campos, who represents the neighboring Mission District. Other guests included pioneering lesbian activist Phyllis Lyon, novelist Armistead Maupin, photographer Daniel Nicoletta, former supervisor and then mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty, and noted drag personality Donna Sachet.[26]

The launch of the institution drew extraordinary media attention from across the United States and around the world. Thousands of newspapers, magazines, television and radio broadcasts, blogs and other outlets in at least 75 countries and 38 languages covered the opening.[1][27] U.S. media that ran stories include the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, CNN en Español, MSNBC and CBS Radio. Outside the United States, coverage included national television in Italy and Spain; radio in Belgium, Columbia and Venezuela; and newspapers and magazines such as Emarat Al Youm (United Arab Emirates), Reforma (Mexico), Tempo Magazine (Indonesia), the South China Morning Post, The Times of India and Večernji list (Croatia). Links to a sampling of stories on the museum along with the full media report are available on the museum website.[28]

Debut exhibitions

The GLBT History Museum debuted with two multimedia exhibitions. In the larger main gallery, "Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating San Francisco's GLBT History" traces more than 20 key themes in the past 100 years of the history of LGBT people and communities in San Francisco and the Bay Area. Curated by historians Gerard Koskovich, Don Romesburg and Amy Sueyoshi with help from seven associate curators, the show includes more than 450 objects, photographs, documents, costumes, and film and video clips. All the materials are from the society's collections, and most have never before been displayed.[29]

Among the items in the exhibition are the 1919 honorable discharge of gay novelist Clarkson Crane, who served in World War I; the only known photograph of gay men held in the camps that the United States created for the Japanese-American internment during World War II; documents reflecting the life of female-to-male transsexual organizer and author Lou Sullivan (1950–1991); an extravagant 1983 gown worn by San Francisco drag personality the Baroness Eugenia von Dieckoff (1920–1988); and photographs, flyers and t-shirts from the lesbian sex wars of the 1980s-1990s.[30]

In the smaller front gallery, "Great Collections From the GLBT Historical Society Archives," curated by Historical Society Executive Director Paul Boneberg, offered an introduction to the kinds of materials collected by the society. Among the items on display were a distinctive example of the society's collection of textiles: the pantsuits that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon wore to their wedding during San Francisco's "Winter of Love" in 2004 and again in 2008 when they became the first couple to wed during the brief period when the state's high court legalized same-sex marriage in California. On exhibit as examples of the society's artifacts collections were personal belongings of Harvey Milk. In addition, the show included examples from the society's collections of ephemera; posters; periodicals; photographs; oral history interviews; and film, video and recorded sound.[31]

Changing exhibitions

The debut show in the front gallery of the museum closed at the end of February 2012; the museum then launched a program of periodically changing exhibitions in the space.

The first of these shows opened in early March 2012: "Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in San Francisco, 1985–1990." The exhibition focused on the work of five photographers — Jane Philomen Cleland, Patrick Clifton, Marc Geller, Rick Gerharter and Daniel Nicoletta — who used the medium of black-and-white film to document the emergence of militant protests in response to the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.[32] The Bay Area Reporter characterized the show as "a concise, laser-focused exhibition ... of 17 carefully selected black-and-white photographs," adding that it "distills the tenor of those times and provides a microcosm of what was at stake as the federal government, either out of obliviousness, callousness, prejudice or a combination of all three, turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the proliferation and devastating impact of the disease."[33]

The Huffington Post review noted that "the exhibition highlights the pain, the rage and the bravery involved in the fight for AIDS awareness. The crisp and clean black and white photos bring a feeling of control and simplicity to a time of chaos, when an unnamed disease targeted half of the city's gay men and government agencies seemed incapable of listening. Yet in the darkest times come the brightest inspirations, as thousands of San Franciscans rose to the challenge and fought for their voices to be heard. The striking images capture protestors, students and policemen, chanting, fighting and just living their lives. In a way it is hard to believe these photos were taken so recently, from 1985-1990. And yet the photographs are good reminders of the fights we are still facing today, from marriage equality to the Occupy movement. These activists showed that civil disobedience can impact political outcomes."[34]

In addition to the larger shows in its main and front galleries, The GLBT History Museum mounts temporary exhibits displayed for approximately one month each, most consisting of a single display case devoted to a timely topic or significant anniversary in San Francisco LGBT history. Eight such temporary exhibits took place during 2011.[35]

Group tours

As part of its educational mission, The GLBT History Museum offers group tours led by trained volunteer docents and occasionally by the exhibition curators. According to the museum home page, any group of 10 or more people may book a guided tour by making an appointment at least two weeks in advance.[36] The tours have been especially popular with professors and teachers who bring their classes and with student organizations including gay-straight alliance groups from junior high schools and high schools. In its first 18 months of operation, the museum reported that it had given guided tours for more than 50 classes and student groups, including the GSA from Aragon High School in San Mateo, Calif.; classes from San Francisco State University; students from the San Francisco Police Academy; and Japanese medical students.[37]


Funding for the museum has come from presenting sponsor Levi's (Levi Strauss & Co.); the City and County of San Francisco; Starbucks; the Bob Ross Foundation; neighborhood merchants such as Badlands, Harvey's restaurant and bar, and Toad Hall; and numerous individual donors.[38][39][40]

Hours & admission

The GLBT History Museum is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. General admission is $5.00; $3.00 for students with California student ID; free for members of the GLBT Historical Society. The first Wednesday of each month, admission is free for all visitors courtesy of a sponsorship by the Bob Ross Foundation.[41]

Associated projects

To expand public access to its archival holdings and historical programs, the GLBT Historical Society has sponsored a number of associated projects:

  • In 1991, in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, the society published a microfilm edition of a broad selection of scarce newsletters, magazines and newspapers from its periodicals collection.[42]
  • In 1999, the society launched an annual series of exhibitions known as "Making a Case for Community History." Under the guidance of exhibitions coordinator Paul Gabriel, the project brought together advisory groups from diverse LGBT communities and organizations in San Francisco to curate historical displays sponsored by the society in a variety of public spaces during San Francisco Pride celebrations in June. The first "Making a Case" exhibition was shown in the mezzanine of the Castro Theatre during the International LGBT Film Festival (Frameline) in the last two weeks of June 1999, then in a tent pavilion on the lawn in front of City Hall in San Francisco Civic Center on the Saturday and Sunday of the Pride festival. The exhibition included separate cases representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; African Americans; Latinos/as; bears—see "bear (gay culture)"; the transgender community; and the leather subculture and SM community.[43] Subsequent "Making a Case" exhibitions were mounted in 2000 and 2001.
  • In 2004 and 2005, further microfilm editions of the society's periodicals holdings were published by Primary Source Media, an imprint of the Gale educational publishing house.[44]
  • In 2006, the society created its own YouTube channel for the purpose of disseminating film and video from its holdings, as well as videos of its historical programs. Among the materials posted are films from the Harold O'Neal collection of home movies documenting Bay Area gay life from the late 1930s through the mid-1980s.[45]
  • In 2007, the society created an account on the online photo-sharing site Flickr to publish historical images from its holdings and photographs of its programs and events.
  • In 2008, the society established a regularly updated page on Facebook. More than 10,000 people had liked the page by early July 2013.[46]
  • In 2009, the society launched an
  • In 2010, the society launched a project to create and post online digital files from its holdings of recorded sound; dubbed the "Gayback Machine", the initiative debuted with recordings of more than 250 hours of content from weekly Bay Area gay radio programs produced by journalist Randy Alfred from 1973 to 1984.[49][50]
  • In November 2013, the society launched a historic preservation project funded by the Historic Preservation Fund Committee of the City and County of San Francisco to document sites associated with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history in San Francisco.[51] According to the society's newsletter, "The project is expected to take more than a year.... The outcome will be a historic context statement, a document used by advocates and city planners. A similar project is underway in Los Angeles. When both are complete, the two municipalities will have the first citywide LGBT historic context statements in the United States."[52]

Awards, honors & media recognition

The GLBT Historical Society—and since 2011, its GLBT History Museum—have received a number of awards and honors. Following is a small sample:

  • The GLBT Historical Society is voted "Best Local Nonprofit" in the 2010 "Best of the Bay" readers poll conducted by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, a weekly alternative newspaper published in San Francisco.[53]
  • The GLBT Historical Society and the GLBT History Museum are elected Local Organizational Grand Marshal of the 2011 San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration (San Francisco Pride). The parade took place on June 26, 2011; Historical Society board chairs Andrew Jolivette and Amy Sueyoshi rode in a 1940 black Cadillac provided by the Freewheelers Car Club; approximately two dozen society and museum volunteers and supporters marched behind the car carrying a banner for the museum.[55]
  • The GLBT History Museum is honored by the editors for "Best Queer Exhibitionism" in the "City Living" section of the 2011 "Best of the Bay" issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian: "The first of its kind in the U.S., the sleek storefront gallery may be small, but it packs a huge emotional and educational punch.... The museum's lavender arsenal has ripped the lid off the often-obscured queer past, and attracted tens of thousands of curious visitors (Britney Spears among them)."[56]
  • Lugares, a nationally distributed travel magazine in Argentina, lists The GLBT History Museum as one of its "hot spots of San Francisco" in an article posted online in July 2011.[57]
  • CNN features The GLBT History Museum in its August 2012 "Best of San Francisco" coverage, characterizing the museum as "an intimate, handcrafted experience located in San Francisco’s historically gay neighborhood, The Castro."[58]
  • The San Francisco Weekly names The GLBT History Museum one of San Francisco's "Top 10 Offbeat Museums" in its Sept. 20, 2012, issue.[59]
  • The Huffington Post lists the GLBT Historical Society as one of "the best LGBT history archives in the U.S." in a feature posted on Oct. 23, 2012.[60]
  • The online magazine Queerty and sister site list The GLBT History Museum as one of "49 reasons to love San Francisco" in July 2013.[61]
  • Out Traveler magazine names The GLBT History Museum to its list of the five "best social justice museums" in the United States in July 2013.[62]

See also

Related archives, libraries, special collections & museums


External links

  • GLBT Historical Society: Official Website
  • GLBT Historical Society: YouTube Channel (WARNING: sound)
  • GLBT Historical Society: Flickr Photo-Sharing Site
  • Obituaries
  • GLBT Historical Society: Gayback Machine (WARNING: sound)
  • Online Archive of California: Finding aids to collections at the GLBT Historical Society
  • Primary Source Media (publisher of microfilm editions of periodicals from the holdings of the GLBT Historical Society)
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