St. Louis Jewish Light: Editorial - Outing LGBT History

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Outing LGBT History

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Posted: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 1:13 pm

This has been ‘the gayest year in gay history,’ in the words of Fred Sainz, vice president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign.”

— ”How 2013 Became the Greatest Year in Gay Rights History,” Alan Greenblatt, NPR Blog, It’s All Politics, Dec. 3, 2013.

Cultural history is so utterly important. It tracks the events that contribute to our present condition and provides context for our future so we can learn from our collective successes and failures.

Cultural history is how we know about the progression of hate and the response to hate. How Nazis come to power and how the world responds. How Americans ultimately reject slavery in favor of emancipation. How we evolve from suppression of women toward egalitarianism.

The stories are seldom simple, and they’re never easily told. The more ways we can engage with history, the better. Sometimes it is through a written or verbal narrative, other times through pictures, film and video. But original materials – the tangible pieces of evidence that mark the comings and goings of each era — are most important of all.

So it’s especially notable when a mainstream institution like the Missouri History Museum recognizes the importance of LGBT history by working on its first-ever collection of historical artifacts relative to the local gay community.  

Steven Brawley, a Kirkwood resident, has been collecting such items relating to the local LGBT community for 60 years and has stacked the items on an old kitchen table in his basement, according to an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by David Hunn. He’s been coordinating with the History Museum to accept and archive his collection.

Brawley’s materials include items such as drag queen dresses, leather vests, handwritten protest signs, Pride Parade T-shirts and other objects. While the State Historical Society has been collecting gay-related photographs and documents since the 1960s, it’s been difficult to find a spot to retain “three-dimensional” artifacts. As owner of the collection, “I just want to keep it safe,” Brawley told Hunn.

This effort to collect and preserve local artifacts relating to the LGBT community has been assisted by Colin Murphy, editor of the Vital Voice, the local LGBT magazine.  He told Hunn that in the work of the History Museum to acquire such objects, “another barrier has been crossed.”

The History Museum’s efforts come at a time when more and more states and local governments are approving legislation authorizing same-sex marriages, such as occurred this year in Illinois.  The St. Louis County Council recently adopted a sweeping LGBT rights ordinance at the urging of the St. Louis County Human Relations Commission, which had the backing of the local Anti-Defamation League and the St. Louis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women.  More and more synagogues and temples have welcomed LGBT members and the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements have welcomed LGBT rabbis and cantors to their seminaries and pulpits.

Sadly, the principled decision by the tax-supported History Museum to seek and accept historical items from the LGBT community has not been welcomed by everyone.  Hunn reports that Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, R-Lake Saint Louis, issued a news release stating that he did not think the project was “a good use of tax money at all.”  He masked his seemingly narrow-minded comments by stating he wanted to “know more” before condoning the initiative.

We’re not curators, so we can’t comment on the historical significance of the individual items that have been submitted. What we can say is that the evolution of the LGBT movement, and the preservation of its key physical components, is not only a worthy, but necessary element in recording and presenting the history of local civil rights. We therefore applaud the History Museum for taking this long overdue step to render mainstream the largely closeted history of our local LGBT community.

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