The new museum in New York will present American queer culture
Amari McGee has an ambitious goal for 2022: to visit every LGBTQ museum or relevant exhibit in the United States.
McGee, 23, is an activist and consultant who works with members of the LGBTQ+ community on identity empowerment and transgender education. He compiled a list of 34 LGBTQ art galleries, museums and archives to visit.
He hopes to learn about the history and culture of a community he is part of as a transgender man, and intends to use the knowledge he gains to improve the services he can provide to others.
“I felt like taking the initiative to visit all of the LGBTQ+ museums was actually going to give me another leg up to understand exactly not just the transgender community, but the LGBTQ+ community as a whole,” McGee said.
Museums focused on queer history and culture play a pivotal role for the LGBTQ community, which has faced historic erasure after decades of marginalization and discrimination that continue today, advocates say. A next step, in addition to supporting archives that already exist in museums, will be the American LGBTQ+ Museum, which is set to open in New York in 2024.
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“A moment for museums like ours”
Although it’s still a few years away from an official opening, the organization is already hosting and planning events with partner organizations around the city, raising funds for the new space, and hiring staff.
The museum’s first exhibition space will open as part of the planned expansion of the New-York Historical Society of its Upper West Side space: One floor of the building’s 70,000-foot expansion will house exhibits from the LGBTQ+ American Museum, while the organization aims to build its own space later.
“We have this partnership with the New-York Historical Society, which is phenomenal, which allows us to launch the museum into a physical space, and it’s such a fantastic partnership between one of the oldest museums in the city and the ‘one of the newest,'” said Urvashi Vaid, secretary of the American LGBTQ+ museum’s board of trustees. “We will have this physical space while building towards our own space in the future.”
Executive director Ben Garcia said the costs of the project are “considerable” compared to elsewhere. But there is potential for visitors: New York was the most visited destination by gay and lesbian tourists in 2019, according to a Community Marketing & Insights survey.
While the data comes from pre-pandemic tourism, the American LGBTQ+ Museum has conducted more recent surveys to prepare for the museum’s upcoming launch.
“I think when we look at our history, it seems like a time for museums like ours, museums that focus on part of the story that has been told,” he said. “LGBTQ+ identity, which is such a large set of identities, has really exploded in terms of expression, understanding and acceptance over the past 10 years.”
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Andrew Shaffer, interim co-executive director and director of development and communications at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, is a historian who helped build the Madison LGBTQ Archive in 2015. The archive was the first permanent physical LGBTQ archive in Madison, Wisconsin, according to the GLBT Historical Society website.
“I don’t think you can tell a story without including the queer story, because queer people are and have always been everywhere,” he said.
Prior to the creation and maintenance of queer archives, LGBTQ history was relegated to organizational and institutional documentation, such as police records and census data, obscuring the full picture of queer culture and visibility, said Shaffer.
It was not until the mid-twentieth century that queer activists mobilized to build their own archives, at first informally, collecting artifacts such as diaries, meeting notes and protest banners, then in more formal collections like the GLBT Historical Society, founded in 2011, according to Shaffer.
Other official collections in the United States include the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive at the University of Southern California; the Lambda Archives of San Diego; and the Herstory lesbian archives in Brooklyn.
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“Decades of work and activism”
The merging of increased social and cultural acceptance with this archival activism opened the door to the museums, archives and exhibits that exist today, Shaffer said.
A Gallup poll released last month found that 7.1% of American adults identify as LGBTQ, double the percentage from 2012, when Gallup first measured identity, and up from the poll. year that showed 5.6% of adults identify as LGBTQ.
The rise has been led by young people: About 21% of Gen Z Americans — those born between 1997 and 2003 — identified as LGBTQ in the poll, which was based on aggregate data from 2021.
“We are seeing decades of work, activism and archival practices by queer people come to fruition,” Shaffer said. “I think those two things kind of happen at the same time: broader social acceptance, but also a broader set of data. Without the archives, we really would have few stories to tell.”
The GLBT Historical Society is the nation’s only free-standing museum dedicated solely to American LGBTQ history and culture. according to its website.
Vaid said Stonewall’s 50th anniversary in 2019 was a pivotal moment for raising awareness of LGBTQ history, opening the door for explorations of examples of that history across the country.
“LGBTQ history is actually very local, national and international history,” Vaid said. “So there are queer stories in Ohio, there are queer stories in Iowa, there is LGBTQ history in Nebraska.”
Shaffer, whose primary role with the GLBT Historical Society centers on fundraising, said the rising cost of living in cities is also affecting queer museums and archives there.
“A lot of our institutions were built in a time when it was possible to live in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, or Boston and not be rich, and that time is fast disappearing,” Shaffer said. “Long term, this is a concern for any queer organization: how do you survive in a city that may no longer have room for some sort of rambling upstart institution?
Garcia and other museum directors are considering traveling exhibitions, online exhibits and other opportunities to ensure access to queer history is not limited to metropolitan areas like New York and San Francisco.
“What we hope to be is a place where these stories are kept and told on an ongoing basis, a kind of source or a source for all these other possible manifestations of story or storytelling exhibitions that may occur in the whole country,” Garcia said. “I think the role of a culturally specific organization or an LGBTQ archival library or museum is to be that holder of documentation that will last in perpetuity.”
As interest in and access to LGBTQ museums increases, organizations have also thought about their audiences and the makeup of those who visit them. Museums and archives focused on queer culture and history are primarily safe and welcoming spaces for the LGBTQ community, but also serve to teach queer history to heterosexual and cisgender visitors, according to Shaffer.
“Our audience is really, really large,” he said. “I think that’s a big part of our mission to not just educate queer people about their history, but to educate everyone about their history…I think everyone should be able to access it, and it should be done in a way that is presentable and understandable.”