The Queer Smithsonian?

During my recent stay in San Francisco, I happened into the press opening for the GLBT History Museum. Located in the Castro District, the museum bills itself as the “queer Smithsonian.” It holds one of the largest archives of GLBT historical materials anywhere in the world.

Upon entering the museum’s 1,600 square feet of gallery and program space, I was greeted by a collection of Harvey Milk’s campaign propaganda. News of his activism and death never reached the Bible Belt, where I spent my formative years. But I put my sunglasses on so no one would see my eyes tearing up—I’m not the type who likes to cry in public.

I moved on to the premiere exhibit, Our Vast Queer Past: Celebrating San Francisco’s GLBT History.

The protest signs that dotted the section “Out of the Closet and Into the Streets (1966–2008)” reminded me of how much damage has been done to the GLBT community in the name of spreading the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. In particular, I cringed when I saw the depiction of Lou Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition and one of the architects of the Religious Right. Through his organization he’s managed to spread forth some of the most noxious material demonizing the LGBT community.

As I was exiting the museum, I realized that this while exhibit touched on the cruelty inflicted by the Religious Right, it didn’t include one single reference to the role of religion in lifting up the GLBT community. Was this because they were unaware of the role the faith community played in San Francisco? Could it be that the “Christians” like Sheldon & co. proved to be so spiteful that they did not wish to include any positive contributions made by people of faith?

During my stay in San Francisco, I spent a Sunday watching Rev. Vicki Gray, a Vietnam vet and Episcopal deacon who is also transgender minister to Christ the Lord Church in Pinole, California, and Open Cathedral. In our free time, she told me about the Diocese of San Francisco’s long history of working with the LGBT community. In particular, I’m struck by how Bishop Swing declared “The Church has AIDS” back in the early ’80s, a time when few dared to talk about this disease at all.

Perhaps future exhibits sponsored by the GLBT History Museum can illuminate the role of the San Francisco-area faith communities that have chosen to respond to the Lou Sheldons of the world by not only ministering to the LGBT community but also elevating them to positions of leadership.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).