The National Museum of American History’s acquisition of a large haul of gay-rights memorabilia—a gay US ambassador’s passport, scripts from NBC’s 1998-2006 series Will & Grace, among other objects—was announced in August as if it were the start of something new.
In fact, the museum and Washington’s gay community have a long relationship, and like most relationships, it’s complicated.
The Smithsonian has accepted artifacts of the LGBT struggle for years, but activists say the history museum hasn’t given their cause the attention—or floor space—afforded other civil-rights movements. One consequence: Gay donors have been much likelier to place their collections elsewhere.
The perceived snub dates to 2006, when the museum’s then director, Brent Glass, met with activist Frank Kameny, a former Defense Department astronomer whose sexual orientation had led to his dismissal in 1957. The bulk of Kameny’s papers, some 70,000 items, had gone to the Library of Congress, but he gave a dozen picket signs used in protests at government buildings in the 1960s to the Museum of American History. “We were closed for renovation,” Glass recalls, so the signs were added to a temporary Air and Space Museum exhibit, “Treasures of American History.” But after the history museum reopened, the signs went into storage.
“It wasn’t a decision not to display them,” Glass says. “A lot of people expect their donation to be exhibited right away, but it doesn’t always work like that.”
That’s not the way activists saw it.
In a 2010 Huffington Post editorial, Charles Francis—who heads the Mattachine Society of Washington, DC, a gay-rights group—derided the Smithsonian for ignoring LGBT issues, claiming, “There is not a single gay or lesbian story told in the entire National Museum of American History.” As evidence, Francis cited the picket signs: “Those brave pickets are stored in the dark of a Smithsonian vault.”
Smithsonian curator Katherine Ott, who says the museum has “thousands” of donated items in its LGBT collection, takes issue with the idea that contributions are locked away. “We are not a vault,” she says. “We are very porous.” One of the picket signs, Ott points out, is displayed in an exhibit about the presidency. “The others are in storage, and we’ll swap those out.”
As it happens, just months after Francis’s op-ed appeared, another Smithsonian outpost, the National Portrait Gallery, opened “Hide/Seek,” an exhibit that explored “difference and desire,” including a graphic video by artist David Wojnarowicz about AIDS. When some complained that it was anti-Christian, the museum pulled the piece. Says Francis: “The controversy may have ironically helped us. Glass and the curators were forced for the first time to openly address the problem.”
Ott agrees that the Smithsonian’s culture as evolved. “I could completely see an exhibition about LGBT history at some point,” says Ott, who curated a 2011 show at the Museum of American History commemorating the 30th anniversary of the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But she says no comprehensive or permanent gay-related show is currently planned.
For now, the museum’s call for gay artifacts is a first step toward rectifying an “earlier record of indifference,” says Aubrey Sarvis, former executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a lobbying force in the repeal of the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The network gave some of its documents to the Smithsonian in 2012, but Sarvis is working with the Library of Congress to archive his own experiences, calling the library a “serious and substantive place.”
Ott doesn’t regard the library as competition. Gay contributions to any archive only break barriers for all of them. Her job, she says, “is getting easier all the time.”
This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Washingtonian.