Queer Digital Stories: Identity

Queer Digital Stories: Looking Back This post is the third in a series written by participants of our queer digital storytelling workshop.  Below is the film created by Caleb Hernandez, Identity, followed by thoughts about the experience of making this film.

 

The Queering the Museum project was an intense four days of self-reflection. It asked that each person share a story. This request seems simple enough. What I didn’t realize was that this project would help me find a focus for my art, push me to confront my past, and serve as a reminder of the wonderful aspects of my life that I often overlook.

The process we underwent asked that we not only share our story, but to also listen and understand the experiences of the other participants. Our stories were all very unique and it was clear that there was no one Queer experience that could represent us all. This, I thought, was wonderful.

It made me interested in learning the stories of other Queer individuals. This, combined with photography, led me to create work based on Queer experience. From drag queens and their relationships with their mothers, interviewing self-identified Queer persons of all walks of life in their homes, to performing interventions on Jehovah’s Witness bibles to speak for my sister’s, father’s and my own experience in a controlling and unwavering religion.

This project pushed me to visit my hometown last summer and to speak with one of my aunts for the first time in 8 years. I was able to ask questions that I had been terrified to learn the answers to when I was younger. I learned that my father’s sexuality was fluid and he had contracted HIV and AIDS in 1993 and died of an infection the same year. This information had been kept from me since I was seven years old. The same visit led to a reconnection with one of my sisters. She found out that I was in the area and reached out to me on social media. She wanted me to know that she had a girlfriend and was going to come out to the family. She is now facing the same rejection that I had nine years ago. And I am happy she is now living her truth and has me to talk with.

I am so much more grateful for all that I have in my life. A supportive partner, a home, two wonderfully eccentric dogs, an education from one of the top 25 universities in the world, and a perspective that encompasses more than my own.

These are now part of my new story. A story I wouldn’t have been able to create without the guidance and reminders that the Queering the Museum project has afforded me. A story is worth telling and a story is worth listening to.

 Caleb is a student at The University of Washington. He recently completed with a BFA in Photomedia. Having visited countless museums of all genres, Caleb understands that, not just that a Queer narrative is missing from museums, but also that it’s desperately needed. For all of the Queer youths out there that need to see a part of themselves represented and appreciated as important contributors to history.

De Facto

Queer Digital Stories: Looking Back This post is the second in a series written by participants of our queer digital storytelling workshop.  Below is the film created by Mian Bond-Carvin, De Facto, followed by thoughts about the experience of making this film.  

 

I had the great honor of being part of the very first Queering The Museum Digital Storytelling Workshop which turned out to be cathartic and transformational. Eight of us, all strangers when we met, gathered to tell our stories and came to know and have deep gratitude for one another and the interconnectedness among us and Queer people, in general. We could relate without having to explain. Those of us who are considered minorities know the immeasurable comfort in that all-too-rare occurrence.

It was clear from the beginning what story I would tell.

I am the non-biological parent of a child who was taken from me by my former partner, the child’s biological mother. She and I planned the fertilization, pregnancy, birth and our lives together. But when we broke up six-and-a-half years after the birth, my daughter was taken from me because I did not have legal standing.

Other than adoption, legal standing for non-biological parents did not exist at the time. Because of this it was necessary for me to fight for years, with the help of a brilliant team of attorneys, to change that. As a result of the legal battle to assert myself as my daughter’s parent, a law was created in Washington State to benefit and protect relationships between non-biological parents and their children. It is called the de facto parenting law.

I titled my digital story de facto. It and others created during the QTM workshop were part of an exhibit which focused on Queer histories in the Pacific Northwest. The exhibit was called Revealing Queer and ran for five months at Seattle’s MOHAI (Museum of History and Industry) in 2014.

The exhibit was validating, uplifting and created a space for us, a place for us and our stories to be seen and heard, a first for Queer people on such a large scale. Personally, the exhibit created an opportunity for my struggle to be understood and for me to be recognized and honored as someone who has positively impacted the Queer community in Washington State. I hold deep gratitude for Nicole Robert and Erin Bailey for allowing me the opportunity to be part of this historical event.

I am currently working on a feature length film entitled Self-Exiled Southern Queer.

Mian Bond-Carvin

Olympia, WA

Gender Equity and Museums

Recently Erin Bailey-Sun was asked to contribute to Gender Equity and Museums for the Incluseum, along with some truly great folks working across museums. We are so pleased with how it turned out and we want you to check it out as well!

the incluseum

Since the Andrew W. Mellon Report came out we have been ruminating on what the findings indicate about inclusion in museums. We also wrote a recent piece which explored some of the current issues related to museum employment and labor. The Mellon report showed that museum staff have become 60% female over the last decade (women make up about 50.9% of the US population according to the 2012 census.) The Mellon report also states that:

“… job categories, including the subset of Curators, Conservators, Educators, and Leadership, are approximately 70% or more Female.”

“By decade born, museum employees appear to be growing comparatively more Female, as shown in Figure 11. For the job category subset of Curators, Conservators, Educators and Leadership, Males remain approximately 35- 40% of museum staff regardless of decade born.”

“With close attention to equitable promotion and hiring practices for senior positions, art museums should be able…

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How a children’s museum got a nationally-recognized LGBTQ advocate to be an unpaid intern.

“I stumbled upon the help wanted ad while doing research for a diversity and inclusion program. The ad read, “Intern needed to support Chicago Children’s Museum’s (CCM) initiative to welcome and engage the LGBTQ community. Contribute ideas and develop activities that build awareness and sensitivity to the LGBTQ community. Photograph LGBTQ families on-site to diversify museum’s photo library.”

My first thought, a childrens museum has an initiative for the LGBTQ community? Thats brave.
My next thought: apply for the position.” – Theresa Volpe

By Theresa Volpe and Katie Slivovsky

Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Perlman

“Sorry, can I have next week off? I’m going to The White House.”  Yep, that’s what my intern, Theresa Volpe, said to me last spring.  She and her family had been invited to Washington D.C. in recognition of their efforts to help pass the Marriage Equality bill in Illinois.  Theresa had testified at the state capital with her partner Mercedes Santos and their two children by her side.

[Click here to read Theresa’s testimony]

Also in recognition of their advocacy, Theresa (below, left) and Mercedes, were the first* same-sex couple to be legally married in Illinois.

*Mercifully, a few same-sex couples with a terminally-ill partner were allowed to legally marry right after the bill passed in 2012.

 How did this accomplished advocate come to volunteer her time for 6 months at Chicago Children’s Museum?  Let her tell you.—Katie Slivovsky

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

In Theresa’s words:

I stumbled upon the help wanted ad while doing research for a diversity and inclusion program. The ad read, “Intern needed to support Chicago Children’s Museum’s (CCM) initiative to welcome and engage the LGBTQ community. Contribute ideas and develop activities that build awareness and sensitivity to the LGBTQ community. Photograph LGBTQ families on-site to diversify museum’s photo library.”

My first thought, a childrens museum has an initiative for the LGBTQ community? Thats brave.

 My next thought: apply for the position. I saw this as an opportunity to give a voice to LGBTQ families and call attention to the need for public institutions to be more welcoming and inviting to all family structures. (Plus, I had an interest in the inner workings of museums.)

My cover letter outlined the incident which prompted my family to be involved in the fight for Marriage Equality in Illinois. I explained how our son had been hospitalized and was near death with kidney failure. My partner, Mercedes was with him.  I, however, was denied access to the pediatric intensive care unit when a hospital administrator declared I was not his “real mother.” (Thankfully our son is fine now.)

Within three days of receiving the application, the HR Department at CCM called to set up an interview. I’ll admit it; I was hesitant. Did I really want to open this can of worms? Like the museum, my heart was in the right place, but my life was not. My publishing company, BrainWorx Studio, was in transition, I was already up to my eyeballs in advocacy work, and I have three young children.

WHY was I strongly considering an unpaid internship?

The answer is easy. I met the staff at CCM. If I had any doubts before walking into the interview, the staff I met would seal the deal.  They wore rainbow-colored tags on their museum IDs.  They practically screamed, “Ally!” Their presentation and explanation about CCM’s efforts and its policy for welcoming, engaging, and including the LGBTQ community was truly impressive.

Katie, who introduced this article and co-founded AFM in 2011, said this about CCM’s position: “As a children’s museum, our job is to do what’s best for kids. For us, it’s not political or controversial. All children deserve to see their family structures and gender expressions reflected in their communities. No one should feel invisible.” I wanted to be involved and CCM wanted me!

Shining a Light on CCM

The LGBTQ-focused committee had logged a lot of hours in the 4 years before I arrived. I looked closely at the good things that had been done before and it occurred to me that if I hadn’t had a clue about CCM’s efforts, then other families in my community probably didn’t either. I made it my goal to bring more awareness about the museums overall inclusiveness to Chicagos LGBTQ community.

We started by amping up the events planned for International Family Equality Day, an event created by the Family Equality Council and celebrated around the world on the first Sunday in May. CCM had hosted the event twice before but attendance had been spotty.

We met with CCM’s Marketing staff who helped us focus on getting the media’s attention.  They suggested we create an experience or activity that would make a big visual impact, resulting in a good photo op (often the difference between drawing media attention and going unnoticed.)

1,500 Yards of Ribbon

We settled on having visitors tie colored ribbons to the museum’s three-story central staircase.  We would launch the program on IFED in May and continue it right through June, Pride Month in Chicago.  Not only was the idea doable on the museum’s tiny budget, it created a visually captivating statement about CCM’s commitment to the diverse family structures visiting the museum.

And…it turned out to be the photo op we were looking for!

Photo Credit: Windy City Time/Hal Baim

Photo Credit: Windy City Time/Hal Baim

Getting Ready

I personally reached out to various LGBTQ organizations to tell them about the events and the museum’s initiative. I invited them to participate or asked them to spread the word. I was mindful of the “communities within the communities,” and sought opportunities to invite families of color by reaching out to Latino, Asian, East Asian, and black LGBTQ organizations. I also looked for ways to be inclusive to families in different income brackets.

To CCM, it was also important for families with gender expansive children or parents to feel welcome in a comfortable setting. Early on in my internship, CCM’s large signs identifying the “Boys” and “Girls” restrooms had struck me as something a child struggling with gender identity might be confused by.

Also, a transgender parent might feel more comfortable going into a non-specified bathroom. I spoke with staff at Lurie Children’s Hospital Gender & Sex Development Clinic. They recommended that prior to IFED, CCM purchase and install “All-Gender Restroom” signs on the family bathrooms–which we did.  Katie wrote more about the sign here, titled “The Value of a $27.00 Sign.”

4Available for $27.00 here.

Connecting with LGBTQ families directly was more challenging. I drew from my own connections with the Chicagoland Rainbow Families, COLLAGE, GLSEN, and GLAAD, speaking directly to each to make sure these organizations knew CCM was welcoming to all families, including their own. The majority of the LGBTQ families attending IFEC learned about the event from one of these four organizations.

What else do LGBT families need and want from a children’s museum?

I believe LGBTQ parents appreciate the opportunity to meet each other in a family-friendly setting.  Speaking from experience, my family tends to have more “mom and dad families” as acquaintances than families similar to our own.  Before CCM created the LGBTQ-focused initiative in 2011, they had conducted focus groups with LGBTQ individuals and come to the same conclusion. We created the Hospitality Suite and Resource Room where LGBTQ families could meet up.

On three, free-admission evenings in May and June, we transformed the museum’s multi-purpose workshop room into a warm and welcoming place full of LGBTQ family-friendly children’s books, snacks, and music. We also had a resource table with materials about school safety, reproductive resources, support groups, organizations, gender identity clinics, and LGBTQ family-friendly children’s books.

Music to Fit the Day

I asked a children’s musician friend of mine, Stacy Buehler**, to perform on International Family Equality Day. Stacy, an early childhood educator and songwriter, wrote “Celebrate Love” which debuted at CCM!

I also invited Jason (pictured below), a transgender teen, to perform a song he had written about the importance of being yourself.  I’m so inspired by his insightful lyrics. Click here to watch Jason sing “Shakily Soaring”

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Jason (seated in chair) performing in CCM’s multi-purpose room.  The sign outside welcomed all: “Hospitality Suite and Resource Room: Materials and Support for LGBT families and friends. ALL welcome!”

Since the museum is always family-friendly and ready to serve all people, there was no need to transform exhibit experiences but we did add a few special programs on IFEC which were available to all. Visitors could:

 

  • Write on a 20’ long chalkboard , expressing their ideas about “What Makes a Family?” and reflecting on commonalties among families.
  • Make Family Flags to share the unique make up of all families.
  • Be part of a family group photo in front of the Rainbow Staircase.
  • Participate in a video shoot about what makes their family special. [Click here to hear **Stacy Buehler’s original song, “Celebrate Love”:

Prepping Museum Staff

With such an obvious show of support for the LGBTQ community, we wanted all museum staff to feel comfortable talking about the museum’s initiative and handling any visitor complaints.  Katie connected with all guest-facing staff and simply reminded them to handle a complaint about our rainbow staircase the same way they would handle a complaint about our “no coffee in the museum” policy: 1) calmly restate the museum’s policy, 2) keep the conversation brief (without brushing off the guest), 3) never engage in debate or add personal statements about the policy, and 4) let visitors know that completing a comment card is a solid way to ensure their voice will be heard by management. [Chicago has diverse guests from hundreds of cultures, some of which are very conservative. CCM has had more complaints about its no-coffee policy than its rainbows.]

The Outcome

Throughout May and June, nearly 80,000 visitors walked through the rainbow staircase as they moved among three floors of the museum. About 1,500 people added a ribbon themselves.  Amazingly, the rainbow was complete on June 26 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nation-wide.

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

Photo credit: Chicago Children’s Museum/Jon Resh

CCM’s Rainbow Staircase in 2015. A sign nearby said, “Lets make a rainbow! Were celebrating International Family Equality Day and Pride month. WANT TO ADD A RIBBON? Get one at the Admissions Desk. Brought to you by All Families Matter, a year-round initiative that furthers the museums commitment to all families by actively welcoming the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

 

Several dozen people visited the Hospitality and Resource Room over the three evening events; a good showing but we had hoped for even more.

The overall spirit of the events was joyful, despite receiving a tiny number of negative comments, less than a handful. Staff were excited about the museum’s overt show of welcome and inclusion.  We saw many happy, smiling visitors of all types explaining to their children exactly what the rainbow signifies. One teacher told Katie, “If a children’s museum can show this big sign of welcome to LGBT people, I can too. I’ve wanted to put a rainbow sticker on my classroom door; seeing this gives the courage to do it!” Yes!

The most memorable moment for me came when I saw a mother nervously fumbling through a stack of children’s books before settling on the floor with her son to read “The Tale of Two Mommies.” She continued to read one book after another. When she finished, she approached the table where I was handing out resources. I learned she came to the museum on IFED looking for information on how to deal with her family. Then she asked, “What would you do if your family was trying to turn your child against you? I told my family I’m a lesbian. They’ve been telling my son I’m a bad person.”  I got the feeling I may have been one of the few—or only—other lesbian moms she had ever talked to. I told her I was sorry her family wasn’t treating her better and asked, “Do you think your child knows you love him?”  “Of course! I tell him every day,” she answered.  His knowing she loved him, I said, was the most important thing.

I commended her for being courageous enough to bring her son to the event. I provided her with names of organizations and an LGBTQ family playgroup. I encouraged her to seek out other LGBTQ families. When her son sees other families similar to his own, he will learn he is not the only kid with a lesbian mom and it’s okay, as long as he knows he’s loved.—Theresa Volpe

(Back to Katie:) I like to joke that before Theresa came to CCM, our eight person, interdepartmental committee consisted of a few 20-something gay people and a few 40-something straight people.  NONE of us are gay parents of young children or gender expansive!  You can see how essential it was to work with Theresa, a member of the demographic we were trying to reach, who is creative, organized, determined and a great communicator with a huge network of contacts. When her internship ended in June of 2015, Theresa kindly agreed to join our committee permanently as an (unpaid) advisor.  On to 2016!—Katie Slivovsky

 

KateKatie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at the Chicago Children’s Museum.  In 2011, she helped found CCM’s initiative to actively welcome, engage and include the LGBTQ community.  Katie chairs an interdepartmental committee which assesses the inclusiveness of the museum’s environment, plans LGBTQ events, hosts International Family Equality Day each year, provides staff training, and more. 

ThersaTheresa Volpe is a writer, author, editor, and co-founder, with her wife, Mercedes Santos, of BrainWorx Studio Inc., an educational publishing development company. She is an LGBT family advocate, and mother of three.  She and her family were instrumental in the fight for marriage equality in Illinois.  They testified before the Illinois Senate in support of the marriage equality bill and lobbied legislators in Springfield.  In recognition of their efforts, Theresa and Mercedes were the first same-sex couple to be married in Illinois.

 

Omecihuatl: Reclaiming Gender through Undocumented Stories

Queer Digital Stories: Looking Back This post is the first in a series written by participants of our queer digital storytelling workshop.  Below is the film created by Jacque Larrainzar, Omecihuatl, followed by thoughts about the experience of making this film.

The journey to create Omecihuatl started many years ago. I could say it started when I was very young and I was trying to makes sense of gender and sex. From a very young age I felt different, not girl, nor boy.  I could not find my place in the universe.  I felt lost, afraid and alone. Many years later, while I was doing research for my Queering the Museum Digital Story Project I found an interactive map of gender diverse cultures around the world. The introduction to the map said: “On nearly every continent, and for all of recorded history, thriving cultures have recognized, revered, and integrated more than two genders. Terms such as transgender and gay are strictly new constructs that assume three things: that there are only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman).” (“A Map of Gender Diverse Cultures” from Kuma Hina at PBS.org) These words confirmed something I suspected for a long time: There had been a time when my kind had a place in society, where we were part of a community and played a role.  I started to look for the history of “my tribe”.  I remembered a story I had heard as a child on one of the many trips I took to Teotihuacan with my grandfather. In 1992, I found a place in Mexico, Juchitan de las Mujeres, where gender and sexuality were very different from the construct imposed by Europeans on indigenous cultures.

There I learned that gender non-conforming people had been the first to die during the war of Conquest and its tales and lives erased in the name of a new male dominated religion.  Many of my friends died after being tortured, others disappeared. As in many other places, their stories had been erased from History. Today, LGBTQ people all around the world face the same dangers. I have been involved in the fight for LGBT and indigenous rights in Mexico from a very young age. I was more naïve than fearless then, I had been beaten up in the streets several times for “looking like a man” but when I found out that I was on the government black list for giving shelter to women who were organizing an independent union, for providing safe sex education to transgendered women in Chiapas, and helping teachers demand a fair salary, I had no idea of what I would have to face. In December of 1994 I was held against my will, raped and tortured for three days. I was told rape and torture would “cure me” from being a pervert. It did not work, in 1997 II became the first Lesbian from Mexico to receive political asylum based on my sexual orientation. I have continued to work for the civil and human rights of my communities and I laugh when I think that the work that almost killed me in Mexico has won me many awards in the U.S. – I guess, Citizenship has its privileges.

I believe my story is one of many and these stories deserve to be kept and to be heard by others.  Only then we will be able to break and overcome the cycle of violence that has taken so many lives over so many centuries.

Omecihuatl is the story of a personal journey to find my place in the Universe, an attempt to reclaim a legacy lost to me over centuries of oppression. It is a small piece of my soul that remembers and honors the lives and stories of all those, who like me, have struggled to find a place in the world and have had to fight to claim and Identity. Is a story about being undocumented, in more than one way, of coming out to find joy in being.

Omecihuatl is a story lived everyday by many others with whom I share the work to achieve justice and equality in a world where claiming to be indigenous could be more dangerous than claiming to be queer and where claiming both might mean a dead sentence. Is also a reminder to those who do not understand why we are “this way” that nothing can keep us from claiming our ancestry, our gender, our sex, our history, that we will always choose not to live in shame and to fight fear.

This little film is a small seed that I hope will bloom into a thousand flowers.

Jacque Larrainzar

QTMP Film maker and Artivists.

 

The Expanding Conversation

 Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, by Susan Ferentinos (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites, by Susan Ferentinos (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

By: Susan Ferentinos

 

I first became aware of Queering the Museum in the course of doing research for a book I was writing, Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). I emailed Erin and Nicole and, though we live about two thousand miles apart, we met by phone to get to know each other a bit and share news of interesting work taking place at the intersection of queer history, museums, and community building.

I am based in Bloomington, Indiana, but was lucky enough to make it out to Seattle in May 2014 for the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums. In conjunction with that conference, the organizers of the Revealing Queer exhibit held a workshop at MOHAI, which enabled me both to tour the exhibit and learn a bit more about its development.

My trip to Seattle occurred at a critical point in organizing my thoughts for my manuscript. The Revealing Queer exhibit, the permanent exhibit at MOHAI, and the larger Queering the Museum endeavor all influenced my thinking on the topic of interpreting LGBT history, and all receive mention in the final version of my book. They join many other examples—from the Alice Austen House on Staten Island to the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale, from the Nebraska State Historical Society to the Library of Congress—as well as in-depth case studies of the Chicago History Museum’s Out in Chicago exhibit, the historic house museums of Historic New England, and a queer history summer immersion program for high school students in Minneapolis-St. Paul, co-sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Tretter Collection of GLBT Studies. Taken together, the work of these various institutions provide an overview of the opportunities and challenges connected to interpreting LGBT history for a wide audience.

Interpretation of Seattle's queer community is included in the Museum of History and Industry's permanent exhibit. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

Interpretation of Seattle’s queer community is included in the Museum of History and Industry’s permanent exhibit. Photo by Susan Ferentinos.

One issue organizations must confront when planning programming on the history of same-sex love and desire is whether this topic deserves a specific focus—as in a special exhibit—or should instead be integrated into a larger narrative—as part of the general history of a city or town, for example. MOHAI offers an interesting circumstance, in that it has opted to pursue both approaches. When I visited the museum last spring, I was able both to see LGBT history represented as part of the larger story of the city of Seattle and to delve more deeply into this topic in the special exhibit Revealing Queer.

 That special exhibit was also noteworthy for the method by which it came into existence. With any LGBT programming, it is essential for museums to reach out to the various queer communities whose histories will be explored. It’s quite common for museums to engage citizen advisory panels. But the Revealing Queer exhibit took the concept of community input a good deal further, incorporating a cooperative model, where representatives of various LGBT organizations were actively engaged in making curatorial decisions about the exhibit. This consensus-based approach challenged some professional assumptions about museums’ authority and expanded the implications of “visitor participation.”

Finally, beyond the innovative work being done specifically in Seattle, Queering the Museum is tapping into a larger, international conversation about how our understandings of the world change when we “queer” our assumptions, adopt different perspectives, and step outside of the confines of what is—and is not—considered “normal.” These are questions with implications for many, many aspects of our lives, but they also have particular relevance for the museum field.

In the last two decades, museums have become sites of public dialogue—the “New Town Square,” in the words of Robert Archibald. When at their best, museums (and I am including historic sites in this term as well) provide a place of exploration and reflection, where visitors can engage with new ideas and participate in the making of cultural meaning. The re-conceptualization of museums in this way has been quite a big deal; it stands in opposition to a long tradition of museums primarily serving the interests of the elite, transmitting cultural values along with education. Although museum missions have changed significantly (generally speaking), these older ideas still linger.

To take but one example, many cultural organizations still rely on the tacit assumption that visitors are heterosexual, monogamous, and live within a traditional nuclear family model. Artifacts and interpretation reinforce the idea that these conditions are the societal norm, which implicitly suggests that alternative ways of relating are not normal, are somehow inferior. We see this when museums describe the (heterosexual) marriage and procreation of one historic figure, but opt to ignore another’s same-sex attachments, deeming such information irrelevant, libelous, or confrontational. We see it too in the tendency to find any artifact of queer life (a tee-shirt from the lesbian softball team, the obituary of a gay person who died of AIDS, a wig worn by a transgender woman) as sexual, controversial, or inappropriate to display in an all-ages venue.

Queering the Museum is part of the professional effort to challenge this heteronormativity. To ask instead, what happens when we readjust the lens? What can we learn by interrogating societal assumptions of normality? What can cultural outsiders teach us about struggle, privilege, and belonging?

Figure8.1.JohnQ.Replacement.Small

The John Q idea and art collective performs “discursive memorials” outside of museum boundaries. Here, members dress in police uniforms and handcuffs for the 2011 event, Policing Ourselves, which referenced an unlawful 2009 police raid on the Eagle, an Atlanta leather bar. Photo courtesy of the John Q Collective.

 

This conversation to which QTM is contributing is gaining momentum. Museums around the country are beginning to explore these questions. The American Association for State and Local History, a major professional organization for history museums, included Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites in its book series on innovative approaches to interpreting the past. And as this conversation becomes increasingly sophisticated, some are challenging the very structure of the museum and the presumed need for authentic historical artifacts, as witnessed by projects such as the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History and the John Q Idea Collective.

This is an exciting adventure to be on. In the United States, cultural acceptance and legal protection of LGBT people is expanding at a mind-boggling rate. Within the museum field, new initiatives are pushing at the boundaries of what we have traditionally thought was possible. I am so grateful to be living and working during these changing times, and I am glad that organizations such as QTM are asking questions that don’t always have easy answers but do have the potential to expand the ways museums relate to the communities they serve.

Susan Ferentinos is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant, who specializes in historical project management and using the past to build community. She is the author of Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (2014). To learn more about her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter at @HistorySue.

Project: Hidden Voices

The Reading Museum in Reading, UK recently developed a LGBT focused exhibit.  In the following post, the Reading Museum,  details the exhibition and its’ development. The timing of this exhibition supports the LGBT History Month int he UK and brings to life the unique role Reading, UK played in LGBT activism.

By: Bobby Smith

Project: Hidden Voices

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

The preview opening of the Hidden Voices was a landmark occasion in the history of the Reading Museum with  the Mayor of Reading, Cllr Tony Jones, and invited members of the Reading’s LGBT community in attendance.

Never before has the town centre venue hosted an exhibition focusing on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) heritage. The Hidden voices project has been a partnership between the Support U and the Reading Museum, aided with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The idea was first conceived in 2012, when the charity’s founder, Lorna McArdle, lent the museum her Olympic Torch, which she had run though the town during the Olympic relay. Lorna had been selected for this honour as a result of her LGBT campaigning work. The museum Olympic year exhibition, ‘Bikes, Balls and Biscuitmen: Our Sporting Life’, displayed the torch with clear reference to it as an item of material culture with LGBT properties. This was seen as something of a ‘toe in the water’, testing how the museum could be open in representing, to its general audience, a minority group in Reading who define identity by sexual orientation. It is not an entirely straight forward subject matter, precisely because Reading is made up of such a diverse range of other communities, a small number of whom still hold the unenlightened attitudes towards homosexuality that only public discourse and education will counter.

Hidden History

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtesy of Bobby Smith

Research into Reading’s hidden gay history, conducted by volunteers recruited by Reading’s LGBT Support U charity, sheds light on the town’s place in the story of homosexual oppression throughout the centuries. Through oral history recordings the project has also uncovered more recent local campaigns that have taken place in a journey towards gay liberation.

Here are a few examples of the scholarship we found:

Oscar Wilde’s incarceration in Reading Gaol in 1895 following his conviction for homosexuality is well documented and amongst the objects now on display at the museum is a Victorian prison key, which was recently donated to the collection by the Ministry of Justice after the prison’s closure in 2014. This key opened the master key safe at Reading prison during the period of Wilde’s imprisonment and, as such, must stand as one of the world’s most significant artifacts in relation the LGBT history.

Also on show is the Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory visitor’s book signed by Wilde on 22 September 1892. Wilde was amongst the society friends of Jean and Walter Palmer and three years before his downfall had been a guest at ‘Westfield’, their family home on Southcote Road.

It is less well known that 21 years before Wilde’s enforced stay, the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud lived just a stone’s throw away from the prison, at 165 Kings Road. It was here, whilst working as a language tutor during the late summer of 1874, that he drafted Les Illuminations, generally considered to be his greatest work. An archetypical Enfant Terrible, Rimbaud’s up-front stance on homosexuality scandalised French literary society but, despite giving up writing at aged just 19, his influence on modern poetry and art has been pervasive.

In a remarkable further literary connection to Reading, Wilfred Owen, the Great War poet, spent formative years before the outbreak of hostilities as lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden Church. Owen took an active part in the cultural life of Reading and in his spare time attended botany classes at the University College. His letters also reveal details of his visits to Reading Museum to see the Silchester collection of Roman antiquities.  He writes:  ‘Walked into Reading, went to Museum and joy of joys was shown all over Roman remains from Silchester. What a morning and what a museum!’

Owen’s sexual orientation was kept a closely guarded secret long after he was tragically killed in action, just days before the armistice. In an age when homosexuality remained outlawed, his friends and family saw the importance of preserving his reputation intact.

Above all these figures in LGBT history with a close association to Reading, it is perhaps John Wolfendan, Vice Chancellor of the University of Reading in 1954 when he was appointed chair of the Home Office committee debated changes to the laws relating to homosexuality. The Wolfenden Report recommending decriminalisation was published in 1957.

Despite the changes to legislation, prejudice against people on the grounds of their sexual orientation continued beyond 1967, when the recommendations of Wolfendan’s report finally became law. Indeed a report published by the

National Centre for Social Research in 2013 found that discrimination has remained widespread in subsequent decades. As such, by bringing the life and times of Reading’s LGBT community into a public spotlight, the ‘Hidden Voices’ project, represents a further milestone in promoting tolerance and acceptance.

As project manager Bobby Smith put it while speaking very movingly at the Hidden Voices preview event:

Photo: Courtney of Bobby Smith

Photo: Courtney of Bobby Smith

“Throughout the project I have learned that love, the beauty of it, the joy of it, even the pain of it, is the most incredible gift to give and to receive as a human being. And we all deserve to experience love fully, equally, without shame and without compromise

If all goes to plan this March, representatives from the Hidden Voices project will travel to Derby Museum to attend the concluding event of the inaugural Museum Association Transformers programme. This presents a good opportunity to disseminate the positive output of the Hidden Voices project, further afield. Perhaps it may encourage other similar local museums in the UK to consider the positive benefit that embracing partnerships with the LGBT community can bring. In Reading; besides deepening engagement with a wider set of social issues effecting gay people, by uncovering enlivening historical narratives the museum has positioned itself as a place of pilgrimage during this year’s LGBT history month. A final port of call for tourists might be St Marys Minster Church where, in 2003, but for the controversy surrounding his relationship with another man and his pronouncements on those others made in God’s gay image, Dr Jeffrey John might well have been moved to go through with his consecration as the first Gay Bishop of Reading in the world.

Reading Museum in the heart of Royal Berkshire England

Reading Museum was founded in 1883 and it’s Art Gallery in 1897. From its earliest days it collected broadly in the fields of Archaeology, Art and Applied Art, Natural History, Numismatics and Ethnography as well as objects relating to the history of Reading and its environs. Collections of international significance include the Romanesque stones from Reading Abbey, the Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the finds and records resulting from various excavations of the Roman town of Silchester.

 

Bobby Smith is the project manger for Hidden Voices Was to visually and orally bring the history of the Reading’s LGBT community to life by remembering what came before equality. By opening up the past and bringing understanding to the present, we can bring inspiration and education to future generations. To give a voice to those that had to be kept quiet. To open the mind that was once closed and to inspire the inquisitive.Together we can listen to the Hidden Voices so that the loneliness and fear can be heard. May the past be remembered so that the future can be unbiased and equal.

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