“Allies come in all shapes and sizes– you never know who has a personal experience with LGBTQ identity and culture (or just the experience of being different) that will make them open to thinking about inclusion initiatives at the institutional level, particularly as these perspectives are becoming more mainstream in popular culture.”
By: Erin Bailey-Sun
After the AAM “Museum Pride” session in Atlanta our fearless moderator, Kate, received a slew of questions we simply didn’t have not time answer. In an effort to answer these questions all of the panelists attempted to answer the questions that related the best to their work, lives, and comfort level. We hope this will spark a new dialogue with the readers and carry this conversation to the next level. None of us are perfect or know what should be the preferred practice but these are our experiences.
- “Any tips on how to conduct outreach to LGBT audiences without appearing to pander or sensationalize the subject matter? e.g. if promoting an exhibition of graphic gay imagery intended for a general audience.”
Kate: It’s smart to be concerned about pandering or being tokenistic, but more often than not I have seen that fear freeze museums and prevent them from taking any action. Beware the ‘advisory board’ model– too often a temporary way to engage communities which often leads to later abandonment, frustration, and mistrust. A commitment to LGBTQ audiences every day, not just when you’re working on an exhibition or program, matters. Have LGBTQ voices and faces on your staff, in your senior leadership, in your volunteer corps, on your board. Put up inclusive signage that clearly welcomes LGBTQ individuals and families. Participate in your local Pride and LGBTQ events. Serve on LGBTQ community organization boards. Include LGBTQ folks in your marketing. Being an ally needs to be an ongoing, every-day activity– not something a museum only does when it served their internal needs.
Erin: In all honestly, I struggled with this during my work on Revealing Queer at the Museum of History & Industry. I didn’t come to a resolution that I was 100% comfortable with; however; I approached the exhibition from the perspective of the human experience, prioritizing what it means to holistically identify as LGBTQ instead of exploring sexual practices. I did this for two reasons; we needed to keep the content just radical enough to be authentic but not so radical that MOHAI would face controversy. Secondly, I did this because sexual practice experienced with LGBTQ communities cross many other identities, so that narrative was less interesting to me. I am not saying this was the best approach or that I would always redirect questions about sex in the exhibition, but it worked with the community members and myself to ensure that we telling a human narrative.
- “When internal and staff efforts are consistently ignored because museum leadership insists that this audience does not exist for their institution, is it a good idea to rally outside support to place pressure on the institution? What resources would you suggest?”
Kate: As Joe mentioned during our panel, and Danielle reiterates, data is your best friend and biggest ally in these situations. A good baseline demographic study will help you establish where your visitorship is, and isn’t. Also, I’d argue saying an audience doesn’t exist for an institution is already a great call to action! What a missed opportunity! Show research on and stories of other museums who have taken this approach and seen it pay off in dividends. (Just ask anyone on the panel!) Talk to your local LGBTQ organizations about how they’d like to participate and see themselves at your museum. As far as outside ‘pressure’ goes, I do think external voices matter. Ask your senior leadership or director to have one lunch (just an hour or her or his time!) with you and an influential leader in your local LGBTQ circles. Make the case. Also, feel free to contact us! Many of us would, I am sure, be happy to help you along this path.
Danielle: While I did not have the experience of trying to persuade reluctant leaders to take action on this issue, I would argue that a mix of internal and external support is always the best way to effect change in any institution. External stakeholders can pressure the institution in a way that staff can’t. Also, I think it is Joe who pointed out that data can really support these efforts– bolster your case using evidence.
- “Working at a medium size museum, in Memphis….very conservative, traditional, and religious board. What are some suggestions on how to introduce LGBTQ inclusion to board, staff and member?”
Danielle: Allies come in all shapes and sizes– you never know who has a personal experience with LGBTQ identity and culture (or just the experience of being different) that will make them open to thinking about inclusion initiatives at the institutional level, particularly as these perspectives are becoming more mainstream in popular culture.
Kate: As Danielle wrote, emphasizing the overlapping ways that marginalization and segregation occur in ALL communities and museums may help to broaden the scope as you begin these conversations. If it feels too bold to discuss your own museum’s culture at the get-go, start with using other museums as an example– especially those of similar size in similar geographies. Bringing in a panel of community folks to talk candidly about your museum’s accessibility (or lack thereof) is one suggestion I’d recommend. Invite them to explore the space, take note, photos, and/or videos, and then talk through their observations. You could have someone talk about having different physical or cognitive abilities, another talk from a Latina perspective, and another from a LGBTQ perspective, etc. This is incredible professional development for boards and staff, as we all get so used to only seeing our spaces through our own eyes and experiences. Of course, this should be a two-way street. What can you or your museum provide to assist them or their organizations as well? Offer before you are asked. This is about building supportive, collaborative communities that learn and grow stronger together.
Joe: In a study reported in Museums & Social Issues, we found that highly educated, financially secure gay and lesbian couples visited museums, but did not financially support them. The most common reasons for both: they believe in the institutions, but did not see themselves there, feel especially welcomed in these spaces…all those things we all know and talk about as barriers. Some people respond to the money angle…
- “Have any of the panelists had a chance to work with Native peoples regarding indigenous views of gender identity? (Two-spirit people?)”
Erin: No, I have not had that opportunity and in talking with others our experience interpreting this identity is very limited. We all wish we had more to say but there is always more work to be done.
- “Love to hear about how deal with or not deal with backlash and/or censorship outside the institution if they have examples.”
Megan: I don’t know if I can answer this question properly but I’ll try. We initially dealt with internal censorship but we’re only had positive responses from outside the Museum. Perhaps there was a Facebook remark when we first began outreach to LGBTQ communities. We have been preparing for an upcoming exhibit that is not dealing with LGBTQ issues but is expecting some backlash and to deal with that we are doing due diligence to ensure we have a broad, accurate perspective and support from a variety of community stakeholders. We are trying to be transparent- sharing the mission, language, and perspective with all levels of staff and community before there is a possibility for negativity.
Joe: There is a whole realm of discussion and research around the social role of museums. For me, this question brings to the fore the very important role museums can play across social issues. I believe each museum must define for itself its role in society, but the decision must be explicit and intentional. I push a few institutions I work with from the perspective that we cannot choose to be a social change agent at some points in time, and not at others. If the museum identity includes having a role in social change in the community, or leadership around various social issues, then that identity is weakened if the museum opts in and out of engaging in the community depending on the particular issue if it is as relevant to their role as another issue. Some of the work others have done in this area that most resonates with me is around the need for museums to be necessary in their communities, and that means doing some of the uncomfortable work of being engaged in society by taking a stand.
- In regard to Danielle’s conversation about her work at the Whitney “What specific strategies were effective in the effort to establish all-gender bathrooms? What were some of the challenges? Do they exist alongside men/women bathrooms or are all the bathrooms integrated?”
Danielle: The Whitney’s new building downtown features All Gender Restrooms throughout the building, as well as traditional men’s and women’s rooms. Check out this blog post documenting some of our early experiments with introducing all gender restrooms during the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
- “Great panel– interested in what you’re all doing. Seriously, though, Joe et al, you have to acknowledge that your aversion to normalization ironically marginalizes a whole lot of people in our community who very much want more than anything to ‘fit in’ and ‘be respected’ rather than be treated as ‘other.’ Do you say to hell with them? Isn’t that also a way of erasing difference and itself offensive?”
Joe: Being “other” is not the same as ‘sticking out’ or ‘making a point of being different.’ It is about owning the uniqueness of self and context and not being swallowed up and placed into a box that makes the dominant culture comfortable in assuming that a heteronormed world is all that exists. It is about challenging beliefs about gender identity, sexual orientation, sexual preference, etc. It is about not allowing misconceptions, false assumptions, generalizations, and hurtful thoughts to be propagated by minimizing the person through forcing them into a box that fits within tradition heterosexuality which means comfort for the dominant culture. Most of us want to fit in and all of us want to be respected, but I believe at the heart of this question is a confusion about being other and assuming that means one cannot fit in, pass, get by, slide under the radar, or be invisible—that is something most of us want and need at different times. And as humans, we should have the right to fit in and fitting in should not mean pretending we are not the wonderful people we are in all our diverse complex lives.
Erin: Following Joe’s thoughts I don’t think it’s expected that every person that may identify within or around LGBTQ needs to advocate beyond their comfort. As a cis-gendered white woman there are things I am comfortable talking about and other things I am not, but I try and respect the preferences of individual’s identities in all of my work. If passing is your truth than live it, as I will ensure that I am pushed in to the dichotomy of a straight white female based on my appearance. I think we are speaking the same language but from different perspectives.
- “How do you address diversity within the LBGTQ community?”
Erin: In my work with Queering the Museum project I am continually thinking and refining this topic, how to not lump all the experiences within LGBTQ into one. For me the use of and meaning behind the reclamation of the word queer is my current advocacy tool. The word queer was (and sometimes still is) a pejorative but has since been used to move the conversation around gender and sexuality out of the male/female (heternormative) binary. This binary is both limiting and oppressive to the human condition, and by thinking about identities outside of this binary I have been able to come some deep understandings of the world and the work of museums. Its understanding that feminine and masculine are constructs that many people do not fit within; working with that understanding may help deep or broaden your understanding of identities and they engage or work with people (inside and outside of the LGBTQ communities) in a more authentic way. It’s not always perfect, but its where I root my work.
9. “Which office, staff member, unit in the museum spearheads LGBTQ inclusion? Who carries the burden; how are they resourced?”
Megan: At the Children’s Museum, audience development for LGBTQ inclusion happens within our Community Outreach department as part of the larger education umbrella. However, outreach and audience diversity is a Museum-wide value that all departments work toward, through membership, board relations, exhibit development, etc. Because it is a shared goal toward inclusion, everyone is looking at stewarding relationships, which makes life easier for everyone! However, the events and programs that attract different audiences are developed by the Community Outreach team, which consists mainly of educators who program and staff each engagement. We rely on advisory boards, partners and external funding to run the programs. Resources are developed through grants and corporate gifts primarily.
Danielle: At the Whitney, the Access and Community Programs Department, which is housed within Education, has a mission of increasing access and relevance for audiences that have traditionally been underserved by cultural institutions, and who experience barriers to participation. LGBTQ inclusion was an outgrowth of our community outreach and engagement work downtown, but also fit in with our other departmental activities. Also, over time the efforts have grown and multiple program areas have taken on this question, including public programs and family programs.
Joe: No one officially, but it falls within the work of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Erin: In smaller museums it seems that it comes from staff members who are interested or invested in these communities. Similar to what everyone stated it depends on the makeup of the museum and the executive leadership. It may be bottom up and in some cases its top down, but as you conduct outreach it’s important to ensure that you’re not essentializing or tokenizing these communities. There is a long history of mistrust between institutions (not just museums) and LGBTQ individuals (archives, health care, the prison complex, etc.), so keep in mind that long term engagement is more important than one really diverse panel or exhibition. How will you engage these communities after the exhibition closes or the panel is over? What will you learn from these communities in the process that will deep your understanding of their experiences?
- “What kind of education or consciousness-raising have you had to undertake in your institution to overcome barriers?”
Danielle: Education can really ease transitions like this– ensuring that your staff and stakeholders are comfortable and have appropriate language to discuss topics related to LGBTQ cultural inclusion can go a long way. This can be done both formally and informally. Lots of organizations offer sensitivity training and can recommend resources or provide a trainer or educator, or you can also model bringing the topic up in conversation in a natural and respectful way.
Megan: I would echo what Danielle has said, education through training, reading journals and participation in these activities really foster a stronger Museum community. At CMOM we have done different sensitivity trainings and visitor services trainings but the most effective way for overcoming barriers that I’ve seen work is through experiencing the program, meeting with these audiences and respectfully working to change perspectives.
Joe: I believe in the concept of dis-settling. I cannot make someone else uncomfortable, but I can dis-settle the situation. I’ve been in many meetings where I am able, as a male, to react strongly to a comment that is sexist and dis-settle the discussion, especially when a woman (often the only one) cannot. I’ve often ‘outed’ myself (ok, so once it’s done, it’s just reminding people) during discussions and brainstorms to point out assumptions and omissions as it relates to gender identity, sexual identity, etc. For me, it is about making others aware of and feel the tensions of the barriers that they often don’t realize are barriers.
Kate: One thing that’s important to my practice now that I’m consulting is making it clear to museums and culturals that I want to be an active part of these projects– that working on inclusion and social justice are central to my work. Perhaps that isn’t the ‘unbiased’ and ‘objective’ approach most assume evaluators should take, but to me it’s essential and I don’t hide it. I prioritize conversations with my clients, no matter the project or subject matter that address access and equity. These conversations can be hard for people, and rightly so, so I make sure to acknowledge that and explore why. Keeping the conversations going, beyond one-off training or projects, is essential. It’s also essential to create a climate where people feel safe to make mistakes, be called out, and move forward toward a common goal. I believe every interaction we have, and every decision we make (alone or together), can help us become better allies, more informed citizens in our communities, and simply more gentle and empathetic with one another. We’re in this together and it’s better to be kind than to be right. Let’s help each other.
Erin: With most of the institutions I have worked with it started with language, not using “gay” to refer to everyone within LGBTQ communities, and “policing” the q. These are the first and most public way your audiences read your internal opinions or understanding of gender, sex, and sexuality. In Seattle if you don’t use the Q the younger generation will write you off as behind the times or excluding to identities beyond lesbian and gay. In addition to what Joe said about unsettling the conversation I often use my own identity to police the Q, as someone who is cis-gendered but identifying as Queer I speak my truth to help people understand where I am coming from in which I hope they gain the language skills to continue these conversations both with themselves and others. There are many who don’t feel comfortable doing this, and I understand that; however, once you’re out, you’re out and at that point you need to find ways to heal yourself after continually coming out to everyone, over and over again.
Thank you for the thoughtful and thought provoking questions. If you would answer them differently, please do so in the comment section below.