Charles Francis and Bob Witeck: The Smithsonian Museum Puts Gays In The Vault
A dozen picket signs on old wooden sticks carry the DNA of the gay civil equality movement in America. Forty-five years ago, this month, in 1965, these pickets were held high by men and women considered among the first generation of LGBT activists in front of Lyndon Johnson's White House.
With the men wearing jackets and ties and tailored skirts for the ladies, all arrived neatly dressed to disarm the looks of fellow citizens, while their hand-lettered signs proclaimed unimaginable things like "First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals". Despite their professional appearances, this handful of men and women on this history-making picket line, knew perfectly well that their conduct literally put themselves and their jobs on the line, in broad daylight.
Today, however, those brave pickets are stored in the dark of a Smithsonian vault, where they have been held for they past four years, ever since they first were presented to The National Museum of American History.
In 2006, the original protest pickets were donated to the Smithsonian by The Kameny Papers Project, funded in part by former Congressman Michael Huffington and other generous friends and allies. Frank Kameny is often considered the still living father of the gay civil equality movement in Washington, D.C. and led many such picket lines in his day. Fired by the federal government in 1957 because he was gay, Kameny responded in righteous fury that such an action could be taken against him, a World War II veteran who had seen combat in Germany, a Harvard-educated astronomer determined to work for America's nascent space program.
Like many Americans, he sought nothing more than to be an equal part of JFK's "New Frontier" and Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society", yet was locked out, then forced change and acceptance by his nation's government over the following decades by sheer application of his wits and his will. The man has lived even to see a Washington, D.C. street named for him this month, "Frank Kameny Way".
So how is it that the nation's treasured museum, our Smithsonian Institution, can keep these very special artifacts in the vault? To be fair, it takes time for a museum the size and quality of this great institution to curate and interpret artifacts of contemporary history.
However, beyond the pickets, even if a casual visitor or respected historian pays a call today, he or she will quickly discover there is not a single gay or lesbian story told in the entire National Museum of American History.
In our nation's capital - for over two centuries, our city often has witnessed and staged the struggles for many Americans fighting to achieve their full measure of equality and visibility. Within the Smithsonian, in fact, you will see their stories chronicled, their sacrifices narrated, their faces displayed. Major exhibits on "American Ideals", "Public Opinion", "Communities", "The Price of Liberty", "Culture" and "Science in the Public Eye" make absolutely no reference whatever to LGBT Americans. It is a time warp in itself, to see this absence given how the country and public opinion have changed since World War II, and how many nationally respected historians, story-tellers and journalists have documented LGBT contributions and challenges, including even our generation's terrible HIV/AIDS epidemic. You will search in vain to find today on exhibit even a piece of the AIDS quilt, or a single mention of gay and lesbian involvement in politics, civics, culture or war. Within the Smithsonian - the nation's lens on American history - we remain invisible.
In contrast, in 2006, the Kameny Papers Project donated nearly 50,000 items to The Library of Congress. These documents have been catalogued in their entirety and are now fully available to anyone with a Library card. The Library also knows that they have a responsibility not merely to keep these documents under lock and key on their shelves. This month, as part of their LGBT Pride activities, the Library of Congress launched an innovative, new web portal focusing largely on the Kameny archive, along with the papers of gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and other prominent writers and doers, with a very generous Introduction by our national Librarian James Billington. The Library of Congress sets the standard for telling the story of all Americans who envision, celebrate, build and defend American liberty.
The National Museum of American History plays an especially important role among all Smithsonian museums. It tells the story of freedom, and how that freedom has steadily expanded to include all Americans from the abolition of slavery, to granting women the right to vote, to the African-American civil rights movement of the Sixties, to defending the rights of the disabled. It is past time to bring LGBT Americans out of the vault and into the fold of that liberty story, where we belong, at the Smithsonian and to be shared with all Americans
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