Amari McGee has an ambitious goal for 2022: visiting every LGBTQ museum or relevant exhibit in the USA.
McGee, 23, is an activist and consultant who works with people in the LGBTQ+ community on identity empowerment and transgender education. He has come up with a list of 34 LGBTQ art galleries, museums and archives to visit.
He hopes to educate himself on the history and culture of a community he's part of as a transgender man and intends to use the knowledge he gains to improve the services he can provide to others.
"I felt as though taking the initiative to visit all the LGBTQ+ museums is going to actually give me another foot toward exactly truly understanding not only just the transgender community but the LGBTQ+ community as a whole," McGee said.
Museums focused on queer history and culture play a pivotal role for the LGBTQ community, which has faced historical erasure after decades of marginalization and discrimination that continue, advocates said. A next step, in addition to supporting archives in museums, will be the American LGBTQ+ Museum, set to open in New York City in 2024.
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'A moment for museums like ours'
A couple of years away from a formal opening, the organization already hosts and plans events with partner organizations around the city, raising funds for the space and hiring staff.
The museum's first exhibition space will open as part of the New-York Historical Society's planned expansion in the Upper West Side: One floor of the building's 70,000-foot expansion will house exhibits from the American LGBTQ+ Museum, and the organization aims to construct its own space later.
"We have this partnership with the New-York Historical Society, which is phenomenal, which is enabling us to launch the museum in a physical space, and that's such a fantastic partnership from one of the oldest museums in the city to one of the newest," Urvashi Vaid, board secretary of the American LGBTQ+ Museum, said. "We will have that physical space while building toward our own space in the future."
Executive Director Ben Garcia said the costs for the project are "considerable" compared with elsewhere, but there's potential for visitors: New York City was the most visited destination for gay and lesbian tourists in 2019, according to a Community Marketing & Insights survey.
Though the data came from pre-pandemic tourism, the American LGBTQ+ Museum conducted more recent surveys to prepare for the museum's launch.
"I think that as we look at our history, this just seems to be a moment for museums like ours, museums that focus in on a piece of history that has been undertold," Garcia said. "The LGBTQ+ identity, which is such a large set of identities, has really exploded in terms of its expression, its understanding and its acceptance over the past 10 years."
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Andrew Shaffer, interim co-executive director and director of development and communications at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, is a historian who helped build the Madison LGBTQ Archives in 2015. The archives were Madison, Wisconsin's, first permanent physical LGBTQ archives, according to the GLBT Historical Society's website.
"I don't think you can tell any history without including queer history, because queer people are and always have been everywhere," he said.
Before the creation and maintenance of queer archives, LGBTQ history was relegated to organizational and institutional documentation, such as police records and census data, obscuring the full picture of queer culture and visibility, Shaffer said.
It wasn't until the mid-20th century that queer activists stepped up to build their own archives, at first informally, by gathering artifacts such as journals, meeting notes and protest banners, then in more formal collections such as the GLBT Historical Society, founded in 1985, according to Shaffer.
Other formal collections include the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California; the Lambda Archives of San Diego; and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn.
'Decades of work and activism'
The coalescence of increased social and cultural acceptance with this archival activism opened the door for the museums, archives and exhibits, Shaffer said.
A Gallup poll from February found that 7.1% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ, double the percentage from 2012, when Gallup first measured identity, and up over last year's poll that showed 5.6% of adults identify as LGBTQ.
The uptick was steered by young people: About 21% of Generation Z Americans – those born from 1997 to 2003 – identified as LGBTQ in the poll, which was based on aggregated 2021 data.
"We're seeing come to fruition decades of work and activism and archiving practice by queer people," Shaffer said. "I think it's both of those things sort of coming to fruition at the same time: broader social acceptance but also just a broader data set. Without the archives, we'd have really limited stories to tell."
The GLBT Historical Society is the only stand-alone museum in the country dedicated solely to American LGBTQ history and culture, according to its website.
Vaid said the 50th anniversary of Stonewall in 2019 was a pivotal moment, opening the door for explorations into examples of LGBTQ history.
"The LGBTQ story is actually a very local and a national and an international story," Vaid said. "So there's queer stories in Ohio, there's queer stories in Iowa, there's LGBTQ history in Nebraska."
Shaffer, whose primary role at the GLBT Historical Society centers around fundraising, said the rising cost of living in cities affects the queer museums and archives.
"So much of our institutions were built at a time when it was possible to live in San Francisco or New York or LA or Boston and not be wealthy, and that time is quickly disappearing," Shaffer said. "Long term, that is a concern for every queer organization: How do you survive in a city that maybe no longer has a place for a sort of scrappy upstart institution?"
Garcia and other museum directors consider traveling exhibits, online exhibitions and other opportunities to ensure access to queer history isn't limited to metro areas such as New York City and San Francisco.
"What we hope to be is a place where those histories are held and told in an ongoing way, sort of a wellspring or a source for all these other possible manifestations of history exhibitions or storytelling that can happen around the country," Garcia said. "I think that is the role of a culturally specific organization or a LGBTQ archive library or museum is to be that holder of documentation that will last in perpetuity."
As interest and access in LGBTQ museums expand, organizations reflect on their audience and the makeup of those who visit. Museums and archives focused on queer culture and history are first and foremost safe and accepting spaces for the LGBTQ community but also serve to teach straight and cisgender visitors about queer history, according to Shaffer.
"Our audience is really, really broad," he said. "I think it is a large part of our mission to not only educate queer people about their history but to educate everyone about their history. ... I think everyone should be able to access it, and it should be done in a way that is presentable and understandable."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LGBTQ history: New NYC museum will showcase American queer culture