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Preserving Pride: National LGBT Museum to open by 2019

For the past seven years, Tim Gold has collected more than 5,000 artifacts documenting the LGBT civil rights movement and the lives of LGBT people — enough items to fill a museum.

And that’s just what he and supporters of the National LGBT Museum plan.

Gold began thinking about an LGBT museum while working for the National Postal Museum and reading about James Smithson, for whom the Smithsonian Institution is named. 

In 2008, Gold co-founded the museum, which is dedicated to sharing the heritage of LGBT people. He is co-chair of the museum board and he and husband Mitchell Gold of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams make up the founder’s circle.

Earlier this spring, the board announced the selection of New York City as the site for the museum.

The board also announced longtime LGBT civil rights advocate Kevin Jennings agreed to serve as co-chair. Jennings, an educator, activist and author, has been involved in promoting, teaching and preserving LGBT history for decades. He founded the organization now known as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and established the first gay-straight alliance. He also worked with LGBT leaders to recognize LGBT History Month in October.

“A New York City resident, a historian by training and a long-time leader in the LGBT movement, Kevin is the perfect partner to help lead the effort to establish this museum in New York City,” said Gold.

Jennings said, “Tim and the board have done significant work in envisioning what a national LGBT museum might look like and I am excited to join them in helping turn that vision into a reality.”

WiG recently asked Jennings about the board’s plans to open the museum in New York City, where 46 years ago this month, the modern gay civil rights movement began with the raid and the riots at the fabled Stonewall Inn.

What went into selecting the site?  The ideal site is a city with a deep LGBT history, supportive community and political leadership and a strong tourism sector.  New York has all three and we’re excited to be moving ahead with that as our home.

The goal is to open the museum for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in 2019? This will be such a momentous occasion and to have a museum open to commemorate it would be a dream come true. It would be a critical time to reflect on how far we have come and also on the work that remains to be done.

What needs to happen for you to achieve the 2019 goal?  Museums come down to three things: collections, space and money. Tim has built a wonderful collection of over 5,000 artifacts which, when combined with the fact that there are numerous other collections from which we hope to borrow, means we’ve cleared that hurdle. The next hurdle is finding the right space, which, in New York City’s highly competitive real estate market, will not be easy.

Once we have the space, we then need the money to design and build the exhibition.

So you are you at work collecting for the museum? Yes, we hope people will reach out to us if they have items they think may be of interest.

What will it cost to open the doors? Are you looking for major donors? We will need both public funding and are already discussing this with elected officials who are supportive of the project, as well as individual and corporate support to build the museum.

What are the museum’s most important artifacts or materials at this point? Among the cool things we already have are the military uniform of Frank Kameny, who organized the first picket of the White House for LGBT rights in 1965; a walking stick that belonged to Bayard Rustin, the openly gay African-American civil rights leader who organized the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech; and a T-shirt from the nation’s first gay-straight alliance, founded in Massachusetts in 1988.

Kevin, the first time I wrote about gay history was back in the early to mid-1990s. I was reporting in St. Louis and writing about you, Rodney Wilson and others working to establish Gay History Month, gay-straight alliances and GLSEN. You’ve been involved in this work for so long. Why is it so important? The black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without a history is like a tree without roots.” To understand oneself as part of a historical tradition gives one a sense of place and belonging in the world, one all too often denied to LGBT people and especially LGBT youth, who learn next-to-nothing of our history while in school. Our museum intends to fill that void.

LGBT archives exist in a number of cities, including Milwaukee. Do you expect the museum will work with these institutions and organizations to bring their collections to New York for exhibition? Or do you see the museum providing traveling exhibits? I think both. In addition to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opening in Washington, D.C., next year, there are multiple museums dedicated to the African-American civil rights movement — in Atlanta, Memphis, Birmingham, Jackson, Mississippi, and Greensboro, North Carolina, just to name a few. There’s no reason we can’t have local museums that speak to local stories in addition to a national museum.

Exploring your website, I came across this description of the museum: “The museum recognizes and presents the stories of the LGBT communities as a part of — not apart from — the American experience, where the intersections of diverse cultures, shared by diverse people, define us as individuals and as a nation.” Talk about this more, this idea of telling our story as a part of the American experience. The LGBT story is an amazing American story of diverse people coming together to fight for their rights and claim their rightful place in society. We think this is a story that should inspire people of all backgrounds who are eager to share it.

Imagine it is 2020 and the museum has been open for a year. The big issue of same-sex marriage was settled five years earlier, in June 2015. What’s taking place at the museum? What will people find when they walk through the doors? My hope is they will find exhibits that will challenge them to think about both how we have made the progress we have made so far, as well as the work that still remains to be done, exhibits that imbue them with a sense of pride in their heritage and a belief that every person has the power to make a difference.

On the Web …

Learn more about the pending National LGBT Museum at nationallgbtmuseum.org.

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