New exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California celebrates untold queer history

on April 19, 2019

“The future is queer, because the present is not enough” —  that’s the opening line on the description for the Oakland Museum of California’s new exhibit called “Queer California: Untold Stories.” The exhibit is a celebration of the queer people, art, and events that have been otherwise sidelined in California history.

“The show doesn’t really highlight the usual stories. We know about Pride parades, Harvey Milk, discrimination, the pride flag,” said Lisa Silberstein, the exhibit’s experience developer. “This goes beyond those narratives.”

That said, the pride flag does get a place of honor as one of the first pieces of artwork visitors see at the start of the exhibit. At the center of the entrance hallway is the 8-color flag, created in 1978 by Gilbert Baker in collaboration with Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara, that has come to symbolize the LGBTQ+ community.

Right behind it hangs another flag, titled Misfits 1979 (Sex and Art), by artist Amanda Curreri. This flag, in sharp contrast to the 8-color version, has only three colors: pink, gray, and turquoise. Pink was initially included in Baker’s flag, but it was removed when the flag was mass produced because the flagmakers did not carry pink fabric. Turquoise was also removed to maintain the symmetry of the flag. Those two colors, pink and turquoise, became central to Curreri’s flag.

“Assimilation is the process by which misfits come to resemble and are absorbed within a larger group,” reads the museum’s title card describing the flag. “Misfits that resist assimilation are often just left out.”

The exhibit focuses on people who have often been left out of mainstream portrayals of queer history—it includes photographs and videos of queer and trans people of color, as well as films and artwork about and by queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming artists.

For example, a series of black-and-white photographs line a wall near the front of the exhibit; the photos by Lenn Keller highlight Black lesbian life in the 1980’s and early ‘90s. The photos show a Black lesbian mother and her son hugging at a Pride parade in San Francisco, a Black lesbian contingent chanting at a 1991 Pride parade, and a Black lesbian holding a glockenspiel, a percussion instrument, during a demonstration.

Black lesbian contingent, San Francisco Pride, Parade, June, 1991, from the Lenn Keller Collection, Collection of Bay Area Lesbian Archives. Photo provided by the Oakland Museum of California.

Daily film screenings are broadcast in a dark room behind a black curtain near the front of the exhibit. For example, the film Luminous Procuress, a feature by director Steven Arnold, follows two hippies through the transformational odyssey they embark on after drinking a magic potion. It played last Friday for members of the museum, who had special access to the exhibit one day before the opening date. Other films include Tongues Untied, a documentary by director Marlon Riggs about Black gay men living in the AIDS-era amid homophobia and racism; Wildness, a feature film by transgender artist Wu Tsang that tells the story of a weekly LGBTQ party hosted in a historically Latino immigrant bar in Los Angeles; and Armide 2000, a film by Jaguar Mary that shows hyper-masculine women working out in a gym maintained by hyper-feminine men.

Throughout the exhibit are park benches and car seats where visitors can sit and listen to an audio installation, Queen’s Circle, about hookup culture among people the LGBTQ community in San Diego’s Balboa Park. The oral histories include a series of interviews with drag queens, healthcare workers, politicians, park rangers and others “about their relationship to the surveillance, management, and celebration of hookup culture” at the park, according to the museum’s description of the installation.

A timeline of California queer history covers an entire wall in one of the exhibit’s rooms, highlighting events often left out of mainstream narratives. The timeline stretches from before Europeans arrived on the West Coast and named the region California. The name of the state is explained in the timeline: “California was named for a mythical island paradise ruled by a warrior queen named Califia and populated by armies of masculine women.”

Other bits of history include information about The Black Cat, a San Francisco bar that won a Supreme Court case in 1951 in their fight to serve alcohol to queer people, as well as a note about California becoming the first state to develop a statewide domestic partnership policy in 1999.

The timeline also includes a series of posters called “Gay Shame.” Poster artist Xara Thustra was at the exhibit on the day before it opened, and said they were created in 2001 as part of a “radical queer, direct action collective” against the commercialization of gay pride parades. (Pride parades have been at the center of debates about corporate companies profiting from the popularity of the parades.) The posters have a large headline that reads “Gay shame queers against capitalism.” Right below, a paragraph defines what gay shame means: “We want a new queer activism that addresses issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, to counter the self-serving values of the mainstream.”

“Some of our heroes are on the wall,” said Thustra, looking up proudly at the timeline stretching across the room. But then again, they added, when asked if the exhibit was inclusive of all identities, “There could be more presence for queer and nonbinary folks with different abilities.” (Thustra uses the pronoun “they,” which is often used by gender-noncomforming or gender-neutral individuals.)

The exhibit is not a comprehensive history of all LGBTQ communities, said Silberstein, and that’s why a part of it is an interactive section where visitors can display the names of people, organizations, or events that are important to them and have been left out of a mainstream history. Some of the names people have written down so far include Passion Dance Troupe, Old Wives’ Tale Bookstore, and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention.

The exhibit also incorporates the Museum of Trans and Hirstory & Art, or MOTHA, an installation by artist Chris E. Vargas that presents artworks made by people who describe their identities as trans, gender non-binary, or transgressive. The installation is large, contained within a museum-like structure of its own. The outside is painted to look like a museum façade with columns and an arched entrance. Inside are photographs of queer people next to lowriders, in a series called The Q-Sides that reimagines a queer version of the predominantly heteronormative Latino low-rider car culture and its associated love stories. Next to those photos, a sparkling blue sequined jacket hangs behind a glass display case. The jacket was worn by Sylvester, an artist who became known as the “Queen of Disco” and for blurring gender roles on stage with androgynous looks.

Sylvester, known as the Queen of Disco.
Sylvester. Photo provided by the Oakland Museum of California.

The self-standing, ever-evolving aspect of the installation is part of the artwork. The structure is meant to always be “under construction to reflect “the open-ended and fluid nature of many trans lives and communities,” reads a sign that hangs outside of it.

Near the installation, a screen plays a series of video interviews on a loop. In each, a Native American person speaks about what they like to call their gender and sexuality identities. In one of them, Karen Vigneault speaks about being from the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation on Kumeyaay land, in the region that was renamed San Diego. Vigneault says the name “two-spirit” was created to identity queer Native American people, but she doesn’t like that term. She identifies as lesbian, and so she created a new name, siin anyehewar siin, or “woman loving woman.”

Next to the screen is a list titled “What we are called”—it defines words such as sexuality, genderqueer, asexual, and a’qi, the word for third-gender people in Chumash, a language spoken by some Native American people along the southern California coast.

Silberstein said the exhibit’s creators worked over the course of a year and a half with community members and artists to develop the project. They held meetings, searched archives across the state for artworks to display and information about LGBTQ history in California, and created an exhibit to support the goal of better representing queer history in the state.

“It’s our hope that people see themselves represented,” she said.

Queer California: Untold Stories will be on display from April 13 to August 11. Events related to the exhibit can be found here.

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