Exhibition review: Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society

Kel R. Karpinski

Fig. 1. Over the By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives; Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride Letting Loose exhibit a quote from Audre Lorde reads, “I am a lesbian — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours?” Photo: Kel R. Karpinski.

Starting this past summer, cultural institutions all over the city (and the country for that matter) created exhibits, shows and events honouring our queer history of the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The Stonewall Riots started the night of June 28, 1969 after bar patrons fought back against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in New York City. In the 1960s frequent police harassment and raids on queer bars and establishments were unfortunately regular occurrences. But with Stonewall the queer community fought back against the police, and the riots lasted three nights with many transgender activists leading the way, including Martha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera and Miss Major among others. Stonewall is often cited as the beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement in the United States.

One of these such exhibits in honour of the 50th anniversary was Stonewall 50 at New-York Historical Society documenting queer history before, after and including the riots themselves. Stonewall 50 was composed of 3 smaller exhibits: By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives; Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride Letting Loose, which closed December 1, 2019; and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall, which closed earlier this year in September.

Taken from the New-York Historical Society’s website, here is a list of the curators involved in these various exhibits:

Stonewall 50 at New-York Historical Society is collaboratively curated by Rebecca Klassen, New-York Historical assistant curator of material culture, and from the Center for Women’s History, Jeanne Gardner Gutierrez, curatorial scholar in women’s history, and Rachel Corbman, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation predoctoral fellow in women’s history. By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives is curated by the Lesbian Herstory Archives Graphics Committee — Elvis Bakaitis, Flavia Rando, Ashley-Luisa Santangelo and Saskia Scheffer — and coordinated by the Center for Women’s History.

Unlike many other exhibitions which focus heavily on the contributions of gay men to the Gay Liberation Movement, By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives focused on the history and contributions of queer women. This portion of the Stonewall 50 exhibit helps to broaden our knowledge of the lesbian presence in queer histories. The first half of this exhibit was comprised of posters from various lesbian-centered events, films, performances and protests. There’s a poster advertising the 1st Annual Dyke March in 1993, which has been running strong ever since. Another poster read “Lesbians Who Kill” announcing a show by the performance group Split Britches comprised of Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw. There was even a series of comics drawn by Elvis Bakaitis about the history of the Lesbian Herstory Archives itself. These posters show the importance of this history and how lesbian activism has continued in various ways since Stonewall. Among these posters were several focused on the activism of lesbians during the HIV/AIDS crisis so often glossed over as only a gay male issue. These posters demonstrate not only the need for outreach to the lesbian community but also how important their activism was during this time as well.

Fig. 2. A poster by the artist-activist collective Gran Fury that reads “Women Don’t Get AIDS: They Just Die From It.” This poster was created as a part of direct actions by ACT UP to help convince the Center for Disease Control to include symptoms of AIDS that were specific to women. Photo: Kel R. Karpinski.

On the opposite wall was the second part of the By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives exhibit highlighting the history of various lesbians including spotlights on Mabel Hampton, Lillian Foster and Marge McDonald alongside activist groups like Lavender Menace and Salsa Soul Sisters. Showing the breadth of lesbian life even pre-Stonewall, this expertly curated exhibit shows the diversity of the history contained at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, showcasing prominently women of color and queer women of various gender expressions.

Of particular interest was a section on lesbian publishing before Stonewall on Radclyffe Hall’s iconic Well of Loneliness, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (although originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan) along with lesbian pulp novels from the era. What this part of the exhibit makes tangible is the neglected history of lesbian publishing, a historical record that allows us more insight into how the lesbian community was active during this time period. A map of lesbian bars entitled “Tipin’ out in the Life” (sic) featured 25 locations around Manhattan. This is especially significant as all over the country lesbian bars have largely disappeared and survive in smaller and smaller numbers (Artist Gwen Shockey is currently working on The Addresses Project to document this history of lesbian and queer nightlife: https://addressesproject.com). There’s also a feature on both lesbians in the military during World War II as well as those who worked in the factories on the home front here in the Brooklyn Navy Yard (for more on this subject check out Hugh Ryan’s When Brooklyn Was Queer all about the queer history of the Brooklyn waterfront).

Really this exhibit touched on so many facets of lesbian life. This part of the Stonewall 50 show is so important because it showcased and made apparent the wide range of lesbian experiences and life both before and after Stonewall, aspects that are often overlooked in such histories and which archival work can make visible again.

Fig. 3. The walls framing the By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives exhibits contained hundreds of pinback buttons from various causes, events and some just proudly proclaiming their identities. Photo: Kel R. Karpinski.

At the other end of the hall was the Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride Letting Loose exhibit featuring a large timeline along the wall starting with the 1960s to the present with accompanying glass cases with objects of interest for each of the decades below. The timeline on the wall featured images of those involved in the queer history of these last 50 years with important historical moments marked like “1986: New York City bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations” or “1973: The National Gay Task Force is founded in New York.” Below the timeline were glass cases with various objects from the archive to further illustrate the history of each decade from the 1960s and “The Growth of the Homophile Movement” to the 2010s, titled “The More Things Change.” Included in this collection were many pinback buttons espousing various queer causes, a rainbow flag, posters, and a red AIDS memorial ribbon among other items.

Fig. 4. This portion of the timeline highlighted the 1960s into the beginning of the 1970s. The beginning of the timeline started with 1965 with the creation of the East Coast Homophile Coalition included such events as the Stonewall Riots (and the reason for this exhibit at large) as well as the creation of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) by Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Photo: Kel R. Karpinski.

Some of the highlights of these objects of interest included a pinback button circa 1977 from the Lesbian Herstory Archives that reads “ANITA BRYANT SUCKS ORANGES,” a reference to the vehemently anti-gay spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission. There was also a safer sex kit, which would have been passed out at bars, bathhouses and community events, in the section titled “1980s: The AIDS Crisis,” which contained lube, a condom and instructions on how to use a condom effectively. There was also a paper fan made for the occasion of the Stonewall Inn becoming a National Monument by the National Park Service in 2016.

Fig. 5. A paper fan created to mark the occasion of the Stonewall Inn becoming a National Monument that reads, “LGBTQ History is American History.” Photo: Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

These objects point to what queer life has looked like in these various moments. The 2010s being labelled as “The More Things Change” speaks volumes — one can imagine a similar button as the Anita Bryant one but for Chick-Fil-A. The fact that pinback buttons were so prominent in all facets of these exhibits speaks to the continued struggles to assert our identities and rights as queer people and our use of this medium to convey these issues. Even in the age of PREP, queer health centers & bars still hand out condoms and lube. In fact, in the 2010s case was a ONE condom pouch covered with Keith Haring’s art not dissimilar to the safer sex kit from the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

There were some traces of the history of the transgender community in this exhibit: a “Trans Lives Matters” bracelet, a mention of the murder of Brandon Teena, Trump’s ban on transgender people in the military and Martha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera founding STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries). Even as this exhibit attempted to include the voices of trans activists this exhibit, like so many others, still focused heavily on the history of the gay and lesbian communities to the exclusion of the trans community. Many histories of the Stonewall Riots tend to erase or minimize the contributions of trans activists and the importance of this moment for the transgender community, a lacuna which then gets reproduced in exhibits and shows. The Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride Letting Loose portion of the Stonewall 50 exhibit at the NY-Historical Society unfortunately replicates these erasures.

Work like Dean Spade’s Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law and Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion edited by Ryan Conrad including the voices of so many different queer and trans activists and scholars highlighting important work that is being done for protection against workplace discrimination, toward prison abolition, to decriminalize sex work among other issues effecting the everyday lives of queer and trans people. There are ways these issues and voices could have been included in this exhibit. Even just this last year trans and non-binary people living in New York City now have the option to choose “no gender” on their NYC Municipal ID, which is no small gain.

The materials documenting gay and lesbian histories may be more readily available in the archives and their histories more familiar, but the way that these exhibits are created and the histories they tell will shape how we think about these and our histories moving forward. If we don’t make space for a history that includes our trans comrades, then who will?

Kel R. Karpinski is IT/ILL Librarian and Assistant Professor at CUNY — NYC College of Technology. Kel makes zines about queer sailors and is co-organizer of the NY Queer Zine Fair.



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