At the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, gay history is bursting at the seams.
There’s the tennis racket signed by Martina Navratilova. News clippings of former beauty queen and gay rights opponent Anita Bryant. The gavel that hammered the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military policy against gays and lesbians last year.
Even as libraries are shrinking and many bookstores are closing because of the Web, this repository has outgrown its shelf space since moving into its home on East Sunrise Boulevard three years ago.
“It’s a good sign. It’s a sign of the vibrance of this movement,” said U.S. Congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., who visits Fort Lauderdale twice a year with his partner and recently loaned the gavel. “This is a very important cause to document.”
With 25,000 books and videos, Stonewall is the largest circulating library of gay literature and periodicals and one of at least a handful nationally. It changed its name last year, from the Stonewall Library & Archives, to reflect a more national focus with its collection and traveling exhibitions. The organization’s advertising boasts that it’s “the LGBT community’s Smithsonian.”
“We are this national treasure of stuff and we needed to have a name that reflects that,” said Bryan Knicely president of the nonprofit Stonewall, which has about 7,000 items in its archives, representing 8,000 linear feet or about
1 1/2 miles of materials.
But the center also houses slices of old gay South Florida. Remember the outdoor sign of the former Marlin Beach Hotel, a popular beach spot for Fort Lauderdale gays? That sign bedecks the entrance of the library’s conference room. The hotel’s original blueprints are also part of the archive.
“If someone doesn’t collect or preserve this, it’s one of those things that gets thrown away,” Knicely said.
As he stood inside the archive recently, Knicely was dwarfed by 16 towering rows of shelving racks packed with everything from gay pulp fiction novels from the 1950s to event buttons such as one from the 1982 Gay Games in San Francisco. Sealed plastic bags display jerseys from local and national gay sports leagues.
“When you are part of a community like the LGBT community, unless you know what has happened before you and what rights you have been fighting for, you really have no sense of place in your community,” he said. “So that’s why it’s important to preserve this so the story can always be told.”
The archive is part of that story. The library got its start in 1973 when Mark Silber, a 19-year-old student at Florida Atlantic University, began collecting gay books and magazines to better understand his homosexuality.
The collection “was a lending library among friends that grew and grew,” said John Coppola, a Miami-based consultant for museums in Latin America and former head of exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution inWashington, D.C.
“I remember when the library was in a closet,” said Fred Fejes, a communications professor at FAU. “It was a real band of very loyal archivists that kept this going on for a long time.”
The library eventually found a home at the former Gay and Lesbian Community Center on Andrews Avenue.
But the collection wasn’t always embraced.
In 2007, then-Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle objected to the library moving to a city-owned building, citing concerns over some pornographic material in a space at the ArtServe center next to Holiday Park, where children played.
Naugle lost the fight, and Stonewall officially relocated to its new home in 2009, with local officials including Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti on hand to celebrate.
Back then, only a third of its shelves were full and the archive’s shelving racks were bare.
These days, the library is so full that new additions top bookshelves. And the archive section is at 95 percent capacity.
Stonewall receives about 200 new and used books each year from snowbirds and local residents. Donated goods vary in size. One recent donation: 30 boxes of music videos that played at the former Cathode Ray bar on Las Olas Boulevard. And autographed sheet music by the writers of the Broadway musical “Hairspray.”
To deal with the growth, Knicely is storing items in two off-site storage units.
The center, which has one full-time employee and a part-timer, receives more than half of its annual $230,000 budget from local and out of-state donors, Knicely said. At its first fundraiser outside South Florida last summer, the organization raised about $9,000 in Provincetown. The rest of the group’s budget comes from corporate sponsors and cultural grants.
“Stonewall is filling the niche left by older gay bookstores closing,” said Coppola, the museum consultant. “You can walk in and most of what has been published in fiction and nonfiction on gay and lesbian topics is there.”
Last year, about 15,000 people came to the Fort Lauderdale facility for its programs, events and content. Steven Lutz, 56, stops by weekly to read magazines and has donated books.
“There is a lot of freedom being able to go and pick up a magazine that has some amazing articles but has [men] in bikinis and you don’t feel embarrassed doing it,” said Lutz, a Fort Lauderdale nurse.
The repository also has become a tourist stop for gay vacationers. Before they leave, some post messages on a bulletin board by the library’s entrance.
On a recent Monday, one message in Spanish read, “Fantastic library! Thank you.”
Another in Italian said, “I feel at home here.”
Stonewall National Museum & Archives
1300 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays for the library; archives open by appointment only
The Stonewall National Museum & Archives, which regularly organizes movie nights and book clubs meetings, is co-sponsoring a workshop, “LGBT Workplace Issues,” from 1 to 4 p.m. March 28 at the State Farm training facility, 10451 NW 117th Ave., Medley. Tickets cost $250.
The library also will host a reading with Vanessa Sheridan, author of “The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace,” from 7 to 10 p.m. March 29. That event is free.