|You’ve seen highlights from our archival collections on social media and in programs. Now join us on a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the GLBT Historical Society archivists. You’ll learn how archival staff preserve and share LGBTQ historical material, including processing collections, managing donations, digitizing records and more. You’ll get a peek into the vault, where the archivists will share some of their favorite pieces. Finally, we’ll be introducing a new workshop program we are launching this year that provides free archival skills training to the public. Speakers will include Kelsi Evans, our director of archives and special collections; Isaac Fellman, reference archivist; and Megan Needels, project archivist. They will also be joined by members of our Archives Working Group, a volunteer advisory group consisting of local archivists, historians and others in related fields. Tickets are available online here.|
SF GLBT Historical Society Museum
|“A bronze sidewalk plaque just doesn’t cut it,” said architectural historian Shayne Watson when we spoke to her last year about the Lyon-Martin House, the San Francisco home inhabited for over five decades by Phyllis Lyon (1924–2020) and Del Martin (1921–2028). In 1955, Lyon and Martin co-founded the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), much of whose activities they oversaw from their house in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood.|
Watson continued, “Just as Americans claim Independence Hall as a birthplace of American democracy, queer people throughout the world can claim the Lyon-Martin House as a place instrumental in the development and advancement of our fundamental rights—it’s part of our collective experience.”
That collective experience is now a three-dimensional one that anyone with an internet connection can enjoy. On March 22, the GLBT Historical Society, digital historic preservation firm CyArk, and the nonprofit historic preservation group Friends of the Lyon-Martin House unveiled a pathbreaking, 3-D virtual tour of the Lyon-Martin House. The virtual tour is available to the public and can be experienced on the society’s website at www.glbthistory.org/lyon-martin-house.
A City Landmark
The Lyon-Martin House is not simply a residence. Lyon and Martin purchased the house the same year that they and others co-founded the Daughters of Bilitis, and house quickly became the beating heart of the organization. They held meetings in its living room, planned events, edited DOB’s journal The Ladder, and built their lives together within its walls. Recognizing this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously bestowed the status of San Francisco Landmark on the house on May 4, 2021. Friends of the Lyon-Martin House, a fiscally sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society, is now working with the property owner, the city and other stakeholders to document the historic structure and plan for its long-term future.
CyArk’s virtual tour of the Lyon-Martin House is a groundbreaking evolution in digital historic preservation efforts, enabling far more members of the public to experience and learn about the Lyon-Martin House than would otherwise be possible. The house’s small size, limited occupancy and situation on a steep hill in a residential neighborhood present significant public access and accessibility challenges. The virtual tour eliminates all potential safety, accessibility and occupancy challenges while providing a seamless, three-dimensional experience for virtual visitors enriched by historic photographs, interviews and commentary.
CyArk created the 3D model for the tour using thousands of photographs and laser scans to accurately document the home as it exists today. The rendering additionally incorporates digital versions of several of Lyon and Martin’s possessions currently housed in the GLBT Historical Society’s archives to provide a sense of the interior when they lived there. The tour is organized into a total of 17 stations, taking in areas including the front yard, living room, second-floor landing and kitchen. At each station, visitors can use four keys on their keyboard to move in three dimensions and the right mouse button to rotate the camera 360 degrees.
Voices of Phyllis & Del
Each station is accompanied by historic commentary, reflections and interviews provided by LGBTQ historians, friends and family members of Phyllis and Del, including Marcia Gallo, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; Don Romesburg, professor of gender and women’s studies at Sonoma State University; and Kendra Mon, the daughter of Phyllis and Del. Finally, the tour incorporates the voices and reflections of Phyllis and Del Martin themselves, drawn from the extensive oral histories and interviews conducted prior to the deaths and held in the GLBT Historical Society’s archives.
The GLBT Historical Society, CyArk and Friends of the Lyon-Martin House are very pleased to make this tour available to you. As San Francisco District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who sponsored the historic landmark designation for the site and represents the Noe Valley neighborhood, remarked on March 22, “It’s one thing for the city to grant landmark status to a building, but it takes community-led efforts like this to make that history accessible and fresh, something that’s especially needed when it comes to queer history.”
Back in May, we ran a story about a digitized collection we made available this spring: the Daniel A. Smith and Queer Blue Light Videotape Collection. This remarkable collection consists of nearly 100 half-inch videotapes recorded by the Queer Blue Light (QBL) Collective, a grassroots guerilla project that documented the politics and culture of the local LGBTQ community in the 1970s. The footage was all shot on a Sony Portapak, one of the first self-contained videotape recorders from the late 1960s.
While the majority of the tapes document the activities of the QBL Collective, they also include footage by QBL members of friends relaxing together and living everyday life. In her article in May, our project archivist Megan Needels was especially taken with a tape that depicted an informal dinner party that recorded what she described as “pure queer joy.” We’re delighted to bring you a follow up to this story: an interview with John Carr. Carr held the party at his apartment on Castro and Market Streets on February 29, 1980—it was a “Leap Day” party. Thirty-five years later, while attending the Frameline Festival, Carr recognized himself in footage licensed from the society by documentary filmmaker Stu Maddox for his 2015 documentary Reel in the Closet. Carr connected with Maddox and went on to donate three of his own Portapak videotapes to the GLBT Historical Society as the John Carr Videotapes.
How did you find out that the QBL tapes existed and that some of your own Portapak tapes might be readable?
JC: I knew the tapes existed because Dan Smith was a friend. His partner in QBL was Earl Galvin, who was my boyfriend at the time. Somehow, some of the tapes he made of parties at my flat ended up in the QBL collection. He had given three others to me. I did not know that the GLBT Historical Society now had the QBL tapes until I saw myself in Reel in the Closet in 2015. Stu Maddux told me about John Raines, a digital media whiz, who then digitized the other three tapes I had. Seeing those tapes again opened up a huge lost world, because it was 35 years since the tapes had been made and there was no equipment to play them on anymore. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone in terms of my life at that time. 1980 was a year before AIDS started. I lost count of how many friends I lost to AIDS, and several of the people in the tapes had died, but some that were possibly still alive, so I searched for them, found some on Facebook and brought them back into my life.
What do you remember about this 1980 Leap Day Party?
JC: That party really showcased my friends, I think. Most of them were single and cruising others at the party, even sort of flirting with the camera. Haha! And the novelty of home video—people being on camera like that—was brand new at that time. [The Sony Portapak] was a cumbersome piece of equipment. The battery only lasted 20 minutes and the tape 30 minutes, so you knew you had to change either the tape or battery or both if you had a long program that you wanted to record! (Laughs). We were just having fun, Earl brought it over for the parties, and we got high and had a good time. I had just escaped from a toxic relationship and took that apartment, so I was a single person again, and February 29 was a Leap Day so it was a good time to have a first party, and I was finally ready to have some people over.
What feelings do you experience, seeing yourself in the footage?
JC: Seeing the people in the tapes alive again reminded me that you forget a lot in 35+ years. It reminded me of the wonderful times we had, which I held in a kind of generic way in my head but this was a specific moment, and it was delightful to see. Going through HIV a lot of people went home, and you may not have known where they went, they just disappeared. They may have died.
San Francisco was such a focal point, a meeting place, back in those days, I arrived here in 1975. It was quite a magic time to be here and everyone was coming from somewhere else, but all of them had a coming-out story. That’s what I remember most about that time: we were dealing with a very diverse group of people who had some very similar things in common, they were running from or running to something. And boy, when they got here it all just exploded in so many ways, the exploring of their intellectual, their sexual and personal lives just happened. It was so repressed up to that point.
One thing that comes up for me strongly is, “Wow, there are people who are interested in this!” Now, as people make ephemeral recordings of their daily lives, they tend to think that future generations aren’t going to be interested in this, so it surprised me that there are people who are interested. And so, I say, please folks: If you have any of this stuff and you’re getting up there in years or whatever, consider donating it to the GLBT Historical Society, don’t toss it out. Give them a chance because you won’t know what’s important to future generations. Your life is important whether you’re here or gone, so let other people see into your life.
John Carr grew up in Colorado and has lived in San Francisco for the past 47 years, where he had a landscaping company until his retirement in 2004. Michael Lownie, his life partner of 19 years, is a fine artist.
The Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive (LLTA or Louise), founded and managed by professor Ms. Bob Davis, is a fiscally sponsored project of the GLBT Historical Society. Located in Vallejo, California, it is one of the world’s largest repositories of archival materials pertaining to transgender and gender-nonconforming people in the world. In honor of Transgender Awareness Week this November, we interviewed Ms. Bob about Louise’s latest projects and on the significance of transgender history.
What are some of the initiatives that LLTA has been focusing on during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Ms. Bob: Back in 2019, I gave a talk at the “Queering Memory” conference in Berlin called “Glamour, Drag and Death: HIV/AIDS in the Art of Three Drag Queen Painters.” It focused on the artists and performers Jerome Caja, Doris Fish and Miss Kitty, all three of whom died between 1991 and 1995, and includes analysis of artworks held by both LLTA and the GLBT Historical Society. I published an article based on the talk in Transgender Studies Quarterly this February, and now I’m working on turning the material into a short documentary film to reach a wider audience. I want people to learn about how these artists confronted AIDS. It was less intellectual; they responded in a visceral, emotional way, in a very valiant fight to retain their identities in the face of this horrible crisis. It’s now thirty years since the height of the AIDS pandemic, and there’s a whole generation of LGBTQ people who simply don’t have that lived experience. It’s important to pass on this history so they can learn about what the community went through.
What can you tell us about your ongoing online “scrapbook” project on the LLTA website?
Ms. Bob: It’s an online project called “I Think This is Our Denise: Discovering Forgotten Scrapbooks of Trans History,” and it’s based on a remarkable collection of six large scrapbooks donated by Taryn Gundling in 2014. They belonged to a trans woman named Denise, and contain over a dozen pages of candid photographs of transgender people and cross-dressers from the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time when the transgender community was just beginning to define itself and establish networks. It took four years of research to learn more about Denise and the people in the photographs. I recognized some of them in other LLTA archival collections; in issues of the first national transgender community magazine, Transvestia, which began publishing in 1960; and in photographs held by the Art Gallery of Ontario, many of which were published in the book Casa Susanna. These photos depict transgender people vacationing at several Catskill mountain resorts, one of them named Casa Susanna, run by Susanna Valenti and her wife Marie. These establishments served as safe spaces for transgender women to vacation in their gender of choice in the 1960s and 1970s.
Now we’re using the scrapbooks to do a deep dive into transgender history. LLTA is partnering with the Art Gallery of Ontario; the Transgender Archive at University of Victoria; the website “A Gender Variance Who’s Who”; and the Digital Transgender Archive to create an online hub that connects the resources of all five organizations to present photographs, biographies, and autobiographical articles about the individuals in the scrapbook. For example, many of the people in the snapshots wrote autobiographical articles in early issues of Transvestia, so the site connects you to essays they wrote about their lives. This project will allow them to really live again, and the site is being beautifully put together by our webmaster Robyn Adams.
You’ve been curating LLTA for many years now. What’s something you want people to learn about transgender history?
Ms. Bob: One of the things I’m personally interested in conveying relates to the growing awareness of trans, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer identities that we see today. When you examine historical materials, you realize that these shades of gender and gender identity have always been with us; they aren’t just emerging or being “invented” now. Trans people in the early 1960s, when the community first began to organize, were working with different terms, often borrowed from the medical establishment and out of date now. They certainly didn’t have the vocabulary that is available today. But if you dig down, the documentation reveals that people were defining, exploring, and working out their identities in complex ways. Understanding this supports us in continuing the work of building our community in the present so that we can display more of our rainbow.
Ms. Bob Davis (she/her/hers) is the founder and director of the Louise Lawrence Transgender Archive. In the 1990s she served two terms on the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors.
This past July, the LGBTQ community lost one of its most stalwart and influential leaders: Sally Gearhart (1931–2021). A multifaceted, multitalented woman, Gearhart wore more hats in her lifetime than many of us could in several: she was a teacher, feminist, science-fiction writer, and political activist. She became the first open lesbian to obtain a tenure-track faculty position at the university level when she was hired in 1973 by San Francisco State University, where she established one of the first women’s and gender studies programs in the country. Among her contributions to the struggle for LGBTQ rights was her fight against Proposition 6, also known as the Briggs Initiative, a 1978 California ballot measure that would have prevented LGBTQ people from teaching in the state’s public schools.
In honor of Gearhart’s life, the GLBT Historical Society is hosting a special program on October 29 featuring as panelists four women who worked with Gearhart at various times in her life in different capacities. The program is designed not only to introduce those unfamiliar with Gearhart’s life and work to her remarkable academic, community-building and literary achievements, but to share a sense of Gearhart’s unique, humorously infectious personality. Here, two of the panelists have contributed short reflections about Gearhart: Deborah Craig, a documentary filmmaker and producer; and Dorothy Haecker, a scholar of women’s studies and feminist philosophy.
Deborah Craig: I first met Sally in the summer of 2014, while I was making a short documentary about lesbians and aging, A Great Ride. I had heard about an octogenarian living on women’s land in Northern California, still cutting her own firewood with a chainsaw. I couldn’t wait to see this! Although we didn’t witness any chainsawing, my camerawoman Silvia Turchin and I spent the weekend trying to keep up with Sally. She strode down wooded paths, rolled under barbed wire fences, and drove her battered Jeep down “roads” through the woods we weren’t sure were there.
But besides being an excitement-filled adventure that we dubbed the “lesbian safari,” this first visit with Sally was the beginning of a longer journey: More and more I understood that she was a towering figure for lesbian feminism and gay rights from the 1970s through the 1990s. She had an astonishing breadth of interests and talents: women’s studies, communication, religion and spirituality, speculative fiction and much more. With her death we’ve all lost a powerful spokeswoman and an amazing intellect. I hope the film we’re making about her life can celebrate her accomplishments, highlight her sense of fun and adventure, and underscore her important legacy of working for justice for women, for gay people, for animals and for the Earth itself.
Dorothy Haecker: Sally Gearhart spent her life obsessed with the causes and cures of violence among humans and between humans and everybody and everything else. She defined the suffering we cause one another in a broad way that included physical, sexual, psychological, political, economic and even rhetorical dimensions. Sally believed feminist consciousness and activism were paths to a less violent world. She wrote fantasy novels—The Wanderground, The Kanshou, The Magister—that envisioned (she would have said “pre-visioned”) such a world. She created a new theory of communication as a solution to what she considered the violence of persuasive speech.
In the late 1970s, she joined forces with Harvey Milk to change the minds of Californians about the Briggs Amendment that, if passed, would have deeply violated LGBTQ rights. She believed in the power of imagination, conversation, wild women and gentle men. She was a prophetic woman, full of radiant contradictions, whose ideas did and can make a difference. She is worth knowing.
Despite the new challenge presented by the Delta variant of COVID-19, the GLBT Historical Society’s archives are preparing for an exciting autumn. Since June, when onsite archives access became possible once again, we have been safely welcoming in-person researchers (along with the museum, vaccinations are now required for access).
Executive Director Terry Beswick also spearheaded a successful effort, joined by eight other queer archives in the state and led by State Senator Scott Wiener, to submit a request to the California legislature for $750,000 in funding for the fiscal year that began July 1 to support ongoing recovery efforts. And with reference archivist Isaac Fellman, I’ve begun work on the long-anticipated task of accessioning a huge backlog of collections that were donated or promised to the society during our closure.
Unpacking new collection materials, talking with researchers about their work in the reading room, and planning new projects in the archives fills me with optimism. In that spirit, I’m excited to share two archives grant projects that will help shape our work through the end of 2021:
“Sing Out” grant: We’ve started a yearlong grant awarded by the National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission called “Sing Out: Processing and Digitizing LGBTQ Music and Theater Collections.” This $75,000 grant supports the processing of ten unique music and theater-focused archival collections, including specialized preservation work and the creation of updated catalog records and detailed finding aids. Among the collections are the Finocchio’s Collection, which contains materials about this legendary drag venue in North Beach; the Sylvester Collection, which follows the San Francisco disco diva’s recording career; and the Maria Sanchez Papers, which document the life of a Cuban-born DJ who spun records at iconic Bay Area venues, including the Sutro Bath House. The grant also funds the digitization of approximately 300 items (about 30 per collection) to increase remote access to these resources. Project Archivist Megan Needels. a former intern with the society, has joined the team to work on this project.
Preservation grant: We are nearing completion of a 2019–2021 Preserving California’s LGBTQ History grant from the California State Library. The grant supports collection processing and catalog enhancement, the implementation of a new, much-needed Digital Asset Management System, and digitization of selected at-risk material (meaning material in particular need of digitization due to its fragile or unstable condition). Material selected for digitization includes an important periodical, Onyx: Black Lesbian Newsletter, and oral history audiocassettes. This grant has supported useful catalog and descriptive work, enabling us to update hundreds of catalog entries and transform 50 preliminary collection inventories into finding aids. From building digital infrastructure to collection processing, this grant has helped increase our capacity to preserve and share queer history.
We are grateful for the support of the California State Library and the National Archives’ National Historical Publications and Records Commission. We are excited to be working on these projects and look forward to continuing to serve researchers in the archives.
As the GLBT Historical Society’s archives reopen, we’re looking back on the things that kept us going through a lonely year. One of them was the National Archives’ monthly Twitter collaboration, #ArchivesHashtagParty.
Each month, archivists all over the country post historical items with the same theme—ranging from insects (#ArchivesBugs) to cakes (#ArchivesBakeOff), elections (#ArchivesGetsTheVote) to educators of color (#ArchivesBlackEducation). The National Archives selects each theme two weeks in advance, setting off a scavenger hunt for just the right item in each archivist’s collection.
The beauty of #ArchivesHashtagParty is that it encourages us to dig deep. You might not think of the society as a repository of signatures, maps or vehicles, but we’ve found items for each theme, including a map of an early Pride parade route; a handmade knit rug depicting a leatherman; and a photo of two participants in the Mint tricycle race, with their biplane-themed bike, the “Lavender Baron.” The party lets us go beyond the obvious, showing off corners of LGBTQ life that are accidentally illuminated by the need to show Twitter a picture of a bug (in this case, the fist-and-butterfly logo of the 1972 Pride booklet).
It also brings us together. Archiving is isolating work at the best of times; many archivists work completely alone. The Hashtag Party turns archiving from a monologue to a dialogue, connecting us with strangers around the world who are curious to see unexpected fragments of the past.
You can join in the party by following our Twitter account, where we post these and other archival finds throughout the month. And if you’re not on that platform, fear not: we adapt each hashtag entry for Facebook and Instagram.
For decades, San Francisco’s 16th Street from Guerrero all the way to South Van Ness in the Mission District has been a thriving, colorful corridor for LGBTQ Latinx people, businesses and happenings. As the city has grown more expensive and the neighborhood has undergone redevelopment, many of these businesses have closed and much of its character is in danger of eradication. A new archives collection-development initiative launching this year at the GLBT Historical Society, “Calle 16 and Beyond,” aims to enrich the society’s existing Latinx holdings by documenting the rich lives, businesses and culture of this unique queer corridor.
The project is being spearheaded by Mx. Tina Valentin Aguirre, who became the district manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District last year and is leaving the GLBT Historical Society Board of Directors after six years of service, including four as board chair. We chatted with Aguirre about this exciting new project.
MS: Can you discuss what the 16th Street area meant, and means, to Latinx LGBTQ people?
TA: “Sixteenth Street” is really a metaphor for all that was, is and can be. It encompasses the people, establishments and most of all the energy that animated the area—and created a movement by and for Latinx LGBTQ people. The area was just bustling. There were many LGBTQ bars. Esta Noche was the first on 16th Street, and when it closed in 2014 it was also the last. The Eagle Creek Bar at 16th and Guerrero was owned by an African American gentleman and welcomed queer Indigenous people, Latinx and Black folks, people of color and trans and gender-nonconforming people; Las Portales, Amelia’s and Blondie’s hosted Latina lesbian club nights.
Other businesses were important too; I’m thinking of the used clothing store, Felino’s, between Valencia and Guerrero, that was special because new arrivals would find not only queens, but style-makers who were expressing and presenting themselves through unique aesthetics. Community United in Response to AIDS/SIDA (CURAS) was located at Notre Dame Plaza on Dolores and 16th. It became Proyecto Contra SIDA Por Vida at 18th and Dolores and lives on as El/La Para Trans Latinas on 16th between South Van Ness and Mission. Many establishments are gone, and I miss them terribly, though thankfully a lot of people I loved from when I first got here in the 1980s are still around.
MS: What spurred the development of this archival project?
TA: Back in 2019, I curated the exhibition Chosen Familias: LGBTQ Latinx Storiesat the GLBT Historical Society Museum, which used curated photo albums to showcase the ways that queer Latinx people have forged personal and community bonds. That exhibition was conceived as a way to bring new people and communities into the society, and this project extends the concept. We want LGBTQ Latinx community members to contribute to the archives, especially materials that people may not think of as historically valuable that might otherwise deteriorate or be discarded. At least initially, I and some collaborators from Chosen Familias will act as liaisons reaching out to community members whom we know and creating momentum. I’ve already received a few items that will be accessioned soon, including textiles, art prints and video footage—and the original videotapes Augie Robles and I used to record footage for ¡Viva 16!, our 1994documentary about how the 16th Street area mobilized to confront the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and early 1990s.
MS: What do you hope to see accomplished with the project?
TA: Communities and chosen families allow us to build hope and resilience. This project documents this phenomenon from a historical perspective. It joins the living and the dead; those who’ve been here for decades and younger adults who are just coming to San Francisco; Latinx people who have been lost to AIDS, poverty or disease and those who are shaping the cultural conversation today. I’m hoping that future curators, researchers and community members will have access to many more holdings focused on Latinx LGBTQ people in the Bay Area. In line with the society’s new Strategic Plan, I’m especially looking forward to enriching the collections by welcoming materials that document women, transgender and gender-nonconforming people, youth and elders. It’s an explicit acknowledgement that in the past, these stories haven’t been front and center the way they should be. I can’t wait until we see ourselves reflected in the society’s holdings, and understand that the archives are a welcoming repository for our stories and experiences.
I have loved being on the society’s board, and as I leave, this project keeps me involved in the organization in a meaningful way, with the opportunity to extend the society’s reach to new people and audiences.
NOTE: To get involved with Calle 16, check this page for updates. Or contact Tina Valentin Aguirre or Director of Archives & Special Collections Kelsi Evans. To learn about the society’s existing Latinx archival holdings, see our Latinx Voices and Activism primary-source set and our Latinx research guide.
Tina Valentin Aguirre (Mx., they/them) has fundraised for organizations that focus on HIV, health, and the arts, including Mission Neighborhood Health Center, the NAMES Project Foundation, and LYRIC. Since 2020, Tina has been the district manager of the Castro LGBTQ Cultural District.
Mark Sawchuk is the communications manager at the GLBT Historical Society. He received his Ph.D. in European history at the University of California at Berkeley in 2011 and taught as a lecturer there for five years. He has worked with nonprofits in various capacities for much of his career.
SF GLBT Historical Society’s Online Preview of Queeriosities: Selections from the Art and Artifacts Collection” July 23
The GLBT Historical Society’s upcoming online exhibition “Queeriosities: Selections from the Art and Artifacts Collection,” opens on Monday, July 26. This collection encompasses a diverse range of two- and three-dimensional objects, including paper materials, metal objects such as pins and plaques, sculptures, framed works of art, historic LGBTQ business signs, theatrical props and textiles. These objects provide visual and material evidence of the San Francisco LGBTQ community’s engagement with the social, cultural, political and physical dynamics of the city, from the late 19th century to the present.
This special preview tour of the exhibition will be led Ramón Silvestre, the society’s museum registrar and curatorial specialist, and Nalini Elias, director of exhibitions and museum experience, and is free for GLBT Historical Society members. Join Ramón and Nalini for a sneak peek at an extraordinary collection of unusual, quaint and at times outright ridiculous treasures that illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of the queer stories in our archival vault.
Friday, July 23
6:00–7:00 p.m. PDT
$5 | Free for members
Tickets are available here.
A new online exhibition provides a pathbreaking look at LGBTQ lives and culture in the Japanese American community in the United States. Curated by Stan Yogi and Amy Sueyoshi, a frequent GLBT Historical Society collaborator, Seen And Unseen: Queering Japanese American History Before 1945 is a project of J-Sei, a Japanese American community organization in Emeryville.
The show draws on a variety of sources, including some of our archival collections, to unearth a hidden past when same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted parts of nikkei (Japanese American) immigrant culture. The exhibition also explores how, over time, the nikkei community’s atittudes came to mirror white American fears of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity. We interviewed Stan and Amy to learn more about how they curated Seen and Unseen.
Q: The theme of “kinship” among issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) is an important one. What does it mean in the greater context of nikkei?
Stan: Generational identity has been a defining factor of the nikkei community in the U.S. As we move farther away in time from the issei generation, we run the risk of forgetting that early immigrants were overwhelmingly male. There’s evidence that some had emotionally (not necessarily physically) intimate relationships. Many of us who identify as queer Japanese Americans have been unaware of ancestors who were involved in intimate same-sex relationships or defied gender roles. We hope that our exhibition reveals and informs the larger nikkei community, and queer-identified Japanese Americans specifically, about the rainbow branches of our collective family tree.
Amy: Issei arrived in the U.S. during a time of intense anti-Japanese sentiment. Before the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which allowed more Japanese women to enter the country as wives, the community was overwhelmingly male. One cannot adequately underscore how much these men relied on each other for companionship and comfort as they made their way in a new land, in a new language, under the brutality of immense animus from whites. Immigrant poet Yone Noguchi wrote that when he tramped to Los Angeles, he was welcomed along the way at any Japanese person’s home for a meal or a night of lodging.
Q: The show uses a lot of literary and newspaper sources; can you tell us about how you located and interpreted these?
Stan: Literary scholar Andrew Leong, a contributing curator to the exhibition, shared his research about issei leaders who urged compatriots, many of whom led vagabond lives, to settle in America, marry and raise families. He has revealed the queer subtext in creative literature written by issei authors, several of whom depicted men who rejected the call to enter heterosexual marriages and maintained emotional intimacy with other men.
Amy: In the absence of oral histories, written texts are often the only sources we have, and they are often sparse since many queers could not afford to leave such materials. Literary sources and newspapers are among the few available materials. When I first started my dissertation in 1996, I had to read each newspaper day-by-day, page-by-page to find a queer nugget. Now many of the newspapers are digitized—even the Japanese American press—so it was easier to put together this exhibition, particularly in the context of the ongoing shelter-in-place.
Q: How does the exhibition change our understanding of LGBTQ history in the United States through 1945?
Stan: Our exhibition helps audiences understand that early Japanese immigrants came from a culture in which male same-sex relationships and female impersonation were accepted. Their children, the nisei, came of age when white Americans’ harshly negative judgements of homosexuality and gender nonconformity were crystallizing. Nisei adopted those attitudes and beliefs. Although issei weren’t necessarily celebrating what today we consider queer sexuality and gender expression, they were more accepting than subsequent generations. The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II accelerated the community’s desire to prove itself “American,” which included conformity to rigid gender roles and condemnation of same-sex intimacy.
Amy: A number of scholars, such as Siobhan Somerville, have shown that racism breeds homophobia and transphobia, even within marginalized groups themselves. Many Japanese Americans are terrified of coming out to their families, and postwar Japanese immigrants or shin issei think being queer is an American phenomenon. Most are unaware that our grandparents or great-grandparents were likely more queer-friendly than our parents. Learning about this might reshape how queer Japanese Americans think of themselves.
NOTE: Seen and Unseen is available through the end of June.
Amy Sueoyoshi is dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.
Stan Yogi is a writer who has coauthored numerous books and essays, which have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Daily Journal and academic journals and anthologies.