Ask someone where the National LGBTQ History Museum is located, and he/she/they or ze will probably tell you it’s in San Francisco, the birthplace of rainbow flags and free love. That’s not the case. There isn’t a Smithsonian-esque LGBTQ history museum anywhere — yet.
Separate conversations are happening in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Fort Lauderdale and London to establish world-class LGBTQ history museums in those cities. San Francisco is an obvious candidate as well — but the city’s limited real estate stock is proving to be an impediment to the development of an LGTBQ museum, especially for proponents who’d like to see it placed in America’s best-known gay neighborhood: the Castro.
A big queer museum in the Castro isn’t an abstract idea — the GLBT Historical Society already has a small storefront on 18th Street, just off the neighborhood’s namesake thoroughfare. In 1985, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the society’s founders created an archive to safeguard queer artifacts, ephemera, manuscripts and photographs for scholarly research. Eventually, they hoped to open a museum. A feasibility study launched in 2002 concluded that the Castro was well-suited to support a history museum, and for 11 months in 2008, a small pop-up exhibit attracted some 25,000 visitors to the neighborhood.
“San Francisco is our LGBT capital and epicenter,” says State Sen. Scott Wiener, who’s lived in the Castro for more than 20 years. “And the Castro is our international haven.”
Kathy Amendola, owner and operator of Cruisin’ the Castro Walking Tours, leads hundreds of people around the Castro each year, talking about the intertwined histories of San Francisco and LGBTQ people that dates back to the 1840s Gold Rush. “Call me biased, but our community doesn’t exist in the rest of the world,” she says. Each of Amendola’s walking tours stops in front of the GLBT Historical Society’s current 1,600-square-foot GLBT History Museum, which it began leasing in 2011. “A museum is something visitors crave: They want to know more,” she says. “We’re very blessed to have it in the Castro district.”
But the current museum’s lease is set to expire in October 2020, and since there’s no option to extend it, the society needs to secure a new location in the not-too-distant future. In a space-limited city brimming with lethargic planning, permitting and approval processes, that’s a tough task.
FINDING A PLACE
Connie Wolf knows a thing or two about how to take a small museum and turn it into something big in San Francisco. Wolf is the former executive director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and during her 13-year tenure she helped to relocate the once-tiny operation tucked away in the city’s Jewish Community Center to its current 65,000-square-foot facility in the city’s South of Market neighborhood — SoMa, as locals call it.
Even though the site was practically given to Wolf’s group, it took more than 10 years to get from the initial conversations to the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “It always takes a lot longer than you anticipate,” Wolf says. And then the real work begins: keeping the doors open. “You have to have a lot of conviction, commitment and support,” she says.
The GLBT Historical Society’s planned New Museum of LGBTQ History and Culture requires 35,000 square feet of space — and the Castro doesn’t have that kind of available real estate. “My presumption has always been that we’re not going to be able to find some place that’s large enough in the Castro,” says Terry Beswick, the society’s executive director. “It’s difficult.”
The Castro does have one potential site for a large museum. At the corner of Castro and Market streets — catty-corner from where Harvey Milk Plaza, under the shadow of a massive city-landmarked rainbow flag and flagpole, welcomes commuters leaving Castro Station — is a 15,000-square-foot commercial property. Not too long ago, the building housed a Pottery Barn. In a neighborhood plagued by vacant storefronts, the building’s future is uncertain.
Beswick says it’s “a question of timing.” Even if the GLBT Historical Society were able to raise the $15 million required to purchase the building, it would take many more millions to renovate and remodel. “At this point,” Beswick says, “the only way forward would be if we were able to establish a land trust or work with the city to purchase the building. As an organization, we’re not in a position to do that right now unless somebody came in and made a huge donation. And then we gotta run the place.”
The Historical Society’s other alternative is in Central SoMa, where the neighborhood is in the latter stages of a massive rezoning effort. Over the past seven years, developers have collectively poured more than $2 billion into a public benefits fund dedicated to community improvement projects like affordable housing, bike lanes, parks, transit and, Beswick hopes, an LGBTQ history museum.
But according to one city planner, asking elected officials to choose between allocating public funds to a private museum and building affordable housing isn’t a good choice in San Francisco, with the city in the throes of a housing crisis. And since SoMa, historically a Filipino neighborhood, is not the Castro, there’s a critical question: Would there be enough community buy-in to both create a queer history museum in a historically non-queer neighborhood and to sustain that museum? One indication may have arrived in May, when the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to establish an LGBTQ and Leather Cultural District in SoMa, an important step toward lining up funding for a possible museum there.
Meanwhile, efforts to create LGBTQ museums in other cities are forging ahead. The United Kingdom’s proposed national queer history museum in London will, according to reports, dwarf existing institutions in both the United States and Europe. Stateside, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale is looking to expand its presence in South Florida and nationally, with a yet-to-be-revealed connection to Washington, D.C. In New York City, a working group is fundraising for what it’s calling the American Museum of LGBT Culture and History.
Finally, there’s the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world. With operations in both Los Angeles and West Hollywood, Director Joseph Hawkins says he has no desire to expand into a larger museum, unless it can be a virtual space. “Many tiny queer collections are struggling to survive,” he said. “The problems are about preserving LGBT history, not creating some sort of big space.”
As with most things in San Francisco, establishing a permanent LGBTQ history museum may come down to a yet-to-be-perfected blend of political will and community brouhaha. Ultimately, the decision of where to place an LGBTQ history museum in the city either will solidify the Castro as the world’s queer capital or diminish a gayborhood already facing fragmentation.