In 1985, branding was not exactly a buzzword — unless you owned a cattle ranch. Still, the founders of the GLBT Historical Society realized that priceless items that told queer history were lost every day through the AIDS crisis. Willie Walker and others mounted a campaign to underscore the importance of saving papers, photographs, and periodicals.
The task was harder than it may seem. Consider: in those years, many people were in the closet. Lovers and friends swooped into apartments and destroyed “the evidence.” Grieving parents did the same. Even those who were proudly out might not realize the importance of saving newspapers, magazines, and letters.
The museum needed to educate the public, and humor is often the best communicator. Slogans like “Have We Got a Story to Tell!” and “Now that You’re Out of the Closet, What Else Is in There?” got the message across without a lecture or an admonition. Slogans were printed on buttons, brochures, and advertisements. And material started flowing in—periodicals at first, and later letters, diaries, photographs, and artwork. (An exhibition of three decades of paintings, drawings, and three-dimensional objects is now on view at the GLBT History Museum.)
Now, as pioneers of gay liberation in the ‘50s and ‘60s grow gray, the GLBT Historical Society underscores the importance of gathering oral histories. Similarly, if those early messages hadn’t gotten across, we would have lost more, compounding the tragedy of AIDS.
Bay Area native Linnea Due is an award-winning writer and editor.