From 30th anniversary

Blame Anita Bryant

GLBT Historical Society co-founder Greg Pennington moved to San Francisco in 1977. In June of that year, singer Anita Bryant spearheaded a repeal of an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida. “As the Chronicle headlined it,” Pennington says, “`5,000 Furious Gays March in San Francisco.’ Well, they marched for five days in a row. On the second night, I joined in.”

bryant-150-2[1]From that point on, Pennington began investigating how gay news was reported in different publications. “I was already monitoring the Advocate,” he explains. “I started keeping track of periodicals. Gay Windows, The Washington Blade, Gay Community News. I started collecting publications and making chronologies.”

After Harvey Milk’s assassination, a group convened at the home of Scott Smith, Milk’s former partner. “That’s where I met Willie Walker,” says Pennington.

Walker explained to Pennington that he wanted to set up an archives, but he believed that its mission had to be broader than simply collecting materials. “He wanted to have educational programs and outreach,” says Pennington, who agreed—“I decided I would help him make it happen.” The two formed the San Francisco Periodical Archives.

Meanwhile, other groups were meeting, such as the Gay and Lesbian History Project. Most history project members were academics, who would meet to vet each other’s research. “Walker and I went to a meeting of the history project on September 5, 1984. Gayle [Rubin] was there, with Allan Bérubé and Eric Garber. We proposed to them the idea of creating a historical society. And we got a go-ahead that they would support such an organization.”

walker-pennington-150-2[1]The nascent group had five meetings through the holidays and into 1985. “But we wanted to get other people involved,” Pennington says.“We were a group of white men and a couple of women. And we realized, you know, we’ve got to start this thing all over again.”

With this in mind, Walker sent a letter to 160 organizations and 100 individuals inviting them to what turned out to be the pivotal meeting at the San Francisco Public Library on March 16, 1985. There were 63 people at the library that Saturday afternoon. “We made the decision that everyone at the meeting was a member,” Pennington remembers. “And we chose the name, the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society. … On May 18, we held a public membership meeting to adopt the bylaws and elect the first board of directors.”

Walker was the first cochair, along with Ilene Brettholz. Pennington was elected secretary and served for three years. “Jack Leister was the first treasurer. We got people from the other organizations, people active in the Harvey Milk archives. We kind of coalesced.” On May 19, 1986, the board of directors of the historical society accepted the San Francisco Periodical Archives as its first acquisition.

mow-150-2[1]“We did fundraisers at the Eagle and made $4,000 to $5,000 each time,” Pennington recalls. “I was able to get several people to donate collections—for instance, Sylvester’s costumes.”

Pennington says they had several founding principles: “The first is that we were concerned that we were losing important material to AIDS. Families were throwing things out. And there was the Magnus Hirschfeld collection, which was destroyed during Hitler’s Germany. Because of that, we believed that the archives always had to be controlled by the community. It can never be in political hands, because politics can change. And we were concerned about access to very sexual documents. Our collecting policy was very broad, including material that was very sexual in nature.”

Today Pennington is retired, and is still a collector. “I collect little buildings, movie DVDs, maps. I still have a large gay poster collection. And I have leather friendship pins. That will be one of the first things I’ll catalogue and donate to the Historical Society.”

Bay Area native Linnea Due is an award-winning writer and editor.

So many stories to tell

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.

closetThe 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.