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The Uses of Discomfort LGBTQ Collections Their Repositories and Their Legacies

Category: On-Demand Programs: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion

This is a recorded session from the 2021 AAM Virtual Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo.

People left out of traditional cultural narratives are forced to become the custodians of their own histories. For queer institutions, this means collecting stigmatized materials that other institutions may find irrelevant. Changing this dynamic requires exploring why people find queer history uncomfortable and pushing through that discomfort. Through the collecting practices of the GLBT Historical Society this panel will discuss how queer history is erased, recovered, and validated.


Nalini Elias, M.A., Director of Exhibitions, GLBT Historical Society Archives and History Museum

Isaac Fellman M.A., Reference Archivist, GLBT Historical Society Archives and History Museum

Leigh Pfeffer, Manager of Museum Experience, GLBT Historical Society Archives and History Museum

Dr Ramomn Silvestre, PhD, Curator and Museum Registrar, GLBT Historical Society Archives and History Museum


Ramòn Silvestre: There you go.

Issac: All right. Hi, everybody. We are from the GLBT Historical Society and we’re here to just do a brief conversation about sort of some of the history and ethical issues surrounding archiving. I am Isaac Feldman, the reference archivist at our society, formerly at the Charles Schulz Museum and the California Historical Society. I’d also like to introduce my colleagues, Leigh Pfeffer, they/them pronouns. Sorry, my pronouns are he/him. And Leigh is our manager of museum experience. They have worked at the Exploratorium and the diversity center in Santa Cruz, done a variety of nonprofit and museum work. Leigh’s also the host and producer of the excellent podcast, History is Gay.

My other colleague is Ramón Silvestre, he/him pronouns. He’s a registrar and curatorial specialist, and a widely published expert in material culture studies. He holds a PhD in anthropology and a master’s degree in curatorial and museum studies from the University of Arizona. And our panel, since it’s so brief, it’s just going to be more of a panel discussion than a series of formal presentations. That would be [inaudible 00:01:18]. So I’m just going to ask the gang a couple of question, some specific and some for everybody. My first one is really for Leigh. So you manage our museum and it is your daily work to make queer history public. Can you speak to some of the ways that being queer in public is inherently political and perhaps some of the ways that your politics and values influence your approach in museum?

Leigh Pfeffer: Yeah, I think there’s something always inherently political about existing as a member or representative of a marginalized community in a public space, because the very existence of folks who are outside of the binary system or systems that were built as systems of oppression, the very existence of just being out and in the world is a political and somehow scandalous act. So to present a space that invites people to come in and be both welcomed, and also, I mean, going with the kind of theme of this conversation, presented with very specific instances of discomfort and oppression and pain, there’s no way not to, I feel like, come into the museum and not have an experience that reflects what’s going on in the world. If I am rambling, I am coming off of a very long week because we reopened the museum. So it might take me a while to get my academic brain on.

Ramòn Silvestre: You’re not rambling. You’re not rambling at all.

Issac: We just got a donation of the first rainbow flag that was flown at 1978 pride, and the folks from the museum department had been just working a lot [crosstalk 00:03:30]

Leigh Pfeffer: Working a lot, yeah, [telling 00:03:33] that.

Issac: Yeah, I was going to-

Leigh Pfeffer: [crosstalk 00:03:36] I was just going to say that we get people from all over the world coming into the museum every day. You get a variety of people who grew up in rural areas and have never gotten an opportunity to see themselves represented in a fashion like in the museum. And we also get people who are homegrown in San Francisco who come in and tell us their own specific political histories of being part of the things that are in the museum, being part of protest actions and AIDS activism, and telling stories about when they used to go to lesbian bars on Valencia Street. And so it’s really interesting to have just that space.

Ramòn Silvestre: Great. I think we both, and we all recognize that art and archives are inherently political and that as a community archive collecting these materials is actually a political statement. I mean, we will always have to basically deal with that sort of situation to this very day. So I’m sorry, Isaac. I kind of went off tangent there for a minute, but-

Issac: Oh no, you’re totally fine. It also occurs to me, listening to the two of you talk, that there is just always an interplay of comforting and discomforting experiences that you have at the museum where you might see yourself reflected very deeply, and yet at the same time, you may see very painful moments of life described in the exhibits, just the very personal nature of it.

Ramòn Silvestre: Yes, exactly.

Issac: Yeah.

Ramòn Silvestre: So, and-

Issac: And certainly-

Ramòn Silvestre: Go ahead.

Issac: Oh, I was just going to say, working in the archives, I certainly often find that to be true, because my job is to work with the public and serve archival materials to them. And it’s just, I’ve never worked in archives that feel so profoundly personal to its visitors.

Ramòn Silvestre: I agree.

Issac: Just many of them will be seeing collections that relate to people that they know who have died. It’s just, there’s grief that’s inherent.

Ramòn Silvestre: Yep. It’s always a personal story that accompanies the exhibit from a different person’s perspective, and that, to me, is the most touching when you are in a museum museum space and you realize there are people that identify with that specific exhibition. And that, I think to me, is the satisfaction in doing the sort of exhibitions in what we do. So I really am proud of you all and the effort put in making it happen, whether it be in the archives or at the museum.

Issac: And Ramón, that leads me to my next question for you. So for those watching, we’re not primarily an art museum or historical society, but we have a substantial art collection, which Ramón manages. Can you talk to us about how homophobia has led to the exclusion of queerness from art history and the told history of art, even though many artists are obviously queer.

Ramòn Silvestre: Queer.

Issac: It’s just a well known fact. How has that exclusion looked over the years? What are some of the ways that our collections can help counter it?

Ramòn Silvestre: So I think when we think about it, and I belong to the older generation of the community, when you think about it, in the fifties and sixties, censorship loss were so different, where women were were allowed to disrobe when you see them in pin up postcards and stuff that were common at that time. And when men started to disrobe and there were all these photographs being taken, these men and the photographers themselves were being thrown into jail, or were… It was such a different time, and it was then justified by these photographers as what they call physique photographs. This is just an example where there were health… The justification was, it was the health approach to building muscle and exercise and that sort of thing, but of course it had a homoeroticism behind it and you found it in little magazines in drug stores. And this is a different time.

And fast forward to where we are now, the issues of visibility, identity politics, and censorship may no longer seem as pressing as previous decades, yet for many artists that are queer, it’s an important concept tied to identity, and in as much as the artists that we see now are queer. The issues we’ve had in the past are slowly being rectified, so queer artists are now being recognized in things like major museums and exhibitions and stuff, and I think that’s the fun part about my job, is because then I get to see what has been collected in the early years, seventies, when you think about the fifties through the eighties. And now we have a space to show these artists and be able to continue fixing the problem of how traditional museums would only focus into… Well, they didn’t talk about the identity of the artist, but would still be able to do the exhibition, which is what was happening in the… I think it was in the seventies when the Mapplethorpe photographs were banned from, was at the Corcoran Gallery in the east coast, and they banned the opening of that exhibition.

And just recently, LACMA, and the Getty Museum, in the last five years, at least four or five years, had a huge retrospective on the Mapplethorpe photographs and how, when you think about, they are very graphic, and it takes a lot of effort and education, I guess. And Mapplethorpe, as a gay man, did exactly that. And that’s uncomfortable, uncomfortable for a lot of people, even in larger cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. And I think the other thing is, we have to understand that we live in a bubble. And being in San Francisco and in the Bay Area, we tend to have that sort of understanding that we’re great. We can do this, we can see these things in museums.

But when you think about other folks in other states or other cities where this education is so unavailable and it’s restrictive and it’s not seen as progressive and it’s, makes it more are important, for me personally, to be able to do these exhibitions and being able to share these exhibitions or collaborations with other institutions. I think that’s where I’m coming from when it comes to this whole idea of having to educate people on homophobia and that sort of thing.

Leigh Pfeffer: Well, I think that’s one of the really interesting things about our collection and the collecting scope of our organization, at the heart of it, is that question that you hear in museums, in archives, is like, what is worth collecting? And this organization was founded by people in a living room and grabbing Levi’s that had been discarded into dumpsters of their loved ones and friends who were passing away from AIDS. And I think that’s a really significant question. And all of our work is, is there anything that reflects a part of our community that isn’t worth collecting? And so we have a really interesting, and sometimes very odd, and sometimes very uncomfortable collection. So, I don’t know, you talking about that, Ramón, makes me think of some of the things in the archives that A, you wouldn’t usually find in an archive, and B, most places aren’t thinking about them as historical items or objects, and I think that puts us in a really unique space.

Ramòn Silvestre: I’m sure. I’m sure, Isaac, also, you feel the same way. I mean, having worked in a different type of archive in the past, and now being in this situation, in this current archive you’re working in, you could see the difference in types of collections and having to realize that.

Issac: Yeah. When I was listening to you talk about Mapplethorpe, Ramón, I definitely thought about our collections, and also the way that we present them, because Mapplethorpe doesn’t allow you to closet his art. I mean, maybe some of the orchids, I suppose.

Ramòn Silvestre: Yeah.

Issac: But he’s very out. You can’t not tell him-

Ramòn Silvestre: Exactly.

Issac: Oh, thank you. Sorry, backstage thing happened. You can’t not call him what he is. And I think out, for example, the huge leather collection that we have and some of the ways that we exhibit it, the way that we worked with it, when we were doing a Mr. S. Exhibition last year [inaudible 00:14:31] the leather community in San Francisco. We collect these very bodily things. We collect these very open and uncloseted things, and these very personal things.

Ramòn Silvestre: Exactly.

Issac: And with a couple of exceptions that a lot of archives would not. I wanted to move on. I know that we just got a cool audience question that I want to leave room for at the end.

Ramòn Silvestre: Sure.

Issac: But first, for everybody, what role did queer people’s self advocacy play in the move towards inclusion in archives and museums? How have we learned to tell our own stories? I feel like I have an answer for that one, actually.

Ramòn Silvestre: Okay. You start.

Issac: Well, I mean, I think that the problem here is that you kind of already got there, with talking about our own foundation, how we were community archives, how we were in a private home. One of my favorite things to talk about in archives is the Lesbian Herstory archives in New York and how they have a practice that the artist always has to live with the collections. They stayed in an apartment. They never left. And being in an apartment is a very important part of their aesthetic of collecting, because they just believe that I expect, I imagine that the rationale behind that, I should say, that if you lose sight of the living room and if you lose sight of the in community nature of the archiving work, then you are starting to become something other than queer archive. And I wouldn’t not go that far. I don’t personally live here, but I vibe with it. I get what they’re talking about.

Leigh Pfeffer: I mean, I think gets just… It’s part of survival, is these types of organizations are coming about because no one else is going to do it. We tell our own stories and we teach our own or history through stories among our community, because we were robbed of it. It’s what I really like about our institution and institutions like ours is that there is no authority. It’s not like people come here and they see us as the authority on queer history. Like I said, people are coming in and telling their own stories consistently, and I think that’s something that we have to really grapple with. And also, I think it’s something that I think that other institutions should think about adopting, especially if you are doing the work of representing a marginalized community, is no one is going to be an expert on these things, unless they are actually a part of that community. And that’s something that museums have struggled with for a long time in the nature of collecting and the nature of collecting items that-

Ramòn Silvestre: Exhibitions.

Leigh Pfeffer: … don’t belong to the community or culture that is representing it, and various things like that. So I think it’s been a method of survival, to answer the question.

Ramòn Silvestre: And I think I’ve seen a lot of having to rectified the issues of the past in terms of censorship for the queer community in general, we see major institutions now, like Isaac mentioned, the Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Getty or the LACMA, or even at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, when they host gay writers and photographers and that sort of thing. And I think that’s a… It’s a slow move. I’d love to see more, but as we create and enrich this sort of our smaller community archives and hopefully produce more exhibitions, I think is always a move towards inclusion. I mean, we’ve learned that the small steps, we tell our stories of who we are and the constant outreach and education should never be put to rest.

I think what we’re doing now is move forward and not backwards. And fortunately, again, we live in San Francisco and we do live in that bubble, and if we continue to do that and not be suppressed by whatever that is, whether it be political or presidential or whatever it is, then I think we’re on the right path. I think both locally, nationally, and eventually globally. I mean, when you think about what’s going on outside the United States and other countries where the queer community is totally suppressed, punished, or even killed. So we kind of just have to do the work we do now, and hopefully people pick up and understand and educate themselves and/or be more accepting. I think that’s the good direction.

Issac: So the last thing that I was going to ask the group was just sort of the flip side of what I just did. What are some of the pitfalls of the approach of having queer archiving being so personal and so based on expertise within the community? There’s always a danger of just burnout from doing it all ourselves. I definitely feel this, especially within the trans community, where for a very long time, nobody thought that our materials were valued. And that’s changing now, but it from within.

Ramòn Silvestre: Exactly.

Issac: And also just, I don’t know, it’s not always comfortable to be, I don’t want to exactly say tokenized within the field, but sometimes being asked for my expertise becomes a burden in itself because people assume that I know everything because I’m a queer archivist, because I’m a trans archivist. Anyway, how can we forward through that point. I’ve just accidentally asked a central question that we all think about all the time.

Leigh Pfeffer: Well, yeah, I was going to answer that too, with that exact thing, is that on the flip, right? We’re not purporting to be authorities on any of this, and yet we are seen as authorities on this. And we’re collecting these things, we’re talking about our own lived experiences, but there are many, many wonderful folks who are historians doing the academic work, and people have come to us with very, very specific questions about a very niche part of queer history. And we can’t encompass it all because history is also just history, because queer people have existed throughout time, all over the entire world, and our collecting scope is very narrow. I think… I just lost what I was going to say. I think one of the struggles is that, of kind of any community, I think our specific community, the queer community, the LGBTQ community grapples with rapidly changing language and goal posts and ways to refer to ourselves and ways to talk about this kind of history.

And so you have to play a weird role of being in between where you have kids coming into the museum or the archives and expecting certain language or certain ways of people being talked about and having to contextualize that within history, but also present in a way that is going to be current and welcoming. That’s been one of my struggles, especially trying to do group tours for folks and getting people who aren’t necessarily part of this work or part of this community up to speed with how those-

Issac: Yep.

Leigh Pfeffer: … those kind of things are constantly changing. I mean, from literally within the span of half a year, it could change. I personally remember when we were all using the asterisk for trans. And then the next year, it changed. I’m like, “Wait, hold on. Wait, I just figured out I was trans. What do I do? What word should I use for myself?” And then you have a lot of online discourse happening right now about how exactly you should refer to one another when… Isaac, you’re dealing with consistently shifting words in various-

Issac: Yeah.

Leigh Pfeffer: … resource guides.

Issac: Oh my God, this leads directly into the audience question. Thank you so much. For the record-

Ramòn Silvestre: Perfect.

Issac: It was, how do your comments about the personal, the political, the many emotional attachments that people apply to your holdings affect the cataloging, descriptive practices, and protocols? Are your protocols different from non-LGBTQ museums and archives? This is what I think about all the time. This is my whole deal. And as Leigh was pointing out, it is very often terminology for trans the non-binary folks. That’s at the forefront of this, but it comes in many, many ways. And the answer is really… Because we have like a home brew controlled vocabulary that we use to describe our archivables, which I don’t know how unusual that is, to have something that is so completely in house, not based on outside sources. We take some of it from the library of Congress subject headings, but those, as everybody knows, are so dated, and it’s unfortunate [inaudible 00:25:23]. They don’t get replaced and removed. They just sort of get redirected to the contemporary terms. So there is lots of old stuff in archives I am sure that is tagged with transsexual, that today would be tagged with transgender.

You get into the trouble of what will [inaudible 00:25:42] use. Are they going to type archaic words, sometimes offensive words, formerly cool and currently not? Are they going to be searching for inverts, or are they going to be searching for, oh my gosh, homo files? It’s an open question. So we have to balance all of these issues, which usually comes down to, like I said, control vocabulary, partly from library of Congress subject heading, partly just from private research into what communities currently prefer. And we also… In the descriptive notes. And I’m just getting into like deep archival weeds now, and we can talk about [inaudible 00:26:26] stuff in a moment. But yeah, we leave for the descriptive notes, the more detail, where you would say, for example, Lou Sullivan was an American transgender man. He identified as a female cross dresser and has an FTM at various points in his life. And that’s the balance that we struck. I will let other people talk.

Ramòn Silvestre: I think we have a… Is that the question that just came in?

Leigh Pfeffer: I think a question just came in, yeah. But yeah, I think that’s-

Issac: That was a good question.

Leigh Pfeffer: And I deal with this, producing a history podcast too, is dealing with folks who are no longer around and trying to ascribe language to them and terminology for identities that may not have existed in the same way. And I don’t know that there’s really any kind of other area where you have to try to figure that out, whether or not this person or this group of people belongs in this history can be claimed as history. There are some things that are immutable about people, and you don’t have historians going, “Well, I don’t know if this person was X.” And that’s something that happens constantly in the historical community.

And it’s certainly an interesting line to try to walk, and you find yourself constantly having to contextualize and say, “Here’s the language I’m going to choose to use for this person. Disclaimer, we don’t know how exactly they would’ve identified. Here’s the language that they used at the time,” et cetera, et cetera. And I think a lot of people, especially a lot of people who are growing up right now in a very, very different community around the way we talk about queerness, will go right to calling something incorrect, whereas it might just be not what we use right now, but we still want to honor where we came from, if that makes sense.

Ramòn Silvestre: Yep, makes sense completely.

Issac: And I just want to make sure that we at least briefly look at [inaudible 00:29:00] question-

Ramòn Silvestre: Yep.

Issac: … about how much people bring of their online experiences into the museum, and specifically in online discourse about queerness. I think that it just makes everything faster. The internet accelerates so much. I think that’s the main thing that comes to mind.

Ramòn Silvestre: Exactly. There’s also-

Issac: [crosstalk 00:29:21] all the question.

Ramòn Silvestre: I think that’s it. How long do we have? I think we have just a few [crosstalk 00:29:27]

Issac: Oh, one minute.

Ramòn Silvestre: Oh, one minute.

Issac: We have one minute, so we should be like, “We got to bounce.”

Leigh Pfeffer: Quick, who else got a question we can answer in 30 seconds?

Issac: I feel like we should have called this panel, Don’t Get Us Started. [crosstalk 00:29:42]

Ramòn Silvestre: Well, this is a good start, because we can always move on to the bigger picture and kind of have a full session next time. It’s a good start of conversation.

Issac: Yeah. No, everybody, thank you for coming. Thank you for asking great questions.

Ramòn Silvestre: And we’ll see each other soon. I think-

Issac: I don’t know what happens now. I think [crosstalk 00:30:12]

Ramòn Silvestre: We just set the setting off.

Issac: Well, thank you so much.

Leigh Pfeffer: Thank you, everyone.

Issac: Thanks, everybody.

Ramòn Silvestre: Thank you.

Leigh Pfeffer: We’re not quite sure how to turn this off.

Ramòn Silvestre: Thank you again. I think I know how to do this.

Issac: Okay. I’m just going to quietly turn my camera off. Oh, Leigh, you’ve got a fan.

Ramòn Silvestre: I think we just log off.

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