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GLBT Historical Society Entertains the Imperial Court

A Rift Mended in 2006

When the GLBT Historical Society announced itself thirty years ago, offering an official home to archive GLBT history as well as a museum and membership body, material started arriving in truckloads of hefty bags containing all the "memorabilia" that an average queen leaves when s/he dies. Discerning what was of value and what was not became the roll of the archivist on duty.

First, you can imagine how some felt when their ‘treasures’ were designated of little or no historical importance... Then, there were significant treasures to deal with. Magazines and original first editions of groundbreaking media, items like the sewing machine that created the first Rainbow Flag, Sarria’s gowns when s/he premiered as Empress I, etc.

What happens when valuable historical relics are archived by a respected organization? They are environmentally optimized, insured, cataloged, etc. Well, after this process had been regimented by the GLBTHS, the Imperial Court decided they wanted to create a museum-style display to celebrate their 25th Anniversary in a vacant storefront in the Castro. They expected the GLBTHS share their excitement about this venture.

They were not excited. They were mortified. All this stuff was entrusted to them, many times by surviving partners or the extended families within the queer community. They could not just allow it to ‘walk out the door.’

The Imperials fumed, exclaiming that they were the rightful owners of any and all Court memorabilia. The GLBTHS bolted the doors to the archives and refused to allow any of their holdings to be considered for show unless handled by their experts for qualified viewers (other historians, writers, film-makers, documentarists, etc.).

This stand-off has lasted so long that between the 25th and the 40th Anniversary of the Imperial Court, the basement of Marlena’s (on Hayes Street) has been piling up with historical artifacts. Marlena, and Marlena’s Bar are pretty much the central cortex of the Court, along with Donna Sachet, Stephen Rascher, Suzy Wong and John Carrillo. (For current information about the Court: www.imperialcouncilsf.org)

The solution to the problem will come (hopefully) in the near future when the GLBT Historical Society obtains funding and grants to build a permanent home for its museum and archives. To this end, a milestone was reached when a contingent of the Imperial Court attended the Historical Society’s Gala in late September of 2006. Now, in full unity, it is everyone’s goal is to ensure that the museum gets built.

“When we look at a new museum such as MoAD (Museum of the African Diaspora), which came into existence through a public/private partnership with the St. Regis Hotel, we hope to receive a windfall of similar dimension,” says Peter Lundberg, Chair of the GLBTHS Board.

MoAD occupies the first three floors of the $200-million, five-star St. Regis Hotel and luxury condominium complex. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has been an important partner in developing and constructing the Museum, will continue to support the Museum’s operations over the next 12 years.

“My great hope is that all the various groups in the Bay Area will join the bandwagon to get the museum a permanent home for the GLBT Historical Society, Museum and Archives,” says historian and author, Bill Lipsky. “The GLBT Historical Society’s board is made up of volunteers, not professional publicists or grant writers. We need there to be a public outcry for the advocacy of this project. We need developers to come forward as partners. We need the Convention and Visitors Bureau to emphasize to the City the importance of this museum,” Lipsky challenges.

“If people had any idea what a treasure trove the archives are, they would be embarrassed on behalf of San Francisco, in that they are not being shared with the public. San Francisco is supposed to be the Gay Mecca of the world,” continues Lipsky. “Not that the Mexican Heritage Museum, the Jewish Heritage Museum (in the works already), nor MoAD or any of the others aren’t as important… But when two out of three top annual events in the State of California (SF Pride & Folsom Street Fair) are the largest attended and largest revenue generating in the state – and both are gay – you’d think our museum would be on the fast track.”

We at sfgay.org also believe this museum is a top priority. We are working closely with the GLBT Historical Society to bring visibility to this cause.

Note: Bill Lipsky is the author of a new book “”Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” published by Arcadia Publishing. It is available at A Different Light Book Store.