News (USA)

Gay artifacts subject of new museum collection in Missouri

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri History Museum is on the verge of the St. Louis region’s first mainstream collection of gay artifacts.

Kirkwood resident Steven Brawley’s collection will be a major component of the display, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Brawley has been collecting items such as drag queen dresses, leather vests, handwritten protest signs and Pride Parade T-shirts for six decades

Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

Sometimes things are happening right before our very eyes,” said museum curator Sharon Smith. She said the museum is tasked with tracking those events — regardless of their politics — and preserving them for generations to come.

“I almost don’t want to say this,” said Colin Murphy, editor of the Vital Voice, St. Louis’ gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender magazine. “But it feels like another barrier has been crossed, to have the Missouri History Museum embrace our stories.”

Similar efforts are beginning to take shape in other cities across the country.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a man’s book collection became the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, now one of the nation’s largest collections of gay history and literature. The GLBT History Museum in San Francisco had similar beginnings.

But interest from mainstream history museums is different, former Stonewall trustee Brian McNaught said. He said the Missouri History Museum’s interest means the museum now sees gay history as part of its own.

“When I came out, gay people were seen as monsters, who prowled playgrounds. Then they were diseased — if you sat next to one on an airplane, you’d get sick and die,” he said. Now, he said, gays are seen adopting children and starting families.

The change in perception has also seen mainstream museum exposure: An exhibit on everyday life in gay communities at the Chicago History Museum; a gay history trolley tour hosted by the Kansas City Museum. The annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History in September included a session on the topic.

Some don’t support a tax-supported institution tracking the fight for gay rights.

“I don’t think it’s a good use of tax money at all,” said state Rep. Chuck Gatschenberger, a Republican from Lake Saint Louis, who recently criticized tax benefits for gay couples.

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Brawley’s basement now holds several thousand items.

He has a handwritten poster from suburban St. Louis teacher Rodney Wilson’s 1994 classroom, urging in multicolored marker that parents support their gay children. Wilson came out to his class, and later started the national LGBT History Month.

A black bejeweled dress belonged to a drag queen who called himself Lady Charles, who wore it on stage in the 1970s — a time when the city’s “masquerading laws” made cross-dressing illegal.

“The youth is just starved for these stories,” Murphy said. “When they find out that you could be arrested for being in a drag show, they are outraged.”

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