The GLBT History Museum passed this onto me yesterday. A Canadian art blogger wrote a piece about her recent experiences in San Francisco, including checking out the “Legendary: African American GLBT Past Meets Present” exhibit which I curated. Cool!
The exhibit runs through the end of this month.
May 6, 2013
GLBT History Museum vs. Port of San Francisco
I am constantly fascinated by the way that official stories are told. So many museums and institutions tell such a narrow or oversimplified version of the events they are representing.
For example, the Port of San Francisco is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. To commemorate, there are flags celebrating various aspects of the port’s history and present. The flags all have the text “The Port of San Francisco – 150 Years – A Place For __.” The blank is filled in by various words, like History, Labor, Nature, Fishing, Ships, Travel, Families, Sports. In one way, this kind of media does tell a multifaceted story, highlighting different aspects of the port. However, when these terms are used in this way, a whole set of meanings is invoked. For example, what exactly does it mean to say that the port is “A Place for Families”? What kind of families actually feel comfortable spending time at the port? Given that one of the major events at the port is spending money – largely at restaurants and souvenir shops – we can assume that they don’t mean families who do not have disposable income to spend on such things.
Similarly, they claim that the port is “A Place for History,” however, in the few hours I spent there walking around, I didn’t see a single mention of the indigenous people on whose traditional territory the port is located. In fact, the only evidence of San Francisco’s colonial history is a sign that is located in an obscure area of Fisherman’s Wharf park. The sign does not mention the indigenous people of the land at all, rather it just describes the journey of a spanish ship in the “discovery” narrative that has been so well critiqued by many, many people (see this site, for example, or this one). Each of the words they have used – nature, travel, labor – all have similarly complex meanings and histories. Without defining their terms, the port invokes the most superficial meanings of these complex concepts.
By contrast, I was pleasantly surprised by the way stories were told and, more importantly, questions were asked at the GLBT History Museum in San Francisco. The museum celebrates 100 years of the city’s “Vast Queer Past” and has really a very wide range of exhibits exploring many different aspects of queer history in San Francisco and the US.
For example, one of the exhibit captions on GLBT participation in consumerism contends that in “the 1980s and 1990s ‘pride’ became its own product” and asks the question “What is the price of freedom?” Beyond GLBT participation in consumer culture, this seems like an important question to ask about any liberation movement.
I was also excited to see the way that they incorporated different racialized GLBT histories throughout many of the exhibits, in addition to an exhibit specifically exploring racialized queer experiences and communities through both static and dynamic media. This probably shouldn’t be remarkable, but given the overwhelming whiteness of most historical representations, I was pleased to see this more complex (and accurate) representation of queer history.
I don’t know if its the moon cycle, the spring weather or what, but my usual slightly sensitive political buttons have been kinda off the chain hair-trigger lately. I totally didn’t anticipate the strong reaction I would have when hearing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s death today. When the news sunk in I was taken right back the 1980s, a time so vividly emblazoned on my brain because it was right at the height of my adolescence. I’m actually rather surprised at the feelings that sprung up in remembering how influential (read: notorious) she was. I so distinctly remember her reign of power in Britain - the intolerant culture, the race riots, the government corruption, greed and aggression.
Being aware of that tumultuous energy as a young adult (though I may not have fully understood it at the time) has definitely contributed to how I interact with America today, how I see it. What I see. Somehow I figured out pretty early on that intolerance and narrow-mindedness was wrong. Not only was it wrong but it was dangerous. Growing up Chicago provided me with a great example of how powerful and destructive intolerant ideologies could be. I think my reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death is due to the eerily strong parallels between our respective countries. The United States, cut from precisely the same cloth as our not so distant relative Great Britain, both of whom employed some of the most merciless, widespread and inhumane systems to maintain wealth and dominance all over the world. For me the Prime Minister represents a distinctly European construct of supremacy, an ideology which has reached a scale so immense, and so corrupt, polluting the values and priorities of so many cultures, that it has now become unstable. I guess my reaction is because I can see the direct correlations between our two societies - built primarily upon rigid class (caste) systems where entire groups of people are left disenfranchised and undereducated. Our two nations, blindly and defiantly in denial of our own history of terrorism, clinging to a politically and morally corrupt way of being that makes me very afraid for what lies ahead for us.
I don’t talk very much about my job or what I do for a living, certainly not on this website. But being a social scientist for going on 20 years now, if there’s one thing that’s never wavered, ever, despite my frequent ranting and frustration with the way things are in the world, is my empathy for the human experience. I sometimes question whether I’m just becoming a bitter (but handsome!) middle age man, but I’ve realized that what I’ve felt, what’s driven my work for all these years is anger. To me bitterness implies inaction or surrender whereas anger, if dealt with properly, can be harnessed to create positive and effective change. I’ve devoted my entire career to helping increase the understanding of how to provide people with tools to stay healthy, to stand up and value more in themselves and the communities they come from. To help people make better decisions, have stronger, healthier relationships and gain the skills to reach higher in life. I’m by no means patting myself on the back here, on the contrary I feel a similar insidious Thatcher-like energy poisoning virtually every social structure in our country, every safety net, and I know far too well how slowly and deliberately it destroys lives. The death of the Prime Minister today reminded me that I’m just as angry and committed to helping do something, anything, as I ever was.
Tonight I can’t help but think of that era and those who spoke out (and up) for those who didn’t have a voice. I sincerely hope more American anger will get harnessed into action, some kind of action, for any society that willfully divorces itself from the humanity of its own citizens simply cannot be sustained.
When I notified my landlord that I was moving to Oakland last year I remember him asking with utter bewilderment why I was leaving. I think what he really was wondering was why I would possibly leave an apartment in the most desired neighborhood in San Francisco just to move across the bay (to Oakland for chrissakes)?
Over the course of the last five years, and particularly over the last two, I’ve seen working class and more and more middle class residents get pushed out of the city entirely. My old neighborhood, The Mission, has transformed into a virtual playground for the hip and upwardly mobile, a never ending spectacle of upscale boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops catering to a demographic of people with high incomes and a value system to match. I’ve watched independent bookstores, mom & pop groceries, non profits, even places of worship - largely people of color and long time residents - being forced to make way for an entirely new breed of San Franciscans who seem to not at all notice nor mind the vast displacement of families, businesses, culture and social capital from the neighborhood and city.
The truth is I could no longer stomach watching the massive amount of resources being diverted to cater almost singularly to people possessing an already elevated amount privilege and wealth. The truth is, I too was among that high income privileged demographic, one of the fortunate ones who could afford to stay and take full advantage of all the high-end amenities that gentrification brings. The truth, though, is that ultimately I came to a point where I refused to live in a city that so blatantly perpetuated economic (and similarly racial) inequality, couldn’t willingly participate in a system that so aggressively gave fundamental and preferential access to those within a particular income bracket, seemingly with no regard for those who suffered the consequences as a result.
For now Oakland feels much more inclusive and balanced. There’s still ( pretty much) room for everyone. The gentrification is definitely scaling up as more and more people, for whatever reason, leave San Francisco. My old landlord, who held an open house for my apartment literally just one hour after moving out, reconfirmed for me that the decision to move really wasn’t so much for affordability reasons but very much for ethical and moral ones. Perhaps my arrival in Oakland makes me no different than the current wave of gentrifiers from my former city, but at least for now, most people, no matter their socioeconomic status, still have a place here and have, I sincerely like to think, a relatively good chance at life and that proverbial all-mighty American Dream.