Florida’s Stonewall Reigns as Nation’s Largest LGBTQ Museum
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
The gavel that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi used in 2011 to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy against gays and lesbians.
The pink suit jacket worn by Carson Kressley of the Brava reality TV series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”
Martina Navratilova’s tennis racquet.
One framed Boston Globe front page with a 2003 article on the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts.
Known as the “LGBTQ community’s Smithsonian,” the South Florida nonprofit is the largest gay library and archive in the United States, attracting 8,000 visitors a year. In addition to a Fort Lauderdale-based circulating library of gay literature and periodicals, it features a 2,000-square foot gallery in nearby Wilton Manors with changing exhibits and a permanent timeline of American LGBTQ history.
South Florida ranks in the country’s Top 25 metropolitan areas with the largest concentrations of LGBTQ people. About 4.2 percent of the population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to Gallup polls. But the museum doesn’t cater just to the gay population.
“I think that the larger community needs it outside the LGBT community,” said Executive Director Chris Rudisill. “Having a museum presence and a gallery presence gives people a chance to connect to objects in a real way. There are people in our community with tremendous contributions to the world, and it's important to not let that be dismissed.”
Stonewall’s national archives document a century of history, with more than 30,000 items spanning more than 2,000 linear feet. The archives include the organizational records of LGBT organizations, personal records of local and national personalities, and an ongoing oral history project. Researchers and visitors can borrow any of the 21,000 books in the Stonewall’s library, making it the country’s largest collection of circulating LGBT literature. There also are 4,000 DVDs and a small children’s book section.
The museum hosts film screenings, an authors lecture series, a book club, writing workshops and neighborhood walks. Its memorabilia ranges from picket signs and AIDS T-shirts to Walt Whitman’s edited work with corrections and an original printing of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s sex research. Visitors can view red boots worn by actor Billy Porter from the Broadway musical, "Kinky Boots," and autographed orange pants worn by one of the cast members of the former Showtime TV series, "Queer as Folk."
Recent contributions have included donations from celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Michael Sam, Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Lane, Sharon Gless, Terence McNally, Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman. On a more serious note, significant gifts have included correspondences donated by U.S. Congressman Gerry Studds, framed Polaroid portfolio prints of male nudes by Robert Mapplethorpe, and photographs and negatives of noted activist and photojournalist Jim Marks documenting decades of LGBT culture.
Exhibits at the museum, which have gone on to be viewed in other galleries and spots around the nation, include one on female athletes competing with homophobia in sports and another on gay composers of classical music.
“The documenting, the telling of our story, it really creates a heritage for future generations,” Rudisill said. “It gives us a way to express the breadth of diversity that is within our community.”
Also in the archives are four neatly-organized boxes containing singer and anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant’s news clippings, meeting agendas, letters and campaign plans from her infamously successful “Save Our Children” push to repeal a 1977 Miami-Dade County ordinance that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. The items were donated to the museum by Bryant’s gay publicist.
(In 1998, the Miami-Dade County Commission reversed the Bryant-led repeal and banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. The board extended the ban 16 years later to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression.)
Florida’s Stonewall traces its beginnings back to 1973, when 19-year-old Florida Atlantic University student Mark Silber began gathering books and magazines to better understand his homosexuality. The collection became a lending library that grew throughout the years. Organizers named it “Stonewall” to honor the significance of the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City in the early years of the modern gay rights movement.
When you go…
The Stonewall National Museum & Archives is at 1300 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale, 954-763-8565; stonewall-museum.org. Exhibits can be viewed at the SNMA Gallery, 2157 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors, 954-530-9337.