A new exhibit at History Colorado in Denver debuting this Pride Month is bringing the state’s LGBTQ+ history alive for everyone by celebrating the contributions these Coloradans have made to the fabric of our culture.
Marcus said the 1973 revolt on city council was a prime example.
“I had no idea about that.” he said. “A lot of the women from Big Mama Rag and Woman to Woman bookstore, like T. Shook. All these people were involved in this activism that I was not aware of, and I feel like we take for granted. That these people, a lot of their lives are ruined fighting for rights.”
When deciding where to begin the timeline for the exhibit, Marcus, an associate curator of LGBTQ+ history at the museum, focused on the modern gay rights movement since the 1970s often cited as beginning with the Stonewall Riots in New York City.
While that choice omits the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and other pre-Stonewall benchmarks, choosing what to include in an exhibit with over 50 years of history and only 1,000 square feet available for display was difficult. Still, Marcus says its importance today is just as timely as when the modern movement began.
“I hope the exhibit shows that yes, from the 1970s on, it's a huge time. We've made great strides, but nowhere near what we need to,” he said. “I feel like two steps forward, five back because I've said this now a few times that a lot of the magazine newspaper articles that I've seen, if you just change the date from 1970 something to 2022, it's the exact same story.”
When History Colorado’s work on this exhibit began, there were 94 items in its LGBTQ+ collection. Now the collection’s total is over 500 items, with a lot more waiting to be cataloged and put on display .
And Marcus says building an exhibit that celebrates LGBTQ+ Coloradans while keeping it interesting to a larger audience beyond the LGBTQ community requires authenticity.
“I can honestly say we didn't take anything out. We didn't dumb it down. What you see in the exhibit is what the donors have donated. I did not go into this looking at, ‘Oh, I hope we don't offend this one person’ because I have to do right by the community,” he said. “I need them to see their stories. I need to honor what they've donated and interpret that correctly.”
Marcus hopes this direct approach lays a foundation for visitors to find something relatable.
“I feel like if we work together, this community, we can really become an inclusive community because unfortunately we're not yet. I feel like we really could. I'm not saying this exhibit will do that, but if it's a start all the better.”
For Marcus, curating the exhibit has meant hearing emotional stories behind many of the items. The key, he says, is to balance that emotion by providing a deeper historical context.
“The very first thing I brought in was a poster of a bar called 1942. The guy who brought it in, his name is Steve, it meant a lot to him because it was his partner's poster. His partner passed away from AIDS. This was really all he had,” Marcus said. “As he brought the poster in and was signing the paperwork to donate it, he was crying. This is how much this meant to him, and that needs to be honored.
But, Marcus says the history of some of the items can have more complicated and layered stories than the individual may know.
“On the flip side of 1942, they are known for discrimination. They were picketed many times . It was a huge problem. For me to take this item that is so important to Steve — he met the love of this life at this bar — but then also have to tell that other side of the story, I hope it doesn't offend him,” Marcus said.
“There's a couple other instances in the exhibit like that, like Woman to Woman bookstore, the same thing in the 1970s. They had to close down for three weeks and work through some racism claims. And so I want to tell the story how the donor remembers it, but I have a responsibility to show the other side. But It has to be shown because, again, it's still happening. I mean, I find it crazy to even think about that, yes, we've come a long way and no, we haven’t.”
Rainbows and Revolutions runs for six months. Marcus hopes the conversations it sparks will last much longer.
This story has been corrected to reflect how long the exhibit, Rainbows and Revolutions will run.
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