Bayard Rustin, an African American scholar from eastern Pennsylvania, was on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He was a key organizer of bus segregation demonstrations in the South, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the March on Washington, where he scheduled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and drilled police officers on techniques of nonviolent crowd control.
Rustin was also gay. And his story is among those that have inspired an effort to build a national museum in Washington to the history of gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Organizers, led by former Smithsonian researcher Tim Gold and his husband, North Carolina furniture magnate Mitchell Gold, are raising money and collecting artifacts to open a national history museum to tell the stories of LGBT Americans at a time when gay rights were frequently a matter of political and cultural debate.
Tim Gold said he began thinking about the idea while working as a museum specialist at the National Postal Museum and reading about James Smithson, who created the Smithsonian Institution when he passed his inheritance to the United States in the 1830s. Gold said he discovered through research that Smithson was possibly gay, but his sexuality has rarely been publicized.
Gold founded a charitable group, the Velvet Foundation, in 2008 to gather donations. He and Mitchell, who does philanthropic work on behalf of gay youth and edited a book of coming-out stories, have enlisted a lawyer to arrange their fundraising, a museum design expert to plan exhibits, and a real estate broker to locate and acquire property needed for a 100,000-square-foot museum.
Tim Gold said the idea was for a place that would teach the often-ignored roles that LGBT Americans have played in the country’s history in a way that would reverberate with visitors of all kinds.
“This isn’t a museum just for gay people or just for lesbian people or just for transgender people,” he said. “I want anyone who walks through this door to be able to take something away from the experience.”
Although the project is years away from having a door to open, it has attracted the support of the Arcus Foundation, which promotes LGBT equality, and individual donors, and the Velvet Foundation has announced plans to attract other donors and investors. Contributors provided $300,000 to get the campaign started and Tim Gold needs $50 million to $100 million to open and operate the museum.
Its 40-page strategic plan, titled “Here I Am,” explores stories of gay men and lesbians and their searches for identity, among them lesbian performers at Harlem blues clubs in the 1920s, young demonstrators from the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York and John Fryer, a gay psychiatrist who advocated for homosexuality to be de-listed as a mental illness in 1972.
With the backing of his wealthy husband, who co-founded the $100 million home furnishing company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, Tim Gold has been traveling the country acquiring artifacts from gay rights activists and their families, often explaining his project in their living rooms, then following them to pick through boxes in their attics.
There are protest signs from demonstrations nationwide. There is a filmstrip of a 1970 gay pride parade in New York, which Gold serendipitously found buried in a case of gay porn contributed by the Museum of Sex. (“You can’t know what future generations are going to want to watch,” he said.)
There is a sign from Lambda Rising, a Dupont Circle bookstore that closed in 2010, which Gold called “the closest thing I had to being where I belonged” as a college student.
There is the violin and music stand owned by Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after a video of him kissing another man was posted on the Internet.
In all, Gold has 5,000 items stored in a climate-controlled warehouse in Forestville. He said there would be many more if being gay weren’t considered taboo by the families of early activists; once they passed away, many of their families tossed the artifacts. He thinks that even the original sign from the Stonewall Inn has been discarded. “So much of our history is unfortunately thrown out,” he said.
Gold has enlisted Richard Molinaroli of MFM Design, a Bethesda firm that creates exhibits for Smithsonian museums, to develop the ideas.
Finding and affording a location will not be easy. Gold envisions an exhibition hall as part of a mixed-use development in Washington that would include a performing arts theater, a cafe, offices and a research center — an endeavor that probably would cost tens of millions of dollars. The foundation has created a benefit corporation that will allow donors and investors to contribute.
The project’s real estate adviser, Vernon Knarr of the consulting firm Studley, helped develop the Newseum, on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Mall, but Knarr said an LGBT museum probably would attract crowds in less central locations such as Georgetown or Dupont Circle. “I think it will be a destination-type situation, whereas I think the Newseum needs to be where all the tourists are,” he said.
The project could attract political criticism, particularly as it addresses topics such as same-sex marriage. Joe Solmonese, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights group, said gains such as the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the passage of a federal hate crimes law would not have happened without educating the public about the struggles of gay Americans.
“Every advance that we’ve made has been brought about because we’ve been able to change the hearts and minds of the American people in a pretty significant way, and in the context of history, in a fairly rapid way,” he said. “And I see the museum as doing just that.”
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a Christian advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage, said his organization is unlikely to try to obstruct the museum project as long as it does not receive government assistance. “Would the impact of a museum like this be beneficial?” Sprigg said. “In that I expect it to celebrate a form of sexual behavior that we believe is harmful to the people who engage in it and society at large, I wouldn’t consider it a welcome development.”
Tim Gold follows the legislative battles over same-sex marriage, and watched as his and Mitchell’s state of residence, North Carolina, became the 13th state to ban it last year (they were married in Iowa). But he insisted that advocacy is not the museum’s intent, any more than the purpose of the National Air & Space Museum is to support NASA or Pentagon funding.
“We are going to tell American stories. We are going to tell American history, but we are going to do it through the lens of the LGBT story,” he said.
The project does have one higher purpose than history, however: to serve as a place of solace for young people struggling with their sexuality. On one of their artifact-finding trips, in 2009, the Golds visited the mother of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student whose torture and murder led to the passage of hate crime legislation. Seeing letters that other young people had written to Shepard while he lay in a coma brought Tim Gold to tears.
“It is for the LGBT youth,” he said. “That high school boy or girl who comes from a community that’s not so accepting, maybe a family that’s not so accepting, from a church that’s not so accepting, and at the very least they should be able to walk by this museum and know that it’s okay.”