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Fifty Years After Stonewall, a Look at the Struggles and Celebrations of LGBTQ Americans

For many years, whenever someone asked Smithsonian curator Katherine Ott what was on her artifact wish list, she’d reply: “John Waters’ mustache.”

It was partially a joke, but Ott had long been determined to snag some piece of memorabilia tied to the legendary director, known for his subversive cult films and distinctive facial hair. “Waters is irreverent and creative and has inspired many kinds of artists,” she says. “He’s a cultural force for people who are different.” So, when a research fellow joined Ott’s department and mentioned she’d once invited Waters to speak at her university, Ott jumped at the opportunity to connect. Before long, Ott was on the phone with Waters himself, and Ott got her wish—more or less.

Though Waters’ mustache stayed firmly planted, the filmmaker sent over a Maybelline eyeliner pencil like the ones he used to fill in his stache, plus a jar of his well-documented favorite lotion, La Mer (emptied of its pricey contents).

"Illegal to be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall," an upcoming exhibit case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. will highlight Waters’ artifacts and dozens of other items that showcase different aspects of gay history in the United States, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

The display case goes on view June 21, half a century after patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City, rioted in response to a police raid.

Though the exhibit uses the anniversary as an entry point, the organizers intended to highlight the broader context of gay history and activism, and the “everyday experience of being queer,” Ott says—for celebrities like Waters and for the millions of other less-famous gay Americans. After all, Stonewall, important as it was, is only one piece of the long history of LGBTQ people in the U.S., she says.

“Stonewall itself, in my view, was unique and important, but within a small context. It was not the birth of the modern gay rights movement, although that's been repeated over and over,” Ott says. “It has this outsize reputation. We wanted to kind of counter that, and draw attention to how long of a history gay activism and gay life has had.”

In many ways, that history has been rife with struggle, as some of the display’s artifacts illustrate. Among them are lobotomy knives that were used as late as the 1970s, when homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, to “cure” gayness by disconnecting the brain’s frontal lobes to make patients more docile; buttons and stickers plastered with Nazi symbols and violent slogans; and equipment from the lab of Jay Levy, who researched a cure for HIV/AIDS when the virus tore through the LGBTQ community in the 1980s.

Some of the exhibit’s most powerful objects once belonged to Matthew Shepard, a young gay man whose 1998 murder became a defining moment in the gay rights movement and inspired a push to expand hate crime protections. When Shepard’s remains were interred at the Washington National Cathedral last year, his family donated a superhero cape from his childhood, as well as a wedding ring he’d bought in college but never got to use before he was killed at age 21.

The team working to bring the display case together thought it essential to portray the element of risk for LGBTQ people in this country. Being gay, or really “any sort of different,” still often means experiencing discomfort and even danger, Ott says.

“The people at Stonewall took a risk to even go out, let alone go to a bar, let alone fight back against police,” she says. “But all of us who are queer share the risk we take in being ourselves.”

The display also features some lighter fare, including buttons and posters from various pride celebrations; a record from writer and musician Edythe Eyde (who recorded under the name “Lisa Ben,” an anagram of “lesbian”); and even a metal harness, complete with a codpiece, from San Francisco.

Read entire article at Smithsonian.com