Tag Archives: Chinese Historical Society of America

Chinese/LGBT: Comparing Two Local History Institutions

The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society (GLBT Historical Society) portray the lives and histories of two overlapping San Francisco communities. The two institutions share a number of interesting similarities.

Chinese Historical Society of America. 2004 photo by Smart Destinations.

The CHSA was founded in 1963. Architect Philip Choy curated exhibits as the CHSA grew and migrated from one Chinatown location to another, including Jack Kerouak Alley, Commercial Street, Broadway, and (since 2001) the current location at 965 Clay Street. The present site has over 10,400 square feet of exhibit and public programming space. It features Chinese in America: Toward a More Perfect Union in the main gallery as well as smaller rotating exhibits.

Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender History Museum. 2011 photo by Daniel Nicoletta.

The GLBT Historical Society was founded in 1985 and changed locations more than once before establishing its current site at 657 Mission Street in 2003. The Mission Street site featured both archival collections for researchers as well as exhibits until 2010, when the GLBT Historical Society tested a temporary exhibition at the corner of 18th and Castro: Passionate Struggle: Dynamics of San Francisco’s GLBT History. Encouraged by the positive response, the GLBT Historical Society formally opened a more permanent GLBT History Museum at 4127 – 18th Street in 2011. The museum has approximately 1,600 square feet of exhibit and public programming space. This includes Our Vast Queer Past in the main gallery and space for smaller rotating exhibits. The Mission Street site continues to operate as an archives for researchers.

Both institutions began partly as a kind of archival rescue mission in response to dramatic transitions taking place in their respective communities. During the 1960s, many California Chinatowns were disappearing as residents moved out or passed away. The CHSA chartered bus trips to vanishing Chinatowns in Weaverville, San Luis Obispo, Hooverville, and elsewhere, gathering donations in the form of documents and artifacts ranging from boats to baskets to business signs. One donation included an entire temple altar from Napa. During the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic ravaged San Francisco’s gay male population. Thousands of local men died estranged from their families and without heirs, and the possessions that documented their lives risked being lost.  The GLBT Historical Society was founded in part to salvage those materials.

The relationship between each institution and academia has been complex. Both institutions’ founders and supporters have included pioneers who established some of the earliest academic programs and scholarship about their respective communities. CHSA board members Him Mark Lai and Philip Choy were not academically trained as historians, but they developed the first Chinese American history courses at San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley. Early GLBT Historical Society supporters Alan Berube and Eric Garber were also not academically-trained historians, but their scholarship was instrumental in establishing a place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history in academia. Today, both institutions continue to be supported both by independent scholars (such as Charlie Chin at the CHSA and Gerard Koskovich at the GLBT Historical Society) as well as academics who work within the now-established fields of Asian American Studies and Gay and Lesbian Studies. At various times each institution has partnered with other organizations for the purpose of managing selected collections. Whereas the CHSA has sought this support from within academia (working with the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California, Berkeley), the GLBT Historical Society looked outside academia by partnering with the Hormel Center at the San Francisco Public Library. At one point in its history, the CHSA was affiliated with the Asian American Studies Department at San Francisco State University. Presently, however, neither institution is formally affiliated with a university. This has sometimes presented challenges. For example, the CHSA’s annual publication, History and Perspectives, is not a peer-reviewed academic journal along the lines of Johns Hopkins University’s Journal of Asian American Studies. Consequently, it can be more difficult for the editors to solicit contributions from academics.

Chinese American lesbian artist Lenore Chinn has contributed to the programming of both institutions. Photo by Erik Butler.

The significance of each institution’s location (CHSA in Chinatown, GLBT History Museum in the Castro) is worth considering. Prior to 1965, San Francisco Chinatown residents were predominantly Cantonese-speaking immigrants from the Pearl River Delta and their descendants. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 had a major impact on the demographics of San Francisco Chinatown, bringing in both Chinese professionals and refugees from many other parts of Asia.  CHSA exhibits and programs have focused primarily on the history of the Pearl River Delta immigrants and their descendants, but the newer residents of Chinatown don’t always identify with that history. The Castro location has helped to make the GLBT History Museum a destination for tourists from around the world. At the same time, however, Castro residents have been grappling with the question of what it might mean that the neighborhood may be becoming less predominantly gay.

Finally, it is worth noting the role that both institutions have played in fostering activism. The CHSA’s traveling exhibit about the Chinese Exclusion Act, Remembering 1882, has prompted Chinese American activists in Washington, D.C. to advocate for an apology from Congress regarding the 1882 federal law. The public programming at the GLBT History Museum has provided a unique venue in the Castro to address issues such as housing rights, healthcare, aging, and labor organizing. Projects such as these at both institutions are in keeping with the fact that the very practice of documenting and interpreting Chinese American and GLBT history is itself an inherently political act.

For more information about each institution, visit the websites of the Chinese Historical Society of America and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

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