Queer Britain has lessons for American LGBT History

Mark Segal standing next to the door of Oscar Wilde's jail cell.

When I was planning my trip to London last month to speak on LGBT History, it was requested that I add a speaking stop at the Queer Britain museum, which focuses on British LGBTQ history and culture. I didn’t know much about it, since it just opened last year. But as I learned more, my speaking there soon became one of the more interesting events that I was looking forward to.

While each of the other stops were glamorous, well organized, and had celebrities in attendance or hosting, Queer Britain had something close to my heart on view: LGBT History and the stories behind those who created our movement. Joseph Galliano, the director of the museum, has a passion for the subject. While the Q & A we did was fun, the tour of the museum made me emotional. There was one object that screamed out to me, and when I came upon it I immediately had to be photographed with it. Richard understood my feelings. The object was the actual door of the jail cell of Oscar Wilde. As I embraced that piece of his and our history, a wave of emotion struck me. There’s a photo of that moment, and you can see it clearly on my face the emotions it brought out in me. 

In the U.S. there are several LGBT History museums, or places where archives are housed, among them the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale; One Archives in Los Angeles; the New York Public Library, the GLBT History Society Museum in San Francisco. There are others as well, including two that are in an advanced state of planning or construction: The American LGBTQ+ Museum, and the National Park Service’s Stonewall Visitor Center, which will be inside the actual Stonewall on Christopher Street in NYC.

Due to my history and the advanced state of the Stonewall Project, it is the one that intrigues me most, and that trip to Queer Britain has made me aware of why it is so important. 

The visitor Center will be housed in the actual Stonewall and will celebrate the Riot in June 1969, but also the pivotal year that followed. That year is by far the most important of our fight that began in 1895 in Berlin Germany. The reason that year matters so much is because before that riot in 1969 there were only approximately one hundred OUT people in the U.S.  After that first year, there were tens of thousands. Before that year we were mostly invisible and did not know how to change that. During that year we took our message of being out, loud and proud to the police, media, and communities around us. And at the end of the year, we took that message to the public by creating the first Gay Pride. Along the way, those of us in Gay Liberation Front, who carried the torch of Stonewall, grew a community with service including health, legal, political, funding and social. All were public. Our community today wants to connect with and understand how all that happened and how we began the process of self identity.

When I go on speaking engagements, particularly international ones, after I speak, people will come up to me and want to hug me. To me, they are embracing more than just me; they’re embracing our community and how far we have come in the fight for equality.

It’s clear to me how Oscar Wilde’s jail cell door emotionally affected me. Visiting the Stonewall Visitor Center will be that emotional: a once in a lifetime chance to touch the history that changed the course of our community, the history that changed all of our lives.

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