Often considered an overlooked part of Long Beach history, the gay rights movement that today involves such issues as same-sex marriage and gays in the military can be traced back to the local area, where organizations and activists for decades have led a charge against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Major historical moments span as far back as 1914, when 30 gay men were entrapped by Long Beach police and charged with “social vagrancy.” More than 50 years later, Long Beach resident Lee Glaze led a flower protest outside of the Los Angeles Police Department station in 1968 after police had raided a gay bar known as The Patch once located in Wilmington.
These stories and many others are now being told through the Historical Society of Long Beach’s latest exhibit called Coming Out in Long Beach, which includes nearly 1,000 items, such as T-shirts, old photographs, pamphlets and buttons, documenting the rise of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in the local area. Historians recorded the stories of nine local residents who were active in the LGBT community, involved in various initiatives and causes as early as the 1960s.
The exhibit is part of a larger undertaking called the LGBT History Project that involves a yearlong effort to collect artifacts and information through interviews for a permanent archive. The exhibit officially opened to the public this week and runs through March 1, 2014 at the historical society at 4260 Atlantic Ave.
The project was kicked off last Saturday, Feb. 23, during an opening gala attended by more than 200 people, including local government dignitaries and Grammy and Oscar Award-winning singer and musician Melissa Etheridge.
The gay and lesbian activist who officially came out in 1993 with the release of her album Yes I Am moved from Kansas to Long Beach, where she first launched her musical career, playing at local lesbian bars, including Que Sera and the Executive Suite. As part of the exhibit, one of Etheridge’s gold records is on display.
“This is a trip,” said Etheridge, who has released a new album titled 4th Street Feeling and attended the event with her partner Linda Wallem, an actress, writer and producer. “It was those very people who I see here who gave me a job… It was years performing those songs for you. You guys were gathering in the daylight saying you were ‘gay’… This is what America is about…”
Other subjects in the exhibit include: the controversy of the first Pride Parade and Festival in Long Beach; the Long Beach Lambda Democratic Club that successfully lobbied for a city ordinance to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation; the AIDS epidemic once called the “gay disease;” and the start of the first AIDS Walk.
Items also involve: the election of the first openly gay city councilmembers in Long Beach and Signal Hill; the gay social scene and growth of gay bars along Broadway; and the opening of Sojourner Bookstore on Redondo Avenue that sold books on lesbianism.
“The exhibit is unique in that Long Beach is now stepping up to the plate, recognizing that we are part of the historical community… It’s time,” said Vanessa Romain, who was quoted in the exhibit for being an activist for lesbian and gay rights for many years and involved with the Pride parade since its inception.
Julie Bartolotto, executive director of the Historical Society of Long Beach and co-chair of a steering committee on the project, said the largest collections came from the Long Beach Gay and Lesbian Center, Long Beach Pride and David Hensley, a former teacher and local gay-rights activist.
“What we know now is that we know a little,” said Bartolotto during the gala. She added that she was “impressed with the overwhelming success of the event and the support from the community.”
In addition to the exhibit and a permanent archive of materials and oral histories, the project involves creating a documentary and organizing various programs and events throughout the year. Other events include public oral histories, panel discussions, a documentary preview and a walking tour of places significant to LGBT history. Programming will be announced throughout the year.
To donate historically valuable LGBT materials, contact Letticia Montoya at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the LGBT History Project, visit hslb.org or call (562) 424-2220.