LGBTQ+ history is essential American history, a rainbow prism through which to view our society’s progresses and retrenchments across cultural, economic, scientific, political, legal, artistic, literary, and linguistic terrain. And as the Santa Monica History Museum’s remarkable new exhibition Coming Out West: LGBTQ+ Elders Share Their Stories movingly demonstrates through its partnership with The Outwords Archive, the best way to record those histories is in the first-person stories of the people who lived them.
Within the small but mighty institution’s galleries, Coming Out West occupies a central hall flanked by galleries dedicated to permanent displays on the city’s establishment, early industries, iconic amusements, and famous residents (like Ambassador Shirley Temple Black) — and as of Juneteenth joined by a new permanent gallery in conjunction with the Quinn Research Center presenting exhibitions that will center stories of Black Santa Monica. Curated from among the hundreds of stories from dozens of states already gathered in The Outwords Archive living library, the eight figures chosen represent not only strong ties to Santa Monica and the west side, but also a range of professions from artists to writers, lawyers, activists, and cultural figures who have indelibly shaped the region’s LGBTQ+ community.
Rob Schwenker, the executive director of the Santa Monica History Museum, emphasizes the significance of this exhibition for both the city and the institution, stating, “In Santa Monica’s history, there has never been an exhibition of this nature; given there are more than 240 pieces of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation making their way through our government, now it is more important than ever to tell these stories.”
And stories are told. As the Outwords mission is capturing, preserving, and sharing the stories of LGBTQ+ elders to honor pioneers’ work and further spark needed social change, the interviews are of enduring interest to scholars, researchers, and historians. But they are also warm, personal, empathetic, moving, generous, supremely watchable, deeply relatable, and often quite funny episodes that lovingly present these figures as they really are — full human beings with complex thoughts, 20/20 hindsight, deep-rooted emotions, memories both fond and poignant to recall.
Anne Wallentine, the exhibition’s curator, states, “With these artists, activists, writers, and philanthropists, we’re excited to highlight the wonderful diversity of the LGBTQ+ community and the many ways people have created and lived their authentic lives.”
Though the oral histories take center stage in the form of short video clips along with QR codes that lead back to the full, in-depth tapes at the Outwords website, these are augmented by a trove of compelling objects, ephemera, artworks, books, and photographs, going back decades. These are as eclectic as the interviewees themselves — from nightlife visionary Jewel Thais-Williams and her legendary establishment, Jewel’s Catch One (aka The Catch), which offered one of the earliest Black and queer-friendly discos in the country; to the late Chuck Williams, whose groundbreaking donation of $2.5 million established the renowned Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a leading LGBTQ+ academic center dedicated to rigorous research on sexual orientation and gender identity in legal and public policy.
Judy Abdo, a former Santa Monica city councilperson and one of the nation’s earliest openly lesbian mayors, blazed her own trail of progress. Known for her passion as an educator, activist, and civic leader — and her rather epic collection of activist buttons carefully displayed on an American flag — Abdo spearheaded initiatives supporting environmental sustainability, rent control, early childhood education, and rights for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Like many of those interviewed, Abdo speaks freely about the early days of getting to know herself, trying to fit into social roles, and eventually finding a path to personal freedom that lit the way for her to live her best life as her truest self — and to make it easier for those who would come after her.
L. Frank, an esteemed Tongva-Ajachmem artist, writer, activist, and tribal scholar, adds a rich cultural perspective to the conversation, speaking eloquently about the concept of the Two-Spirit pronoun pó — a contemporary term rooted in ancient traditions, encompassing fluid gender identities and sexual orientations among Indigenous peoples. Co-founding Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, L. Frank diligently preserves and fosters the continuation of indigenous languages, alongside a robust and acclaimed visual art practice in painting and illustration.
Don Bachardy was a celebrated visual artist beloved for his captivating portraits, especially of his friends and fellow travelers in the art world. Represented with a self-portrait and one of his life partner Christopher Isherwood, much of Bachardy’s interview centers on his earliest coming-of-age memories, his older brother who was also gay, their family dynamic and the world in which he grew up. Writer Terri de la Peña, a celebrated Chicana author and descendant of one of Santa Monica’s oldest lines, the Marquez family, weaves her ancestral narrative into the story of finding herself and coming out to her community, which she rather did by writing the queer coming of age novel Margins in 1992.
Marianne Diaz is an educator, activist, and civic leader, who is dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence in marginalized communities and the founder of nonprofit, CleanSlate, offering low-cost tattoo removal, therapy, support, and conflict resolution for former gang members, as well as further work with empowerment programs to uplift LGBTQ+ youth in the Watts community. She remembers with fondness being a kind of tomboy who took more pleasure in working on the car with her dad than playing with dolls or other cisnormative socialization expectations.
Mia Yamamoto, a recipient of the esteemed Harvey Milk Legacy Award, commands attention as a lawyer and transgender rights activist. Born in the Poston concentration camp in Arizona, her early experiences shaped her profound understanding of racial injustice in America. Mia emerges as a relentless advocate for the transgender community, earning accolades for her tireless work both inside and outside the courtroom. In addition to which, the wit, glamor, sparkle, and toughness that has made her a brilliant attorney makes her interview especially watchable, and her stories of coming out as trans to a legal community of judges, attorneys, court reporters, and especially rough-trade clients are simply marvelous. She’s a natural star. They all are.
Coming Out West is on view at the Santa Monica History Museum through Dec. 17; 1350 Seventh St., Santa Monica; $5 admission, free on the first Sunday of the month; and on June 24, there will be a community open house with free admission; santamonicahistory.org.
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