3 min

Let’s build a queer museum

Election 2006

Credit: Tatsu

There’s no tighter feedback loop than the relationship between a vital urban gay scene and gay tourism.

Queer tourists love cities where there’s the possibility of whoring around. Locals go out more when they think foreign sluts will be there… and so it goes, with all those pink dollars spent.

But gay villages worldwide are dull during the day (except for people who take pleasure in selecting from a wide array of rainbow candles). Meanwhile, Toronto’s mainstream tourist attractions have been widely described as tired. The CN Tower? Yawn. Our city-run museums? Have you ever sent visitors to Tormorden Mills or the Scarborough Civic Centre Gallery? We thought not.

What does this add up to? Toronto needs a city-supported queer museum, as flashy and sexy as possible. It would put us on the map. Just think. Every time Jerry Falwell goes on Fox News condemning, say, the permanent exhibit on gloryholes, it’ll be worth millions of dollars in marketing.

The competition

BERLIN, GERMANY. The Schwules Museum, established in 1985, is considered to be the only institution of its kind, open full-time in a dedicated building. Though its exhibits lean toward the arts, it has a permanent exhibition looking at 200 years of queer life in Germany. Admission is about CDN$7.

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK. Although the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual And Transgender Community Center advertises itself on its website as the home of the National Museum Of LGBT History, I got this answer when I called to ask about it: “I don’t know why people always seem to think we have a museum here. Just a second, I’ll ask somebody.” What the centre does have is a large archive, which has been mounting free exhibits since 1989. But the rooms are not dedicated and there are no regular hours.

New York is also home to the commercially viable Museum Of Sex (tix are US$14.50), which is more serious than it sounds — there’s a bust of Hillary Clinton in the permanent collection, and a current show on the evolution of pornographic film in the US.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA. SF’s GLBT Historical Society is primarily an archive, but it does have dedicated exhibition space with regular, if limited, hours. Current ticketed shows (US$2 to US$5) include one on sports, one on assassinated SF politico Harvey Milk and one on photographer Rick Gerharter. In the summer, the exhibits attract as many as 300 people a month. The society currently has plans for a purpose-built museum, which is expected to take five to 10 years to see to fruition.

The timing

San Francisco has done a study to determine market support for a queer museum there (it could support a medium-sized museum). The local historical society just got money to do a feasibility study. A few years ago there was an attempt to launch a major American LGBT museum — the city hadn’t been decided upon — but that seems to have fallen off the radar.

Then there’s cultural timing. Think of the evolution of queer life. First there was homosex, underground and undocumented. Then there were institutions like bars, bathhouses and social clubs. Then came media outlets, community centres, university programs, archives, housing developments, same-sex wedding planners and, of course, websites. Terence Kissack of San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society says museums are the next step in the institutionalization of queer life. “There’s enough depth and texture to our understanding of the past that it can be presented in a museum.”

There are more than 50 queer archives worldwide, which have remained the domain of eggheads. Isn’t it time somebody made our history palatable to the party boys?

Why Toronto?

The material in Toronto’s Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives, one of the world’s largest, is ripe for mining. The archives is getting a new home which will have some public-access space, a great platform to build upon. We also have many dramatic turning points to illustrate — imagine a diorama of the 1981 bathhouse raids.

Toronto’s trump card is our multicultural sensibility. Other museum projects are decidedly local; Toronto has the human resources to gain access to queer history in other regions and cultures. Our museum could be a genuine world attraction.


Toronto’s current slate of museums are pretty old-school. Fort York ($6 adults) dates back to 1793. Colbourne Lodge ($4 adults) was built in 1837, Gibson House ($3.75 adults) in 1851, as if our city’s history ended in the 19th century.

Wouldn’t a queer museum bring Toronto into the 21st century?

“I’d be interested in doing some kind of exhibit on the history of gays and lesbians in one of our museums potentially,” says Karen Black, director of museums services for the City Of Toronto.

We’ll take that. Now we need somebody to run with it.