Smithsonian’s “Illegal to Be You” Exhibit Revisits 150 Years of Queer History

The show, featured in the new documentary "Beyond Stonewall," includes mementos from the first-ever Pride event.

On June 21, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., debuted its yearlong exhibit “Illegal to Be You: Gay History Beyond Stonewall.” The show, which is profiled in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary Smithsonian Time Capsule: Beyond Stonewall (premiering June 24 at 8 p.m. ET), spans more than 150 years of LGBTQ American history, the items on display holding special significance since many artifacts from that history have been lost forever.

This is partly because LGBTQ people “didn’t want to be known back then,” says curator Katherine Ott in the documentary. “People often destroyed records, burned papers, letters—anything that referenced a gender-fluid identity. History and objects are like umbilical cords. They’re like a superhighway to the past… That’s why you need to have people save stories—so you can find yourself.”

Guests can view rescued artifacts like a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; gay activist Jason Collins’ Brooklyn Nets jersey autographed by his teammates after he retired from basketball; the original script of the Will & Grace pilot episode; and personal items of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the U.S. Episcopalian Church.

But there are also tragic reminders of the suffering endured by members of the LGBTQ community. They include a 1915 booking card for a man arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for cruising in Scranton, Penn., where sodomy was a crime; an electroshock machine and lobotomy tools used to cure patients of their homosexuality; and a panel from the AIDS quilt for the late activist Roger Lyon, who famously testified before Congress in 1983, saying, “I don’t want my epitaph to read I died of red tape.” (Lyon passed away from AIDS complications in 1984.)

Here, a look at some of the highlights featured in Smithsonian Time Capsule: Beyond Stonewall:

A donation can and stickered flyer from the first Gay Pride Event in New York City.
Highland Pictures
The first Gay Pride event in New York City—called the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Pride Day March and Gay-In—took place on June 28, 1970, when protesters marched uptown from Christopher Street in Greenwich Village and then up Sixth Avenue to Central Park. Says Mark Segal, one of the event’s organizers who donated the items, “That little sticker, which was the most we could afford to promote that first Gay Pride in 1970, one year after Stonewall, was a statement unto itself.”
 
A 1950s picket poster from gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny used to organize protests against the U.S. government’s anti-gay laws.
Highland Pictures
Gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny was one of the first people in the 1950s to organize protests against the U.S. government’s anti-gay laws. This is a picket poster he used.
 
A marriage equality poster used by a picketer at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Highland Pictures
This marriage equality poster was used by a picketer at the U.S. Supreme Court.
 
Belongings of Matthew Shepard.
Highland Pictures
Belongings of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard (who was killed in 1998 at the age of 21), donated by his parents, Dennis and Judy Shepard.
 
Lobotomy ice picks used by lobotomy specialist Dr. Walter Freeman II to perform lobotomies on homosexuals in the mid-20th century.
Highland Pictures
Lobotomy ice picks were used by lobotomy specialist Dr. Walter Freeman II to perform lobotomies on homosexuals in the mid-20th century. Ott says of this barbaric torture: “Freeman’s technique was to go behind the eye through the eye socket and wiggle it to disconnect the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain.” The documentary notes that about 40 percent of the lobotomies Freeman performed were on homosexuals.
 
An electroshock machine used in conversion therapy.
Highland Pictures
This electroshock machine was used in conversion therapy at a time when there were “enough medical physicians who thought that being gay was a medical condition that could be cured,” says Ott. “They used electro-convulsive shock treatment to rewire the brain or short-circuit the brain.”
 
“Philip St. George letters” were love letters written between men during World War II.
Highland Pictures
These letters were love letters written by closeted male service members during World War II. “They talk about how they’re feeling when men at that time were not allowed to do it openly, and certainly [not] if you were in the military,” says National Museum of American History senior archivist Frank Robinson. Despite the oppressive era, the military during World War II was more liberating for gay people than in previous eras because “it sowed the seeds of how we can get together and… see how we can actually change society,” Robinson says in the documentary.
 
This Nazi arm band used to categorize a homosexual Jew during World War II.
Highland Pictures
This Nazi arm band was used to categorize a homosexual Jew during World War II.
 
A bust statue of 19th-century lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman created by her partner Emma Stebbins.
Highland Pictures
This bust statue of 19th-century lesbian actress Charlotte Cushman was created by her partner Emma Stebbins. Cushman played male and female roles throughout her career.
 
Highland Pictures
One of Cushman’s male roles that helped make her a star was as Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Her younger sister Susan had the role of Juliet. This statuette commemorates their roles in the play.
 
Highland Pictures
In 1857, Cushman wore this gender-bending costume when she played Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. When female actors played men in those days, they often wore costumes that exposed their legs, which was considered risqué for women at the time, but let the audience know that the actor was a female. With the Cardinal Wolsey costume, Cushman bucked tradition, wearing what a male actor would wear. As National Museum of American History curator Kenneth Cohen says in the documentary, “Cushman had the costume designed to de-emphasize her body. She also had the robe cut very loosely, so it de-accentuates her bust.”
 
Zuni Indian guests Octavius Seowtewa and Curtis Quam stand next to a loom donated to the Smithsonian in 1886 by Zuni artist We’wha, a transgender woman known for her weaving skills.
Highland Pictures
Zuni Indian guests Octavius Seowtewa and Curtis Quam stand next to a loom donated to the Smithsonian in 1886 by Zuni artist We’wha, a transgender woman known for her weaving skills. We’wha was invited to Washington, D.C., by Smithsonian ethnologist Matilda Stevenson. National Museum of American History curator Gwyneira Isaac says in the documentary that Stevenson, who was initially unaware that We’wha was transgender, introduced her as a priestess who could perform Native American ceremonies. “Washington society accepted [We’wha] as a woman,” Issac says. “There was no concept of ‘transgender.’” A biological male with female characteristics is considered natural in Zuni culture, says Quam.

Writer and editor whose work has appeared in AXS.com, Examiner.com, Lifetime, People, and Billboard.