LGBTQ celebrities, elected officials, and board members led a groundbreaking ceremony on September 14 to welcome the forthcoming American LGBTQ+ Museum, which is expected to begin construction next year.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King, Tony Award-winning Broadway star André De Shields, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Councilmember Daniel Dromm of Queens, and journalist Imara Jones were among those who delivered remarks at the ceremony at the New-York Historical Society on Central Park West, where the museum will be located.
Speakers consistently emphasized the importance of preserving history and establishing a place to protect the narratives of the LGBTQ community.
“History matters,” King said. “It’s alive… It is our time for the LGBTQ community to share our stories.”
The museum, which is slated to utilize 60,000 square feet of space, will feature a comprehensive collection of queer artifacts gathered through intensive research stemming in part from surveys of more than 3,000 queer people across the nation. The museum’s library will be built out during the first part of the construction process next summer, while the subsequent phase of construction will focus on bringing galleries and classrooms to the museum. It will be several years before the museum is ready to open.
Richard Burns, the chair of the museum, recalled initiating discussions about the museum in 2017 with a group of LGBTQ folks who are now part of the board. Speaker Johnson, looking back at that time, said he “scoured” his entire City Council district in search of a spot for the museum — but the New-York-Historical Society, which is north of his district — wound up being the right fit.
“We owe it to those who came before us to ensure that their legacies live on in the years to come, and that’s what this American LGBTQ+ Museum will do,” Johnson said. “[It will] tell the stories of activists who put their bodies on the line and put their lives on the line.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who joked that he and Johnson are “retiring simultaneously,” discussed the trajectory of progress in broader terms and made the case that New York City is the rightful place to house the museum given the city’s prominent role in the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
“The notion of a righteous rebellion acknowledged that something unacceptable had become the norm in society and had to be turned over — that happened here,” de Blasio said. “This museum will capture not only that revolutionary instinct and the people who made it possible before and after… it will capture decades of oppression, it will capture the fact that so many people were second-guessed for being who they were or loving who they loved… it will also capture the profound changes that occurred.”
Jones, the creator of TransLash Media and a board member of the museum, recounted her own personal journey growing up as a trans child in Atlanta at a time when she wondered “how I was gonna tell the world who I was.” She said the museum presents an opportunity to highlight the memories of LGBTQ individuals who have too often been erased from history, and she emphasized that message while pointing to the ongoing murders of Black trans women and the elevated unemployment rates facing Black trans women.
“We have seen the consequences of not telling stories of people who matter,” Jones said. “Today we are giving them the gift of memories.”
De Shields looked ahead to the new museum by drawing parallels between the fights for racial justice and LGBTQ rights, arguing that “the struggles are symbiotic.” De Shields, who has led a solo show called “Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” explained that Douglass’ spirit greets him whenever he visits the New-York Historical Society — and that his legacy demands equality across the board.
“We say ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion.’ Frederick Douglass said ‘freedom,’” De Shields said. “But they all mean the same thing.”
The event also drew other out elected officials, including Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens and Manhattan State Senator Brad Hoylman. Congressmember Jerrold Nadler was also in attendance, as well as Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Manhattan Assemblymember Rebecca Seawright, and Manhattan Councilmember Mark Levine, among others.