What’s Our Role In All This?: Gender Definitions and Museums

If you were like me, then all through Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, you may have wondered what an exhibit on the subject of homosexuality before 1940 would look like. It turns out that the San Francisco Public Library made an attempt at tackling this immense topic. “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl: Pre 1950 Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Marriages in the U.S” explores the history of LGBT relationships throughout the country, and especially in California. The exhibit, which appears on the internet courtesy of Dr. Nicoletta Karam at Brandeis University, aims to dispel the myth that the fight for gay marriage is a recent phenomenon. In fact, gay couples were legally allowed to marry in the United States before 1950. However, many were persecuted anyway for breaching perceived societal norms. The exhibit highlights a few of these couples, including one woman, Adelle Best, who was found to be anatomically male on her deathbed, and had married three times over the course of fifty years.

In addition to the stories about the various gay and transgender couples, the exhibit displays their photographs, albeit without labels, making identification next to impossible. However, seeing these photos of regular people doing normal, everyday things got me thinking. How would we know who these people were if we met them on the street? In other words, it is impossible to tell if a person is gay, lesbian, or transgender simply by looking at their photograph. One would have to get to know them on a personal level, learn about their sexual or gender orientation, and make the conscious choice to view them differently from others based on that orientation. This is how discrimination starts: making the leap getting to know a person, then finding out something about them and instantly viewing them differently.

Ultimately, however, this exhibit is about gender, not gender discrimination. In addition to the incredibly powerful and evocative photographs, “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl” also features a section entitled “Legal Implications.” This section of the website attempts to illustrate the ways in which gender can be defined, and how those definitions can be viewed from a legal standpoint. In my opinion, the section paints in, unfortunately, somewhat broad strokes in discussing the five main categorizations that genders may fall into. However, it is a good basis for discussion, and raises a number of questions for me. Karam lists the following as basic gender definitions:

“1) anatomical (gender is what body parts you have);
2) chromosomal (gender is what genes you have, i.e. XX, XY, XXY, XXY, XXYY, XO);
3) hormonal (gender is what hormone levels you have);
4) cultural (gender is how you behave in society); and
5) psychological (gender is who you think you are).”

As Karam points out, this list is very complicated and at times problematic. Some people, for instance, are anatomically male, but culturally and psychologically female, or vice versa. These labels, and the “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl” exhibit as a whole, raises a number of questions for me. First and foremost, what should we do as museum professionals to accommodate the wide variety of people who walk through our doors? Are gender neutral bathrooms appropriate? What about staff diversity? Just like in our previous discussions on race and museum staffing, it is important that as many members of your community as possible are represented and recognized in your institution.

At its heart, “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl” is a human interest piece, but one that encourages action on the part of the viewer. In looking through the photographs, I was inspired by the faces of people who defied the status quo in the pursuit of staying with the person they loved. The exhibit raised a number of tough questions for me, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments.

1. “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl,” San Francisco Public Library and Nicoletta Karam (accessed March 5) http://pre-1950sgaymarriage.org/index.php

2. “Girl Who “Wed” Another Girl,” Official site for the San Francisco Public Library (accessed March 6) http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=1001315601

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