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Levine Museum Makes History With LGBT Exhibit

T. Ortega Gains
Charlotte Observer

The Levine Museum of the New South is unveiling a historical exhibit Friday that is in itself historic.

Called “LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality,” the show is a combination of exhibits that tell the history of Charlotte’s gay and transgender community, including the largely forgotten stories of average Charlotteans who made that history happen. The show then puts their stories in context of the national gay civil rights movement.

It marks the first time any museum in the Charlotte region has broached the subject of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, and it could well be the first of its kind in North Carolina, which has a thorny history on gay rights.

North Carolina faces legal challenges to its constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and the state does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Still, at least 18,000 same-sex couples call the state home, including 2,000 in the Charlotte area, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Organizers are aware that some Charlotteans won’t like “LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality,” or even the idea of it. (The Q stands for queer, for people who prefer to identify themselves with that term.)

“I think we’ll have to wait and see how well Charlotte accepts the exhibit,” says Barbara Lau, one of the curators and a director at the Duke Human Rights Center.

“The Levine has a reputation for not always choosing the safe route. They have made hard choices to explore areas like race, class and sexual identity. Their approach is ... not to push under the rug everything that has been hard, challenging and has caused pain.”

‘Angels in America’

Examples of such episodes include a 1996 brouhaha that erupted when some county officials objected to gay themes presented in a local performance of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.” The controversy led to a vote in 1997 to restrict funding to the Arts & Science Council, a move critics said gave the city a reputation for being intolerant.

Bob Barret, a professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte, is among the names mentioned in the Levine Museum exhibit, and his activism included taking a high-profile stand for the gay community during the “Angels in America” affair.

This included helping to create an organization called Citizens for Equality, which staged a defiant news conference on the steps of City Hall.

“I don’t know that it changed anything, but we were visible and saying, ‘We don’t like what’s going on,’ ” says Barret, who had challenged the Observer’s coverage of the gay community as far back as 1992, when he met with editors at the newspaper.

“The media didn’t have a clue who gay people are, because people weren’t willing to stand up. Once we started to do that, attitudes changed fairly quickly. Still, there were death threats, and awful stuff was sent in the mail to me. And stuff was left on my car. People in charge at the university told me, ‘You need to be very careful. People are watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake.’ ”

Rising Moon Books & Beyond

Another name that will appear in the exhibit is Sue Henry, a business owner who was perhaps the city’s most high-profile LGBT representative of the ’90s. Henry was the first openly gay candidate for mayor of Charlotte in 1995. (Pat McCrory won.)

Her book store, Rising Moon Books & Beyond, became a meeting place for gays and lesbians during the “Angels in America” controversy, with groups gathering among the books to make placards for their demonstrations. She likens it to the city’s first LGBT community center. It closed in 1997.

Henry was also involved in bringing the annual N.C. gay and lesbian pride event to Charlotte in 1994, which she says made local gays and lesbians aware of “what we can do when we came together.”

“I don’t feel especially brave. Maybe I’m stubborn,” says Henry, who currently lives in Greenville, N.C.

“For the first couple of years I had the bookstore, I would go in expecting the windows to be broken out by a brick, but it never happened. It’s that worry, that fear, that often stops (the LGBT) community. ... That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

Among the curators of the Levine exhibit is Joshua Burford, an assistant director for Sexual & Gender Diversity at UNCC who is himself making history by creating the city’s first LGBT archive. It is housed at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at UNCC.

Both Barret’s and Henry’s papers are in those archives, including countless gay community announcements that were pinned to the bulletin board at Henry’s Rising Moon book store.

A national perspective

Burford says the Levine show will give Charlotteans a different perspective on events that they may not have realized were making history.

“This is the straight community’s history, too. It’s not separate, in the sense it was existing completely outside of straight society,” says Burford, noting as an example the important role LGBT people played in the campaign of Charlotte’s first black mayor, Harvey Gantt.

“I’ve tried not to sugarcoat it, or paint too sunny of a picture. The goal is to get it as close to reality as I could get. Who wants a sanitized version of their history?”

Levine Museum board member Matt Springman says the exhibit will also break ground in its attempt to preserve a chapter of Charlotte history.

Two other components of the show include a gay history of post-World War II America, and the life of the late Pauli Murray, a North Carolina gay activist who was the nation’s first female African-American Episcopal priest.

The national perspective is provided by the Stonewall National Museum & Archives, the oldest private LGBT library and museum in the nation. Emery Grant of the Stonewall National Museum says Charlotte is part of a national trend to preserve LGBT history before it’s lost.

“The Levine Museum is ahead of the curve in trying to layer all these different kinds of American identity on top of each other,” Grant said. “It gives us an accurate picture not of these groups as separate entities, but of what they have in common with the shared American experience.”

Emily Zimmern, president of the Levine Museum, believes the exhibit will attract an audience beyond the LGBT community.

“We work hard to be a place where people of different backgrounds, with different perspectives, feel comfortable coming together and sharing their views,” she said.

“It’s always tough to know what people are going to find contentious or controversial. I think there’s always some discomfort with the unknown, and this is a topic that is unknown to the vast majority of people.”

Find more details on the exhibit at CharlotteObsever.com.