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Gay history exhibit mostly unnoticed

Rachelle A. Jones Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday November 28, 2000

A huge poster of the Berkeley Golden Bear adorns the wall of the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery on the UC Berkeley Campus. But the bear’s not rooting for Cal’s football team. 

“Gay Power” reads a button on his furry chest, and that’s exactly what this Golden Bear is promoting in the gallery’s current exhibit, “The Personal Was Political.” 

“We tried to do things to catch people’s attention,” said William Benemann, who conceptualized and headed the exhibit’s creation. Benemann, a UC law librarian, said the exhibit is for students, to make them aware that “the gay movement did not start last year – it had roots before some of them were even born.” 

But the exhibit’s location in the main entrance of the Doe Library, is little more than a walkway for busy students en route to other destinations said Brian Hu, a security attendant working at a desk near the exhibit. 

Like most exhibits in the busy hallway at Doe Library, the main campus library across from Wheeler Auditorium, he said, “Only a certain few who know about it who come and really spend time. But most are looking at it – not in depth – they just observe it.” 

The history of the gallery space, however, earns more compliments than criticism. “In the past, people have felt that it was a really important place to make an exhibit,” said Tom Leonard, interim librarian. 

In fact, when in 1978 a university chancellor decided to move an exhibit on Armenian Genocide from the Brown Gallery to Sproul Plaza because of controversy, Armenian students fought to keep the exhibit in the library. 

“It’s traditionally a very honored space,” Leonard said. “It’s not a museum lit space, but it’s a very handsome space. You don’t want to put something in a back room – it should be part of a normal working day for all of us using the library.” 

While the library is open, students, faculty, staff and group tours pass through the small foyer. For any one day at least 1,000 different people pass through the gallery space. 

It’s an attempt, Benemann said, to show that “not only was there political organizing and social work, but also what a fun and exciting time it was. I mean people tend to forget that it was a very exciting time here on campus.” 

But today many of the exhibit’s viewers seemed too busy to notice the excitement. 

A student stopped to tie her shoe in front of a case from the exhibit, and a photograph of two men – one in feminine clothing – caught her eye. She didn’t stay long – just enough time to tighten the laces, but she glanced around at the objects in the case before continuing down the corridor. 

Another student among a crowd of friends looked at the Golden Bear and announced, “What? Are we at a gay university now?” 

Small groups of students wandered past the exhibit, stopping to grab a handful of postcards as souvenirs before continuing out of the library. And a few individuals paused to read the quotes on the cases and the relics of the movement that took hold of Berkeley’s campus in the seventies. 

“With any exhibit, most people are only going to look for a minute,” said Cecilia O’Leary, a professor at California State University at Monterey who has curated and designed historical exhibits for the Smithsonian. In the time that it takes for a person to walk through the exhibit and “quickly look side to side, you want to have given them a message,” she said. “It’s the unusual person who will actually study an exhibit.” 

This exhibit’s cases include early editions of The Anthem and other gay and lesbian newspapers, memorabilia of the feminist and lesbian movements, and numerous articles, posters, buttons, and pictures of boycotts, protests and activities of gay empowerment. Other cases take on lighter subjects, focusing on the period’s songs, hang outs and clothing. 

It’s precisely what is necessary to convey a central theme: “objects that represent basic info, that grab attention, displayed with big, bold print– something startling,” O’Leary said. “You can put anything in any size space – it’s the design that matters.” 

This is the third gay-themed exhibit Benemann has worked on at the gallery. 

And, like previous exhibits, “There are some people that are unhappy, but they’re not on the library staff,” Benemann said. He said the staff has not told him of any negative reactions. 

“I am interested in gay history as a theme,” Benemann said. “Berkeley was one of the leaders – it really was a center during the early movement.” 

The exhibit will run through the end of the year. Benemann’s team of curators include Berkeley staffers: Willyce Kim, James Eason, Steve Finacom, Mary Scott, and Kathy Dinnean. Materials came from the Library, the San Francisco-based Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Historical Society and personal collections.