“Coming Out West” Featured at Santa Monica History Museum

 

As early as 1940, young gay men were attracted to an unofficial gay beach just north of Santa Monica, formally known as Will Rogers Beach but known to the gay community as Ginger Rogers Beach.
Photographer Emerson Gaze, 1941. Santa Monica History Museum, Bill Beebe
Collection

By LIBBY MOTIKA

Circling the News Contributor

Gay and trans men and women living as themselves, with jobs and marriages and dogs and cats and visibility. Extraordinarily ordinary.

This is the triumph of community, solidarity, and yes, decades of activism, which is celebrated in “Coming Out West,” an exhibition currently on view at the Santa Monica History Museum through December 17.

The show features the stories of eight LGBTQ+ elders with connections to the Santa Monica Bay Area recorded in oral histories from the Outwords Archive, an online repository that to date has collected some 300 stories from 38 states.

The emphasis is intentionally on elders, those who have lived through the fearful times of government laws against homosexuality.

The men and women featured in the exhibition represent a cross section of ethnic and racial diversity, which plays an important role in telling these stories.

“We live in these cultural frameworks that have been placed upon us,” says Anne Wallentine, Museum curator and collections manager. “But in other cultures, there are other cultural frameworks.”

For example, Tongva-Ajachmem artist and writer L. Frank notes that in the indigenous culture, gender identities and sexual orientation are fluid. Using her community’s preferred pronoun po, L. Frank furthers advocacy for indigenous cultural survival through her art and teaching.

Each person in the show has charted a unique course through the challenges of living a clandestine lifestyle while refusing to be defined exclusively by their sexuality.

Civic leader and activist Judy Abdo served as the first out lesbian mayor of Santa Monica and one of the first out mayors nationwide. Today, she continues to live in community with fellow-minded organizers working in feminist and lesbian circles.

Lawyer and transgender rights activist Mia Frances Yamamoto was born in a Japanese relocation camp. Such a background influenced her understanding of racial injustice in the United States. After the war, her family moved to L.A., where she graduated from college, served in Vietnam and gained her law degree at UCLA, where she organized with Asian, black, Chicanx and gay students for social justice.

At age 60, Mia came out publicly as transgender and since then has been an ardent advocate and spokesperson for the trans community in the courtroom and in the world at large.

Having seen what a frightful and threatening atmosphere the gay community lived through in Los Angeles, Chuck Williams started an institute at UCLA in 2001 to conduct rigorous independent research on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy.

“Although I was not impacted directly, the environment was awful,” Williams said in an Outwords interview. Williams, who died in April 2023, came to terms with his homosexuality in his 20s. After an early marriage, he eventually met his lifetime partner Stu Walter, with whom he shared a life of over 50 years.

But their life together for many years was discreet, as was necessary in the cultural atmosphere at the time. “Even in L.A. you could be more open, but there was no acceptance in the corporate world,” said Williams, who was an executive with Burroughs. “I felt I was really screwing up and not doing the right thing.”

Because much of gay history has not been recorded, these elders’ lives demonstrate to young gay people how things were and perhaps give them “heroes” to look up to: those who were active in the gay community, or helped shape legislation, or simply who have lived their lives authentically and out loud.

The museum is located adjacent to the Santa Monica Public Library, 1350 7th Street. Open hours are Thursday 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Don Bachardy self-portrait (left), and portrait of Christopher Isherwood, (right) is on display at the Santa Monica History Museum.

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