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Saturday, January 13, 2018

January 13-14, 2018: Gay Rights Histories: Fitchburg State’s Exhibition

[On January 9th, 1978 Harvey Milk was inaugurated to a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, making him one of America’s first openly gay elected officials. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Milk and other historical moments and events in the early history of the Gay Rights Movement, leading up to this special post on an impressive visual exhibit on the movement at Fitchburg State University.]
On two of the many reasons to love a striking visual exhibition.
Throughout this academic year, Fitchburg State University is hosting a series of programs and events under the heading of Journey to Equality: The LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement. While many of them are talks or panels (by both FSU faculty members and invited speakers), each of which has added importantly to the conversation and community, to my mind the most singular and striking is an ongoing visual exhibition. Occupying the floor-to-ceiling windows of FSU’s Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library, this series of posters, produced in conjunction with the ONE Archives Foundation, documents a number of key events, figures, and issues in the history of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement (including many of those on which my week’s series here has focused). The large and visually arresting posters (you can see examples of many at this hyperlink) do a wonderful job of both utilizing graphics to engage audiences and providing text to inform them, achieving a difficult but important balance of art and education, graphic design and history. The series has also evolved over the year, with new panels added every month to expand, complicate, and deepen the histories and stories being highlighted. The exhibition is a first at FSU, and makes use of a shared and central campus space in truly groundbreaking and provocative ways.
That groundbreaking use of space is one of two inspiring things I especially wanted to emphasize in this post. As anyone who has spent time on a college campus over the last couple of decades knows, one of the most consistent campus activities has become construction: Hammond Hall, the building that houses FSU’s library, is a case in point, having undergone at least three major construction projects in my thirteen years at FSU. While I understand the goals of modernizing campuses and attracting students and the like, there’s no doubt that this emphasis on the physical appearance can be frustrating, at least when contrasted with the educational elements on which colleges (like society) seem far more reluctant to spend money or resources. Yet like many dualities, this one doesn’t have to be a dichotomy, as of course new and evolving spaces can also become integral parts of a college’s communal and educational identity. Utilizing the library’s windows (the result of one such recent FSU construction project) and its shared spaces (many of which are the result of another, the overall renovation of the library) for compelling and informative exhibitions like Journey to Equality is a perfect illustration of how the physical and the educational can and should go hand in hand. I hope that this can become a model for wedding literal construction to all the other forms of building and growth that take place on college campuses.
While those campus and college areas for growth are communal, they also and perhaps most importantly involve individual students, the group who come to this space in order to pursue and strengthen their own continued evolution. I offered extra credit in my fall courses for students who engaged with the Journey to Equality exhibition and then shared a quick paragraph of response with me, and here want to highlight two examples of inspiring such responses. The most consistent were like that shared by one of my Honors students, a thoughtful and knowledgable young man who nonetheless had never learned or even heard of most of the subjects covered in the exhibition’s panels; his response linked LGBTQ histories and rights to those of the suffrage movement and anti-lynching activism (two of our class’s topics) in nuanced and important ways. Another of my students engaged with the exhibition in a much more personal and just as crucial manner: herself a member of the LGBTQ community, she wrote about how the exhibition’s histories and stories helped her to consider the communal legacies of which she’s a part, as well as striking individual figures whose stories felt both distinct from and yet parallel to her own identity and contexts. These forms of intellectual and psychological, analytical and emotional responses are key components to any successful educational experience, and it’s been deeply gratifying to see how this wonderful FSU exhibition can help our students take vital steps along their own lifelong journeys.
MLK Day series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?

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