‘Queer California: Untold Stories’ at OMCA is distinctive and illuminating

 Lenn Keller, Black lesbian contingent, SF Pride Parade, June, 1991. Digital print 20" x 30". Courtesy of H. Lenn Keller
Black lesbian contingent, San Francisco Pride, Parade, June, 1991, from the Lenn Keller Collection, Collection of Bay Area Lesbian Archives. Photo: Courtesy of OMCA

The distinctive multimedia and interactive exhibit, Queer California: Untold Stories, the first in California to focus on LGBTQ+ history and culture, just opened at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA). The exhibition contains a variety of media, including memorabilia, costumes, photographs and other visual art, video, film, audio, and informative placards, all focused on themes of history, personal memories, civil rights, resistance to oppression, hope, and the search for understanding by those who don’t feel they belong to the normative sexual culture.

Queer California: Untold Stories centers on lesser-known LGBTQ+ communities and their untold stories, notably LGBTQ+ women, people of color and transgender individuals. It is grouped by sexual distinctiveness, such as Black gay women and transgender people (with a separate area, Museum of Trans History and Art), as well as sections including “Places to Gather” about LGBTQ+ clubs, and “In the Body,” with arts related to self-identity. Signs warn viewers about those zones that contain explicit sexual content, although the entire exhibit is infused with sensuality and sexuality.

Although it is a large exhibit, being the work of over 70 artists, archivists, curators, and other collaborators, it can only scratch the surface in exploring those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. Trying to cover extensive information is usually a good thing, but Queer California: Untold Stories can leave the viewer feeling as though the exhibit lacks a unifying sense of completeness, and, at the same time, insufficient detail about each segment. Perhaps if one took the time to view and listen to all the video and audio material, the results would be more satisfying.

 Julio Salgado, Give Me All Your Reds, 2017. Digital prints 16" x 16". Courtesy of the artist
Julio Salgado, Give Me All Your Reds, 2017. Digital prints, 16″ x 16″. Courtesy of the artist. Image: Courtesy of OMCA

Near the entrance, in the section, “What Gets Left Out,” is the original hand-dyed, hand-sewn version of the 1978 rainbow flag, the universally recognized pride symbol made by Gilbert Baker in collaboration with Lynn Segerblom and James McNamara. There were originally eight colored stripes in the flag, with each color symbolically representing a particular quality, e.g., red for life, hot pink for sex. When it turned out that the flag makers didn’t stock hot pink, Baker decided to omit it (and one other color). In 2013, artist Amanda Curreri made the flag that hangs near the original, entitled, Misfits 1979 (Sex and Art), which highlights and questions the omissions.


There is a significant educational component to Queer California: Untold Stories. A helpful placard contains relevant LGBTQ+ terms and their current definitions. Most illuminating from a historical viewpoint is the floor-to-ceiling timeline at the rear of the show that reports on the California history of LGBTQ+ communities. It records the terrible treatment they received starting with the Spanish missionaries, to California’s forced castration laws in effect from 1909 to 1979, to governmental nullification of AIDs in the mid-1980s. The timeline also records forward-leaning events, such as Berkeley’s 1984 domestic partnership policy, which was the first in the country.

Many of the items on view are related to the East Bay, including photographs of the I.C.I.: A Woman’s Place Bookstore, which opened in 1972 at the intersection of College Avenue and Broadway in Oakland and the 1974 film Dyketactics by the late Barbara Hammer, which was filmed in Berkeley and Oakland. Tongues Untied, an affirming depiction of black identity by local experimental filmmaker Marlon Riggs, a former Berkeley professor who lived in Oakland, will be screened on May 4 at 2 p.m. and June 21 and Aug. 2 at 6:30 p.m.

OMCA, which concentrates on California art, history, and natural sciences, is a most appropriate home for this interdisciplinary art and history exhibit and its displays of mixed media and ephemera. While it can provide essential education to the uninitiated, the curators hope the exhibit will help to address the need of LGBTQ+ communities to create a future of possibility.

Queer California: Untold Stories is on view at the Oakland Museum of California until Aug. 11. For further information, visit OMCA online.