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Unpacking the Queer Experience at OMCA

OMCA’s groundbreaking new exhibition highlights the history and culture of the state’s LGBTQ+ communities.


The original rainbow flag—created in 1978 by artist and activist Gilbert Baker—is featured in the exhibition.

Photo courtesy of The GLBT Historical Society

In the first museum exhibition of its kind, the Oakland Museum of California is blending art and interactive experiences to shine a light on the history of California as an important site of LGBTQ+ community, culture, and politics. Queer California: Untold Stories—on view April 13 to August 11—chronicles the diversity of queer identities, civil rights, and resistance to oppression in the Golden State.

“This major exhibition shares messages of hope and change and enables a deeper understanding of this complex history,” says the show’s curator, Christina Linden. “It addresses issues close to the heart of many visitors and focuses on lesser-known stories.”

These stories range from efforts to organize and gain recognition and rights, to unruly, tragic, and personal aspects of queer culture in California. The exhibition features artifacts, ephemera, costumes, photographs, maps, original artworks, and A copy of The Lesbian Tide, the first national periodical aimed at a lesbian audience. Photo courtesy of One National Gay and Lesbian Archives at The USC Libraries.commissioned pieces, including audio recordings, interactive spaces, and a new video focusing on gender and identity in Native American culture. It goes beyond familiar narratives of white-male bar culture, parades, and marriage and explicitly documents the backroom, nightlife, and street cultures where queer people have made a place for themselves.

A 1971 portrait of the disco star and gay icon Sylvester. Photo courtesy of David Miller, from The Estate of Clay Geerdes.Each area of the exhibition spotlights a distinct theme. The first section, titled “What Gets Left Out,” features the original, hand-dyed, eight-color rainbow flag designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Nearby is artist Amanda Curreri’s hand-dyed flag displaying two of the colors removed from the original design. “Places to Gather” highlights LGBTQ+ clubs and groups formed in California since the 1950s, while “In the Body” exhibits materials and artwork related to self-identity. A separate interactive area, known as the “Gaymes Lounge,” features vintage games such as “D.Y.K.E. (Do You Know Enough)” and “It’s Only Natural” from 1986. And “Retelling the Stories” explores contemporary perspectives of the LGBTQ+ community. A “die-in” protest in San Francisco raised awareness about AIDS. Photo courtesy of One National Gay and Lesbian Archives at The USC Libraries.Through prompts and questions, visitors are invited to give their feedback and responses to these works that grapple with complex issues of identity, narrative, performance,and representation.

Toward the end of the exhibition, a section titled “Fluid/Future” shares untold stories of California’s LGBTQ+ history—and ideas about what tomorrow will bring. “The future is queer because the present is not enough, especially for those who don’t belong to the majority or have normative tastes,” Linden explains. “This exhibition draws on histories of struggle for self-​determination to help us imagine a more inclusive future that embraces alternate ways of defining identity and building kinship with others.” museumca.org.


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