Discover the GLBT Historical Society’s very own cabinet of curiosities, or, as we call them, “queeriosities,” drawn from our Art and Artifacts Collection

With over 1,000 items, this is of one of the world’s largest collections of two and three-dimensional objects that illustrate historical LGBTQ material culture. “Material culture” refers to physical objects, resources and spaces in the built environment that define, identify and reflect a group’s cultures, communities, behaviors, rituals, norms and perceptions.

The Art and Artifacts Collection contains paper materials such as drawings, pulp-fiction titles, sketches, architectural plans, and banners; metal objects such as pins, buttons, plaques, medallions, and badges; three-dimensional artifacts such as sculptures, paintings, historic business signs, and theatrical props; and textiles, such as costumes, uniforms, ribbons, and sashes. These objects provide visual and material evidence of the San Francisco LGBTQ community’s engagement with the social, cultural, political and physical dynamics of the city, from the late 19th century to the present.

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Some are works of art and have intrinsic aesthetic or monetary value. Others are mass-produced and have incomplete or fragmented provenance. Some represent individuals and intimate moments, while others document entire communities and collective experiences.

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These queeriosities include objects that highlight the struggles of marginalized communities within the greater LGBTQ community; materials that document hard-fought political battles; remnants of long-gone queer meeting places and sites of sociability; and items that are silly, irreverent and just plain fun.

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Containing elements of beauty and ugliness, hope and despair, anger and joy, the collection evokes a range of ambiguous emotions. What provides coherence is the way each piece reflects multiple realities, experiences, fantasies and desires. All illuminate unique stories about LGBTQ people, our ever-shifting cultural landscape, and the ways we have forged our own identities, claimed our own spaces and constructed our own families.

Absolute Empress XVIII Connie’s vest (ca. 1975-1995)GLBT Historical Society

Can clothing and accessories truly define you or your community standing? Absolute Empress XVIII Connie of the Imperial Court of San Francisco (reigned January 9, 1983–January 7, 1984) thought so. Known as “the Siren,” “Temptress” and “Seductive Empress,” Connie wore imperial regalia as well as leather adorned with metal studs and pins to bridge the contrasting worlds of the Imperial Court and the leather community. 

The International Imperial Court System is a network of charitable societies that use drag entertainment to build community and raise funds. Each court annually selects an Empress and Emperor. The first imperial court was founded in San Francisco in 1965 by José Sarria (1922–2013), who took on the name “José I de San Francisco, the Widow Norton,” a reference to the city’s beloved 19th-century eccentric Joshua Norton, who proclaimed himself Emperor of the United States in 1859. Like Connie, Sarria traversed multiple social spheres, performing in drag at the Black Cat in North Beach and in 1961 becoming the first openly gay candidate to run for public office in the United States.

Standing in contrast to the glitz and glamor of the Imperial Council, San Francisco’s leather and kink community emerged in the early 1960s. The South of Market (SoMa) district became home to this community, operating many bars catering to the motorcycle and leather communities and a famous leather and kink emporium, Mr. S. Leather, founded by Alan Selby in 1979.

Like José Sarria and Empress Connie, LGBTQ people navigate a world of distinct expressions, presentations and subcommunities that are interwoven in complex and personal ways. Clothing is a powerful means for self-expression and a way to signal community affiliation; our styles and garments evolve over time, like our identities.

Two wool banners covered with buttons and pins (ca. 1960–present)GLBT Historical Society

These two banners of purple wool are adorned by hundreds of metal, enamel and plastic pins, all donated over the span of over 50 years by dozens of individual donors. Providing coherence to the assortment are the buttons’ shared function and LGBTQ themes; their eclectic graphic designs, familiar slogans and diversity of tone are seemingly as infinite and varied as the cosmos.

Some were produced by local groups and organizations or distributed at protests and community events. Others were novelties manufactured for shops or as souvenirs. For every pin that is firmly anchored in a specific time and place—such as the annual San Francisco Pride celebration, the election of Harvey Milk in November 1977, the No on Proposition 6 campaign of 1978 and No on Proposition 8 campaign of 2008, and ACT UP demonstrations of the late 1980s—there are dozens of timeless examples. These are replete with inside jokes, reclaimed derogatory terms, cheeky quotes, provocatory statements, harsh denunciations, explanatory pronouns and self-identifying terms signaling gender identity and expression.

Buttons and pins (ca. 1960–present)GLBT Historical Society

The button panel displays are proudly hung on the wall of the reading room at the GLBT Historical Society archives, where they continually receive new additions, rouse curiosity and spark conversations. Rather than telling the story of just one person’s experiences, this wall is the amalgamation of many. The collection is a living, growing, ever-richer assemblage of LGBTQ life that provides visual evidence about the historical power of self-expression and the importance of finding and creating a sense of belonging.

Ceramic Compton’s Cafeteria mug (2016)GLBT Historical Society

This ceramic mug is plain, almost homely, with its muted brown badge; yet its mere existence is a testament to the power of historical research to uncover hidden and unknown events and people at the margins whose stories must be told.

The badge on the front of the mug features a hand-drawn recreation of the wordmark of Compton’s Cafeteria. Compton’s was a chain of cafeterias owned by Gene Compton in San Francisco from the 1940s to the 1970s. The Tenderloin district’s Compton’s was located at 101 Taylor Street, at the corner with Turk Street, and was open from 1954 to 1972. Its patrons included numerous queer and transgender people, many of whom lived in the local single-room-occupancy hotels and made a living through sex work. The cafeteria, which was open 24 hours a day, provided a relatively safe space for transgender women, young male hustlers and others into the late hours of the night.

One evening in August 1966—historians still have not determined the exact date—patrons of the cafeteria reacted violently to police harassment. Transgender women and drag queens threw crockery and overturned tables as they fought with police who were trying to evict them from the restaurant, shattering its windows in the process. The incident, which took place three years before the well-known Stonewall Riots in New York, was one of the first LGBTQ uprisings in U.S. history. Despite its significance, unlike Stonewall the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot was nearly lost to history, as there was virtually no reporting about the incident at the time and little documentary evidence survives. Even mere photographs of the exterior or interior of the cafeteria are extremely rare.

Our archives contain much of the documentation of Compton’s that does survive, which enabled transgender historian and former GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Susan Stryker to piece together its history in the early 2000s. Stryker describes the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot as “the transgender community’s first act on the stage of American political history.” By the 50th anniversary of the riot in 2016, Compton’s had become sufficiently well known to inspire the creation of this commemorative mug—a testament to the growing awareness of transgender  history and acknowledgment of its significance.

The Lesbian Avengers (San Francisco Chapter) demonstration banner (ca. 1992)GLBT Historical Society

Activism has been a key focus of LGBTQ people since the first gay-rights organizations emerged in the 1950s. Activists use a plethora of strategies to draw public attention to pressing problems, social issues and injustices, seeking to educate and inform, provide clear terminology, promote authenticity and increase visibility, often showing up for those who cannot. Their tactics include protests, public demonstrations or direct-action approaches. Direct action tactics are distinguished from organized marching or public speeches; they ignore established or institutionalized actions and can include unannounced appearances, sit-ins, strikes or street blockades. Activists also often deploy art and creativity, often laced with humor, to create signs, flyers, newsletters or banners like this one.

The banner was created by the San Francisco chapter of the Lesbian Avengers, a direct-action group founded in New York in 1992 and led by Ana Maria Simo, Sarah Schulman, Maxine Wolfe, Anne-christine d’Adesky, Anne Maguire and Marie Honan. At a time when government and media coverage of LGBTQIA+ people focused predominantly on cisgender, white gay men, the Lesbian Avengers focused on issues that were deemed vital to lesbian survival and visibility, including abortion rights and the impact of HIV/AIDS on women.

Defiantly protesting sexism and misogyny, they specialized in peaceful, if provocative street entertainment, with a flair for the fun and theatrical. For instance, to “recruit” members at Pride parades, they created guerrilla-style banners, flyers and club cards stamped with images of exploding bombs and the slogan “Lesbian Avengers: We Want Revenge and We Want It Now!” Dozens of other Lesbian Avenger chapters, including a sizeable one in San Francisco, formed worldwide before the organization’s dissolution in 1997.

San Francisco Dyke March picket sign (1996) by Lisa Roth and Fireworks GrafixGLBT Historical Society

The Lesbian Avengers’ work led to the founding of the first Dyke March in Washington D.C. on April 24, 1993, as part of the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. Over 20,000 women joined together to march from Dupont Circle to the White House. Nearly 30 years later, the Dyke March has been replicated in cities across the country and now traditionally takes place on the day before the Pride Parade in June. The San Francisco Dyke March has been bringing dykes and women together every year since 1993. With the help of vibrant handmade banners and picket signs like this “No Retreat” example from 1996, Dyke March participants oppose racism, sexism, homophobia, and poverty.

Doll:Teletubbies: Talking Tinky Winky (1998) by Playskool Baby, Inc.The Strong National Museum of Play

Tinky Winky was one of the four stars of the popular 1997 British children’s television series Teletubbies, and his induction into LGBTQ history is a story of reclamation. The loveable purple character was “outed” in 1999 by Jerry Falwell, Sr., the well-known pastor, televangelist, and founder of Liberty University. In a National Liberty Journal article entitled “Parents Alert: Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet,” Falwell accused the cute fellow of being a gay role model who could be morally damaging to children. Tinky Winky’s undercover identity was supposedly evident because “he is purple, the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle, the gay pride symbol.” Apparently Tinky Winky’s stylish bag was also a mark against him.

News of the “controversy” exploded across media and the internet, with Falwell being openly ridiculed. Yet members of the LGBTQ community responded in force, embracing the sweet purple guy as one of their own, flocking to purchase Tinky Winky merchandise and emptying store shelves in the process. “If he wasn’t [gay] before, he is now,” quipped a collector, as reported in the New York Times. Our own Tummy Glow Tinky Winky—still in his original packaging!—dates from this era of enthusiastic queer appropriation.

But the entire affair had a sinister side that went largely undiscussed: it repackaged and redeployed the myth of LGBTQ people as predators who prey on children. It was surely no coincidence that Falwell drew a connection between queer people and a child’s doll depicting a character described as a toddler.

Tummy Glow Tinky Winky (1998)GLBT Historical Society

Though the Tinky Winky incident is now over 20 years old, conservative politicians, organizations and religious groups around the world remain obsessed with the supposed dangers associated with LGBTQ people. Particular attention in recent years has focused on the transgender community, with numerous state legislatures drafting anti-trans “bathroom bills.” The traditional predator myth is still a common theme, as evidenced by Russian government statements prior to the 2014 Sochi Olympics (“Stay away from the children,” warned President Putin); in Poland (which in 2007 considered reopening the Tinky Winky debate); and in Hungary, whose parliament ratified explicitly anti-LGBTQ laws in July 2021 banning the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.

As for Tinky Winky, times have indeed changed. In 1999 the Teletubbies public-relations team quickly dismissed rumors of his sexuality; in 2021, the Teletubbies released a limited-edition Pride inspired clothing line, with all proceeds benefiting GLAAD.

Sylvester’s collection of antique gloves, leather, satin, and silk (ca. 1930s)GLBT Historical Society

These rare leather, satin and silk gloves were worn by the revolutionary artist Sylvester (1947–1988), a famed Black disco performer and soulful singer-songwriter who gained mainstream fame during the disco era of the 1970s. Sylvester grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles singing in church choir.

As a young adult, he moved to San Francisco in 1972, where he joined the celebrated genderfuck performance troupe The Cockettes and began his recording career the following year. After a string of successful albums in the late 1970’s, which included the internationally successful albums in the late 1970’s, which included the internationally successful singles “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and “Dance (Disco Heat),” he achieved global stardom and ultimately became known as the “Queen of Disco.” He died in 1988 of complications from AIDS, his legacy as San Francisco’s greatest disco diva assured.

From the earliest days of his singing career, Sylvester pioneered a high-profile, flamboyant fashion style and self-presentation that might now be described as genderqueer or genderfluid. His stylish costumes—made with luxurious fabrics and adorned with sequins—dispensed with heterosexual norms and defied the gender binary. He displayed this striking collection of elegant, vintage women’s gloves, complete with wooden frame, in his own home. 

According to his sister Bernadette Baldwin, who donated the collection, Sylvester had a particular fascination for antique gloves and enjoyed incorporating them into his costumes. They were not mere accessories; these gloves reflect Sylvester’s own collecting hobbies, personal taste and commitment to his identity. They are also a reminder of a man who, by fearlessly transgressing racial, sexual and gender boundaries, inspires us to shatter cultural ceilings and dares us to feel boldly confident in our own skin—to unleash our own superstardom!

Francis (Frank) Jordan’s black leather shoe, right foot, men’s size 10 (ca. 1991)GLBT Historical Society

This is a man’s conservative black-leather loafer with decorative fringe and tassels. Our archivists have irreverently referred to this particular object as “Cinderella’s lost slipper,” but unlike Cinderella, its owner, former San Francisco Police Department Chief and former San Francisco Mayor Francis (Frank) Jordan, was never reunited with his shoe.

The story begins with Assembly Bill 101, a piece of legislation that would have guaranteed statewide protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. During his successful 1990 gubernatorial campaign, California governor Pete Wilson had indicated his willingness to sign the draft legislation. Governor Wilson’s veto of the bill on September 30, 1991 shocked and angered California’s LGBTQIA+ population. While waiting for the news of the governor’s decision, Gerard Koskovich and Bob Smith had organized a gathering in the Castro district to either celebrate the bill’s signature or protest the veto peacefully. Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 people gathered on the block of Castro Street between 17th and 18th Streets.

Former San Francisco Police Chief Frank Jordan’s ill-considered decision to go to the Castro rally that evening—supposedly to express solidarity with the community—was an enormous blunder on the would-be politician’s part. Jordan had served as Chief of Police from 1986 to 1990 before resigning to run as the city’s mayor. In spite of his public support for AB 101, which he had urged Governor Wilson to sign, Jordan was largely viewed by LGBTQ people as a resolutely conservative, antigay cop. Police harassment had continued during his tenure, culminating in the Castro Sweep Riot of 1989—the single most massive police attack on LGBTQ people and people with AIDS in the city's history. 

Francis (Frank) Jordan’s black leather shoe, right foot, men’s size 10 (detail) (ca. 1991)GLBT Historical Society

This riot had taken place on October 6, 1989, when San Francisco police responded violently to a peaceful ACT UP march protesting government neglect of people with AIDS. Over 200 officers had invaded the Castro for more than three hours, beating activists and passersby, systematically sweeping all pedestrians from seven city blocks and placing thousands in businesses and homes under virtual house arrest.

With the memory of the Castro Sweep still fresh, the crowd was enraged by Jordan’s cynical and transparent attempt to win LGBTQ support for his mayoral campaign in the face of a devastating legislative loss. Militant protestors began heckling Jordan, pinned him against a plate-glass window and ultimately caused him to flee the neighborhood, injured and missing his right loafer. “I was pummeled and pushed and kicked and almost thrown through a window,” Jordan told the San Francisco Chronicle on October 2, which reported that Jordan had feared for his life.

Francis (Frank) Jordan’s black leather shoe, right foot, men’s size 10 (ca. 1991)GLBT Historical Society

This lost shoe is a symbol of decades of tumultuous, mutually antagonistic relations between the SFPD and the LGBTQ community. Its fate after the riot is one of high queer drama. According to the Chronicle, protestors at the time snarkily claimed that the loafer would “be fitted with a high heel and used in a voodoo ritual.” In fact, the shoe was displayed atop a doughnut box at the A Different Light Bookstore in the week following the riot, then disappeared into the hands of queer activists who preserved it until it was donated to the GLBT Historical Society, its appearance unaltered: It is still a staid, irretrievably unstylish leather loafer.

Fe-Be’s Leather David (1996) by Mike CaffeeGLBT Historical Society

This iconic sculpture of the Leather David, made by artist Mike Caffee, was first created for Fe-Be’s bar; it soon became one of the best known symbols of San Francisco’s leather community. Fe-Be’s was the first leather bar on Folsom Street, and after opening on July 26, 1966, it became an instant hit, taking businesses from the slumping Tool Box. Fe-Be’s spawned the proliferation of gay bars, bathhouses, and businesses along Folsom Street, which became known later as The Miracle Mile.

Fe-Be’s co-owner Jack Haines commissioned Caffee to create the Leather David for the grand opening of his new bar. Caffee modified a small plaster reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, making him into a classic 1960s gay biker: “I broke off the raised left arm and lowered it so his thumb could go in his pants pocket, giving him cruiser body language. The biker uniform was constructed of layers of wet plaster…The folds and details of the clothing were carved, undercutting deeply so that the jacket would hang away from his body, exposing his well-developed chest. The pants were button Levis, worn over the boots, and he sported a bulging crotch you couldn’t miss…Finally I carved a chain and bike run buttons on his [Harley] cap.” (Caffee 1997)

Credits: Story

Much of the material featured here was drawn from the exhibition Queeriosities, at the GLBT Historical Society. 

Nalini Elias, MA
Director of Exhibitions and Museum Experience, Website Design, Co-Curator
Leigh Pfeffer
Manager of Museum Experience, Public Programs 
Meghan Pushee
Museum Exhibitions and Curatorial Intern
Mark Sawchuk, Ph.D.
Communications Manager, Editor, Co-Curator 
Ramón Silvestre, Ph.D.
Museum Registrar and Curatorial Specialist, Co-Curator 

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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