Beyond the Village and Back: “Becoming Visible” and The Legacy of Stonewall at the NYPL

New York Public Library Stephen A. Schwarzman building. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Our Beyond the Village and Back series takes a look at great landmarks in New York City outside of our neighborhoods, finding the sometimes hidden connection to the Village.  Today we take a slightly unorthodox approach of looking back at a groundbreaking exhibit which took place on June 18th, 1994 at one of our city’s most beloved landmarks, the Main Branch of the New York Public Library (NYPL), about events which largely took place in Greenwich Village.

In 1994, the NYPL debuted an exhibit in the Gottesman Exhibition Hall of the Stephen A. Schwarzman building titled “Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall.”  The exhibit chronicled the history of LGBT life in New York City, and turned out to be one of the most impactful shows at the library, drawing a variety of reactions from the public and breaking attendance records for a show there.  Through the use of “unorthodox artifacts,” such as buttons, teeshirts, literary mags, and other memorabilia from the time of the Stonewall Uprising to the present day, Becoming Visible chronicled the struggles, the optimism, and the realities of the push for LGBT rights and identity in New York City.  One of the most memorable parts of the exhibition was a section dedicated to Stonewall, which included a blue neon “Stonewall” sign and banks of public telephones, at which visitors could hear oral recollections of both the Stonewall Inn and of the nights of the uprising in June of 1969.

The importance of the NYPL presenting this exhibit was captured in an article in the New York Times from that year:

“It made me feel that I had a place, a legitimate place, in the fabric of this country,” said Dr. Allan L. Goldberg, a 38-year-old psychologist from Philadelphia, who cried as he walked through the hall. “I was overwhelmed by the exhibit and also by where it was.”

With their tears and laughter, rapt attention and effusive comments, many visitors plainly convey the sense of being ennobled and enfranchised. They see their own lives reflected in a chronicle of social, artistic and political change that has seldom been presented so vividly and perhaps never before in so august a setting.

“That the New York Public Library decided to do the exhibition is the strongest statement of all,” said Fred Wasserman, one of three curators, with Molly McGarry and Mimi Bowling. “The New York Public Library has said: ‘This is important. Your lives are real. This is history.’ “

Becoming Visible exhibition guide. Image courtesy of Abe Books.

The importance of this exhibition, as any exhibition at a major institution that highlights LGBT history, cannot be underestimated.  At GVSHP, we are committed to keep highlighting the history of the Stonewall Uprising, and preserving and protecting LGBT sites in our neighborhoods.  Seeing institutions like the NYPL highlight the importance of these sites raises awareness of why they need to be celebrated and protected.  Since 1994, other large cultural institutions in New York City and beyond have hosted exhibits, talks, and even made resources available that highlight LGBT history within their collections.  For us in the Village, a strong portion of LGBT history is also Village history, and having this moment in Village history be embraced in the marble halls of the Public Library during a time when LGBT identity was under assault in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, was a powerful and positive choice that helped the movement and LGBT people in the Village and beyond.

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