Last week, approximately 600 people came out of the closet on Vashon.
The closet in question was not an actual one, but rather, the ingeniously constructed entry point to a new exhibition, “In and Out: Being LGBTQ on Vashon,” at the Vashon Heritage Museum.
The show’s opening night on June 7 attracted an estimated 600 viewers over the course of several hours, who came to greet friends and neighbors and find out more about the history and contributions of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning) people on Vashon.
The raucous and celebratory evening, held to coincide with June’s designation as Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, drew a slew of prominent islanders who identify as LGBTQ — a multi-age group that includes real estate agents, artists, designers, business owners, farmers and educators. Several members of Vashon High School’s largest club, the Queer Spectrum Alliance, were also on hand, as were two drag queens who performed exuberant dances, a DJ who kept music throbbing throughout the night, and museum board members, who beamed as they wove their way through the throng of attendees.
Overseeing the evening, with perhaps the biggest smiles of all, were the show’s curators, Ellen Kritzman and Stephen Silha, and its designer, Jessica De Wire. The trio worked for a year with a large advisory committee and a team of volunteers to bring the exhibit to life. Gordon Tribble, a key volunteer who produced the opening night festivities, also wore a broad grin for much of the night. Actors in period costumes — Rosie the Riveter, a Mosquito Fleet Captain, a flapper, a women’s lib lesbian, a 1970s-era gay hippie with flowers in his beard — also circulated in the crowd, serving as living memories of Vashon’s long history as a home to gay people.
Filling the back half of the museum, the exhibit starts for viewers with a walk through the dimly-lit closet — a cozy place filled with colorful feather boas and other accessories used to signal gay identity. But the sound of harsh voices is also piped into the closet — admonitions “not to tell anyone” and softly hissed homophobic slurs.
Once out of the closet, though, the viewer steps into a brightly constructed multi-part exhibit, filled with nooks and crannies that explore different aspects of gay life on Vashon.
At a docent tour held the day before the opening, Silha explained the exhibit was in part inspired by the Queering the Museum Project, a movement which began in the mid-2010s by Seattle museum curators Erin Bailey and Nicole Robert. Kritzman, the co-curator of “In and Out,” served on the advisory committee for Queering the Museum. The project encouraged a more full inclusion of LGBTQ art and history in museums, and has resulted in major LGBTQ-themed exhibits at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery and other art venues.
The casual style of the exhibit also reflected the queer experience, said Silha — noting that the word “queer,” once viewed as a derogatory epithet, was now largely embraced as a general descriptor for the rainbow spectrum of the LGBTQ experience.
“Your eyes have to learn to see things differently, like queer people do,” Silha said.
Both the 2000 and 2010 censuses suggested that Vashon Island has the largest per capita concentration of gays and lesbians in Washington State. According to historian Bruce Haulman, a Heritage Museum board member who was deeply involved in the creation of “In and Out,” the 2020 census will likely provide even more definitive information about Vashon’s large LGBTQ population, as its questions are being revised to more accurately define relationships within households.
One display in the exhibit — a honeycomb of stories about the island’s queer history — suggests that Vashon has always been a haven to those on the rainbow spectrum. This display notes that Vashon’s indigenous people, the sHebabS, could have included Two Spirit members, as did more than 100 other North American nations. Living and loving in gender fluidity and same-sex relationships, Two Spirit people were revered by their communities until they were forced underground by European colonizers. Another honeycomb-shaped marker honors Micheal Red Earth, who lived on Vashon in the mid-1980s through 2000 and was a key organizer of early international Two Spirit Gatherings, which continue to this day.
The exhibit also tells the story of Marian Fitch and her partner MaryLee Fraser, who were harassed on Vashon after they moved here when Fitch accepted a job in 1947 as the editor of the Island Views newspaper. It also details the private life of Harriet Raab, who served as Vashon’s Civil Defense Coordinator in the 1940s. Raab, who dressed in pants, was a hunter and the solo female member of a men’s social breakfast club.
More recent stories in the honeycomb exhibit include those of Nancy Yount, who faced controversy as the openly lesbian pastor of Vashon United Methodist Church from 2005 to 2006, and Monty Bridges, who chose not to publicly share that he was gay during the time he served as the superintendent of the Vashon Island School District from 1997 to 2002.
“In and Out” also features local artist Brian Fisher’s five-part window panel installation, “Let’s All Dance,” which he says was informed by gay anthems and memories of coming out that he culled from fellow islanders.
“I had a dream that Brian Fisher should do this,” Silha said, explaining his inspiration for the window displays, and his delight when Fisher agreed to construct the panels.
Another memorable and moving installation is a curtain of 1,000 rainbow-colored origami cranes, folded in secret by islander Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma and then unveiled, as a surprise to his husband David Mielke, at the couple’s wedding ceremony.
The exhibit also includes an outdoor memorial garden, remembering the struggle for LGBTQ rights and those struck down by AIDS. The garden features an AIDS quilt by Vashon High School students who worked with Peter Serko’s AIDS Day Project. A circular garden bed, designed by Terry Welch, featuring 100 white geraniums, also graces the garden. A Japanese gender garden, also designed by Welch, invites museum-goers to place themselves on the continuum of sexuality and gender. Ongoing LGBTQ resistance is celebrated in the outdoor space with photographs by Dana Schuerholz. The garden was officially dedicated, during the opening night festivities, in a ceremony performed by musicians Om Johari and Brittany Davis.
The show also documents the work of the Vashon Gay Pride Alliance, which formed in the early 1990s to bring more visibility for LGBTQ people by raising money for island nonprofits and institutions. By picking up litter on the highway, the Alliance had its name posted on adopt-a-road signs, which were then vandalized and stolen numerous times. One of the battered, defaced road signs in on display in the exhibit.
Another section celebrates the activism of Vashon High School’s Queer Spectrum Alliance, lauded for its efforts in 2016 to demand some of the first all-gender bathrooms in a Washington State public school. The group is currently lobbying to improve the school district’s health and sex-ed curriculum to be more inclusive of sexuality and gender identity.
A video display invites viewers to choose from a menu of options to hear from current LGBTQ islanders, who talk about their lives on Vashon. A recent music video, entirely shot on Vashon by the Seattle indie-pop band Your Heart Break, is also a video option.
The exhibit will run at the Heritage Museum through March 2020, but for curators Kriztman and Silha, the work isn’t done.
“We are really hoping this exhibit will inspire people on the island to organize parties and events to celebrate LGBTQ pride and issues, and educate ourselves and others about community needs,” he said. According to Silha, the needs of trans members of the community, people of color, and those with economic hardship particularly need to be addressed.
Some ancillary events, already scheduled, are listed at www.vashonpride.com, a website connected to the exhibit that will be continually updated throughout the run of the show.
A clay workshop, focused on creating clay images of LGBTQ islanders, will be led by Vashon pottery icon Liz Lewis, on Saturday, June 22, at Lewis’ studio. An exhibit of the works is planned for July, at Café Luna. Another event will be a screening of “After Stonewall,” a documentary introduced by Maridee Bondea, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 25, at Vashon Theatre. And a concert by women’s music icons Ferron, Cris Williamson and Jami Sieber, is slated for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, August 17, at Open Space for Arts & Community.
Silha also encouraged islanders to support the Heritage Museum and the exhibit through its crowdfunding platform online.