The Banner Project: Teaching Local LGBT History in a Fast-Paced Society

Sara Fernandez wanted to tell the story of our community, but didn’t realize she was also creating a story in the process.
By Brandon Wolf

In the spring of 2013, Houston activist Sara Fernandez was visiting relatives in New York City and planned excursions to several museums. At the New Museum and the Museum of the City of New York, she saw exhibits that she found especially fascinating, because each told a story. 

Neither exhibit was dedicated solely to the LGBT community, but LGBT history was included in both.  The New Museum focused on the year 1993 in the Lower East Side neighborhood surrounding the museum. In one room, a dozen television monitors ran looping videos, each of which presented a different subject. One of those subjects was AIDS. 1993 was a horrific time of suffering—the year before the death toll finally spiked, and two years before retroviral medications began to change the course of the disease.

At the Museum of the City of New York, a permanent exhibit about activists featured suffragettes, the civil-rights movement, and gay liberation. Fernandez remembered the many “History Tent” exhibits she had seen during Houston Pride festivals—exhibits that featured memorabilia, but didn’t tell a comprehensive story of our community’s evolution. She left New York with a passion for bringing just such a story to life.

Bringing History to the People

Ten months later, Fernandez’s dream was realized, and as a result we now have our first “pop-up museum”—32 colorful banners that relate the highlights of Houston’s LGBT history from the 1930s to the present day.    

The banners employ a bold, colorful graphic design, using large photos and a minimum of text. With the pace of today’s society, people find it hard to visit a museum or special exhibit. Pop-up museums overcome this obstacle by bringing history to people where they are—a convention, a gala, or a large community event. (The May 14, 2015, issue of Time noted that the average attention span of an adult has dropped to eight seconds—the result of an increasingly digitized lifestyle.)

Fernandez’s project brings a basic understanding of Houston’s LGBT history to many different groups—those who have recently moved here, people who have come out or begun transitioning late in life, and new generations of teens. The exhibit gives viewers a quick perspective on where we’ve been and how we got to where we are today. It also helps each generation see how they fit into a bigger picture.

A Dream Becomes Reality

The birth of the banners is an inspiring story about believing in dreams, maintaining optimism, and welcoming new ideas. It also reinforces the folk saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.”       

After returning from New York in 2013, Fernandez began to discuss her dream with others. She presented the idea at a meeting of Houston ARCH (Houston Area Rainbow Collective History), an umbrella organization that encourages cooperation among several of Houston’s LGBT historians.      

Fernandez leaned in the direction of a visual timeline. On the ARCH website, she found a detailed timeline. Jo Collier, who works in the Texas Room of the Houston Public Library, has been piecing together the timeline for years, so Fernandez had a starting point.    

A friend suggested Rebels, Rhinestones and Rubyfruits by James Sears, the most comprehensive history of the LGBT South currently in existence. Using the book’s index, Fernandez found material about Houston that she had been unaware of. Dr. Brian Riedel, assistant director of Rice University’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, put her in touch with researchers of Houston LGBT history.

When it was announced that Houston would be the site of the 2014 National LGBTQ Task Force’s “Creating Change” conference, Fernandez attended early planning meetings and asked the organizers about displaying a Houston history timeline.   

The idea was approved. The conference would provide the space—three large sections of window space on one of the floors of the conference at the Hilton-Americas Houston Hotel. The exhibit’s expenses would be covered by Fernandez.   

Using a computer program, Fernandez came up with a prototype chronological timeline that events could be displayed on. But then the project began to falter. It simply wasn’t coming together. It looked too academic, and it seemed impossible to pack all the history she was aware of on the timeline. 

Two months before the conference, the project had still not achieved lift and thrust. Hoping for a breakthrough, Fernandez decided to display a large timeline draft at an ARCH meeting. The Hyde Park Gallery in Montrose graciously offered to let her use space on one of their long walls during the meeting.     

Guests at the ARCH meeting found the timeline interesting. There were encouraging words, but Fernandez knew the project was hopelessly stalled. Still, she refused to forfeit her dream. 

A Most Unlikely Breakthrough

Fernandez was mulling over the timeline when Dennis Murland, the owner of the gallery, offered some advice. The gallery has a production group that creates large banners, so Murland knew what he was talking about. He explained to Fernandez that a long horizontal timeline would be extremely difficult to produce and mount. It would sag easily, and it would be hard for people to read any text on it, since it would be mounted above their heads.

Fernandez asked about other options, and he suggested vertical banners, hung side by side. She consulted by email with people she knew to be knowledgeable about our history. She was shown photos of a recent series of banners displayed on light poles around the Rice University campus that featured Rice history. 

Fernandez sketched out a banner prototype and emailed it. Suddenly, the project took on life. Doing the math, it was determined that nine banners in each of the three allotted window sections at the Hilton Hotel could tell the story, with a total of 27 banners. Each banner would measure 2-1/2 feet in width and 5-1/2 feet in length.

Knowing the limits of what could be included, the email committee came to an agreement on the 27 topics considered to be the most important.   

The list included such well-known events as the enormous 1977 Anita Bryant protest and the shocking 1991 murder of Paul Broussard. It also included little-known material, such as Houston’s gay art collective of the 1930s and the 1967 formation of The Tumblebugs, a group of lesbians who stopped police harassment at Houston’s gay and lesbian bars.    

Countdown to the Creating Change Conference

Fernandez says the next six weeks were surreal, and that “the time went by in a swift swirl of activity.” It was decided the banners would be made of vinyl. Those involved already realized they were creating what could be a pop-up museum for future use.   

Fernandez had a specific and very talented person in mind to design the banners—Kirk Baxter, a graphic artist who specializes in signage. The two had met after Mary’s bar was sold, and Baxter began a “Make Mary’s Matter” campaign to memorialize the history represented by the years the bar was in operation. 

The Banner Project’s founder Sara Fernandez (r) and Houston LGBT historian J.D. Doyle pose in front of The Diana Foundation’s banner at the organization’s 2014 awards ceremony.
The Banner Project’s founder Sara Fernandez (r) and Houston LGBT historian J.D. Doyle pose in front of The Diana Foundation’s banner at the organization’s 2014 awards ceremony.

J.D. Doyle, Houston’s 2014 Male Pride Marshal, became deeply involved in the project. Doyle has preserved vast amounts of LGBT history on the Internet, so he provided a wealth of photographs to choose from, and located members of the community with a thorough understanding of the chosen topics.   

The ad-hoc group also decided to produce a booklet with additional information about each banner, and have copies of it available at the conference. Doyle volunteered to produce an Internet version of the banner exhibit. The name Houston, We Have History: The Banner Project was a nod to America’s space program, and the frequent messages from the astronauts that started with “Houston, we have . . . ”   

Baxter determined the cost of the banners would be $2,500.  Fernandez turned to the Kellett Foundation, which approved a grant request. Other generous benefactors in the community joined in with personal donations of their own. The project did not have 501(c)(3) charity status, so donations were made solely to expand our community’s awareness of its history.

The project was now at full throttle. Fernandez, Baxter, and Doyle often worked long into the night to meet the January 20, 2014, printer’s deadline.

The day before the conference, the finished banners were hung. The hotel was a beehive of activity, with scores of volunteers preparing for the conference.    

As more and more banners went up, the project’s visual impressiveness and cohesiveness continued to build. Volunteers stopped to look them over, excited that visitors to our city would be learning about Houston’s LGBT history. During the conference, either Fernandez or Doyle—or both—sat in a small table area by the banners, answering questions and introducing visitors to the booklets with additional information. 

Fernandez enjoyed watching out-of-town guests taking in the banners, some wanting to duplicate the concept in their own cities. “But it was the people from Houston who were the most fun to watch,” she says. “I could see people looking at a particular banner and saying ‘Oh, I remember that!,’ then hurrying off to find friends to bring back to see the banners.”   

Expanding on the Vision

Happily, Fernandez’s dream-come-true didn’t end with the conference exhibit. Designed to be easily moved and displayed, the banners “popped up” at other Houston events in 2014: the HRC Houston Gala, the Transgender Unity Banquet, the Diana Awards, the Pride Festival History Tent, the Heritage Gala, and a campus LGBT group meeting at Rice University that introduced graduate students to local LGBT history.

The banners were displayed earlier this year at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church for the visit of activist Urvashi Vaid, and left in place for churchgoers to see on the following Sunday. Several of the banners were utilized in the Heritage Society’s groundbreaking ThroughOut Houston exhibit of Houston LGBT history that ran from June through October.

Between exhibits, the banners are carefully rolled up in acid-free paper and placed into large packing cartons. Then they go into Fernandez’ closet. “That keeps the exhibit very compact,” she laughs. “I have a small closet!”       

The 1979 March: From the permanent exhibit at the Montrose Center.
The 1979 March: From the permanent exhibit at the Montrose Center.

The banners have also been recreated in reduced size and framed for the first-floor walls of The Montrose Center. The Center’s Sally Huffer says, “When we saw these stunningly vibrant images on display, we immediately thought they would add color and remind all of our guests that we are a vibrant community—one with a proud history that’s evolving every day, every week, every month, and every year.”

Fernandez keeps a list of banner suggestions, and as time and funds allow, new banners are made. Since the initial exhibit, five additional banners have been produced. While she welcomes both ideas for banner topics and donations to create the banners, she is also careful to note that the two must be independent. “To preserve the integrity of the project, we can’t allow history to be ‘bought.’” However, when Queer Nation learned that a banner about them was in production, several alumni paid for the cost of that banner.

Fernandez says she has other ideas under consideration for the project. “I love to visit museums, and I keep my eye out for new formats that would complement the banners.” She declines tipping her hand quite yet about those concepts, but based on what the project has achieved so far, it’s a safe bet that they will be enjoyable and will continue to broaden the community’s awareness of our local history.   

The banner project can be accessed online at houstonwehavehistory.org. People interested in displaying the banners at an event, working as a volunteer, offering topic ideas, or donating funds will find contact information at that site.   

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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