Rainbow panels tucked into the third floor of Watkins Museum highlight the fight for queer rights in Lawrence during the last half-century. Organizations and community members who’ve played a part in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights are featured in the display, along with photos, publications and other historical artifacts.
In a corner of the exhibit, an empty Liberty Press wire news rack greets visitors. A statewide publication featuring resource guides and articles about issues important to the LGBTQ+ community, the Liberty Press was published from 1994 to 2018 in Wichita. It ceased when founder Kristi Parker died unexpectedly.
Lawrence resident Mike Silverman reflected upon some of the pieces he donated to the museum — including his own collection of the Liberty Press’ run — on view in “Not a Straight Path: The Fight for Queer Rights in Lawrence.” For Silverman, printed publications might seem like “relics of a bygone era” today, but in a world before social media and online news, they served a vital purpose, especially to a KU student and young adult like Silverman in the 1990s and early aughts.
“When you traveled, you would go to whatever city you’re in, they’d have their local gay paper and you’d get it at the coffee shop or whatever. And you could read it and kind of get a good feel for the area,” he said.
Exploring the exhibit at Watkins this week, Silverman said, brought back memories of the “thousands of people in Lawrence and throughout Kansas” who fought for civil rights in the LGBTQ+ community and made meaningful change.
Silverman recalled the work of the late Ben Zimmerman, a professor of social work at the University of Kansas and a leader in Simply Equal, the grassroots coalition that helped add sexual orientation to the city of Lawrence’s anti-discrimination ordinance in 1995. A copy of the booklet showing the updated city code is included in the exhibit.
“They made the change they wanted to, made it real, and did the work to live their authentic lives and to show their friends and their neighbors and their family members, their co-workers, who they really were, and there’s no substitute for that. In any movement that’s ever been worth its salt it’s always been driven kind of from the bottom up, and LGBT civil rights were no different,” Silverman said. “But it was, it’s the work of thousands.”
Leadership by Zimmerman and others inspired Silverman’s own activism, leading him to join the (now disbanded) Freedom Coalition and serve on its board in the late 1990s. A “pocket guide to life in Lawrence for cool lesbian, bisexual and gay people” distributed by the coalition is on view. A half-century of photos punctuate the exhibit, culminating in Pride events captured by photographer Fally Afani in 2021.
Silverman said he felt grateful to Watkins Museum for helping tell the story of the Lawrence community.
“History is, it’s real. It’s not something in a dusty book. History is everything that in our daily lives is a particular way because of history. And it’s important to remember that,” he said.
“Not A Straight Path: The Fight for Queer Rights in Lawrence” is part of events marking the 51st anniversary of the founding of the Lawrence Gay Liberation Front (now Spectrum KU) as the first recognized LGBTQ+ organization on campus. A week’s worth of commemorations and Pride events in October 2021 included the exhibit’s debut.
In December, a short documentary featuring LGBTQ+ activism at KU was also released and will be entered into the Free State Film Festival.
The exhibit, which runs through March, is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.