All Here: Accessibility and Diversity:Balancing Design, Content and Access in the Molina Family Latino Gallery

Many thanks to Eli Boldt, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Boldt was one of several interns identifying and writing stories about underrepresented topics for Smithsonian Affiliations. This is one of two stories they completed this summer. 

A small, tactile display showing a scene from the Pueblo lands. One bronze, woman figurine is placing bread into a round, clay oven. Another is watching loaves of bread cool. To the bottom left is a button that prompts a user to push to smell bread.
One of the tactile displays in the exhibition which, when the silver button is pressed, releases an odor of bread baking. Photo by Eli Boldt.

The Molina Family Latino Gallery, which opened in June 2022, is a precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino. The museum, legislated by Congress in 2020, is still in development and currently has exhibition space at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The Molina Gallery is a taste of what the museum will be: it represents the many varied histories of the Latino experience in America and the way Latino culture and figures have impacted and shaped the United States.

The exhibition was developed using a design model called I.P.O.P., a framework for building a content strategy focusing on Ideas, People, Objects, and Physical experiences. This allows the content to be diversified across the exhibition. Some people connect more with objects, while others connect with pictures and stories of people. Some people benefit heavily from having physical experiences, which tactile objects help to do.

Making an exhibit accessible is a balancing of the many types of people who are coming into the space. To design with accessibility in mind means finding the sweet spot where information is available and accessible to the most amount of people.

Under the direction of Elizabeth Ziebarth, Access Smithsonian helped bring the gallery’s vision for inclusive design to fruition. Leading a small but mighty team—Ziebarth is both director of Access Smithsonian and head diversity officer at the Smithsonian—the staff strives “for consistent and integrated inclusive design that provides meaningful access” in all their work. Ziebarth identifies making a space accessible to the blind as the most challenging.

“My rule of thumb is that if I can make something accessible to people who are blind or have low vision, I could probably make everything else accessible. The most challenging part of the design is to take something that is visual and make it into something that can deliver the content and the experience to somebody who can’t see it,” Ziebarth said.

A black and white QR code that can be scanned for visual descriptions.
One of the QR codes that can be scanned for visual descriptions. Photo by Eli Boldt.

Ways the gallery took on the challenge was creating a shoreline, a perimeter of cases around the middle. People who use canes can tap their way through and follow the path. There are cues and raised tabs on the ground to identify where QR codes, which pull up audio narration, are located. The gallery makes use of tactiles to tell the story as well. Tactiles are objects that are meant to be touched and interacted with. The museum shows a clay figurine and invites visitors to touch. There is a button that releases the smell of bread, another that plays the sounds of Domino Park, Miami, and releases the smell of coffee. There are audio descriptions and closed captions on video content for deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors, and space for wheelchair users to have as much mobility as possible.

The accessibility of the gallery is not unique, but it also is not the standard. It was made possible because accessibility was a part of the conversation from the start. Access Smithsonian was able to make a substantial impact on the exhibit’s layout, design, and technology because the designers and curators asked questions about accessibility all throughout.

“There’s no way that we can be everywhere, and we rely on developing relationships, trust, and a great understanding with teams,” said Ashley Grady, senior program specialist at Access Smithsonian. “They hopefully have the knowledge to make a lot of decisions independently, but they know that we’re always here for that guidance and access to user/expert testing or the disability community.”

The gallery was designed by Museum Environments, an organization that designs and creates multicultural and sustainable exhibits. Mariano Desmarás, the creative director for Museum Environments, was eager to help make the gallery accessible. He noted that as a consultant and designer, he can make suggestions but to do what the gallery ended up accomplishing, the backing of the institution and its leaders is essential. Desmarás points to his own background of having undiagnosed ADHD as a child and his experience with dyslexia, as well as his father’s later-in-life vision impairment, as reasons why accessibility is so important to him.

“Everybody had some sort of connection that they could make to why it would be important to have an inclusively designed exhibition space. And so that made a difference,” Ziebarth said.

That lived experience of seeing the struggles of people with disabilities is often a motivator for making spaces accessible; it is why user/expert testing was vital to the creation of the gallery and its accessible features.

The Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) is a non-profit organization doing work with inclusive design. Their user/experts are people who, through their own lived experiences, have expertise. IHCD and Access Smithsonian brought user/experts into the gallery as it was being built.

A clay tactile figure of a boy, worn down by touching.
Another tactile element which has been worn down by visitors touching it. Photo by Eli Boldt.

A typical user/expert testing session, as described by Grady, would begin with her meeting the exhibit team to understand what questions needed to be answered in that specific session. This ensured the right people were there to help. If they needed to test assistive listening devices, people who were Deaf or hard of hearing were prioritized.

“While those things can be intersectional, it’s important to make sure we’ve got the right people that would benefit the most from whatever the equipment is or element is,” Grady said.

The sessions were conversational. They engaged more with contextual inquiry to see how people engaged with the content. The sessions often included Access Smithsonian as well as people working on the exhibit’s content and design. This allowed for questions to be asked and answered as real people experienced the content.

The sessions lasted anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours, Grady explained, but they could look different depending on what was being tested and how many people were brought in. Sometimes only one or two components were being tested, whereas other times the sessions would be a comprehensive walkthrough of the gallery. Of course, user/expert testing was halted during the pandemic, but the team pivoted the testing to Zoom and continued their work.

A tactile display representing Domino Park in Little Havana, Miami. A game of dominos set up in the middle, with a coffee pot that emits the smell of coffee to the bottom left. In the back, between two small pillars is a photo from Domino Park.
A tactile display representing Domino Park in Little Havana, Miami. Photo by Eli Boldt.

Through user testing, things changed. Many were small changes, of course, but even small changes helped make every component as accessible as it could be. Color contrasts were changed, the heights of QR codes adjusted and font size perfected. When they got into the space, the design team mapped out the floorplan with blue tape according to ADA standards only to realize that the turn radius was not enough for motorized wheelchairs.

Michelle Cook, an inclusive design specialist with Access Smithsonian, stressed that the minimum standards are just that: the minimum.

“That’s one of the things that has been historically a challenge for those of us in the design field — and advocates for accessible or inclusive design — has been convincing people that it’s better to do more than the minimum because it serves a more diverse audience,” Cook said.

And diversity is what the Molina Family Latino Gallery is trying to communicate. To show that populations you might not think about are vital to the history of the United States. Latino history is American history: our cultures are intertwined. And within that diversity is the intersection of accessibility. They are two ideas that exist within each other.

“There’s this fear that inclusion focuses on a particular population and that it’s reductive,” Desmarás said. “I actually think that if it’s done right, inclusion is additive. That you’re saying that we’re all here.”

Source list:

    The website for the National Museum of the American Latino, a project currently in production. At the end of 2020, Former President Trump signed a bill for its creation. What was formerly the Smithsonian Latino Center became the National Museum of the American Latino.
    The website for the Molina Family Latino Gallery. The gallery is the precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino.
    The website for the National Museum of American History, where the Molina Family Latino Gallery lives.
    The five children of Dr. C. David Molina collectively donated $10 million for the creation of the gallery.
    The website for Access Smithsonian. This organization was created in 1991 and works with museums to create meaningful access for everyone.
    Museum Environments is an organization that creates exhibits on large and small scales. They specialize in multicultural and bilingual exhibitions. For ¡Presente! they won the 2023 Smithsonian Award for Excellence in Exhibitions.
    The Institute for Human Centered Design is an education and design non-profit organization focused on universal, inclusive and accessible design. They were a part of creating the Molina Family Gallery, including but not limited to user/expert sessions.
    User/experts have personal experience with disabilities or limitations and can provide expertise and advice for design. They were heavily involved in the creation of the Molina Family Latino Gallery.
    The website for the Americans with Disabilities Act and the design standards. As noted by Smithsonian employees through the experience of creating an accessible exhibition, ADA standards do not cover newer devices and are often insufficient. Described as the bare minimum. 

Asian American Adoption- Part 3: The Interviews

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

It’s impossible to capture the long and complicated history of adoption in just a few blog posts. The previous posts (Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry and From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today) cover just a small fraction of international adoption history, but hopefully they set the stage for sharing the interviews I conducted during my internship. Each woman I spoke with has had a different experience with transracial adoption that shaped their identities. I’m grateful to my sorority sisters Dana, Mattison, and Laura, for sharing their experiences and being open about their adoption stories.

Dana, on proving her “Asian-ness”

Growing up Chinese, with a white mother and Chinese siblings, Dana’s family is not what most people picture as a typical American family. But for Dana, this is the only family she can remember. Born in the bustling city of Guangdong, China, Dana was one of the thousands of children sent abroad when their birth mother gave up parental rights. Dana spent less than a year of her life in the country of her birth.

Dana entered a family that had adopted a girl from a different part of China two years earlier. Three years after her own adoption, Dana’s mother expanded their family and welcomed a boy from another part of China. Most adoptive families have both a mother and father, but not so for Dana’s story. Her mother adopted three children in five years as a single woman in her forties.

Dana’s mother enrolled her children in Chinese schools to incorporate as much Cantonese and Mandarin language and culture as possible in their lives. Dana was able to attend the school in her hometown that had an Asian population of 30%-40%. Dana remembers enjoying the experience, though her time at the school was short-lived. Unfortunately, when Dana was very young, her mother passed away and Dana and her siblings moved in with their maternal aunt.
Dana attended Clemson University, a predominately white institution in South Carolina where she continued to look for ways to embrace her culture. As a freshman, Dana joined Delta Phi Lambda, where her sorority sisters cultivated an environment that was inviting and safe to explore her Chinese background.

But there were challenges outside the safe space of the sorority. Not having grown up immersed in Chinese culture and tradition, as an adult Dana felt like an outsider compared to her peers raised by Asian parents. She felt the stark difference between Asian-raised and white-raised Asian children, and looking back, remembers not understanding or realizing she should be offended when children made fun of her for looking “Asian” or mocking a Chinese dialect.

One of the complexities of transracial adoption is this dual question of identity—on the one hand, being raised culturally white but experiencing racism and othering, and on the other hand, not having experienced the cultural language or traditions that would create a sense of belonging in the Asian community. As Dana expressed in her interview, “How are you going to invalidate my identity because we didn’t grow up the same?” Though the Asian diaspora is vast, with varied experiences, many adoptees feel they have to prove they are Asian.

Mattison, on “otherness”

In the capital of Hubei province, in Wuhan, China, a little girl named Mattison was born and put up for adoption, spending the first year of her life in an orphanage. Mattison’s mom traveled more than 15 hours to pick up her daughter from a hotel lobby. When telling her story, Mattison laughed when I asked about the location—most people imagine parents first meeting their child in a hospital or even an airport, but not in a hotel lobby.

Mattison grew up an only child in a predominately white community. She attended a private Catholic school with few other Asian students enrolled. Her mom tried to encourage her to connect with her Chinese heritage by taking language classes and wearing traditional Chinese apparel. Unfortunately, children bullied her, and eventually those lessons stopped. Those memories of being bullied still resonate with her today as she recalls how children made fun of her because of her clothes. These experiences impacted her personality, and she became shy and kept to herself. She knew she looked different compared to other people and it made her nervous. These feelings of wanting to belong continued into college.

Studying at Clemson University, Mattison first joined a Panhellenic, an historically white-only sorority, but quickly felt like an outsider and quit after one semester. She later learned about Delta Phi Lambda, which advocates for Asian awareness. The sorority welcomed her and she found a community in which she felt like never had to prove herself. And Mattison’s Chinese American boyfriend and his family were instrumental in helping her learn more about her culture, taking the time to teach her Cantonese along with Chinese traditions and recipes. But she still struggled with her identity—not looking like everyone else at Clemson was still hard. It affected friendships, romantic relationships, and how she viewed herself. Unlike many of her classmates and friends who grew up surrounded by those of their own race, Mattison could never take belonging for granted.

Mattison’s mother was also adopted, which helped them to share a special relationship. This commonality of being adopted is a connection that many adopted children do not share with their parents. However, unlike Mattison, her white mom was adopted into a white family. Still, her mom was always open with her about race and adoption and is the person Mattison often turned to for difficult conversations. While Mattison’s mom was very open to these conversations, her father was not. Mattison often felt she had to educate her father about race and racism, which is not uncommon within the adoptive community. For Mattison, the weight of this burden was often exhausting and disheartening. The burden of tackling racism and bias—already fraught topics—has added another complicated layer to the complexity of transracial adoption.

Laura, on being immersed in culture but still struggling to belong

A Chinese orphanage was Laura’s home until, at one year old, she made the 15-hour trip to Tennessee to begin her new life. Not long after her adoption, Laura’s parents adopted another child, a boy from Russia. Laura spoke of how her parents encouraged them each to explore their backgrounds and their cultures and never shied away from the topics of race and who they were.

Her parents made immersing Laura in the Asian community a priority. They would drive two hours to Nashville to celebrate Chinese New Year, and worked to keep Laura connected to two other girls that were adopted with her—friendships that are still important to her today. Laura has also had the privilege that many adoptees dream of, but rarely achieve—she was able to go back to her birth country to be immersed in Chinese culture.

Identity and belonging were still issues for Laura; not feeling Asian enough or feeling she did not have the right to speak on certain topics, she did not come to easy conclusions about herself. Laura faced racism that made her truly reflect on her identity. Despite having had so many opportunities to be immersed in Asian culture and community, she still keenly felt the internal battle of growing up looking Asian in a white culture.

Laura longed for acceptance in a community that is not always accepting. Always migrating towards people who look like her, Laura learned the hard way how, for some, adopted Asians are not perceived as “real” Asians. Twenty years later, through many struggles with identity and race, Laura finally feels proud to be an adoptee. With support from others and a growing inner strength, she is more confident in her identity and story.

Adoption stories are extremely personal, and difficult to share. Dana, Mattison, Laura, and I all have different adoption stories that shape our lives. Their stories are just three in a world of complicated stories and do not speak for all adoption experiences; they’re meant to foster conversations about identity, race, belonging, and inclusion. My hope is that these stories are a catalyst for bringing attention to transracial adoption. For many, myself included, our stories and experiences are not an open topic. For those curious about Asian transracial adoption, I have included some resources below to start—or continue–your journey. The experience of adoption is not singular, it takes time and research to understand how people feel about adoption and why it takes place. The complexities of transracial and international adoption are becoming an increasingly louder national conversation, one which will hopefully lead to increased understanding, awareness, and inclusion.

Readings and Resources

For a full list of sources, view here.

Asian American Adoption- Part 2: From Operation Baby Lift to International Adoption Today

A Vietnam exhibition display of two soldiers standing next to the helicopter and one in the cockpit.
A section of “The Price of Freedom” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Clarissa Trent.

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

After the Korean War, Asia faced other crises, including the Vietnam War, Cambodian Civil War, and the Laos Civil War. These wars left millions of men, women, and children dead. Countries fell into geopolitical tyrannical regimes and East and Southeast Asia transitioned to communist states. At the same time, international adoption was gaining traction in South Korea and growing popular in other Cold War countries. One infamous example of this popularity was Operation Baby Lift, which occurred after the Vietnam War.

Operation Baby Lift was authorized by President Gerald R. Ford and allowed for 30 planes to be filled with Vietnamese and Cambodian children. These infants and toddlers were airlifted out of the country to adoptive families in the United States, Canada, Australia, and more. The operation evacuated over 2,000 children from their home countries. While many applauded the United States government and military for their seemingly heroic rescue of these children, critics have characterized the event as “kidnapping,” describing the evacuation as a photo opportunity designed to pull public focus away from an extremely unpopular war.

During and following times of war, parents were often unable to find work and unable to provide for their children, and many turned to orphanages to care for them. Governments and adoption agencies, however, would misconstrue the facts and depict children as parentless even if one or both parents were still alive. Whether it fit the legal definition of kidnapping or not, the once-popular idea that international adoption saved children from the perceived threats of communism has become a central topic in modern conversation around adoption.

A newsletter clipping of the Disabled Child of the Month by Holt International.
A Holt Adoption Program Newsletter from September 1967 featuring a “Handicapped Child of the Month.” Photo by Clarissa Trent, courtesy of a National Museum of American History collections tour.

In recent years, adoption requirements have become stricter. Many countries have age, income, marriage, and health requirements. A number of countries have also agreed to the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. This sets an international standard for how international adoptions are conducted worldwide, to combat abduction and trafficking of children. However, not all countries are part of this agreement—most notably South Korea—and Americans continue to adopt from countries that are not part of the Hague Convention.

Asian adoptees who experience transracial adoption often have a complicated sense of identity. While adoptions do occur in families of the same race, the majority of Asian adoptions are to white families. The issues that Asian adoptees face are a part of a growing field of study looking at identity crisis, racism, mental health, emotional health, and abandonment. A study published in 2013 explored these issues in American adoptees. The results indicated that adoptees are four times more likely to die by suicide than biological children. These issues around plural identities and racism are not felt by all Asian adoptees, nor are they exclusive to Asian adoptees. While sometimes difficult, these conversations are essential to uncovering the stories of adoptees historically and today.

Readings and Resources:

For a full list of sources, view here.

Asian American Adoption- Part 1: Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Many thanks to Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Trent was one of several interns working with Smithsonian Affiliations to identify untold stories and develop ways to tell those stories. This 3-part series is based on personal experiences, research conducted while at the Smithsonian Institution, and conversations with staff at The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. For more resources on Asian Pacific American bias and stereotypes, and further resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

An Asian woman with long dark hair and glasses wearing a black button down shirt stands on a white stairwell.
Clarissa Trent, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern

When I was six months old, I was adopted from South Korea. I am a transracial adoptee. I am the daughter of white, evangelical parents in rural East Tennessee, and the life my parents imagined for me is very different than my other Korean friends. I grew up in the evergreen mountains of Appalachia, listening to Country and Bluegrass, eating cornbread, saying holler instead of hollow, with a sister who looked nothing like me. The microaggressions I experienced at the time—“friends” asking me to speak Korean (when I didn’t) or mocking a stereotypical Asian accent—contributed to my sense of identity. I could forgive my friends, but it was harder when the microaggressions came from adults—I was once asked by a teacher if it was okay to call me a racial slur. These microaggressions and overt racism meant that even though I was raised culturally white, I felt like an outsider. I was a Korean daughter who knew nothing of her home country or birth language. It was not until I entered college that I fully embraced my dual identity and started to consider what it means to have an identity as an adoptee.

The history of adoption is a long and complicated one, and there are a number of books and resources that trace its history from the start of World War II to today. In this series I will provide a brief overview of international adoption and share three first-person interviews I conducted during my internship with the Smithsonian Institution. For these three interviews, I asked fellow sisters from Delta Phi Lambda Sorority, Inc., an Asian interest organization that prides itself on creating a home away from home for Asian/Asian American women across the country. These women, all Chinese American, joined Delta Phi Lambda for reasons all their own, and found in the sorority a family that teaches them and creates a safe space for them. Each interviewee has had different experiences with transracial adoption which shaped their identities. I am so grateful to them for generously allowing me to share their experiences. To contextualize their stories, let’s first delve into a brief history of international adoption.

From Cold War Babies to a Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Map of Korea
Map of North and South Korea, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When the United States and the former Soviet Union engaged in war by proxy on the Korean Peninsula, no one could have predicted that it would create a new form of child rearing around the world. The devastation of the Korean War left thousands of children without parents, and thousands of parents without the jobs and resources they needed to care for their children. The war caused irreparable harm to the peninsula and ended with a shaky ceasefire, creation of the 38th parallel, and a nation of people fully divided. The aftermath had lasting effects on Koreans at home and in the diaspora (those who have left the Asian continent and are living somewhere else). A provisional government was not prepared to take on the responsibility of orphanages overrun with children whose parents were gone or could no longer provide for them. The best solution, at that time, was to adopt children out to other countries.

Today, the international adoption system is a multi-million-dollar industry; families pay tens of thousands of dollars for lawyers, psychological evaluations, at-home visits, and plane tickets. The history of international Asian adoption is steeped in colonialism and racism, and many adoptees feel the weight of these topics today.

Before adoption started in South Korea, there was a group of children that had easy access to the care of the United States. Called “mascots,” these were young boys (and occasionally young girls) taken under the wing of U.S. military units moving through the Korean Peninsula. They were clothed, fed, and trained to spy for the military. When the war ended, mascots were the first children to be adopted.

In comparison, GI children—children born to local women and American soldiers away at war–had a much different experience than mascots. Stereotypes and prejudices prevented many of these children from being adopted. The patriarchal Korean society placed heavy emphasis on the continuation of the fathers’ blood through recorded lineages. Children from American fathers were ostracized because their Korean DNA came exclusively from their mothers.

The South Korean and United States governments established new orphanages to manage those who did not have direct access to US military resources as mascots and GI children did. Many of these orphanages were heavily associated with the United States military—some were even named after military units. Other orphanages developed at the time were overseen by Christian groups operating out of the US. These orphanages added a new layer to this complicated history. Children were marketed to white, Christian families as needing to be saved. While white, middle-class families were not the only group to adopt from Asia, they were the most prevalent. Many were introduced to this world of Asian adoption through Harry and Bertha Holt.

Oregon Journal newspaper clipping of the article "Father Holt, 12 Children Reach Home."
Oregon Journal, newspaper, 1955, Gift of Holt International Children’s Services. In the Home and Community Life: Domestic Life collections at the National Museum of American History.

The Holts became significant to the history of international adoption when their desire to adopt more than two Korean children was restricted by the Refugee Act of 1953. To circumvent this, they successfully petitioned Congress to pass a special law, The Holt Bill, allowing them to adopt 6-8 children (historical records disagree on the exact number of adoptees). Photos and news coverage of the plane ride that brought the Holt’s adoptees to America introduced Asian adoption to white, evangelical families*. The Holts went on to establish one of the largest international private adoption agencies in the world. With the Korean government fully backing this endeavor, the newly formed country of South Korea became the largest country sending their children abroad.

A child's hanbok with a red skirt and a multi-colored jacket.
Traditional Korean Child’s Dress (Hanbok). Credit Betty Holt Blakenship

Sources and Author notes:

*The increase in white families adopting Korean orphans was attributed to coverage of the plane ride. In her book To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, Arissa Oh writes extensively about white parents adopting Korean children and how that type of transracial adoption differed from white families adoping Black children. She also suggests that adoption of Korean children was more enticing since their parents were thousands of miles away and could not come and claim their child.

For a full list of sources, view here.

Here, There, and Everywhere: How a 1970s Magazine Created LGBTQ+ Space, Community, and Paved the Way for Change

Many thanks to Eli Boldt, 2023 Smithsonian Leadership for Change intern, for this guest post. Boldt was one of several interns identifying and writing stories about underrepresented topics for Smithsonian Affiliations. This is one of two stories they completed this summer. For more LGBTQ+ resources from the Smithsonian, visit the Pride events pages

Cover of Drag magazine featuring a figure in a black spaghetti strap dress with a slit to the knee, holding a feather boa, with dark hair curled and piled on top of her head.

Thursday afternoon, March 2, 2023, Bill Lee signed into law a bill that banned gender-affirming care for minors. On the same day, Lee, a Republican governor in Tennessee, signed a bill that restricted drag performance.

Over 50 years earlier, Lee Brewster and Bunny Eisenhower, two figures vocal in and vital to the drag and trans* movement, founded Queens Liberation Front (QLF). The founding was in response to the Stonewall Uprising that had happened a year earlier and the following explosion of the gay rights movement. QLF officially began operations when it participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. Brewster, Eisenhower and others marched in the parade. The experience — inked in words as well as many black and white photographs of the parade — is detailed in the first issue of Drag Magazine. Drag was first published in 1971, by QLF. It was originally called Drag Queens, but later shortened to Drag. The parade is described in three of the first few pages of the first issue. Brewster and Eisenhower proudly publish themselves marching, holding banners, under signs, in heels. Among the photos is a paragraph detailing how QLF was advised not to show up in drag. The police would arrest them. “However, since the purpose of the organization is to change the law… this was as good time as any to start the offensive,” Drag printed. No arrests were made.

If QLF was created to change the laws, Drag was a part of that mission. But it held a higher purpose as well: community. Drag recorded history as it happened, shared resources with a wide audience, and showcased the community. It led the drag and trans* community through triumphs and griefs, through celebrations and arrests, through pop culture moments and protests. Brewster, a gay drag activist who used he/him pronouns throughout his life, served as publisher and editor of Drag. The editorial note from that first issue reads, “Each day… I run into the attitude that drag… will never be legalized, here in the United States. Even the transvestite and drag queen, himself feels this way.”

Each issue of Drag had a front page displaying a cartoon of a conventionally attractive, slim woman wearing beautiful clothing, dazzling jewelry, her hair “done up,” and stylized makeup on her face. It is both a farce and a welcoming. The magazines are scattered with pictures of drag queens and trans women. But within those celebratory displays, there is also important, often devastating, news.

Page excerpt from Drag magazine describing the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade in 1971.

The trans* and drag communities felt they were being left behind by the gay rights movement and the magazine was a place where that feeling of neglect from the wider queer community was expressed. Drag got to uplift a community in the shadows, but it also had to grapple with the violence that came with it.

In its first publication came the news of the death of Laverne Turner, but also the news that drag had allegedly been legalized in Italy. These statements stand side by side, in company with each other. Turner had been dressed as a woman; the officers said Turner was shooting at them although witnesses alleged she was running away. Brewster, vacationing in Rome, noted that Italian men go wild over drag queens.

To be the record keeper of history is to gather the good and the bad and hold them in tandem. Each event is made more meaningful because of the other. Drag, published through the 1980s, was a calling, a community, a celebration; it was a declaration of existence.

Back in present day: on June 3, 2023, federal Judge Thomas Parker ruled that Tennessee’s drag ban was unconstitutional. “We’ve got a long way to go, baby,” reads the editorial from Drag’s first issue. That much was as true then as it is now. The editorial continues, underlined in black, “we have to start sometime and somewhere!”

Author’s note: The use of trans* is deliberate. I used information from Duke University Press, Transgender Studies Quarterly (see source list) which discusses the vocabulary, applicability of some transgender terminology. The asterisk (*), or star, is a symbol with multiple meanings and applications that can mark a bullet point in a list, highlight or draw attention to a particular word or phrase, indicate a footnote, or operate as a wildcard character in computing and telecommunications. In relation to transgender phenomena, the asterisk is used primarily in the latter sense, to open up transgender or trans to a greater range of meanings. 

Source List

The Drag Times newsletter headline "Highest Court Leaves Texas TVs Illegal"

SITES Corner: New Exhibitions for a New Year

The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) has some exciting exhibitions for 2019 and beyond. Check out what’s available and bring a Smithsonian exhibition to your neighborhood soon.

Soldier with painting.

Courtesy Matt Mitchell.

100 Faces of War
Featuring 100 portraits of Americans from every state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the subjects represent a cross section of those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and reflect a variety of military branches, job descriptions, and personal backgrounds. Each oil painting is coupled with a personal statement from the participant to create a fuller portrait. Tour through fall 2020.
For more information, contact Ed Liskey,, 202.633.3142

Billie Holiday at Sugar Hill: Photographs by Jerry Dantzic
The exhibition offers a rare glimpse into the iconic jazz musician’s public and private life just two years before her death at the age of 44. Includes 65 pigment prints with labels, panels, objects, ephemera, projected video, and vinyl excerpts from the work of renowned writer/author, Zadie Smith. Tour launches 2019. Special discounts for February 16, 2019 to May 12, 2019 ($10,000) and for September 29, 2019 to January 5, 2020 ($15,000), all plus shipping.
For more information, contact Michelle Torres-Carmona,, 202.633.3181.

Girl in Red by R. Blackburn

Robert Blackburn, Girl in Red, 1950, Lithograph, 18 1/4 x 13 1/2, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Photograph by Karl Peterson

Robert Blackburn & Modern American Printmaking
Explore the work of the Robert Blackburn, the first Master Printer for the Universal Limited Art Editions, and founder of his own highly influential Printmaking Workshop. Viewers will trace his artistic journey leading up to and during the “graphics boom” in American printmaking and his later experimental works. Seventy original prints by Blackburn and his contemporaries are included from significant public and private collections. Tour launches May 2020.
For more information, contact Minnie Russell,, 202-633-3160.

The Way We Worked
We are pleased to expand the offering of The Way We Worked, a highly successful exhibition from our Museum on Main Street program, to qualified venues. The Way We Worked explores how work became such a central element in American culture by tracing the many changes that affected the workforce and work environments over the past 150 years. The exhibition draws from the National Archives’ rich photography collections to tell this compelling story. Tour launches summer 2019.
For more information, contact Minnie Russell,, 202-633-3160.

Photo of children working.

Photo by Lewis Hine, 1909. Courtesy National Archives, Records of the Children’s Bureau