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Out and About: FAM exhibit shines light on area’s LGBTQ+ community

by | Jun 8, 2024 | ALLFFP, Arts and Entertainment, Fredericksburg

 

The transparent rainbow-colored images in the windows of the Fredericksburg Area Museum cast light across the Out and About exhibit like stained-glass windows in a church.  

The photos are a mix of recognizable celebrities, local citizens and figures lost to history. All are part of the queer community. 

The LGBTQ+ community in the Fredericksburg area has long struggled to feel seen and welcomed, says Sarah Ernst, FAM’s head curator. This new exhibit about the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people was a collaborative project Ernst created with assistant curator Kylie Thomson and exhibit designer Emily Keppel.  

The exhibit guides guests through four distinct sections: information and education, stories: historical and contemporary, the FAMily Room, the epidemic, a reading and resources corner; and an exploration of talent in the queer community.  

Curator Sarah Ernst spent over a year researching and collecting elements for the new exhibit. (Photos by Kathy Knotts)

At the entrance, an enlarged quote from a 1992 magazine article jokes that the invisible gay and lesbian community in the region is “so large, the closet is walk-in,” referring to a term used to describe hiding one’s sexuality. The Citilimits article declared that Fredericksburg had one of the largest underground gay and lesbian populations on the East Coast.  

“My intention was for nobody to be able to get past this area and say this is a newfound thing,” Ernst said. “So you have this huge population off the 95 corridor that’s not really necessarily visible to each other right in Fredericksburg, but because they could access DC and they can access Richmond, then it’s sort of like an if-you-know-you-know club.”

Virginia’s ban on gay and lesbian bars, which had been in place since the 1930s, was lifted in 1991, but enforcement varied by location. A popular downtown restaurant was once known as an underground gay bar.

Recalled Ernst: “It was funny because you’d read articles about the place, with people reviewing the food and such, and they will always be just a bit snarky, saying things like ‘the guys coming back and forth from the bar in the rear of the building is really very distracting.’ There’s like this huge tongue-in-cheek approach to the queer community in the region.”  

Being LGBTQ+ is not a tidy experience, Ernst said. The exhibition, by contrast, feels like a well-ordered study of what it means to navigate rules, laws, healthcare and expression as a queer person.  

 

The queer community’s abundant creativity is reflected in the FAM exhibit. A digital projection screen highlights footage from the 2023 Pride parade, events at Curitiba and a dance performance by drag queen Shenandoah, whose makeup and photos are also part of the exhibit. 

A mock telephone booth invites guests to “dial a number” and hear audio recordings of LGBTQ+ people telling their stories. Timelines show the long history of queer people going back to ancient Greece and Egypt. Ernst pointed out a photo of Confederate soldiers dressing in drag and local townspeople attending the production.  

A quilt created during the HIV/AIDS epidemic hangs on one wall, next to a reflection garden designed for those dying of the disease. The FAMily room features photos of couples both past and present, with artwork, letters, diaries and even one couple’s wedding outfits. Next to a cozy chair, a stack of LGBTQ+-centered books and wall panels tell the story of places like The House FXBG, Fredericksburg Pride, FAHASS, and more.  

On another wall is a mural of buildings with queer-connected history and across from it, a music station furnished with iPads and headphones to listen to LGBTQ+ artists.   

“Everybody should be able to be fully actualized in who they are,” Ernst said. “Like with the museum’s mission statement, it says that we collect, preserve, the stories of everyone in our community and this is a part of the community that has been neglected in that aspect.”  

The exhibit, which will stay up for two years, will be continuously updated with new audio recordings, community art projects and more stories added periodically.

Ernst is currently working on a documentary about the history, community and talent of the region’s LGBTQ+ population, highlighting the individuals featured in the exhibit plus the community at large and its allies. The film will be produced by Oddbox Studios.  

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