Long before same-sex couples arrived early at Boston City Hall to be wed when Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriages in 2004, the city had already established itself as a pillar of LGBTQ history.
In 1970, a year after the Stonewall Uprising in New York’s Greenwich Village sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement, Boston hosted one of the nation’s first gay pride parades. Three years later, Gay Community News, a local LGBTQ newspaper, was launched. And with her election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1974, Elaine Noble became the first out LGBTQ person elected to state office.
From “Boston marriages,” a 19th-century phrase coined to define long-term intimate relationships between two women, to the much beloved Hat Sisters, to Pride Night at Fenway Park, Jean Dolin wants to commemorate and celebrate it all. He recently founded and launched what he envisions as the Boston LGBTQ+ Museum of Art, History and Culture.
“I’m originally from Haiti, and when I moved here, I thought about all the work that has taken place here for decades moving the needle forward on the LGBTQ movement. So I wanted to learn more about that history — who are the pioneers, who did what, and how they were able to do it at times when it was considered illegal to be out,” Dolin, an art curator, told me in a recent interview.
“I started to wonder what it would be like to have an LGBTQ museum in Boston,” he said. “And it dawned on me that if you want something and it hasn’t been created, then you have to create it.”
Dolin has already curated an LGBTQ exhibit in Boston that received national attention. For LGBTQ History Month in October 2022, he unveiled “Portraits of Pride” on Boston Common, a collaboration with photographer John Huet that featured 8-foot portraits of more than 20 local LGBTQ leaders.
This year in June, he expanded the exhibit and moved it to City Hall Plaza, with 10-foot portraits of more than 30 honorees, including Governor Maura Healey, one of the nation’s first out lesbian governors.
“I wanted to pay respect, to say thank you, and give homage to people who have done this work,” Dolin said about the exhibit. “In the beginning I wanted it inside a museum, and I reached out to them and they said, ‘That’s not what we do’ or ‘We’re booked out three to five years in advance.’ So I figured I don’t need a museum when I have the whole city.”
Such efforts to lift up LGBTQ lives and achievements defy the relentless right-wing push to ban LGBTQ books and history from classrooms and libraries, to shut down drag shows, and to eradicate civil rights, especially for trans people.
“I fundamentally believe in the power of words to inform, entertain, and inspire, and I think the other side’s attempt to take away books is so that people are misinformed, that they do not find the inspiration that they need to live their lives and to become who they want to be in society,” Dolin said. “And they want to take away our joy.”
He recognizes the challenges that he and his museum’s board members face in getting funding and support when Republican-led legislatures and those who agree with them are vilifying LGBTQ lives.
“It worries me what’s happening, and I’m concerned for people who live especially in Texas and Florida, but I also recognize the great community that exists here in Boston,” he said. “We live in a good place, but that doesn’t mean we should just sit and cross our arms and pretend it’s not happening. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, whether it’s happening in Florida — or Nigeria, for that matter.”
In August, more than 60 people were arrested for attending a same-sex wedding in Nigeria where homosexuality is illegal.
By Dolin’s estimation, the nascent LGBTQ museum won’t have a permanent space for at least “the next two, three, or maybe five years.” But he also sees this as an “unique opportunity” for temporary exhibits that can visit “each neighborhood of Boston” and towns outside the city.
“We don’t have a shortage of museums, but we have a shortage of opportunities for historically excluded groups, whether that’s LGBTQ, immigrants, or Black folks,” he said. “I’m hoping this institution can become the space where LGBTQ stories can live and thrive and be respected.”