Kane County History: Batavia Reveals Hidden LGBTQ+ History in Groundbreaking Exhibit

Kane County History: Batavia Reveals Hidden LGBTQ+ History in Groundbreaking Exhibit

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Batavia Park District Marketing and Communications Coordinator Kristen Zambo. All photos are courtesy of the Batavia Depot Museum.

So much of what we consider “history” is viewed through the lens of tangible links to the past.

It’s the artifacts, photographs, clothing, documents, journals and everyday objects made and used by those who came before us. But history is as much what has been left out of the official record – purposefully – as what has been preserved carefully and respectfully for future generations.

That is especially apparent when it comes to LGBTQ+ history.

For decades, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender individuals, those who are queer or questioning, and others on the gender identity and sexuality spectrum have not been included in typical museum collections and exhibits throughout the country.

Staff within these institutions now are striving to be more inclusive and reflective of such diversity, and that includes at the Batavia Depot Museum with its new spring exhibit, “Refraction: Finding Identity.”

Male-female marriage was the norm throughout most of Batavia’s history, though historians at times are afforded rare glimpses into a different facet of society. But such glimpses typically are not overt, and isolated instances often leave historians with as many questions as suspicions.

“Historians like me are used to seeing hints — a ‘lavender marriage,’ ‘life-long roommates,’ or ‘confirmed bachelors’ — and reading between the lines,” Depot Museum Director Kate Garrett said.

Why not tell the full truth? Because often there were painful social and physical penalties for stepping outside the cultural status quo. So as a result, much of LGBTQ+ history remains hidden.

“The nail that sticks up tends to get hammered down,” Garrett explained. “I can’t imagine not being able to write a love letter or take a picture together because, in the wrong hands, it could hurt the person I loved.”

Depot Museum’s landmark exhibit offers glimpses into the educated guessing game that historians often face.

Take, for example, a black-and-white photograph of Batavians Amy Peterson and Emma Swan from around 1920. The two women are dressed in men’s dark-colored suits and ties from that era, and their hair appears slicked back.

“When I saw the photo of Julia and Amy in their suits, it stopped me in my tracks,” Garrett said. “They are so confident, even a little brash. It certainly sparked my curiosity, but one photo could mean something or nothing. It could have been a joke, or a one-off instance of wearing a brother’s clothes. Finding a second image of the two was incredible.”

That second photo, which is undated, shows Amy Peterson Christianson and Julia Swan Wallman (both women were married to men) seated together in an embrace.

Peterson Christianson is wearing a man’s dark-colored suit and tie, along with a cap, and Swan Wallman is snuggled in to her shoulder as Peterson Christianson’s arms are wrapped around her.

Usually historians need three sources before they are able to take something seriously enough to extrapolate, but in this case, one image was shocking enough to find.

“With two, you feel like you’ve hit gold. And then there was that third photograph of Amy posed very intimately with a different female friend,” Garrett said. “It was like they were finally ready to be really seen.”

In this 1917 black and white photo, Alma Benson and Amy Peterson Christianson are seated on steps leading up to a building – potentially a house. Benson is wearing men’s pajamas and Peterson Christianson is dressed in a shift or nightgown.

Both women’s long, dark locks cascade over their shoulders as they smile at the camera. During that time period, a woman wearing her hair down was considered very intimate.

“The fact that neither had their hair pinned up was remarkable,” Garrett explained. “When you put all three (images) together, all a little boundary pushing, it’s really remarkable. With all three of them we can start making some inferences, but we can’t say (for certain they were gay). They might not identify as queer. They might identify as lesbians or bisexual.”

To be clear, this exhibit is not about “outing” our ancestors, she said. Historians only may speculate, knowing women and men didn’t have the same life options that we do today.

What’s important to remember is that artifacts like these are unusual, not because LGBTQ+ people didn’t exist in history, but because their stories often were concealed or silenced because of the stigma.

This exhibit, and the Museum’s second spring exhibit, “Inspiring Expression,” may be viewed through July at Batavia Depot Museum, 155 Houston St.

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