On display through March 23 at the Bucks County Visitor Center, the exhibition chronicles LGBTQ history on local, state and national scales through stories and artifacts
By Samantha Bambino
When New Hope resident Daniel Brooks had the idea to form a nonprofit organization for the LGBTQ community 16 years ago, people thought he was crazy. Many wished him luck, but didn’t want to be associated with his endeavor.
The executive director of Visit Bucks County at the time offered to help him draw up a business plan for what would become New Hope Celebrates, which is now well-known for its week-long gay pride celebration in May. But there was one catch — Brooks had to come after hours and use the back door of the Bensalem-based Bucks County Visitor Center. The director didn’t want to get anyone riled up, and Brooks understood.
There had always been a gay presence in the area, dating to the 1940s when Bucks County Playhouse founder Richard Rogers hired numerous LGBTQ actors from New York. Still, despite the town boasting a more welcoming atmosphere than most, Brooks found that many of his gay neighbors stuck to a handful of exclusive hangouts, and traveled to larger cities for pride events. Sixteen years ago, it still wasn’t fully acceptable for them to be open about their sexuality.
Today, things have drastically changed. Rather than being forced to sneak through a back door, Brooks proudly marched through the entryway of the Visitor Center recently, carrying with him photos, artifacts and other memorabilia for the “Equality — Pride in Our History Exhibit.”
On display through March 23, the pieces in the exhibit help chronicle LGBTQ history on local, state and national scales, highlighting major milestones and key legislative advances that made the gay population not only accepted, but seen as equal.
Upon entering the Visitor Center, located at 3207 Street Road, guests are instantly met with a large, black-and-white “50,” which pays homage to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. According to Brooks, these events led to the annual gay pride marches and parades celebrated globally today, in addition to the enactment of equal rights legislation and the legalization of gay marriage in the U.S.
National events, such as the Stonewall Riots, are juxtaposed to the stories of locals, including Langhorne’s Kevin Gilmore and New Hope’s Philip Nicolosi, who have made meaningful contributions to the Bucks County LGBTQ community. Personal items are also viewable, with a corner dedicated to the exquisitely beaded gowns of area drag queens Mother (Joe Cavellucci) and Miss Monica Rey (Randy Bowman).
The “Equality — Pride in Our History Exhibit” began primarily as the website newhopecelebrateshistory.org, a place where LGBTQ locals could share old scrapbook images and stories from the past several decades. Brooks’ goal was to create a one-stop shop for people to deposit, preserve, digitize and categorize their memories, while at the same time making them accessible to everybody for all time.
Once the website started gaining momentum, requests came flooding in for Brooks to transform it into a physical exhibit. He happily obliged, blowing up photographs, collecting artifacts, and showcasing them in local galleries and the New Hope Visitors’ Center, mainly during the pride celebration in May.
Two years ago, the Bucks County Playhouse donated to Brooks an unused storefront, which he was able to utilize for three months. In that time span, 2,000 visitors stopped by the pop-up exhibit, many of whom weren’t part of the LGBTQ community.
“We knew there was definitely an interest,” he said.
When Visit Bucks County approached him about bringing the display to the Visitor Center, he jumped at the chance to share the rich history with a new population. So far, “Equality” is creating quite the buzz, with more than 100 guests attending a grand opening brunch on Sunday, Jan. 13.
For Brooks, who has witnessed firsthand the growing acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, it’s a thrill to see people of all ages taking an interest in gay history. In his opinion, pop culture and shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye have helped open many eyes, and he’s perfectly OK with that.
“The visibility is much greater nationally, especially through TV. Media has really played a big part in the increase of the LGBTQ community because people are seeing characters on TV. So there’s an interest in this group that was formerly flipped under the rug,” he said. “Looking at the history, it demystifies it and makes it accessible. This history of anything, for any kind of minority.”
The exhibit has attracted a number of LGBTQ parents, who Brooks said took the time to explain each piece of memorabilia to their children.
“There’s a history where people had to fight for their rights. They’re growing up in a time where those rights are already given,” he said. “It was really inspiring to see the parents taking an active interest in showing their kids.” ••
If you go…
“Equality — Pride in Our History Exhibit” is on display until March 23 at the Bucks County Visitor Center, 3207 Street Road, Bensalem. The exhibit is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Go to visitbuckscounty.com or newhopecelebrates.com for information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org