8 Immersive LGBTQIA+ Museums and Archives to Bookmark Now
Here's a rainbow-hued list of museums across America you should plan to visit.
In America's 35,000-plus museums, an astoundingly diverse range of exhibits are enshrined, from pivotal events in human history to quirky odes to "only here" inventions (what do you mean you’ve never visited Minnesota’s Spam Museum?). Though one subject matter may appear wholly disparate from the other, all museums are linked by a shared mission: to preserve memories of the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that every generation can grow wiser than the last.
For the LGBTQIA+ community, museums and archives dedicated to queer history, culture, and causes play an integral role in the ongoing pursuit of equal rights and representation. These institutions — whether they chronicle the gay liberation movement of the 1960s or showcase contemporary queer-made art — establish LGBTQIA+ folks as not just characters in the Great American Story, but writers penning their own future, their own way. In the words of gay senator Tammy Baldwin: "All of us who are openly gay are living and writing the history of our movement.”
And the next chapter is looking more rainbow-hued than ever. Here are our favorite LGBTQIA+ museums across America to plan your visit to now.
World AIDS Museum in Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale’s World AIDS Museum offers an eye-opening, and at times, heart-wrenching presentation using first-hand accounts from those affected by the epidemic. As the first-ever institution dedicated to HIV/AIDS, the non-profit strives to mitigate the persisting stigma associated with the virus, while also curating educational programming and seminars to promote dialogue among youth and at-risk individuals. Above all, the World AIDS Museum is an emotional tribute to the lives lost to the virus, and recognition of the everyday struggles still faced by millions today.
ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles
Building off activist Jim Kepner’s extensive collection, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives has become one of the world’s largest repositories of LGBTQIA+ materials. Since 2010, the ONE has preserved over 2 million items to promote awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues, including 30,000 volumes of books and periodicals, 4,000 films, 21,000 videos, and 6,900 audio recordings. The Archives, which are part of the University of Southern California Libraries system, also have a satellite space called ONE Gallery in West Hollywood.
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in New York City
New York collectors Fritz Lohman and Charles Leslie had been gathering gay-themed art for years before debuting their collection in their Soho loft in 1969. Fifty years later, the duo would establish one of the country’s premier LGBTQIA+ institutions for queer creativity, amassing more than 30,000 diverse visual artworks that span three centuries. In 2017, The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art expanded its footprint to a fashionable corner of Wooster Street, where it continues to organize rotating exhibitions, a bookstore, and a calendar of public programming.
Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale
One of the nation’s top cultural institutions dedicated to LGBTQIA+ history, the Stonewall National Museum & Archives holds over 28,000 books of fiction, non-fiction, biography, and art related to the pivotal Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City. In 2020, the museum moved from historic gay enclave Wilton Manors to the same building as the original library in Fort Lauderdale, which has been around since 1984. The Stonewall National Museum & Archives is an educational powerhouse not just for visitors, but also historians, scholars, and students researching LGBTQIA+ culture.
National Gay & Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago
For sports-aficionados, Chicago’s National Gay & Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame — the only one of its kind in the US — deserves a top spot on any Windy City itinerary. You’ll find it inside the Center on Halsted in Boystown, Chicago’s preeminent gayborhood, a few short blocks from legendary Wrigley Field. The attraction opened in 2013 to share the legacy of trailblazers who have “enhanced sports and athletics for the LGBTQ community,” and honor newly out-and-proud LGBTQIA+ athletes in its hall of fame each year, joining legendary inductees like Greg Louganis, Megan Rapinoe, and Billie Jean King.
GLBT History Museum in San Francisco
Located in San Francisco’s Castro district, the non-profit GLBT History Museum earned its exalted rank (and quippy nickname: "the gay Smithsonian") for its astounding permanent collection of historic LGBTQIA-themed artifacts that date back to 1850. Though the museum focuses on San Francisco and the northern California region (you’ll learn a ton about the pioneering political figure and gay rights activist Harvey Milk here), it also archives and displays materials donated from around the world. As a participating member of the national Museums for All program, admission is free for visitors every Saturday.
Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City
In the 1970s, a group of women who were originally part of the NYC-based Gay Academic Union founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives, determined to confront a particular qualm: that the umbrella of gay history was still dominated by a patriarchal perspective that catered overwhelmingly to the male homosexual experience. This would effectively cause lesbian history to disappear as quickly as it was being made. Today, the Brooklyn organization still gathers materials to document lesbian “herstory” from all geographic, cultural, political, and economic backgrounds, and historical contexts, enabling future generations to continuously investigate and reevaluate the lesbian experience.
Tom of Finland House in Los Angeles
Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen — though you probably know him better as Tom of Finland — is perhaps the most prolific queer illustrator of all time. The virtuoso’s former Echo Park home, owned by Laaksonen's business partner Durk Dehner, is now the HQ of the Tom of Finland Foundation, which houses the largest collection of Tom of Finland art. (Some say it’s the world’s greatest repository of homoerotic art.) Visitors can appreciate more than 1,500 pieces of Laaksonen’s work, and over 100,000 images, materials, and vintage pornographic films inside the Tom of Finland House, which was designated a Historic-Cultural Monument by the L.A. Conservancy in 2016.
American LGBTQ+ Museum in New York City
As part of the New York Historical Society’s latest expansion, the city’s oldest museum will soon welcome the American LGBTQ+ Museum — proof that there are more and more LGBTQIA+ museums emerging. Once complete, the 70,000-square-foot exhibition space will be New York City’s very first museum dedicated to global LGBTQIA+ history and culture, amplifying the voices (over 3,200 LGBTQIA+ people across the US helped inform the museum's creation), accomplishments, and hardships faced by members of the community. Until its official debut in 2024, the museum will be hosting virtual programming on its website.