Gender and LGBTQIA+

A person’s gender identity and sexuality has a significant impact on how they are perceived and treated, in large part because societies in the U.S. and the western world have strictly defined gender roles throughout much of their history. Museums can take an active role in promoting equity among genders and for LGBTQIA+ people starting with their own institutions.

diagram visual of race and gender representation in museum collections
Study finds that Museums are 85% white and 87% male. Source: 7 Frustrating Facts About Women In The Art World. More information:

Given that, historically, the graphic above holds not just for art museums but U.S. museums generally, it may help to start with some background reading. For a study of how museums have historically privileged heterosexuality, Nikki Sullivan and Craig Middleton’s book Queering the Museum is a great place to start. In addition, the 2019 book Museums, Sexuality, and Gender Activism (Museum Meanings) provides a contemporary look at issues of both gender and sexuality from a variety of perspectives. Thinking about how your institution is reflected in these studies can be a useful starting point for strategizing restorative and reparative action.

Below, you will find resources featuring art institutions and history museums, but museums of every kind must work to equitably include and represent the voices and stories of people of diverse gender identities and orientations in their staff, collections, programs, and museum community. While the best way to represent your community is in conversation with your community, the following resources provide a general guide for some questions that you may have about making your museum welcoming to visitors of all orientations and gender identities.

Language and Terminology

One important way to make all staff and visitors feel welcome at your museum is to use gender-inclusive language. Pay attention to the words you use to refer to people whose gender identity you do not know, including when addressing a group. For example, when addressing a field trip group, you might say “Welcome, students!” instead of “Welcome, boys and girls!”

Personal pronouns are an important part of how people identify, and as such, should always be respected and used. Museum leadership and staff can create an environment in which everyone feels respected by leading with their own pronouns when introducing themselves and by learning and using the pronouns of their colleagues and anyone in the museum community who chooses to share that information.

The evolving nature of language can make writing about gender and LGBTQIA+ history in exhibitions challenging. Below are different glossaries and recommendations for currently-accepted and correct terminology and symbols.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) provides a comprehensive glossary of accepted terminology for LGBTQIA+ identities, as does the American Psychological Association.

The Chicago History Museum’s LGBTQIA+ Studies Library Guide provides an important example of how a museum can examine its own catalog and update language in its records to remove harmful language.

These glossaries offer additions to the lexicon of LGBTQIA+ exhibitions, though they may have conflicting viewpoints on the usage of these emerging terms. When questioning the language you’re using, the most reliable resource you have is your community!