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Queer Digging in the Archives

A year ago, John D’Emilio began writing a series of blogs for OutHistory.org called “In the Archives” showcasing queer materials he’s discovered while exploring the archival collections at the Gerber/Hart Library in Chicago. In the first blog entry, D’Emillio recounted how, when he was first researching his dissertation, which would become his landmark book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, most of his evidence was not yet in any sort of repository:

I visited the homes of activists, and worked my way through file cabinets and boxes that they kept in their studies, living rooms, basements, and garages. I visited the offices of homophile groups that still existed and explored their organizational records. In the case of the New York Mattachine Society, I was told one day that it would be closing at the end of the month, and I was welcome to take their office files if it would be useful to me! Needless to say, I responded affirmatively, and for the next several years two four-drawer file cabinets of Mattachine records filled one of the closets in my apartment.

His footnotes readily confirm this. There are citations to the personal papers of James Kepner, the personal papers of Don Lucas, the personal papers of Frank Kameny, and the Randy Wicker papers, at the time “in the possession of Jonathan Katz.”

Archivists call such materials “fugitive”—personal papers and organizational records not yet in the archives. The word implies evidence that has escaped the archivist’s snare. Such renegade materials need to be captured by archivists and locked away to secure their preservation. I am troubled by the word “fugitive,” but relish the implication that a lesbian love letter or a gay diary or the minutes of a homophile meeting might be a source of danger.

Those collections that D’Emilio discovered in garages and basements have since found their way into institutional homes of some permanence in both queer community archives and more mainstream academic and public repositories. Kepner’s papers are at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, a vast collection whose origins can be traced to the founding in 1952 of ONE magazine and ONE Incorporated. In 2010, it became part of the University of Southern California Library. The Lucas papers have their home at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, a community based repository that grew out of the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, a study group that began meeting while D’Emilio was still doing his initial research. The Kameny papers, comprised of 65 linear feet in 161 containers, were given to the Library of Congress in 2006, with additions in 2010 and 2012. And the Wicker papers are held by the New York Public Library, where D’Emilio has placed his pioneering oral history interviews.

A color photograph shows a large room with several tables and rows of archival materials in boxes

ONE Archives. Photo courtesy of USC Photo/Dietmar Quistorf.

A number of homophile activists whose papers D’Emilio did not use have been acquired by interested archives, most notably the Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon papers at the GLBT Historical Society, the Harry Hay papers at the San Francisco Public Library, and the Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen collection at the New York Public Library. These collections have been fully inventoried, with finding aids drawn up and made available online, providing previously unimagined access to homophile papers and records.

Subsequent generations of historians, following D’Emillio’s lead, have mined these collections with their own questions, yielding rich elaborations on the basic narrative of sexual politics emerging from sexual communities that D’Emillio first sketched out. New researchers have filled in gaps, emphasized different aspects of the story, and made new discoveries, steering our understanding of mid-twentieth-century queer life in innovative directions.

When D’Emilio began his research, few archives were collecting queer materials. The Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan were virtually alone among academic institutions to take an interest.

Grassroots, community-based archives were likewise small in number. Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel had only recently begun the Lesbian Herstory Archives, which remained housed in Joan and Deb’s Manhattan apartment until 1989, when it moved to its present home in Brooklyn. Kepner’s packrat tendencies had formed the basis of the National Gay Archives in Los Angeles, later to be rechristened the International Gay and Lesbian Archives before being merged with the ONE Archives.

Since the 1970s, we have seen a surge in established archives actively acquiring not only homophile materials but collections documenting LGBTQ life and politics well before the 1950s and well after the 1970s. These range from the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Archives and Periodicals Collection at Duke, to the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell, to the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota, to the In the Life Archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 2004, after reviewing proposals from thirteen nationally prestigious institutions, Dallas Denny placed the vast holdings of the National Transgender Library and Archives with the Labadie Collection.

In addition to the embrace of queer materials by esteemed institutions, there has been a simultaneous explosion of community-based queer archives, including Gerber/Hart, the Stonewall Library and Archives in Ft. Lauderdale, the LGBT Archives of Philadelphia at the William Way LGBT Community Center, and the Leather Archives in Chicago, just to name a few. As the Lavender Legacies directory maintained by the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Section shows, the number of LGBTQ collections in repositories large and small is impressive.

Nor are grassroots projects solely of the brick and mortar variety. Online projects include the LGBT Religious Archives Network, J.D. Doyle’s Queer Music Heritage website, the Rainbow History Project in Washington, DC, and Wearing Gay History, a digital archive of queer T-shirts.

Swaths of materials from the Kinsey Institute, the ONE Archives, and other sources have now been digitized as part of the LGBT Thought and Culture series from the ProQuest. This opens avenues for new research, at least for those affiliated with schools that can afford to purchase the product. The digital revolution of the past two or three decades has yielded innumerable possibilities for further queer excavations.

Historians rely on tangible documentation to verify their stories about the past, to support their claims. Meanwhile, archives have come to assume a vital role as arbiters of authenticity. Yet, as Francis X. Blouin Jr. and William G. Rosenberg examine in their insightful book Processing the Past: Contesting Authority in History and the Archives, archives are not static institutions. Much of the archival profession has turned from anticipating the needs of historians to appraising potential collections in terms of records management.

In a parallel development, archivists have sought to target perspectives that historians and archivists alike have overlooked. The recent published collection Out of the Closet, Into the Archive: Researching Sexual Histories, edited by Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell, recounts some of these efforts.

John D’Emilio’s work has had a profound impact in ensuring that the papers of homophile activists and the records of homophile groups were preserved. His role in identifying and, in the case of the New York Mattachine Society records, physically safeguarding the paper trail left by early homophile organizations has served as an example for professional and lay historians over the past four decades.

Indeed, this is a crucial function that historians of the LGBTQ past still perform, and probably perform more than other historians. This is not without complication or controversy. A commitment to safeguarding the queer past carries the constant challenge of whose past this entails.

In demonstrating that there was queer history to be told, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities influenced the types of archival evidence considered worth saving. By casting its lens on the emergence of a homosexual minority, the book also may have helped foster a narrowing of the sorts of collections deemed to be of lasting historical value. Certain major archives have often favored papers related to queer protest over queer culture, or artifacts that reflected sexual binaries over sexual fluidity. Archives often tend to be conservative institutions, so we must be diligent in demanding they adopt an expansive vision of LGBTQ lives, communities, and experiences.

We need to be mindful of our part in determining which stories get told and whose documents get preserved. Much of the queer past still remains untapped, running free. We need not see it as fugitive to fear for its loss. Despite the breathtaking growth in queer evidence to be found in the archives, the threat of queer erasure remains real.

Adapted from remarks for a roundtable on John D’Emilio’s Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities at the OAH Annual Meeting, April 2017.

Tim Retzloff teaches history and LGBTQ Studies at Michigan State University. He is working on his first book, Metro Gay, about gay and lesbian life and politics in Detroit and its suburbs from 1945 to 1985.  He curates the website Michigan LGBTQ Remember and writes a companion blog on Queer Remembering.

Correction: The post originally stated J.D. Doyle’s website was titled “Queer Musical Heritage.” The article has been updated to reflect the correct title of the website “Queer Music Heritage.”

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