Owning History: How Queer Archives Are Rewriting the Story
Preserving the LGBTQ past is essential.
History is a story we tell ourselves to explain who we are. Who gets the starring role in the story depends on the raw material we use to build it. The more material accessed, the more people get a place on the stage. Sadly, history has too often drawn from limited and biased sources and chooses to ignore or minimize those who don’t fit the roles they want filled. That doesn’t mean more material doesn’t exist, just that you need to dig for it. This month is LGBTQIA+ History Month, and if you’ve got the interest and a shovel, here are a few places to start digging.
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The Official Story
Queer people have existed in our country for as long as we’ve been one. And our government has had policies and records about them for as long. Fortunately, we also keep amazing records at two national institutions: The Library of Congress and The National Archives.
The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library. Its mission: to engage, inspire, and inform Congress and the American people. In fulfilling that mission, it has amassed a collection of 170 million documents, making it the largest collection in the world. Included in that are holdings, both physical and digital, focused on the history, politics, literature, and performing arts of Queer Americans.
The National Archives has a mission to provide equitable access to government records. They are held at forty facilities across the nation, as well as digital collections. Included in their holdings are those pertaining to federal employment, the military, and reform measures of and by the LGBTQIA+ community, providing a context for the federal policies in place today.
The Unofficial Story
History is especially crucial and meaningful to those made invisible. Marginalized communities have come together to curate their own history and make it part of the story. Currently, fifteen states have archives dedicated to Queer history as well as private collections started and curated by members of the Queer community. Here are a few worth visiting.
ONE Archives at USC Library in Los Angeles, CA
Founded in 1952 and currently housed at the University of Southern California, it has become the largest collection of LGBTQ materials in the world. Founder Jim Kepner started ONE as the first gay magazine with partner W. Dorr Legg. They added the ONE Institute, which taught gay history. While the magazine ceased publication in 1967, the Institute remained and went through several iterations and addresses before finding its current home at USC.
Lesbian Herstory in Brooklyn, NY
The Gay Academic Union formed at the City University in New York in 1972 by employees and former students. Sadly, sexism reared its ugly head, and the women formed a separate group, one that, among other tasks, wanted a space to collect and archive lesbian history from the lesbian community's perspective. They began their work in 1974, and the collection grew to need a larger home, which opened in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1992.
The Legacy Project in Chicago, IL
The Legacy Project is a nonprofit focused on researching and highlighting the contributions of LGBTQ citizens. The project includes the Legacy Walk, containing forty prominent bronze historical figures; the Legacy Project Education Initiative, which provides age-appropriate education materials as part of an anti-bullying initiative; and the Legacy LIVE series designed to “bring to life” historical figures around different specific historical dates.
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The US is not the only country with archives dedicated to the history of the LGBTQ community. If you’re traveling overseas, here are a few suggestions:
- The Schwules Museum in Berlin, Germany
- The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto, Canada
- IHLIA LGBTI Heritage Museum in Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives in Melbourne, Australia
Visibility matters. These collections ensure that the lives and accomplishments of Queer people are not forgotten. They make sure that who is in the story expands, and that benefits all of us.
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