Sunday, August 22, 2010


The archives of the GLBT Historical Society is full of the stuff, they say, that you might find in your lesbian aunt's attic. Or, if you don't have a lesbian aunt, or if you do but she doesn't have an attic, then you might find it in somebody else's lesbian aunt's attic. Or maybe their gay uncle's attic. You get the idea. Based in San Francisco, the GLBT Historical Society collects, preserves, and interprets the history of gay / lesbian / bisexual / transgendered people and the communities that support them. The organization sponsors exhibits and programs, drawing from the many thousands of items in their archives, including letters, journals, early gay publications, queer radio programs, ephemera, costumes, and some truly out-of-the-ordinary items! You'll see an just how out-of-the-ordinary in the video above, in which Managing Archivist Rebekah Kim talks about the collection and shows off some choice pieces. 

There's plenty to love about the archives. Me, I dig just how many stories are contained in each of the hundreds and hundreds of boxes. Life stories that people record in their journals. Artifacts that can support historical research for films or books. Photo albums, scrapbooks, club advertisements, and other suggestive fragments that researchers, writers, or artists can only guess at, and perhaps spin a story out of. The Society even has an artist-in-residence who invites other artists to respond creatively to selected materials from the vast collection.

The archives are the basis for more than just some cool art projects. Founded in 1985 by Willie Walker, a nurse at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in the United States, the Historical Society documented the lives and struggles of some of a large swath of a generation or two of gay men who were dying off. It was not out of the question at that time to think that AIDS might cause a serious and even irremediable rupture in gay male history, forever separating the previous generations from those to come. Gay men were, after all, terribly stigmatized for their sexuality and for AIDS, and no one else was eager to record their history. Nor was any mainstream museum or publisher looking to support lesbian, bisexual and transgender history. To establish a historical record is to say, in essence, "we matter," and it is no less important today than it was when Willie Walker took stock of the crisis a quarter-century ago. It's no coincidence that the GLBT community that gave birth to this archive is also one of the strongest politically, and now has this resource -- its history -- to put in service of the fight for full equality. 

Be sure to visit the GLBT Historical Society's website. They're scheduled to open the nation's first GLBT museum next month! 

I hope you'll also check out the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, and the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Another project I like is the ACT UP Oral History Project, documenting the AIDS activist group's history. 

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