An Early Conversation about Gay and Lesbian Archives: From the Pages of The Gay Insurgent, 1978

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Voice 1: Considerations in the Organization of Gay Archives by Jim Monahan

If historical understandings are to profit from knowledge of the gay past, there must be created centers where the basic research can be done. The establishment of gay archives, as many people are coming to realize, is presently the paramount activity which can best facilitate that research. The primary resources for gay historical research, when they exist at all, are scattered and may be held under conditions that limit their accessibility and peril their continued existence. While there is some urgency to these activities of collecting and making available the records of gay activity, there are considerations, in addition to the technical ones of archival organization, that must be given some thought before present efforts go much further. These include the aims of history, the location of repositories, and the management of sensitive material.

A collection of resources into an archive established to serve the interests of the gay community and available mainly for those interested individuals who wish to document what has been, diminishes the vision of gay history to not much more then antiquarianism. Gay history, remaining in that state, can achieve no better that what other minority history has achieved because of its failure to find a way to contribute to the major understandings history aims to develop. Therefore, to remain separate, both physically and intellectually, from general history is to cultivate parochialism. It leaves gay studies to faddish chance, to exist in once-in-a-while course offerings passing from existence as the fad and instructors pass.

Mitigating these ebbs and flows in gay study offerings, particularly gay history, will require every effort to integrate the gay past into historical thinking, promoting the use of information in the analysis of broader historical questions. A study of social movements, for example, can profit from the study of the gay movement just as the question of a gay “movement” can profit when approached from an analysis of “movement” as an historical construct. Studies of gay sub-cultures over time, going beyond mere description, should prove valuable in the continuing analysis of continuity and change.

Guided by this larger aim of integrating gay history into history, the decisions regarding a site for a gay archive become rather obvious. Gay archives should go into repositories located within academic institutions. These institutions should be identified not only by the fact of their interest in the gay material but also by the fact of related collections already in their possession. Given that an institution is already engaged in collecting material on other sensitive subjects or about groups that are formed outside the mainstream of social organization, its collections can only be enhanced, as well as it reputation as a research center, with the addition of a gay archive. And if these records become concentrated in a few repositories as opposed to small isolated collections in this, that, and the other university library, the institutions specializing in gay collection are further blessed by the eminence of a particular collection. Research is better facilitated; the economic burden of a researcher is lessened; the historical profession is faced with a body of rich material that cannot be ignored.

The collecting efforts that must go into establishing such repositories requires the collaboration and cooperation of men and women individually and in their organizational associations to bring it off. Separatist tendencies and factional politics are odd luxuries to be suffered only until they militate against this goal, and that they seem to be doing. The only separation or faction this archival movement can tolerate is one that allocates tasks and divides the labor required to bring the gay archives into, and thereby, creating, the major research centers that hold them.

First in this division of labor is a distinction among those things that are collected. If only from the point of view of developing expert collecting skills and acumen in that collecting, archives should be distinguished from that branch of a library known as Special Collections. The distinction is not an easy one, for an archive is a special collection, but the nature of its specialty can be defined to separate it from everything else that might be lumped under special collections. The initial distinction cannot be expected to be a definition that resolves all the hard decisions an archivist faces in accessioning materials.

Archives, for our purpose here, are the collections of records of organizations produced in the course of carrying out the organization aims.1 These records are non-published but do include such published material as newsletters or other communications efforts the organization makes among its members. Photographs may be included if they are the records of organizational activity, but a collection of photographs of gay activities in general would not necessarily qualify as archival material but as a special collection. A run of The Advocate is not archival material in itself except in the archives of The Advocate as a publishing organization.

More discussion should be given to this distinction, and the advice of archivists sought. The skills of Special Collections librarians should be sought for other collecting efforts.

Once a repository for the archives is identified and the collecting efforts producing results, the security of the materials must be considered. The characteristics that went into the selection of a repository suggest that the administrators are already sensitive to special problems of security when material is of the nature which this will be. The planning stage with the repository should have seen efforts to determine policies for the eventual administration.

Protection of sensitive information can always be had through the standard procedure of closed deposits, but these are only for a given period and when eventually opened to research may have to be guarded with other policies.

The University of Illinois, Chicago Circle has already met the problem of security and confidentiality because of its present collecting efforts. It maintains an extensive collection, for example, of juvenile case histories. With access to research in that collection, a researcher must agree in writing not to take notes of name of subjects in those cases. A researcher’s notes are subject to inspection in order to ensure compliance. One would expect from that institution an approach to records management sensitive to the needs and problems a gay archive might pose.

Security is the major problem; it is compounded by an unqualified policy of access to the material.

When a repository is an already-established archive, the problem of physical security is halved. The police raid on The Body Politic, and thus an incursion into the Canadian Gay Archives, reinforces the point that an archive which is independent or a recognized repository is not likely to be respected for what it is; an archive consisting solely of gay collections and managed solely through gay efforts cannot guarantee the security of its holdings as well as an archive which is part of an academic institution. While no site can guarantee 100% security, an established repository is in a better position to stave of police incursions, deal with the matter of subpoenaed materials, and provide the appropriate storage facilities that complete the security of materials.

Access to the materials cannot be accorded every curiosity seeker or individual not pursuing serious research. Vandalism, under the best of circumstances, has reached pandemic proportions in libraries and archives in general. Gay materials would only invite angels of retribution. Therefore, policy of limited access regulating who can handle the materials must be adopted. I would suggest the following criteria as an introduction to this question.

Access to the materials will be granted by the repository upon application by a researcher. The application is initially for the purpose of separating the serious researcher from the casual dabbler who has no real concerns with the information can satisfy. Any use of the material should be for the purpose of advancing some aspect of knowledge; therefore, the application must contain a definition of the research underway and the contributions which the collection can make. (Access given for a collection need not carry over to others.) In addition, the researcher should give evidence on one of the following: (1) membership in a gay organization, (2) appointment at an academic institution, or (3) student status at an accredited institution. In this last instance, a letter of support from an instructor should accompany the application.

Donors should have the power to grant access. This permission must be appended to any application. Since the possibility that such permission will grant a researcher access to records other than those donated by the granter, the granting of permission should be judiciously given. When donors are gay organizations—they generally will be—the officers of the organization, as long as it continues to deposit non-current records, can be considered donors and in a position to grant permission for access. A repository could reserve the right to deny access even though an application has a donor’s permission.

These thoughts on access need to be debated, that is, the specifics of them. It should be clear that some sort of restricted access must be in force if security is to be maintained.

All of this argument, however, becomes purely academic if the necessary collaboration and cooperation is not forthcoming. If archives remain precariously preserved in the ghettos, their preservation is next to pointless. Centralizing gay archives in three or four major regionally-oriented repositories will permit gay history to make contributions to the topics (e.g., sexuality, “covert sexual behavior”) which such a historian as Walter Rundell, current president of the Society of American Archivists, has urged are in need of further study.

Voice 2: Radical Archiving: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective by Joan Nestle

The Lesbian Herstory Archives contradicts almost all the main points of Jim Monahan’s article, but this is not surprising because the experience giving birth to the conceptions is very different. Radical lesbian feminism is a challenge to do things differently, to recreate the energy of hags (1) and form a world reflective of an age old spirit reborn. We cannot trust “historical understandings” or “academic institutions.” Both of these terms are failures. Historical understanding does not change because data exists to disprove myths or dethrone prejudices. If this were so, Black Americans would have been given reparations years ago. Academic institutions are mostly both educational and cultural failures, even for the students they seek to serve. A people must experience their own history in such a way as to change history. The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture is on 135th street, not on a college campus. It is for all those who wish to know themselves through their own images, that are the only rule of access.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives must stay in its community, not out of parochialism but out of herstorical vision. We do not exist in historical understanding or academic institutions, though we travel incognito. We live on our homes, on the streets, in the bars, at our desks, at our jobs, with our children, in our groups, and we create our history every day. It is this story the archives wants to preserve and share. Once Lesbians have generations of herstory to experience, they will change history by the force of their presence. To ask the patriarchal destroyer to preserve is a suicidal act. It does not express our sinister wisdom. We would be surviving in their context, in an on-going world dedicated to power, elitism and survival of the patriarchal fittest.

The archives described by Jim is a researcher’s world. Our archives is for researchers as well but more importantly it is for all of us, all lesbians who need to touch their past for whatever reason, to get through the day, to keep a child, to write a poem, to see a face of another time, to recover the fullness of ourselves in all expressions. The archives must be nurturing not selective or inaccessible. And already the archives has the record of how we are changing history—our refusal to use parts of a woman-hating language, our creation and rediscovery of lesbian visual forms, our celebrations in music, images and word, our searches for other ways to live, other health supports, alternatives to rule of money and power. When a people transform a world that is never parochial; it is the other world that must question its ways. Our concept of an archives must be different; we are different. But difference is not invisibility; it is presence in our own land.

(1) See “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” particularly the section by Mary Daly. Sinister Wisdom 6 (Summer 1978), 4-25

Notes on Radical Archiving from a Lesbian Feminist Perspective:

1. The archives must serve the needs of the Lesbian people

a. All lesbian women must have access to the archives: no credentials for usage or inclusion; race and class must be no barrier.

b.The archives should be housed within the community, not on an academic campus that is by definition closed to many women. The archives should share the political and cultural world of its people and not be located in an isolated building that continues to exist while the community dies. If necessary the archives will go underground with its people to be cherished in hidden places until the community is safe.

c. The archives should be involved in the political struggles of the Lesbian people, a place where ideas and experiences from the past interact with the living issues of the Lesbian community.

d. The archives should be staffed by Lesbians so the collection will always have a living cultural context. Archival skills shall be taught, one generation to of Lesbians to another, breaking the elitism of traditional archives.

e. The community should share in the work of the archives, contributing material, indexing, mailings, creating bibliographies and other forms of information sharing.

f. The archives will collect the prints of all our lives, not just preserve the records of the famous or the published.

g. Its atmosphere must be nourishing, entry into our archives should be entry into a caring home.

h. The works of all our artists must be preserved—our photographers, our graphic designers, our scribblers, our card makers, our silversmiths.

i. The lesbian feminist archives must refuse cooption from the patriarchal society around it even if it comes in the name of a “woman’s college.”

j. The collection must be kept intact and never be bartered or sold.

k. The archives is an act of mothering, of passing along to our daughters the energies, the actions, the words we lived by. It is a first step in reclaiming a place in time, our response to the colonizer who makes us live on the periphery or not at all.

2. There should be regional Lesbian Herstory Archives, preserving and gathering the records of each Lesbian community. A network can then be set up.

The Lesbian Herstory Archives is attempting to carry out these principles. We are located in a Lesbian home and thus a visit to it is a visit to our lives. Some day the archives will have its own space, we dream, with room for Lesbian artists to exhibit and space for women to sleep and eat and play.

Joan Nestle on the Lesbian Herstory Archives

(Reprinted from “Living Herstory” by Judith Schwarz, Off Our Backs, May 1978) The room seems to be a collection of papers, books, stray pieces of paper…just a library. But the vision behind the room is much larger: the room is an entrance way, a portal that leads both to the past and to the future and for me its existence is the expression of a terrible hunger. I am a 38-year-old lesbian feminist woman. When I first loved women in the late 50’s, I was living the life of a colonized subject. I did not know it then; I thought it was accidental that I found no references in the surrounding culture to Lesbian creations. Sometimes believing the colonizers view of myself, I did not even search for markings because I knew we were not a people, just deviant sad wanderers, meeting in dark places. It is the memory of this time, with its sense of homelessness, that is at the core of my commitment to the Lesbian Herstory Archives. The Archives room is a healing place; it is filled with voices announcing our autonomy and self possession. The roots of the Archives lie in the silences voices, the love letters destroyed, the pronouns changed, the diaries carefully edited, the pictures never taken, the euphemized distortions that patriarchy would let pass…but I have lived through the time of willful deprivation and now it is our time to discover and to cherish and to preserve. We ask every lesbian woman to participate in weaving this tapestry of lesbian life. We ask for a sign, a letter, a drawing, a photograph, a voice, a song in all the languages we speak. The women in the Archives collective have undertaken the responsibility of collecting the published material but we know the vast greater power of the waiting words, the voices who think they have nothing to say and yet live the strength and beauty of our culture every day. We ask for moments of self cherishing. How we preserve and share culture will help answer the question of how deeply we were committed to changing our relationship to patriarchy and its death-dealing institutions. Our archives must never be for sale; it must never be housed in an institution created by those who exiled us from generational continuity; it must be accessible to all Lesbian women; it must show its dedication to denying the rule of racism and classism as separators of Lesbian women. The archives must never be a dead place, a worshipping of the past, but it must show its connection with the Lesbian present, with the struggles and glories of each Lesbian generation…We have never had the chance before to listen to a full generational discussion, to argue with or refine the visions that worked for one age but not another. The archives in the deepest sense is a political act. Whenever a despised people say no to their assigned place in time and space and leave the hating world behind to concentrate on creating a culture that shows the possibilities of another life without the master and his rules, they will be watched.

Polemics—and a Dream—Thirty-Two Years Later by Joan Nestle, 2010

Poor Jim, I think as I reread this ideological encounter over 30 years later. Here he was making a groundbreaking claim for his profession to open up to the possibilities of archiving gay material, even giving them advice how to do it, and there I was, pulsing with the righteousness of post-60s anti-colonial insights, thank you, Albert Memmi, and the fervor of a 50s- fem- queer turned 70s- lesbian- feminist quasi separatist. I laugh now at my use of Mary Daly, whose brand of Jesuit- trained feminism I soon would reject, whose refusal to teach male students enraged my teacher self and whose uncritical use of sources like “Mother India,” so touched by the white imperial hand, embroiled her in a public dressing down by Audre Lorde who implored white feminist thinkers to be careful of where they go for theoretical underpinning. And oy vey, my sweeping call to arms—lesbians will change history, my use of the word “people” to stand for all the complex communities that make up lesbian places, my announcement that historical understandings and academic institutions are failures—a putz, I can hear my working- class mother saying, who does she think she is. This is not how you speak to professionals. But I was fired up by a community of women, mostly lesbian, who were setting out to undermine the controlling hierarchies of the first part of the 20th century and were dedicated to creating a new land of culture, politics, and selfhood, a new understanding of what was herstorical.

Rereading the words of my younger self is one version of the intergenerational conversations I have always touted as the offered richness of an archives. At 70, sitting at my desk in a house in an inner suburb in Melbourne, Australia, I have had the interesting experience of reading myself as another person, as an historical entity, shaped by her times—the American urban 50s, 60s and early 70s and the passions they inspired, the dreams to which they gave birth. The McCarthy period from the late 40s through the 1950s is here, informing my sense of the need to live in exile from prevailing norms if one wanted to have freedom of thought and body; the civil rights movement is here, with its sense of a people having to take history into their own hands to undo inequalities, to create justice; the 1960s commitment to radical rethinking of educational opportunities is here—at the time of this conversation, I had been teaching in the SEEK Program, a radical higher education opportunity project created by the Black and Puerto Rican Political Caucus of the New York State Legislature under the guidance of Shirley Chisholm, for 13 years, discovering and teaching books like “The Colonized and the Colonizer” by Albert Memmi and the Narrative of Frederick Douglass; the embracing, collective energies of the lesbian-feminist movement gave me the power to issue declarations, to see all things as political, to dare to will creation of alternatives.

All of these forces also gave me little pity when I encountered “the enemy.” Poor Jim. Even now when I was rereading his essay, I found myself thinking if he uses the word repository one more time I will scream. Of course, he was trying to do express his historical insights as well, reasoning his way out of the clash between “separatist tendencies” and the need for professionalism that seemed to promise the only way to ensure gay inclusion in mainstream collections. The tensions between these two writers reveal another historical moment in the 70s American gay rights movement, the moment when many feminist gay women threw up their hands and said, we can’t work with gay men anymore; we are too invisible, they are too unaware of their privilege. All the places and terms that made Jim feel safe, made me suspicious, the formal institutions, the committees, the emphasis on security, on the limitations of accessibility. His professionalism was to me a sellout of what was possible. Here my class background came into play as well; I had longings for the ivy league world of marble institutions, for the tree-lined walks of the exclusive women’s colleges that later in my life I would so often speak at, but I came out in the sex drenched bars of the Village in the 1950s, where my community of women were a rich mix of sex workers, telephone operators and taxi drivers—so we were at cross purposes—he saw the limitations of a ghetto where I saw working-class life waiting for its historical recognition. Here I am sliding back into that much younger version of myself, for what I have come to see is that while I have come to value the professionalism of gay archivists working within their institutions, while I have come to see connections rather than the separations between queer folks of all sorts, while I now see how mainstream and so called marginal collections all contribute to making sure gay lives are not thrown out of history’s moving car, while in short, I say thank you to Jim for his vision and hard work, I find what endures is the reality of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, over three decades later, in its communal home in Brooklyn where nothing has been stolen in all its years and where access is defined by when the doors are open.

There is one huge piece missing from my younger version here—no where do I say that the archives is a place, must be a place, where the lesbian, queer body lives, where sexual encounters and mores, their songs, their images must be prized. Perhaps because I was trying so hard to be a good radical lesbian feminist, perhaps because I was censoring my dream for this more formal ideological public encounter or simply that we were not debating the home of the body—for whatever reason, what would become one of the main themes of my life is invisible. I am comforted by the fact that somewhere in my papers at the archives is a small black and white photograph of me, naked, reaching for a gray box. My body against the grains of preservation. Oh Jim.

By now, thousands of people have made the dream expressed in these 1978 writings a lived moment, in a new time. Dreams too are history, refusals and declarations are the conversations we have with historical desires, dreams of change.