On Thursday, Oct 7, 2010, a panel gathered to honor the accomplishments of The LGBT Center’s National History Archive on its 20th anniversary. The panel included five local archivists and historians who have made significant contributions to preserve LGBT history:
George Chauncey (Moderator): Professor of History, Yale University, author of “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940” (1994).
David Carter: Author of “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” (2004).
Shawnta Smith: Archivist at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, CLAGS committee member, and a co-founder and Director of Sister Outsider, a collective to develop social justice projects in Brooklyn.
Rich Wandel: Founder of The LGBT Center’s National History Archive (1989) at the request of Richard Burns and The Center’s Board of Directors, ongoing volunteer head of the archive, and archivist for the NY Philharmonic.
Maxine Wolfe: Archivist at the Lesbian Herstory Archives; Professor Emeritus of Environmental Psychology at The CUNY Graduate School where she specialized in women and AIDS, and lesbian and gay issues; a coordinator of Direct Action for ACT-UP, and a co-founder of the Lesbian Avengers.
The evening started with congratulatory comments by Jimmy Van Bramer, City Council Member for District 26 in Queens. He noted that his gay history began at The Center in 1989 when came out there as a young man.
Robert Woodworth, the Director of Meeting and Conference Services for The Center then introduced George Chauncey, the moderator for the evening. During his comments, Robert noted that we have a tendency to romanticize history, but that the archives require dedication so that we can “tell our own story,” which became a theme during the evening.
“Why are you an archivist?”
Shawnta Smith was the first to respond to George Chauncey’s invitation to describe their archivist activities. She introduced the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn and described her recognition of the importance of a gay and lesbian archive. Like The Center Archive, Shawnta noted that the Herstory Archives is a completely volunteer organization.
Maxine Wolfe then continued a description of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and her initial work with Joan Nestle. Nestle told Maxine that the burgeoning Herstory Archives could be “anything you want it to be.” Maxine helped define the role of the Archives, noting that it’s important to “document our own history, rather than accept the narrow view of others. We need an accurate and complete history of ourselves. And we’re the only ones who can do it.”
Rich Wandel outlined his personal history, “After a year of planning, Vito Russo gave my name to Richard Burns, then the Director at the Center, and I started the archive.” He become an archivist at The Center and then went to college to become accredited. In addition to leading the volunteer archive at The Center for 20 years, Rich is now also the archivist for the NY Philharmonic Orchestra.
David Carter began by acknowledging two attendees: Arnie Kantrowitz, an early vice president of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and Larry Mass, author of the first press reports on the AIDS epidemic and co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). David said that in 1975 he read an early book about the history of Gay rights in Europe. This happened at the beginning of Anita Bryant’s homophobic outbursts and “I realized that, like the advances and losses of Gay rights in Europe, our progress was not inevitable.”
“Why is Queer history important?”
In response to George Chauncey’s second question, “Why is Queer history important?”, Maxine Wolfe told several stories of women who have contributed to the Herstory Archives: a nun who did not want the first 50 years of her life to be lost; a young woman who wanted to know what she should call herself: butch (like her grandmother), dyke, or lesbian (like her mother); and a researcher who found a valued obituary with a single phone call to the archives.
Rich Wandel told about the personal value that The Center Archive provides. During the worst of the AIDS years, people called saying that they had materials from a dead partner, brother, or child. “We wanted their photos, diaries, and letters. The Archive proved that their lives, their stories, were worth saving.”
David Carter talked about understanding our history. With an archive, the world can take our history seriously. We can talk about our origin myth (such as Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society). We can record the successes of our movement as LGBT civil rights (with the emphasis on the words “civil rights”). And we can answer basic questions about our identities, including issues in philosophy, religion, and law.
Shawnta Smith talked about how queer history bridges time. “Information is not static, facts are changeable.” She pointed out how an archive can hold those changes in thought. Shawnta also outlined the goals of the Herstory Archives: a volunteer endeavor offering access to everyone; always located in the community to document political struggles in the community; how it can never be divided (and because it’s funded by the community, no governmental agency can ever control our history); and how it is in a home.
Maxine Wolfe continued this train of thought about the Herstory Archives with comments about the different histories that the Archives holds: “Both Communist and anti-Communist, pro-porn and anti-porn.” She said that the Archives offer a way to gauge our progress, to engage in the struggle.
Rich Wandel talked about the incomplete stories told in high school and many colleges that the archives can make whole, and the lies that the archives can repudiate. “When we tie Gay struggles to the struggles of others, it’s hard to tell the difference in our labors.”
George Chauncey talked about meeting John Boswell, the author of several books on gays in early Christian life and pre-modern gay marriages in Christian communities. By using archives and historical accounts, Boswell was able to uncover hidden histories, and to document how Christianity and marriages have changed in the past and will change again. George talked about presenting historical evidence in court cases, in 1992 when Colorado tried to eliminate Gays from political life and more recently in California with the anti-marriage Proposition 8. “Anti-Gay legislation depends on us not knowing our own history.”
“What can we do in the future?”
Shawnta Smith presented a slide show of various materials that the Lesbian Herstory Archives made available to a Black group in Queens recently. Because of the wealth of materials, the Herstory Archives can assemble slide shows depicting the special history for various different groups.
The evening ended with questions and discussion about making LGBT history available, recent gay bashings, donating materials to The Center’s LGBT Archives, and the general lack of history for minorities.
We were reminded again that we must record our own histories, no one else can be trusted to do this for us. Congratulations to The Center’s National History Archive and its 20 years of preserving our stories.
– Howard Williams