Sometimes at fundraisers when I’m talking with people about another string of LGBT successes, I feel like I have been Mr. Peabodied into a way, wayback machine episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and a gobsmacked Jethro has just asked me, “Well golly, how’d you LGBTers do it? How’d you git yer rights so dang fast?”
As someone who was once introduced not as a Stonewall Lesbian but as a Stonehenge Lesbian, it is a disconcerting historical moment for older LGBT activists. I do have a better understanding of what might have prompted Oscar-winning Sally Fields to gush, “You like me! You really, really, really like me.”
But I don’t trust it. I do not trust any creeping, premature triumphalist strain in LGBT narratives. So in response, I start to lay out for Jethro the 45-year Kickstarter we did. He was on the way to the open bar before I even got to the part about the Daughters of Bilitis.
But really how did we do it? And how do we tell our story? Of course, first you have to know the story. And we’ve got help. For years, way under the radar, historians, academics, archivists, anthropologists, both professional and amateur, have been collecting, saving — OK, hoarding — and preserving the quotidian thinginess of the LGBT movement.
Now our stories are coming out of closets, basements and self-storage units in a great blooming of LGBT history. Museums, archives and collections are springing up in cities all over the country in former strip malls, universities and city libraries. If you can’t get to the actual collections you can visit the recently revamped, wonderfully accessible OutHistory website for a wealth of LGBT historical information.
In telling the story of the LGBT movement too often we become good little assimilated boys and girls and shy away from the movement’s original impulse – sex and sexual liberation. Fortunately, Cornell University Library’s Human Sexuality Collection has, for 25 years, gathered rare books, letters, photos and original artwork, films, erotica and ephemera related to sexuality.
Margaret F. Nichols, the Rare Materials Cataloging Coordinator for Cornell, oversees the cataloguing of everything in the Human Sexuality archive. It was she who petitioned the Library of Congress to add “Butch/Femme” to their subject headings. Those headings are how everything in the world gets catalogued in ALL libraries. Her proposal was finally accepted.
The recent opening of the “Speaking of Sex” exhibition celebrates the 25th anniversary of Cornell’s larger collection.
Its curator, Brenda Marston says, “Archiving sex is vital to our society, and this exhibition brings a wide swath of this history into view. Without us making a real effort, our view of the past could keep settling on familiar and comfortable scenes, but at Cornell it’s our job to make sure that we wrest the camera away from the center and capture the stories we don’t always see, so that we’re really preserving the diversity of our culture.”
After we wandered through the wonderful exhibit, we talked about not only what was there, but what wasn’t there. Despite any archivist’s best efforts to tell the fullest history of the LGBT movement there are gaps. Many local archives are decentralized and volunteer-driven. And many of us assume that the stuff in our basements is not that important. I’m told that somewhere in the world it’s spring. That means spring-cleaning, a perfect time to take a look through those boxes downstairs and send your memorabilia to an LGBT archive.
Of course the question isn’t just “What’s in your basement?” It’s “What’s in your wallet?” So consider sending a donation to support and continue the great LGBT historical reclamation being done all over the country.
Kate Clinton is a humorist who has entertained LGBT audiences for 30 years.