For the Community, By the Community: The LGBT Center National History Archive
What makes a community center? The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center was founded in Greenwich Village in 1983 (then called the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center). During the 1980s, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic picked up in devastation against the continued backdrop of systemic oppression of queer folks in all realms of city life — from jobs to housing to legal rights, not to mention healthcare — The Center served as a hub for health services, political organizing, and community- and culture-building. It was primarily volunteer-run in those years, a cornerstone example of folks coming together to take care of each other in the face of government and institutional disregard, or worse. And it was a joyous space, too, regularly hosting art shows, dances, talks, screenings, readings, singles mixers, and bonanza celebrations like the Garden Party (still running today) to mark the Pride march every June. It was Larry Kramer’s appearance at the Second Tuesday lecture series in 1987 that lead to the founding of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), demonstrating how culture and political action were interwoven at The Center from its start.
It was out of this atmosphere that The LGBT Community Center National History Archive was founded. People who called The Center home were dying or losing loved ones, which left behind “stuff” — photographs, diaries, troves of letters and clippings and sketches and videos and audiotapes and ephemera, potentially at risk of being destroyed due to fear or negligence. On a non-tragic note, it was a time of great flowering of activity in the city and at The Center, which organically results in the creation of “stuff”: posters, flyers, brochures, meeting minutes, etc. It seemed natural that The Center, a resource for so many other aspects of life and struggle, could be the repository for such materials. Originally conceived of as a combined archives and museum, it was initiated by The Center’s board and founded by Richard C. Wandel, historian, activist, photographer and archivist.
Today, collections consist of approximately 1,600 feet of material, including personal papers, business and organization records, photographs, audiovisual recordings, periodicals, posters and ephemera. Notable subject areas include the New York gay liberation movement of the 1970s and HIV/AIDS experience and activism (individual and groups/organizations) in the 1980s and ’90s. These are the obvious areas, anyway; a little digging reveals a myriad of entry-points for research. Interested in the way lower Manhattan has changed under gentrification since the 1970s? Take a look at Leonard Fink’s extensive photography work, depicting the Village and the Piers over the 1970s and ’80s, paired with Frank Hallam’s photography done in the 1980s through early 2000s. Or perhaps one would like to check out the work of underground comix cartoonist Howard Cruse alongside that of leatherdyke zinemaker and illustrator Fish. Or why not delve into the records kept by The Lesbian Switchboard of New York City, which documents on-the-ground, volunteer-powered work; the handwritten call logs in particular showcase the unique melange of personality, minutiae and microaggressions experienced by the operators.
We have an extensive collection of LGBTQ+ periodicals: newspapers and magazines, reflecting a wide range of audiences, resources and goals. Take, for example, the rural-focused RFD Magazine (1974-present), proudly reader-driven; or Gay Liberation Front’s newspaper Come Out! (1969–1972), published in the heady aftermath of the Stonewall riots; or its compatriot Drag Magazine (1970-), a compendium of news reports, op-eds, and drag ball photo spreads, published by Lee Brewster, the drag queen and activist who founded Queens Liberation Front in 1969/1970 and fought for the decriminalization of crossdressing in NY. These are just three examples, somewhat at random, and each carries with it countless intersecting stories.
Our organization files consist of printed matter created by LGBTQ+ groups for distribution to members or would-be members: Newsletters, brochures, flyers, etc. The magazine Anything That Moves (1990–2000) crosses the bridge between our periodicals and organization files, growing as it did out of the Bay Area Bisexual Network’s newsletter (copies of which we also hold).
These latter two areas of the collection are not as accessible as our “traditional” archival collections, with their attendant finding aids and more robustly described records, but they offer an important resource for reconstructing the daily realities of queer lives. To take one example: A “bar rag” like Michael’s Thing, published in New York between 1970 and 2000 (weekly for much of its run), with its guides to gay arts and nightlife, news pieces, photographs, and accompanying ads, provides a look into a very specific time and place. Same can be said for the annual lesbian travel publication Gaia’s Guide (1974–1991), first of its kind, serving as a literal road map to sport and support for the traveling lesbian. Not to mention the countless other titles that were more short-lived or lesser-known.
In 2017, upon the retirement of Rich Wandel, The Center hired me as its first staff archivist, with the mandate to build off of our 27-year volunteer-run legacy into a new phase of development. This work requires writing policy and procedure; upgrading systems & technology; raising awareness and creating partnerships, both within and outside of The Center; and, essentially, improving collections care and collections development, with the primary goal to begin actively collecting in areas underrepresented in the current collection, such as lesbian, bisexual, and trans experiences and communities of color.
In honor of our founding principles, we collect material created by and for LGBTQ+ folks, which provides a uniquely positive and self-affirming perspective. This is a corrective to the resources that often must be resorted to to tell queer stories, such as government, medical, and press archives, records of which reflect at best the perspective of an outsider and at worse the interests of the dominant power structure (at turns transphobic, racist, biphobic, sexist, homophobic, etc.). During our tenure as a volunteer-run archives, it was de facto practice to allow any person regardless of identity, status or credentials to conduct research; we are now enshrining that on paper as we draft our access policy.
Similarly, collection development planning requires laying track for policy that aligns with this mission. We must take a good, hard look at where our current collections stand — acknowledging their strengths while also calling attention to the gaps and absences of representation therein. It is preeminent going forward to create and strengthen connections across the board to ensure our collections are not solely representative of the cisgender, white, gay male experience. Only then will we be fulfilling our mission to serve all LGBTQ+ communities.
One kind of connection I mean is illustrated by our current exhibition “Metanoia: Transformation Through AIDS Archives and Activism” (through April 29). “Metanoia” is a collaboration between The Center and The ONE Archives Foundation, curated by a four-person team from What Would an HIV Doula Do?, a collective comprised of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists committed to ensuring that community plays a key role in the current AIDS response. The exhibition is anchored by an essential but thus far undersung collection held in the archives, the Judy Greenspan Papers.
In planning for “Metanoia,” the curators described their goals to highlight voices underrepresented in archives, including in ours: voices of women, women of color, trans women and femmes, concentrated on HIV/AIDS care and work. For my first year at The Center, I was only tangentially aware of the Judy Greenspan Papers, which represent Greenspan’s decades of HIV/AIDS activism in prisons, specifically with women of color (both cis and trans). The curators’ directive lead me to the finding aid, which lead them to a deep-dive into the collection. This partnership resulted in a spotlight on not only the pioneering work of Judy Greenspan, but the equally important work of women of color on the inside like Joann Walker and Twillah Wallace that her papers document.
Other collaborations are in the works, including bringing local high school, undergraduate and graduate classes in for projects; creating partnerships with Center youth and adult services programs; defining a model for community-based processing of acquisitions; programs for oral history engagement; hosting a local queer historians meetup; and additional exhibitions, including the “The Wide World of Lesbian Cats, 1970-today,” opening July 2019 and curated by Rachel Corbman, fellow in women’s history at New-York Historical Society and coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Finally, it would be a grave error to not mention our volunteers and interns when discussing the archive’s firm basis in our community. Our current team of volunteers (some of whom have been with us for five-plus years) is behind most of the accessioning and processing work that’s done; they also provide assistance in the reading room and on special projects. It’s often the invisible work, behind the scenes, that volunteers do, work that is essential in caring for and providing efficient access to collections, but is inherently about producing results rather than flash (consider what it means to construct an acid-free box, say, or to label fifty folders in a row; better yet imagine an astounding tapestry of spreadsheets). Folks come to us from across different backgrounds and fields to volunteer, with the unifying motivation to help out at The Center. Their contributions are both a reminder of the archive’s volunteer-powered legacy, and a demonstration of why it exists at all.