A sense of urgency: Efforts to preserve lesbian-specific history expand
As many of those who played a crucial role in the early days of the movement for LGBT rights at Stonewall, Compton's Cafeteria and other places grow older and pass away, their history too continues to disappear.
This reality is especially acute for women who have often felt marginalized by decades of male-dominated organizing and movement infighting, but thanks to the efforts of a growing number of historians who continue to collect and preserve lesbian histories, the stories of these female pioneers lives on.
The Stonewall Library and Archives of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., recognized as one of the nation's largest collections of LGBT historical documents, this week contributes anew to the effort with its latest featured exhibit: "The L of It: Lesbian Periodicals."
On display through July 12, the exhibit spotlights portions of the archive's expansive collection of more than 75 female-centric periodicals that date back to Vice Versa, published in 1947 under the subtitle "America's Gayest Magazine." Publishing under the pseudonym "Lisa Ben," the editor reportedly manually typed the newspaper at Los Angeles' RKO Studio and distributed nine issues among her friends before she lost her job the following year.
"Many of the periodicals are no longer published or only lasted a year or two before folding," said Charles L. Ross, curator of the Stonewall's exhibit. "And many of the women did write using pseudonyms, but through time, they grew proud of their work and began putting their names on it."
The Daughter of Bilitis' newsletter, The Ladder, edited by Phyllis Lyon, who co-founded the seminal lesbian organization alongside Del Martin, followed Vice Versa in 1955. An explosion of lesbian and feminist publications followed Lyon and Martin's publication, with as many as 10 new titles each year in the 1970s. Lyon and Martin's work reflects a daringly adventurous display of sexuality for the time, a fact Ross said surprised him and others who are less familiar with lesbian history.
"You don't see this history on television or anywhere, but you have to go and search for it," he told EDGE. "That's why it's important to make it accessible because a lot of people - young and old - come in who don't know anything about our history and how long it's been going on. A lot of people think [our history] just started with Stonewall, but there's so much more that happened before that."
The Stonewall Library's exhibit joins many other organizations nationwide working tirelessly to make lesbian history visible as part of country's movement for LGBT rights.
A group of women formed the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1974 to protect the precarious nature of lesbian culture. Today, the volunteer-run archive houses the world's largest collection of materials dedicated to lesbians and their communities, in addition to many traveling and online exhibits. And it attracts visitors from all around the world.
Deborah Edel, one of the archive's founders, said the collection is still going strong in its efforts to thwart the loss of lesbian-specific history.
"We realized then that if nobody else would be doing anything to protect our history, it would disappear," Edel told EDGE. "To be really present in the fullness of who we are as a culture, we need to know our historical roots and that's always been one of the big problems for lesbian and gay people. They've been cut off from history. If we don't collect these stories and artifacts now, we'll lose yet another generation that we'll be cut off from. It is vital work to protect these histories."
Founded in 1981, the June Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood, Calif., is another of the country's most prominent centers of lesbian-specific archives. Spokesperson Angela Brinskele said she had been drawn to archiving history since she discovered she was not "the only [lesbian] one." The archive's collections of journals and other personal items proves particularly moving.
"A favorite thing for me is to share this history and make sure that all generations learn and know about those women who have come before us and what they went through to simply live a life that was true to themselves," said Brinskele. "It is empowering and builds self esteem to visit the life of a women who has come before you."
San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society also prominently features lesbian history, including its 2008 Dykes on Bikes exhibit. Glenne McElhinney, an original member of Dykes on Bikes who co-curates the exhibit, is also involved with an oral history project on LGBT Los Angeles that became a film titled "On These Shoulders We Stand." She said was inspired to begin collecting oral histories in California after watching Paragraph 175, a documentary by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman that tells the story of gay men arrested in Nazi Germany. Some 4,000 of the estimated 100,000 gay men arrested and placed in concentration camps survived, but only 10 were known to have been alive at the start of this decade.
Set into motion, McElhinney quit her job and began to interview people from all around the state who spoke about the harassment and discrimination they experienced. One woman, Nancy Valverde, talked about how the Los Angeles police officers repeatedly arrested and incarcerated her for violating the "masquerading law," which forbade people from wearing clothing items of the other sex.
"Our history is not important in the mainstream or written about in textbooks; our families don't save our histories," said McElhinney. "But we don't want to be invisible. We want to be part of the fabric of this time frame."
And visibility aside, historian agree previous generations provide important political lessons in this polarized post-Proposition 8 political climate.
"These stories can't get lost," added McElhinney. "Once these people pass on, that's it. We need to look back and understand our history, seeing what did and didn't work then. We need to keep fighting."