the Gay Library

I’ve been researching LGBT history for several months now. I read biographies pretty constantly, generally chosen at random–in fact, I’ve read about 100 of them now, and I’m consistently inspired by the stories that I learn. It was a few years ago when I started realizing that LGBT people show up in nearly every story, nearly every facet of society. Natalie Wood was surrounded by gay friends, Oprah Winfrey had a gay brother, Richard Nixon interfaced with gay reporters and politicians, J. Edgar Hoover himself was believed to have been gay and a cross dresser. Facts kept showing up again and again and again.

In many cases, the stories of LGBT people were ones I should have been taught in school. Bayard Rustin, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, was gay. Barbara Jordan was a black female lesbian senator in Texas, and she investigated Nixon after Watergate. Sally Ride, first woman in space, was gay. Playwrights, singers, artists, performers, activists, world leaders. All names that I knew, just never taught that they were gay. These stories needed to be told.

And so I launched a YouTube channel, after months of planning and research. Every name that I looked up taught me about another 3 or 5 or 10 people I needed to research. I compiled lists of hundreds of names. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, allies and enemies, and the history around them, including works of fiction and government policies. I started sharing the stories online, one per day with enough to last years. The research was all out there, I just had to dust off the right resources, one at a time, to make it happen.

So when I went to Los Angeles, for a little head-clearing adventure away, I learned of an entire library devoted to LGBT topics, and I knew I had to see it. Yet another long bus ride across town (the transit is not great), I finally wound up on the campus of USC (University of Southern California) and entered the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

ONE-Archives.jpg

ONE magazine was formed by a group of brave queer activists in 1953 and ran for several years, making information available to the public about LGBT lives, theories, and studies, beginning to normalize LGBT lifestyles in the public eyes years before it was customary to do so. The magazine eventually closed down, and now the Archives were named for it, complete with a large framed wall piece with all of the magazine’s dozens of covers featured.

The space inside was small and very well organized. Shelf after shelf, row after row, all dedicated to LGBT books. Periodicals, art books, coffee table pieces, biographies on famous LGBT individuals, LGBT fiction, erotica, novels and short stories, almanacs, research compendiums. Upstairs were framed photos celebrating past activists from the area.

I talked to the woman at the front desk for some time, asking about the history and organization of the place, and told her of my current projects. She was kind, interested, and helpful in orienting me to the space.

I walked down the long rows almost lovingly, overwhelmed by the entire space. I contemplated my upbringing, not even knowing the word gay, and when I did learn it, I knew it was something bad and immoral, something to be scorned and avoided. But to be here, seeing it all archived, compiled, celebrated… it was thrilling, moving, and awe-inspiring.

I pulled out books at random, scanning through their contents and enjoying every word. I chose a few and spent a few hours perusing. There wasn’t nearly enough time. It would take a lifetime to read every book. I purchased a few small ones that I could carry home, thanked the librarian, and headed outside, where I sat in the sunlight and thought of this part of the world’s history that has become a new quest, grateful to know there are resources out there I wasn’t aware of previously.

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