This is about a long overdue visit to the "largest and oldest” repository of lesbian history in the world, a visit sparked by a tedious movie experience.
It all began in a darkened screening room at NYU’s Cantor Film Center during a special presentation of Barbara Hammer’s History Lessons at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Not long into the film, the distinct tenor of Eleanor Roosevelt’s voice recognizable feature popped out of a mélange of images that settled on a meeting of a women’s caucus to which Eleanor was presenting an address, her lips pursing, then opening, to rouse the women to rise up in carnal, communal action. It was an audaciously asserted and “recorded” history in the hands of Hammer who doesn’t falter at making a slight alteration to speech here and there to reassert a “lost” history. So far so good.
History Lessons is a saucy examination of lesbians in history drawn from the most delicious archival footage. (We’re still okay here.) It is a romp through the many shades of 20th Century lesbian life in all its found, inserted, invented, and inveighed glory—including “naturalist” nudies, sportswomen, angst-ridden damsels (think The Children’s Hour), patriotic WAC’s, and butch barflies, to name just a few, all gathered from newsreels, sports footage, WWII promotionals, dramas, sex-ed reels, and other celluloid jewels. Staged skits are also inserted, including one with a doctor conducting research on deviant women (played by Coco Fusco and Jane Fine) who ends up on the wrong side of his case study, thus getting a full dose of his own medicine. This could have been foreshadowing if I were paying proper attention at this point.
History Lessons is a feast if only for the sheer volume of archival images assembled, but it does become a bit excessive. In fact, I was beginning to resent what was seeming to me to be an abuse of the assembled reels and found glass stereoscopic negatives. The images and skitted antics eventually blur into a flood of inside jokes and asides, many of which are hard to keep track of. And I couldn’t help but ask myself, is the careful skill of an editor and a bit of structure really such a bad thing? It seemed the other viewers were in agreement with me. And for those of us who still find comfort in knowing whether or not there is a there, little is given in the way of an answer from this narration-free jaunt. But I did leave knowing one thing for sure: It was time I finally made my way to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, a co-sponsor of the night’s bill.
The Archives were created in 1976 by Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle to gather and preserve materials and artifacts relevant to the lives of lesbians. In 1980 the Archives were incorporated at the Lesbian Herstory Educational Foundation, Inc. and is currently co-coordinated by Edel, Nestle, and Judith Schwarz, and supported in its mission with the help of volunteers and interns. What began as a modest resource of Edel’s and Nestle’s personal papers and books stored in Nestle’s pantry has now grown into “the largest and oldest” repository of lesbian history in the world, made possible through the donations of individuals and organizations. Among the many activities of the Archives are special exhibitions, how-to workshops for lesbian communities on archiving practices, support and information sharing to developing regional archives, and general reference and resource services.
When I arrived at the landmark Park Slope limestone that has been the home of the Archives since 1993, I realized that I had walked past its stoop often. Nestled among similar buildings on the quiet residential block, it is differentiated not necessarily by the tiny rainbow sticker in the front door, but by the access ramp attached to the stoop. I rang the bell and a summer intern greeted me and offered to give me a tour of the building as I walked in, saying that I’d come for the first time and wanted to browse. Despite the arrangement of books, monographs, and subject files on either side of the main room, I couldn’t help but notice the woodwork and the tall ceiling, the thick dark wood table in the middle of the “office” area, and the kitchen in the back when I stepped in. Part of me just wanted to dive into the shelves, grab a book, and lounge. But more of me was interested in knowing what all was here, so I pressed on.
Among the reference, audiovisual, graphic, book, and monograph collections on the first floor are the organizational papers of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first national lesbian organization founded in San Francisco in 1955 and publisher of The Ladder, the first regularly published lesbian periodical. Also included is Mabel Hampton’s (1902-1989) collection of lesbian paperbacks dating to the 1950s. Hampton was an African-American lesbian from the South who moved to New York and became active in the Harlem Renaissance. She was a domestic worker, who at one time, was hired by Nestle’s mom.
A photograph of Hampton hangs in the foyer as part of the photographic exhibit Keeping’ On: Images of African-American Lesbians which also includes images of a young Audre Lorde, an unidentified interracial couple on a New York City beach in 1950, and a host of other women whose images rise to the second floor. There, in the Yellow Wallpaper Room, are kept conference, organization, and geographic files—which is where you’d look to find information on, say, lesbians in Peru. Unpublished papers and special collections are housed here too, a special collection being anything in excess of five pieces of material. One of these is the collection of Marge McDonald who lived in Ohio and bequeathed all of her books and journals to the Archives. Her parents were unaware that she was a lesbian until her death, and on that discovery began burning her papers. A rescue effort organized by a P.E. teacher at a local school saved the bookcase of materials now stored in the Archives in the order in which they were found (including the hand-written and typed version McDonald left of her journals). Periodical and newsletter collections, as well as the archives of the Archives, are also located on the second floor. The caretaker’s apartment is located on the third floor.
It is this commitment to maintaining materials from all lesbians infamous or not, that has given shape to the Archives in buttons, T-shirts, posters, drawings, and personal memorabilia. Among its seven principles is the right of all lesbians to have access to the Archives, regardless of academic credentials, political affiliation, class, or ethnicity. And as such, the Archives has grown through word of mouth; through a traveling slide show that has ventured to homes, bars, synagogues, and churches and that continues to be presented today; and through individual and organizational donations, and volunteerism. There is no endowment. In fact, it was the resources gained from house parties, fundraisers, and a multitude of small gatherings that enabled the purchase of the building that has housed the Archives for the past eight years. Reliance on the commitment and support of the community has been a necessary condition for the Archive’s existence, as it does not accept federal grants (another Archive principle). And because it has always been a grassroots organization that has relied on building trust in lesbian communities the world over, lesbians have found it is a safe place for them to share important artifacts from their lives.
I still hadn’t lost my early desire to dive into a shelf and begin reading, but now I didn’t know where to start. I paused at the button sink again, smiling at ones I know are in my own drawers, and new ones (‘Better Gay than Grumpy’, ‘One in 10 of you may be 1 of us’). I thought of looking through the T-shirt closet behind me, but nixed that idea due to the uncomfortable flash it gave me of my own woefully neglected shelves at home—T-shirts bought in willful abandon, then left to dangle in obscurity. As I perused the many files, drawers, and closets filled with these artifacts, I thought of History Lessons and could somewhat understand getting carried away by the awe-inspiring, and even seemingly luxurious collected existence contained in the unmarked house in Brooklyn. I had come out of curiosity, with no real "intent"; I simply wanted to see what was here. And on discovering it, I was nearly overwhelmed, but only in the most intimate way. Somehow, I’d been overcome with a need, a desire to "tend" to something, to come back and add some of my own stories and take care of those offered by others.
To visit the Archives call (718) 768-DYKE (3953) to get hours or to make an appointment. You can also get further information about the Archives online at www.datalounge.net/lha, or write to: P.O. Box 1258 New York, N.Y. 10016.
HISTORY LESSONS will premier at The Quad Cinema October 19th for a theatrical run.