As a writer whose main subject is LGBTQ history, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding records of our communities, by our communities. All too often, I am left to piece together the lives of queer people in earlier eras by looking through the records created by biased or ignorant sources – police reports of people arrested for being at a gay bar, say, or medical records of doctors trying to “cure” transgender people.
This is what makes the collections at the Archives of New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center so important. They save the stories of many whose lives would otherwise have been forgotten or distorted.
Queer archives show a more accurate history
When looking for LGBTQ history in non-LGBTQ sources, at best, you might find one or two references – usually simplified versions that reduce our community down to stereotypes, and don’t show the wide variety of people that live under the LGBTQ umbrella. At queer archives, the sheer quantity of records preserved ensures a more accurate picture of our lives.
Queer archives provide another view
In 1923, New York passed the Schackno Bill, which made it a misdemeanor for any man to “frequent or loiter about any public place soliciting men for the purpose of committing a crime against nature or other lewdness.” For the first time in New York City history, there was now a law specifically criminalizing consensual same-sex activity. Records created by members of the LGBTQ community can give us insight into the real lives behind those arrest records, turning our ancestors from sad statistics to stories of resistance and survival.
Queer archives keep the stuff of history
Often times, things like buttons or t-shirts or small, handmade ‘zines – things that weren’t considered important by big institutions at the time they were made – never make it in to mainstream archives. But these objects can tell us so much about how our communities presented themselves, spoke about the issues that mattered to them, and organized for their rights.
Queer archives capture our most intimate history
Stories of LGBTQ people falling in love, or being best friends, or dealing with simple everyday life are rarely captured in history books that focus on so-called important world events. But these tender moments remind us what we have always been fighting for – the force that animated the Stonewall Riots: The freedom to be ourselves, to love ourselves, and to love each other.
I can think of no more fitting way to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall than to celebrate the LGBTQ archives and archivists who have, for decades, preserved and passed on our stories.
Words by Hugh Ryan