LGBT archivists preserve the community’s past, protect its future
Since 1980, the History Project has worked to document and preserve the history of Boston’s LGBT community. The nonprofit, all-volunteer run organization has mounted major exhibitions, designed in-depth walking tours, and most recently started the long, laborious process of digitizing its archives: historic photographs, documents, audio tapes and more. It is an organization that is intent on protecting the community’s past so that it can be better understood by its future.
For Andrew Elder, that’s incredibly important.
“I think communities can really learn a lot from previous social justice efforts,” says Elder, the History Project’s archivist and program coordinator. He’s also the digital archives and outreach librarian at U-Mass Boston. “You can’t separate them. Each made it possible for people to later figure out what did work and what didn’t work.”
But that’s not all, says the thirty-something. It’s important for members of his generation to understand the work that was done by those who came before. “There’s this much more personal value to documenting the community and its history,” he explains. “We have these cultural ancestors, these people that came before us. The History Project helps give back a sense of community by showing where we came from, how we got here, and which people made important historical contributions to Boston, to Massachusetts, and therefore to the country.”
People like Elder’s own colleague, History Project board member Libby Bouvier. Bouvier, today the head of archives at Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, co-founded the History Project alongside fellow historians and archivists. They were inspired by the work of other activists (like New York’s Jonathan Katz) who were having success with similar models in other cities. Bouvier still remembers the first meeting. “It was a Tuesday in late 1979,” she recalls. “Boston’s 350th anniversary was coming up in June, and we thought we should get a couple hundred dollars together – that was big money – and do a slideshow of gay and lesbian history from the Colonial era to the present.”
So they did. It took three carousels filled with 140 slides each, but they managed to distill the city’s gay history into a comprehensive presentation. And they shared it. “We showed it all over, first at the bars,” says Bouvier. “Then at the few colleges and universities that would have us. What we were doing was still deviant.” But they plugged along, packing the reels into boxes and shipping them to schools around the country, and even abroad, to educate as much of the community as they could reach.
That’s still what they aim to do. Except now, the medium has changed. One of the History Project’s major recent undertakings has been digitizing its collection, from photographs to audio recordings of old radio programs. (The still-growing digital archives can be viewed at historyproject.omeka.net) There are plans to create print collateral for self-guided walking tours of LGBT-related landmarks around town: bars, restaurants and other spots of significance. And Elder says that collecting oral histories that document the lives and experiences of community vanguards is vitally important.
There are obstacles of course. Even as the value of preserving and protecting LGBT history has become more widely acknowledged, there are certain financial barriers to overcome, says Bouvier. And she hopes that The History Project will be able to curate more exhibitions that reflect the broad diversity that exists with the community. “There are a lot of people that are under-represented in works on LGBT history: those that are non-white, immigrants or from outside the mainstream culture,” says Bouvier. Certainly to its credit, The History Project has done much to encompass a broad spectrum. Over the years, large-scale exhibitions have included The Queer East, celebrating the LGBT Asian community; Black & Gay in Black & White, one of the first exhibits to document the contributions of Boston’s African American LGBT community; and ¡Aqui Estamos!, focused on Latino/a culture. Still, Bouvier hopes that with help from within those communities there will be the opportunity to do more. “We are a very small group with limited people and funds, and it can be frustrating because we want to work with all the different communities in Boston. And you want people who are actually part of those communities to help be the leadership, to make sure that you’re not setting people apart or marginalizing them.”
As a start, all LGBT community members should remember that besides financial support, The History Project needs – well, history. Its archives are made up largely of personal collections from community members: gifts given in life or left behind through estates. It is a painstaking process for archivists to cull through items and curate important pieces, says Elder, but he knows that no matter how seemingly small or insignificant to an untrained eye, photographs, letters, diaries and tapes tell a still-unfolding story of Boston’s LGBT community: and by extension, America’s.
“I remember a couple years ago we were contacted by a woman who found a box on the side of the road in Somerville,” recalls Elder. “There were all these materials that had been left with the garbage, but she grabbed them, and we found out what we could: that they belonged to a man who had passed away, and had all these photographs of him and his partner from the 1940s and 1950s in Provincetown.” These photos reveal so much about a culture that continues to change and evolve.
“Without groups like The History Project, we would lose the fight for this. Sometimes, we are literally pulling this stuff right out of the dumpsters.” And recognizing them, quite literally, as the historic treasures that they truly are.