Lesbian Herstory Archive Experience

By dlachenm

For my observation I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they have been since 1992. The archive itself is a product of the Women’s movement, the sexual revolution and the Gay Liberation movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. A group of women, including Joan Nestle and Deborah Edel, unhappy with sexism in the Gay Academic Union (GAU), branched out, forming a separate women’s consciousness-raising group, which became the basis of the LHA. For the first 15 years Nestle and Edel ran the archive out of Nestle’s apartment on 92nd st, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They relied on volunteers and women of like mind to help organize, catalog and educate people in the community. Their goal was, and still is, to “turn shame into a sense of cherished history, to change the meaning of history to include every woman who had the courage to touch another woman, whether for a night or a lifetime.” Their statement of purpose goes on to say that the archive “exists to gather and preserve records of Lesbian lives and activities so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives,” which was and is important because these histories or stories had previously been denied “by patriarchal historians in the interests of the culture which they serve.” Originally they achieved community outreach through the creation of a newsletter and a slide show in the late 1970’s, today they achieve this through readings, workshops and women’s study classes that are free and open to the whole community. The principles the LHA are founded on are fundamentally different than more traditional archives, something that was made very apparent to me upon my visit. Principles like vowing to teach archival skills generationally to members of the lesbian community, making sure the archive is involved in the political struggle of being a lesbian, and ensuring that the archive itself resides physically in the community, as opposed to an academic setting.

(http://www.lesbianherstoryarchives.org/history.html)

So there I found myself on November 17th, walking up the steps of a very unassuming brownstone on the outskirts of Prospect Park, with only a small gay flag in the window, not really sure what to expect upon entering. I was greeted by a woman named Red, an English and Women’s Studies teacher at Hunter College, and a member of the LHA. Straight away I was given a very warm welcome and a tour. The archive encompasses both floors of the brownstone, intermingling areas of living with areas of books, files and organization. Most documents, journals, and records are kept on the 2nd floor, along with their t-shirt collection, button collection, audio tapes and other miscellaneous memorabilia. Downstairs there is a library of sorts, with lesbian pulp fiction, a wonderful collection of literature written by women, reference materials, and even a small children’s book collection. After the tour I was basically left to my own devices, told I could go through and look at whatever I wanted, and to come ask for assistance if I needed it. I have to admit, this was a little overwhelming at first. A feeling akin to being a kid in a candy store, frozen with anticipation, and thoughts of where to begin. So I headed upstairs and started with their Special Collections area. This area was organized by topic, and each topic was kept in a small filing box on a standing bookshelf and on shelves built into a walk-in closet. There were categories like “Dinah Shore and the History of Women’s Golf,” “Lilith Fair,” “Coming Out Stories,” “Places to Love,” “Gay and Lesbian Association of Students (GLASS),” and of course, one of the founder, Joan Nestle. In this same area were cabinet files, broken down into Biographical Files, Geographic Files, Conference Files and Unpublished Files. There were bins of documents, news clippings and ephemera to still be filed, simply resting on top of the cabinet files. The arrangement of everything felt very organic and grassroots. With living lesbians and histories coexisting with those of the past in a figurative sense, but also physically, given that people who run the archive actually live in the same residence. It lends a specific type of energy to the space. On our tour, Red pointed out that the archives had unpublished papers by Gertrude Stein, Alice Walker and Adrienne Rich, an area she frequently accessed for her own research. This area peaked my interest as well and the next thing I know I am sitting on the ground reading an unpublished lecture that Adrienne Rich, a favorite poet of mine, wrote and gave in 1983 at Scripps College in Claremont, California. After, I moved on to look at their small exhibition area, with a small exhibit of clothing and one of pins. Red had said that a lot of people come to look at these exhibits. The clothing exhibit contained a military jacket, some t-shirts and a famous black slip that belonged to Joan Nestle. The pin collection was set up over an area that was once a sink, with lots of pins spread out for viewing, while others were contained in receptacles with small drawers. The pins were a lovely visual timeline of lesbian and female struggle, with sayings such as, “Women Make Policy, Not Coffee,” “We Won’t Go Back. Keep Abortion Legal, April 5, 1995, rally in Washington, D.C.” and “The New Right Preaches The Old Wrongs.” The t-shirt collection was also in this area, although not really on view. It is archived in long garment boxes on the floor and in sliding closet areas built into the wall. After looking at the exhibits, I made my way over to another section of the upstairs that contained the archives of the archives (very meta), boxes of audio tapes containing oral histories (which they have labeled, “love tapes”) and an area of mostly cataloged magazines and scholarly journals. After perusing, I made my way back downstairs, where Red and I listened to 2 oral histories on audio tape, while simultaneously looking at photographs that Morgan Greenwald had taken of Sagaris. Sagaris was a Vermont based, collectively run, feminist institution created in 1975. The goal was to have a place of feminist education, without hierarchy, patriarchy, and a strict structure, where the foremost feminist thinkers could gather, to communicate with and teach other women. Some of the original members and faces found in Greenwald’s photographs include, Rita Mae Brown, Charlotte Bunch, Mary Daly, Dorothy Allison and Susan Sherman. However, listening to the oral histories was the real prize for me. The history we listened to first belonged to Mabel Hampton, one of the original organizers of LHA. Hampton was an African-American woman living on 131st st. in Harlem at the time and she spoke of her coming out story. As she tells it, she walked into a sandwich shop in Jersey City, was so fascinated by a woman that she went home with her and didn’t leave for 40 years. She lived and had a relationship with this woman from 1932 until 1978, when she died. As she saw it, she was “already half in the light, may as well step all the way in,” a lighthearted but courageous move at the time. The second oral history we listened to belonged to a woman named Gerry, who spoke of being born for the first time, at age 39, in a sleazy, secret gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Els Bar, sometime in the late 1940’s. This woman was a real firecracker, she described herself as always being gay, but was “just too stupid to know it.” Until, that is, a woman bought her a beer, kissed her on the palm and told her to come back soon. And even though she lived in Woodstock, she went back the very next night and was never the same. She described bars like The Els Bar and the Pony Stable as being the only places where gay people could mingle socially. The bar was kept in complete darkness, except for a single light on the area where the bartender made drinks and received money. And the dance floor was so small, it was the “size of a postage stamp.” Stories like this deserve to be preserved and shared. They have the power to enlighten and to comfort. It is stories and histories such as these that led me towards the field of library science. My experience that day at the Lesbian Herstory Archives was both priceless and an affirmation of my chosen path.

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