Where Our History Lives: From New York to Minneapolis, Chicago to San Francisco, Gays and Lesbians Are Building Archives That Will Preserve Queer History for Future Generations

Article excerpt

When noted explorer and anthropologist Tobias Schneebaum swung through Minneapolis on a book tour several years ago, Jean Tretter thought he'd ask the gay adventurer a simple question: What was his plan to ensure that future generations had access to his papers?

"Surprisingly, he really didn't have one," says Tretter, founder of the Tretter Collection in LGBT Studies, a historical archive at the University of Minnesota. "So we talked about it, and he decided to donate his personal papers to us because he was very concerned that his history and the history of the tribes that he worked with not be rewritten to exclude anything gay." Schneebaum formally donated his archives June 17, three months before his death in September. Tretter adds, "Too often the heterosexual world will rewrite our history and ignore any gay facets of our lives."

Tretter and his fellow LGBT archivists across the country are in a frantic race to preserve the ongoing history before it disappears forever. Members of the World War II generation are rapidly passing away, and those of the Stonewall generation are retiring. Complicating matters is the fact that unlike countries such as Canada and Australia, the United States has no definitive national LGBT archive; instead there is a mixed bag of far-flung freestanding repositories and university-based special collections.

That may begin to change in May 2006, which is when Tretter plans to cohost the first international conference for gay history collections on the University of Minnesota campus. "It really will be the first true academic world conference just for GLBT archives, libraries, museums, and special collections, which makes the very nice acronym ALMS," he says.

Expected speakers include gay rights icons Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, and Tretter hopes the conference will bring more cohesion to the country's--if not the world's--gay archives. "We're not trying to force anything," he says, "but we do think it would be helpful to all of us to have some sort of international organization."

Indeed, Kameny's materials provide a prime example of the need for--and precious value of--gay archival preservation. On a recent visit to Kameny's home during preparations for his 80th birthday celebration, Bob Witeck, an out communications consultant in Washington, D.C., stumbled on a veritable treasure trove of gay memorabilia just gathering dust. "There in his attic are all of his papers and the original picket signs from the earliest marches," says Witeck. "It's like going back in time and finding the suffragettes' stuff in an attic. The issue for all of us is the same: How can we get Frank to make sure that an archive gets all of this? But it's like, 'How do you hold a wave upon the sand?'"

Understandably, the makers of gay history are often reluctant to part with their materials, which puts the onus of eternal vigilance and omniscience on gay archivists. …