Gay Archive Preserves Decades of History
TONY COX, host:
As part of gay, lesbian, bi and transgender pride month, a movement this coming Monday remembers what some regard as its Rosa Parks moment, the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. For many, June of 2010 is a time for stepped up political action. For others, it's a celebration.
Today we take a look back at the events and the personalities that have given rise to the modern gay rights movement. And to do that, we turn to the one national gay and lesbian archives in Los Angeles. It's the largest archive of its kind with materials going back decades.
I'm joined now by Joseph Hawkins, president of the ONE Archive and a professor of anthropology at the University of Southern California. He joins us from NPR West in Culver City. Welcome.
Professor JOSEPH HAWKINS (President, ONE Archive; Anthropology, University of Southern California): Thank you for having me.
COX: Now, the collection. Let's talk about that itself for a moment, because it contains filmed interviews with some of the early gay rights activists, including an interview with the founder of the ONE Archive, Jim Kepner. Here's a clip where he talks about visiting a bar in San Francisco.
(Soundbite of clip)
Mr. JIM KEPNER (Founder, ONE Archive): I think I reached out my hand to open the door and half of the San Francisco police force rushed in and saw about 15 butch numbers hauled out looking as if they were being (unintelligible) execution raid, it seemed to me they deserved. And about 12 or 15 drag queens screaming and fighting individually. It took a long time before I got up enough nerve to go through that door.
COX: Now, this predates the riots at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that was raided in New York City in 1969 and is now regarded as the birth of the modern gay rights movement. Jim Kepner has since passed away, but his story was captured. How many stories like his did you get and how many are you still trying to get?
Prof. HAWKINS: Thousands is the answer to that question. We've received interviews that are sometimes taken by people themselves with their friends. We've also taken it upon ourselves, many members of ONE since the 1950s have begun to record oral histories of many of the people that have been involved in the movement and we try to continue doing that and updating it as much as we possibly can.
COX: In your archive you have letters from people who subscribe to the ONE magazine. Tell us about ONE magazine.
Prof. HAWKINS: ONE magazine began publication in 1953 and it published up until the 1960s. It was simply text and illustration. And it basically covered all of the issues about being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender in the perspective of that time.
COX: You have in the archives a letter written by one man who writes to say about the publication how much he loves it and goes on to explain that he lives in a small town.
He writes: I feel completely isolated. Now I know you don't give names out and I respect you for it. But in god's name, do you have any correspondence from this area? As a college instructor, I have to be more than discreet. But what I wouldn't give to know a few butches around this town.
Let me ask, first of all, what did he mean by butches?
Prof. HAWKINS: Well, I think there was a real stereotypical fetishization of masculinity in that particular period in time. But I also want to say that Jim Kepner and this letter represent just a small portion of what's really out there in terms of the materials that put flesh on the bones of history. And these are such fantastic collections of the viewpoints that people had in the times. And I thank you so much for reading that.
COX: In recent years, there has been a lot of tension within the gay rights movement about whether it is inclusive of people of color, for example. When you look at your archive, do you see representation of people of color?
Prof. HAWKINS: Yes. In actuality, we have a lot of Latino materials. For instance, we have the papers of the anthropologist Joseph Carrier who did the first work on AIDS in Mexico. In fact, the name of one was actually given to us by an African-American man whose name was Bailey Whitaker, who at the time went by an also-known-as name, or aka of Guy Rousseau.
One of the problems that we have doing research on this early history is that these people were so fearful of being persecuted that they would actually hide their names and take pseudonyms and we have a list that we have to go and check against to make sure we know who's talking.
COX: Do you have a favorite, or perhaps a most meaningful item in the collection?
Prof. HAWKINS: There are some things that really do touch me. Lisa Ben, such a wonderful, sprite old kind of character and she just says the greatest things. She's so innocent.
COX: Actually, we have a clip. We're going to play it now.
(Soundbite of audio clip)
Ms. LISA BEN (Writer, Creator, Vice Versa): I worked in the publicity department and my boss was out a great deal of the time, which gave me, oh, hours and hours for my own use if I wanted to. And I thought, why don't I dream up a little magazine? Gee, I'd love to know some gay people. And I wish there were a gay magazine. And I think I'll just dream one up to see if I can do it.
COX: Now, Lisa Ben was writing from 1947 to 1948. What particularly was she doing at the time and why was it so seminal?
Prof. HAWKINS: Well, it was 1947, she was working in the RKO Studios and she sat at her typewriter, and using carbon paper, would print out 14 copies of what is actually considered to be one of the first LGBT publications in the United States. She shared them with her friends, mostly women, and she'd pass them around. It's amazing that we actually have all 14 copies together and they survive in one collection in the archive as well.
COX: Joseph Hawkins, president of ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Joseph, thank you very much.
Prof. HAWKINS: Thank you for having me.
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