Queer Archives Interview: BGSQD and Lesbian Herstory Archives
Dilettante Army asked Greg Newton, the co-founder (with partner Donnie Joachum) of Bureau of General Services—Queer Division (BGSQD), and Deborah Edel, a co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, to have a conversation about queer archives. They met on Zoom (along with DA editors Rebecca Ariel Porte, Christine Elliott, and Sara Clugage) on August 28, 2023, to tell the stories of their projects and talk strategy on digitizing, volunteer management, and finding space in New York City. BGSQD and Herstory show the determination of queer people to make histories and gathering places for their communities; to safeguard the materials of queer life; to preserve the knowledge from which future guides will be assembled.
Greg: Deborah, why don’t you begin by telling us the origin story of the Lesbian Herstory Archives?
Deborah: Okay, I’m happy to do that. Also to say, of course, that it’s been in print many times and probably changes every time a different person tells a story. In 1974, there was a group of us who were active in the Gay Academic Union. Back then, there were not a lot of people publicly doing gay history. People were being thrown out of universities and schools for doing gay history or lesbian history. A number of us were in a woman’s caucus at the Gay Academic Union. Some of us were teachers, some of us were students, some of us were fellow travelers.
We all realized that the search for our own history was so difficult in the 1970s, and particularly before that. Libraries categorized us under “deviant” or “pathology.” Bookstores barely ever collected the few works that happened to be out there. We really felt how important it was for us to get a handle on the disappearance of our history. The only way to do that was to not leave it in the hands of the government or university libraries or anybody else. We had to do it ourselves and say, “Hey, wait, let’s stop and let’s start collecting. Let’s start gathering material so that future generations will have access to our history from our perspective, the history from a lesbian perspective, the history from a queer perspective.”
We were naive. None of us were actually librarians. We thought, “Oh, let’s do an international collection. Why not? We’ll gather material from all over.” Nowadays, when people write to me and say, “We’d like to start an archive.” I say, “Think locally because there’s so much history in your own community.” Back then there wasn’t a lot of known history. So, we just announced that we were going to do it and started gathering material. That was the birth of the archives.
There were five of us. We had a larger group at the very beginning. By the time we really started moving forward, we were down to five people who were committed as volunteers, which is what we always have been, a volunteer organization.
As time went on, librarians and other like-minded people started asking, “how do you collect things? What do you need in order to do it? What are some of the consent forms you might need?” We were like, “Oops, oh, consent forms. What’s that?” Those are considerations that grew over time as we got to be a little bit more concerned about how we were collecting.
From the very beginning, it was very important to us that people knew that we were sincere, that we were here, and that we wanted all stories and not just select personalized histories or purified histories.
There were a lot of good things that we’d done over our lifetime as lesbians and gay people. There were also some things that certain people might not think we should be collecting. We said, “No, we have to collect it all, because that’s the only way the future will know who we were in our diverse presence.” That’s the start of the archives.
Greg: That sounds very similar, in many ways, to our start at the Bureau, except that was me and my partner. It was just the two of us really at the start. Volunteering and being naive, maybe those are prerequisites for these things.
Getting started by jumping in and figuring it out from there rings true for so many queer projects I’ve learned about. People identifying a need and doing the work is like queer religion. We’re called into the ministry.
Deborah: Greg, when did you all start?
Greg: We started in 2012. We had the idea in 2011, and in 2012 we actually opened the store. Speaking of that, when did you guys get a physical space?
Deborah: We were very lucky, because Joan had a big apartment. She was willing to give up some of her space. She and I were partners for a while, and I lived there a good part of the time, and it took over more and more and more of her space. [The Archives were in apartment 13A from 1974 to 1991.]
Greg: That’s Joan Nestle?
Deborah: Joan Nestle, absolutely. In 1991 we were able to purchase the building in Park Slope, which became the formal home of the archives.
In the very beginning, in the 1970s, we were very lucky because Joan didn’t ask for any rent. We were able to establish ourselves by, in some ways, tithing ourselves. We knew that if we could get to a point where it was very clear that we were solid and really there, then we could start asking other people to contribute materials and also funds.
By 1979 we were able to get a 501(c)(3) and then over time, we raised enough money to purchase the building in Park Slope. In 1991 we were actually able to move out of Joans’ apartment into that building. Within five years, we were able to pay off the mortgage. We own the building free and clear. It’s an incredible, beautiful building.
Greg: That is so great. Space is everything. And it’s such a difficult thing in New York City given the expenses. I’m glad you were able to do that when you did it.
Deborah: Thank you. How about your space?
Greg: We’ve survived because we’re at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. We started out as a pop-up in a gallery. We were not sure where it was going, or how it was going to get there. We had a lot of open questions and a lot of enthusiasm. About two years into it Ira Sachs, the filmmaker, said, “you guys really need to meet the folks running The Center because I think they could be very helpful to you.”
Next thing you know we were moving into The Center in 2014, which completely saved us. I feel like, for so many organizations, it helps tremendously to have a place where you’re not charged an exorbitant rent. Our first place was a retail space and we were paying the gallery’s rent while we were there, and that was $4,000 a month.
Deborah: Oh really?
Greg: Yes, for a tiny little space on the Lower East Side. Moving to The Center was so crucial, I don’t know if we would’ve survived without that. These are always interesting questions: where do you put this thing? Where do you keep this stuff?
Deborah: I think it’s particularly complicated for New Yorkers. I talk to people who are in other places and they can have these big, enormous spaces for very little money.
Greg: Yes, and storage. The 1970s were famously a lot less expensive in New York, which enabled people to do so many great things. It’s sad to me how cost inhibits people from doing the work.
Deborah: Are you all volunteers?
Greg: We are all volunteers, and we’re not a 501(c)(3). Becoming a 501(c)(3) is something we’ve thought about and talked about a lot. However, that is how we learned about these umbrella organizations, particularly Fractured Atlas. We joined Fractured Atlas, which isn’t focused on LGBT issues, it’s for artists primarily. Fractured Atlas gives us a kind of 501(c)(3) status without going through all the paperwork.
We needed to do fundraising right away. Remarkably, the first fundraiser we held did really well. We raised $20,000 before we were even a year-old. But our hope was to get a five-year lease on a space in Manhattan and you just need more than $20,000 to do that.
Deborah: That gives you one month.
Greg: Yes, exactly. We came close to signing a lease on a space on Delancey, and I’m so glad we didn’t, because it would’ve taken every last penny we had. Those first few years in the ’70s and ’80s, when you were at Joan’s apartment, how big of a space was that?
Deborah: She was living in a really lovely, large Upper West Side apartment. There were two official bedrooms, and then what they used to call the “maid’s room.” We started in the maid’s room, and then it branched out to the second bedroom, and then into the dining room.
The space was really big, but over the years, it necessitated that Joan’s bedroom became her space, and the archives took over everything else.
Christine: Deborah, what kind of access would a person off of the street have had to your archive at that moment in time?
Deborah: They actually had an amazing amount of access. Joan taught at Queens College, so she was home a lot on certain days. I was there on other days. People were coming and going. People would come to town and we’d say, “Where are you staying?” They would say, “I’m not sure.” We’d say, “Sleep over.”
People would walk into the building, the doorman would look at the person coming in, and if they looked a little bit butchy, he’d say “13A,” whether they wanted to come to the archives or not.
Maintaining a very accessible space has become more complicated. We do have a caretaker at the archives, but she’s not there to let everybody in when they ring the doorbell. We now have specific hours and times. Initially it was like, “Come on in.”
We’re very lucky also because at Joan’s we were on Broadway and 92nd Street, and Woman Books, which was an incredible gift to the community, was on 92nd and Amsterdam, one block away. People would come to us and we’d say, “We don’t have that, but why don’t you go up and see if Woman Books has it?” Or they would have an event and they would say, “Have you been to the Herstory Archives?” There was a real flow back and forth between the Archives and Woman Books, that way.
Greg: We’re in a similar situation being at the Center. It’s great when that kind of synchronicity happens. Speaking of staffing, you said you started out as five volunteers?
Deborah: Initially we were five, and then very quickly we grew in numbers. By 1986, around the time we started trying to figure out how to raise funds so that we could buy a building, we were probably up to 15 totally committed volunteers, with a lot of other people helping out along the way.
Now we have what’s called a coordinating committee, which is how we run the archives. We run by consensus, and we meet once a month. Of course, some decisions get made spontaneously by people who are doing the work. “Oh, okay, I’m working on this project, I’m going to make a decision,” that kind of thing.
Greg: Has it ever been difficult finding enough volunteers, or has that never been the problem?
Deborah: No, we have endless numbers of people who want to volunteer. The problem is figuring out who can be where, when, and those kinds of things. We’re limited by logistics way more than we are by the number of volunteers. How about you?
Greg: I would say we’re in a similar position. We have lots of people who want to volunteer; it’s just a question of figuring out who’s going to stick around. Sometimes, I find myself investing all of this time and energy in training someone, and then boom, they’re gone. That’s the nature of the game. But then we’ve had volunteers who’ve been helping out for years, and we have people who’ve helped out for years, gone on to do something else, and then come back, which is really lovely.
Deborah: In the last number of years, because we now have librarians volunteering as coordinators, we’ve been able to get interns from the library schools who need to do their fieldwork or their internship, and that’s been wonderful. A number of the women’s colleges, and some of the other colleges, will give people grants to come and work in New York City for the summer. Not that the grants pay for much, given what they think living in New York should be.
Greg: We have a French student who’s coming to work with us this September. That kind of thing is really helpful because at least they’re getting college credit out of it. They get the funding, which we can’t provide, but we can provide them with the experience, which is great.
Rebecca: Speaking of, I just want to ask about the experience of collecting. What sorts of things do you preserve? Where do you get your materials? How has that changed over time?
Greg: So, we’re not really an archive. We’re a store. We are a de facto archive just because so much stuff has piled up over the years, but I would answer your question by saying that we’re very open. We say “yes” to most things, for better or worse. We will occasionally reach out to people and say, “Hey, we need to return this to you, this hasn’t sold,” but with an archive, if you’re intending to actually keep it, when do you say “no?”
Deborah: So far we’ve not had to say “no” very often. I think at the beginning, we had to make sure that people trusted us and believed that we were going to be around. We would get a range of materials. Sometimes it felt like people were just cleaning off their desk and putting it in the box.
But over the years, we’ve tried to help people understand what we want, or how to organize it before they send it to us, even though that isn’t required. Over time we’ve gotten material from people who are well-known in the community, and we’ve also made a real plea for papers, writings, and material from lesbians who are just leading their lives.
The important statement that I share with people is that they have two choices, they can either decide how they want to be remembered in the future, how they want to be memorialized, or they can leave it up to others. If they leave it up to others, then they will never know how they’re being remembered.
They don’t have to be important. They don’t have to be well known. They don’t have to be a writer. They don’t have to be any of those things. But their life is important. If they want to be remembered in the future, and we hope they do, they should take the time to think about what they would like to share with us, or with any other archives.
Over the years, we’ve seen situations where families have destroyed materials before we’ve gotten to them. Even to this day, some families are embarrassed or uncomfortable, or they don’t see the value in these things. We say to people, “50 years from now, 100 years from now, if the material is here, just think about how important it will be to understand what it was like to be queer in the ’90s or a lesbian feminist in the 1980s.” The only way people can know these things is if we save the papers, documents, recordings, and the ephemera: the odds and ends of daily life, the scraps of paper.
Greg: You said that over time you’ve gotten more librarians and people with experience in archives. How has the organization grown in terms of how you’ve organized everything?
Deborah: There are a couple of things we’ve kept since the very beginning. We have books, which is something that many archives don’t collect, but we knew full well that they would not be saved by traditional libraries for the most part. They would be deaccessioned too quickly by libraries who have this philosophy that if books are not taken out often enough they’ll be taken out of circulation.
We decided from the very beginning that we wanted to de-emphasize patriarchal lineage, you can tell we started in the 1970s with lesbian feminism. We organize fiction and biography by first name, rather than by last name. That’s an interesting twist, and we’ve kept that. We organize things by section. We don’t follow any of the traditional library numbering systems.
We work our way through collections slowly, as all libraries and archives do, to make sure we have finding aids, and to really make sure that we’ve processed the collections as fully as we possibly can. The librarians and archivists we’ve worked with have taught those skills from one generation to the next.
You don’t have to be a librarian or an archivist to learn how to do this, but it helps if you’re being taught by someone who has that knowledge. We’re much better organized than we were at the beginning in terms of consent forms, in terms of understanding what material we have, and how it needs to be processed.
Greg: I went to the Lesbian Herstory Archives back in 2015. I think it was because I was co-curating a show with Charlie Welch on activism. We actually named the show after Audrey Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger.”
It was great for me just to be able to flip through these notebooks and see all these great images from activist materials from the ’70s and ’80s. You’ve said already that you do collect books, you have personal papers, letters, diaries, and, of course, activist materials. Do you collect photographs, videos, film, or any other media?
Deborah: Absolutely, all of the above. We have probably 3,000 recordings of what we call “spoken word,” and we’re working away at digitizing them. We have an enormous video collection. Not home movies, particularly, because there is a group of women in New England who were doing a big lesbian home movies collection. We have posters and an incredibly large photography collection that Saskia Scheffer has worked very hard to organize and digitize. We have ephemera, posters, and we have dildos. We have buttons and t-shirts and all of those kinds of things that lesbians have produced.
When I say “ephemera,” I don’t mean video. I don’t mean audio. I mean literally dolls, things hanging on the walls. All those little things that were given to us at a time when we never said, “what is this?” or “who are you?” Now we’re working backwards, photographing it. Then we’re going to put it out like, “do you recognize any of these? Did you make some of these?” Just to try to increase the cataloging specificity of all that material. That’s what fascinates me.
There’s a big poster archives in Brooklyn also. I can’t remember their name…
Sara: Interference Archive?
Deborah: Yes. They have a lot of material of posters and things, but so do we. Actually, this summer two interns are working hard at photographing and cataloging as many of the posters as we possibly can.
Greg: What about digital ephemera? What about things like websites that end up disappearing?
Deborah: That’s a struggle, I think for every archive. I don’t think that there’s a simple solution to any of it. All those letters that we used to write are now emails. Sadly, I tell the story of a woman who a number of years ago, not even that long ago, sent all of the poetry she’d written, on those little hard square floppy disks. We are going to have to buy an attachment because nobody’s computers can process any of that.
The technology keeps on changing, and the only thing that lasts really is paper. We’re trying to figure out how we want to save websites. How do we want to save emails?
I think the world is trying to figure out how to save all of that documentation. I joke, because I’m technologically not very sound, that people say everything is “in the cloud.” What happens if we have a rainstorm?
Greg: [laughs] The cloud is gone.
Deborah: The cloud can be gone. Gone in a new technological era.
Greg: This summer we had our Instagram account disappear, just gone.
Deborah: Oh my goodness. What happened?
Greg: I don’t know. Because these people don’t answer to anyone. [laughs] They are their own masters, and it’s maddening. I just thought, “Oh my God, that’s a 10-year archive of images.” Thankfully I posted about it on Facebook. Somebody wrote me, “I work for Meta, blah, blah, blah.” It worked out, and it came back. No idea what happened. We were never given an explanation.
These are private corporations and they don’t have to answer to anyone. That is a terrible way to archive things, to put it in somebody else’s hand. Digital archives can be gone just like that. These physical archives are so tremendously important, I think. Sara, were you going to ask something?
Sara: You anticipated both of my questions. How does Lesbian Herstory Archives deal with digital archiving, and how do you at the Bureau deal with archiving? Because you are also recording a community that exists and uses your space. It’s terrifying to think of just giving all of that over to Meta as their own property.
Also, how do you deal with taking photos at events? Do you archive materials from your programming? How do you record the community that you create there?
Greg: It’s hodgepodge. It’s not super organized. One good thing that came out of the pandemic was doing a lot on Zoom. That’s all we could do for a year and a half. Then, when we started going back in person, we started asking people, “do you want us to live stream the event?”
Now we have another huge online archive of our past events on YouTube. Again, it’s in private corporate hands. That’s the next thing for us to figure out: how can we take these digital materials and hold them somewhere that we retain control over them? So that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t just erase us with a flip of a switch? It’s tremendously important. I think it’s also important to talk to young people about this because they’re growing up with it and are probably not thinking about where materials will end up or how they will be saved.
Those are important conversations to have because all of this stuff is in private for-profit corporate hands; they’re happy to work with the Chinese government, the Saudi government, and if that means erasing queers, so be it.
Deborah: Should a business decide that they don’t like a word that you use, they take you down. If they’ll do better with people who hate us, they’ll take us down. You’re right, I think the younger generation needs to be educated in such a different way about all of that. Just as we’re having to be educated about some of these challenges, they need to be educated as well.
Greg: We’re all learning. I think the important thing to learn from previous generations is that it’s up to us. Nobody else is going to do it. We have to do it. It’s our work. Lesbian Herstory Archives is such a treasure and also just such a great example of that. We’re committed to doing it and we’re going to keep doing it. It serves us, it enriches us, and it helps us so much to have all of those resources.
It’s so eye-opening because none of us learned this stuff in school. Now, New York Public Library, for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, put together a bunch of shows, drawing on our archives.
It’s such important work. Have you found that people using the archives have changed? Or that how they use the archives has changed over the years?
Deborah: I think more people are doing research, both at the archives and other places, than when we first got started. The battle when we first got started, of course, was to even be able to teach a gay history class at a university.
I think that the number of people printing material and doing research has increased dramatically. Some of the earliest research I think was the most powerful. The work that, let’s say Jonathan Katz did, or John D’Emilio or Alan Bérubé, or Estelle Freedman, they did incredible work back then with very few easily accessible materials. They had to really dig. Now much more is online.
We work with EBSCO, Gale, and Cengage to digitize parts of our collection. We’re always very careful to make sure that nothing goes out to them that we think anybody would have trouble with if it turned up online. We get money for doing those collections. That’s been very helpful.
We find members of the community who need work, who understand what they’re looking for. That’s worked out very nicely for us. I think the research that people are doing is different, but the one thing that has stayed constant is that people who are working for radios and televisions call you up the day before and say, “We want to come and we want to do this. We want it by tonight.”
We say, “Sorry. You didn’t give us any lead time. We don’t work that way. We can’t do it.” We’ll try to be helpful, but they’re always on the last-minute deadline. That has not ever changed.
Greg: I’m curious, how do you keep it going? Those of you who’ve been involved from the beginning? I completely understand the risk of burnout when you’re working for free and you’re like, “Okay, how much longer am I doing this?” or, “I can really use some help and some encouragement right about now.”
Deborah: I was the last of the original crew. Joan moved to Australia. She’s still very involved in the archives, but in a more distant way. We always said “we will survive if the younger generations see the importance of the work, and if they get involved. If they don’t, then we might as well hang it up.” Very quickly, we realized that they did and they do. We now have volunteers and coordinators who are 20 and 21 and 25 and 35 and 45, all the way up and down the line. That’s how I knew we would survive, when I saw that other people were interested. Other generations are interested in the work that we are doing.
The other thing is that we have never spent on a project unless we have the money. We have never had to borrow, other than the mortgage for a short period of time.
Sometimes we get bequests, and we do one annual fundraising letter in the fall. We get enough money to survive. That’s how we keep going. We’re setting up an endowment too. We now have a growing endowment that we’re working to develop.
Greg: Oh, that’s great. Do you actually have some paid staff now?
Greg: It’s still all volunteer-run. It’s just money to keep doing the work.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve appreciated so much listening to this conversation is that queer history is often narrated in terms of erasure and loss. Not just the loss of the history but also the loss of entire generations of people. The gaping wound of the AIDS epidemic, of violence, generally, against queer life is so much weight.
One of the things that I’ve appreciated so far is that the emphasis has been on not just queer survival but flourishing and abundance. I was wondering if you might want to talk about a moment in your history of doing the work that really emphasized its value for you, or that moved you, or that made you feel that, “Oh, this is something that leaves a mark.”
Greg: For me, one thing that stands out is when the artist Liz Collins came to us, I think it was in 2017, wanting to do a group exhibition featuring work by some 100 queer artists. As with most things, we said, “yes.” Crazily we said “yes.”
We did an online fundraiser and raised $12,000. She designed wallpaper for the exhibition, and had that printed up. She had also designed carpeting for use in a previous exhibition. She had that all installed, as well as the work by around 100 artists.
That was just incredible. Super young artists, much older artists, some artists who were no longer alive, very well-known artists, and the opposite, unheard-of artists. It was just so beautiful. It just felt like, “Yes, this is worth it.” It almost killed me. It was so much work and a lot of stress. But in the end, it was just like, “This is so beautiful. This is great. It’s going to live on.”
Thankfully, we had it documented, and Liz designed and printed a catalog. It’s the only time we’ve had a catalog for an exhibition. That show, it was called Cast of Characters, was just so incredibly important. I know it felt like just a group hug, which we all can use more of definitely.
Deborah: It’s very hard for me to answer that question because it really does change at different points. One of the things that always excites me is when I give a tour of the archives, and I open the door to the people coming in, and I look around the room and there’s somebody from Thailand and there’s somebody from Vietnam: there are people from all over the world. That is always so moving to me.
It’s so important for people to claim their own histories and to be able to touch things. I think one of the earliest decisions we made, which went counter to traditional archives, was that you didn’t have to leave everything at the door and put on gloves and come in. You could come in and touch things without gloves: really touch your history in a very direct way.
We haven’t lost anything due to it. If fingerprints are destroying paperwork, then that will happen over time, but not in a rapid way. I think it is more important for people to actually be able to touch and feel and see things. The other thing is when I give a tour, and there is silence, I realize that the silence is about people feeling overwhelmed by their own history, rather than boredom or restlessness.
Sometimes I’ll see a tear or two come down somebody’s face. Those are the moments to me that are the most powerful: just watching people experience their own histories, connect to their own histories.
Greg: That’s one of the beautiful things about being in New York, people come here from everywhere. I had someone not too long ago from Romania; they bought a library, basically, to take back with them. That’s just so wonderful to know that, “Wow, we have connections that didn’t exist before.”
We once hosted the head of the LGBT Center in Beijing, which has subsequently been shut down. Having those connections is just so affirming. Especially when you’re in a geographic location that’s not a good place for queer people, having those connections can be life-saving. It feels so good for us to realize, “Wow, we’re helping someone in Kazakhstan have a lifeline to know that they’re not isolated and alone, that they are part of a vast community around the world.”
I just want to strengthen those connections as much as possible because that’s how we learn from each other.
Deborah: One of the things that Joan has been able to do from where she is, is to connect up with people in other countries that want to start their own archives. Some of them are in very risky situations. She has been working with communities of people who’ve contacted her to help build an archival connection around the world, because each community should be collecting its own history.
Greg: The local material is so important, because you may not find it anywhere else.
Rebecca: I just wanted to thank you both. This discussion was so vibrant and enlivening, all of it.