We often have heard the term “queer.” “Queer” originally meant odd, peculiar, or strange. However, nowadays, queer is used as an umbrella term that means people who did not conform to dominant norms of sexuality and gender. It was born as heteronormativity’s antithesis and collected to the uncommon notion of social relations that poses a question to sex and gender binaries.

In this essay, I will discuss “archiving queer materials,” dealing with the following three topics: a history of archiving queer materials in the United States, the meaning of archiving queer materials, and how to archive queer materials. They are discussed based on four interviews with Marvin Taylor, the librarian of the Fales Library and Special Collections in New York University and the founder of the Downtown Collection, Rich Wandel, the second president of the Gay Alliance Association (GAA) and the founder archivist of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive, Jonathan Katz, an independent historian who wrote the books concerning queer history like “Gay American History” and “The Invention of Heterosexuality,” and Mimi Bowling, a consulting archivist and ex-curator of manuscripts at New York Public Library (NYPL).

The concept of queer gives us an opportunity to rethink and reimagine the dominant and normative discourses of archiving.

History of Archiving Queer Materials in the United States

Before the advent of queer archives, the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University is thought of as the first archive about sexuality in the United States. By 1947, when the institute was founded as the Institute for Sex Research (ISR), Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s research collection was already the largest collection of materials related to sex in the world and also included the materials regarding homosexuality.

Interestingly, the most enormous as well as important collections of queer materials largely originate from personal collections, often stored in the houses of queer individuals. Ahead of the LGBT rights movement, queer people were already trying to preserve the documents reflecting on their lives and communities. In the United States, the Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969 triggered the resettlement of private collections into public institutions.

The ONE Archives, officially called as the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at University of Southern California, was founded in 1971 with the name of the Western Gay Archives, and currently possesses the largest collection of queer materials in the world. It is known as the first queer archive in the United States. This archive is also derived from Jim Kepner’s personal collection.

According to Taylor, the way of collecting queer materials has followed a pattern of collecting feminist materials, but collecting materials about sex was still recognized as a taboo in the late 80s and early 90s. Increasingly, libraries’ special collections collect queer materials in the middle of 90s. Since then, the attempts to start independent queer archives and create queer collections inside the existing institutions have been accomplished. The Society of American Archivists’ Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable created “Lavender Legacies Guide,” inclusively listing the institutions that have queer materials in North America.

Let’s look closely at the practices in New York and know about archiving queer materials more profoundly. During the period that archives started to archive queer history, Katz published a documentary book “Gay American History” in 1976. It demonstrates a collection of documents that provide a chronicle of homosexuality in the United States from the colonial era to the present. This book was used as an important information source for queer history as well as influenced on many future researchers, archivists, and librarians. Queer history is more difficult to follow than women’s history because the terms for homosexuality rapidly appear and fade away while a category “woman” has not changed through different time periods and situations. In addition to the terms problem, queer history studies often encounter specific discrimination, so they have difficulty to maintain LGBTQ subjects in archives. From these reasons, queer history researchers have tried to generate historical records by themselves.

The LGBT Community Center National History Archive (LGBT Center Archive) was one of the community-based queer archives in New York and founded in 1989. Wandel worked there as a main archivist for 26 years. As he says, when the archive was founded, other institutions which had materials about queer history were generally functioning as libraries and holding books rather than archival documents. Therefore, the advent of the LGBT Center Archive was a breakthrough for queer history studies in New York. The Center Archive is located in West Village, New York, and it holds a wide variety of media from the early 1920s such as photos, correspondences, news clippings, zines, ephemeras, radio soundbites, and video broadcasts. The Center Archive currently has about 1,600 feet of materials and allows access to 161 collections in total. As a community-based queer archive, the LGBT Center Archive has had a tolerant collection access policy and a collection development policy. Regardless of age, ethics, and gender, it is opened for everybody, and there is no restriction to use. In addition to the accessibility, the LGBT Center Archive has a flexible collection policy and collects almost anything if it is related to LGBTQ history.

Public libraries have also developed queer materials. NYPL currently holds over 100 collections about queer history and culture, and about the history of the AIDS/HIV problems. One of the biggest collections is International Gay Information Center collection, which was donated from the center in 1988 and documents gay rights movement in New York City and the United States from the 1950s to the 1980s. In 1994, NYPL has an exhibition “Becoming Visible: the Legacy of Stonewall” to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Stonewall Riots, which gave the chance for the gay and lesbian collection to be grown, even though there had been queer materials before that. This exhibition received a lot of attendants and drew attention towards the gay and lesbian collection. As a result, the exhibition became a magnet to invite other donations.

The Downtown Collection, which was founded in 1994, includes the documents about the downtown art scene that flourished in SoHo and the Lower East Side from the 1970s to the early 1990s. The collection documents queer culture too because some of the artists that created the materials are queers. Many points of “documentation strategy” are used for the Downtown Collection, and the collection challenges the limitation of the traditional archival model. Taylor mentions that through the Downtown Collection, he tries to queer the notion of library collecting and collect materials that libraries generally do not have.

Meaning of Archiving Queer Materials

Why have people been archiving queer materials? Through the interviews, three ideas are coming up. First, obviously to support study and research of queer history. Second, to support queer identities. Third, to help activism. In the first place, why should we study and research queer history?

Wandel insists that most people have a relationship with cultures like religions and ethics when they identify themselves. However, before the gay rights movement started, if we recognized ourselves as gay, we could be divorced from a wide culture. We needed to “replace” it with something. And one way of replacing it was a sense of gay history. History is important for building a community and self-image. For Wandel, the knowledge of gay history teaches us that there were gay people.

Katz’s involvement in queer history research started because he engaged in the gay rights movement after the Stonewall Inn Riots, and the political movement inspired him. He made a documentary play “Coming Out” based on historical documents about LGBTQ history. It was the beginning of his 40 years of research career writing LGBTQ history. For him, history is not merely a form of political activism but scholarly research.

Katz wrote and published in 1995 “The Invention of Homosexuality” talking about the importance of researching and studying queer history. The current categorization of persons, activities, and feelings towards heterosexual and homosexual is called into question by the research about the history of homosexual. Through this book, Katz tries to prove that the hypothesis that heterosexuality, as with homosexuality, is a social and historical coinage. A French Philosopher Michel Foucault alerts the present people of the risk of casting current heterosexual and homosexual categories on the present. In the late 19 century, because of the advent of the concept of a new different-sex pleasure, the reproductive ideal was beginning to be cast doubt. The very first usage of the terms of heterosexual and homosexual appeared in May 1892 in the United States on the article written by Dr. James G. Kiernan in a Chicago medical journal. Kiernan describes that the yearning for their sex as pleasure is unsuitable in addition to be contrary to reproductive ideal. History shows that what we accept as natural is not necessarily always natural and encourages us to think out of the box. As Katz also says, the reason to do historical research is to deepen the understanding of human beings, interesting diversity.

Queer materials support queer identities as well. According to Taylor, pornography, which the Downtown collection also attempts to archive, has an important role to support coming out. Through pornography, it is possible to see a positive image of men having sex together and feel supportive about an emotional attachment to the same sex. A gay African American poet and activist Essex Hemphill recalled on his book “Brother to Brother” that he read almost all the books about homosexuality at the local library when he was in sixth grade, but he could not find any material that shows him a positive image about it. He continues to mutters that “[i]f I had read a book like In the Life[: A Black Gay Anthology] when I was fifteen or sixteen, there might have been one less mask for me to put aside later in life.”

Rich Wandel talks about the importance of studying gay history.

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Jonathan Katz says the reason to do history research is to deepen the understanding of human beings, interesting diversity.

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Archives that have queer materials, particularly community-led queer archives, have the role of an activist as well as a cultural role. Archiving and history-making are activism generally linked with political agenda seeking a social change because collected community memories inspire the community to confront the dominant narratives that wrongly represent them and may be used to discriminate them. Gay rights movement called community-based queer archives and tried to make LGBTQ more visible since any authorized institutions could not do that. In doing so, queer archives have the important role to develop a collective identity between volunteer archivists, donors, and visitors in its community.

How to Archive Queer Materials

We archive queer materials because of the important purposes we already discussed; to enhance queer history research, to support the identity of queers, and to encourage archival activism. To fulfill these purposes, how should we archive queer materials?

In the first place, let’s think about the meaning of “queer” again. “Queer” has escaped from its depreciative meaning and obtained the signification of accepting difference from the sense of “queer” as “odd.” The words “gay and lesbian” have a connection with a certain political and historical approach that ignores other homosexual groups and dominantly assumes white and middle-class men despite the addition of lesbian. Actually, gay movements are derived from the efforts of white males who sought the improvement of their status within the existing social constitution.

Queer theory challenges how to archive queer materials. Taylor says in his essay that applying queer theory to library works stimulates more essential questions such as what materials libraries collect, why those materials should be collected, who can use those materials, how those materials are arranged, and even how queer materials challenge traditional library practice and services. Queer theory applies the experience as queers to expose the biases in the society and questions fundamental structures of our culture and society. Applying queer theory can change traditional approaches not only to LGBTQ materials but also disabled, feminist, black, and other queer materials. The notion of queer deconstructs lesbian and gay archives and deconstructs the power structures that keep queer materials from permanent archival collections. Queer materials question us the structure and methodology of libraries and archives.

Archivists and librarians have peculiar points of view from the experiences and that affects how they evaluate the political, economic, literary, historical structures or the structures within archives. As the same way, heterosexism is well-incorporated into our culture, so archivists unconsciously accept it. They never question the structure nor come across the idea that they exclude queers when collecting materials even though an archive is generally thought of as an unbiased and neutral institution. It is annihilation that archives ignore materials that record queer history and pretend as if they did not exist. Queer theories can challenge the problem of positionality and reveal the agency of queer groups because this theory confuses prevailing academic frameworks and social relations by deconstructing the influential heteronormative structures.

The Downtown collection also has attempted to queer the notion of libraries and archives and collected the queer culture that other libraries probably do not obtain. Taylor has been continuing questioning what belongs to collections, and what should be acquired. For example, the Fales library recently purchased photos and a printed handkerchief of sex images, which would be probably made in France around 1900s (Figure 1). We might not expect that a library collects such materials. Taylor sees their collections transgressive and tries to continuously question which things are hidden and are not hidden. Therefore, New York University is an institution where people do what people generally cannot do, and therefore, the Downtown collection fits this university well.

Figure 1: A printed handkerchief of sex images in France around 1900s

Taylor also says the Downtown artists in 70s who read French critical theories were heavily influenced by those writers. New York was addressing some of the same issues as French critics were addressing a structure of big power. In other words, they were trying to figure out how this language sustains this culture by primarily focusing a language, what can be said, or what cannot be said, and how are silences enforced.

In the book “The History of Sexuality,” Foucault also describes about silence; Silence itself – the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers – is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses.

Silence is a lack of something in any culture, Taylor says. We can find what things are said or not said by looking at silence. This is particularly important for archives because we have to think about what is absent? why is it absent? who made it be absent? what happens when you allow it a space in an archive? what is the effect on the archive?

Taylor mentions that at the moment we are surprised by the photographs, that is the moment we start investigating archives. This kind of materials make us think like “Wait a minute, why is it here? Or, why isn’t it here?” We all come with the assumption that culture has been just still in us. We are culturally informed about this assumption. However, we need to look for those breaks to start large issues of archives. That is “a queer moment.” This is different from just lesbian and gay collection which was located in revolutionary politics because we don’t have to question the structure of culture in this theoretical way. Even though Foucault is right that the “archive” cannot be described completely, this does not eliminate the possibility of attempting to preserve more materials to make possible a better reconstruction of the “archive.” Archives and libraries should be conscious about what they collect and how they preserve materials because they cannot collect a full of the culture.

Katz insists that the Kinsey Institute started collecting and creating really important materials from the early days. They did not just wait for receiving materials but outreached for getting different archival materials. Kinsey and the research team published two books about human sexual behavior, generally called the Kinsey Reports, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” in 1948 and “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” in 1953. About homosexuality, Kinsey and the research team revealed that homosexual desire and behavior were more common than imagined. The first report is based on the case histories of 5,300 white males, and the second report is based on the case histories of 5,940 white females. By collecting the necessary information, they created a new archival collection. As with the Kinsey Institute, we have to think more about how archives can make “queer things.” Archives will be able to have more responsibility to create records that catch queerness.

Also, Taylor indicates that archives should focus especially on local materials because they are easily neglected as the Downtown Collection focuses on East Village and Soho. In addition to spotlighting the locals, we have to remember that different groups have different types of remembering, and the forms of remembering may go beyond the borders of traditional archiving. Therefore, archives and libraries should be flexible to accept or create archival materials.

According to Marvin Taylor, the moment we are surprised by the photographs is “a queer moment.”

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According to Bowling, archiving queer materials has a conflict between protecting the privacy and making materials available. For example, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (the oldest AIDS organization in the United States) records of NYPL has a lot of materials including private information such as case files about patients created by social agencies. NYPL could not accept them because of the privacy issue even though those case records include important life stories of queers. In terms of digitization, a queer and mixed-race systems librarian Tara Robertson suggested privacy issues when the Reveal Digital put a lesbian porno magazine On Our Backs online. In fact, when she consulted with the people who appeared in the magazine, some of them did not admit making their photos online. Tara says that it is crucial to balance the interests of people who access the digital archive and the individual’s privacy. Also, people should be consulted about their wishes concerning publishing, but we have to consider that lesbian people are not homogeneous and do not always share the same point of view.

Mimi Bowling indicates the conflict between protecting the privacy and making materials available.

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Taylor suggests that queer can be thoroughly invisible, totally excluded from a support system, or, as usual, it is oppressed within the traditional support systems. Invisibility, however, can also stimulate the awareness that unsettles the rules because queer concepts promote the exploration of silenced voices. Wandel also says “[we] cannot be silent,” and we have to raise our voice to protect ourselves. Archiving queer materials is always asking us to observe carefully and break up the norm.


Rich Wandel 

04/02/2019 at his house in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY

0:00 Reason for creating the LGBT Center Archive

13:10 Other LGBTQ archives when the LGBT Center Archive was founded

14:50 Difference of the LGBT Center Archive

21:30 Rules of the LGBT Center Archive

25:20 Management of and donation to archives

27:10 Volunteers of the archives

30:40 Fulltime archivist

32:20 Influence of the archive

36:30 Problems of community archives

40:00 Role of the LGBT Center Archive

48:50 Expectation for the LGBT Center Archive

51:15 How is the world different now from before the civil rights movement started?

58:20 Catholicism and queer

1:08:20 People who influenced on Rich

1:19:00 Importance of the LGBT Center Archive for Rich (1:21:36)

Marvin Taylor

04/10/2019 at his office of the Fales Library & Special Collections in New York

0:00 Queer theory and queering the archives

10:00 difference/characteristics of LGBTQ archival materials

15:20 Foundation and Proliferation of Downtown collection

19:35 Notion of coming out and the role of pornography

23:20 influences of the Downtown Collection

27:30 Archiving outsider’s culture as a university archive

32:40 Influence of Foucault on the Downtown culture and the Downtown Collections

39:00 Silence mentioned by Foucault

46:40 Be Conscious at the time of collecting materials

51:00 Advent of LGBTQ community archives

57:50 Reason why we should study LGBTQ history

1:00:30 Outreach of archives

1:04:20 Expectation for LGBTQ archives

1:06:50 Idea of queering the archives

1:09:55 Meaning of queer (1:13:07)

Jonathan Katz

04/12/2019 at his house, in Greenwich Village, New York

0:00 Involvement with LGBTQ history

7:30 Use of archives as an independent scholar

23:05 LGBTQ Community archives

36:20 What archives should collect?

50:40 Research for LGBTQ history

1:06:15 Historical research for resistance

1:09:30 OutHistory.org

1:29:25 Next step of LGBTQ archives (1:44:10)


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———. “Queer Things from Old Closets: Libraries-Gay and Lesbian Studies-Queer Theory.” Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 8, no. 1 (1993 1993): 19–34.