Organizations that Swish April 20, 2009

Preserving LGBT History

ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles is the oldest continually running LGBT organization in the United States and the largest LGBT archive in the world.

I recently spoke with with ONE’s president, Joseph Hawkins, who is also a lecturer in the Gender Studies Department at the University of Southern California, about ONE’s work, snapshots from LGBT days gone by, and getting the next generation involved.

When was ONE founded and by whom?

ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives was founded in 1952 and began publishing ONE magazine in 1953. Following the break-up of the Mattachine Foundation a group of new members began to meet near downtown Los Angeles. Among those who were there early on were Eve Elloree, Chuck Rowland, Dale Jennings, Stella Rush, Don Slater, Tony Reyes (Slater’s partner), and Ann Carll Reid. However, Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner soon took leadership roles along with Don Slater. Its board comprises librarians, archivists, attorneys, a financial consultant, and other professionals. We try to be a community resource and to represent more than just an academic perspective.

How many members does ONE have?

ONE’s membership is in the thousands, and includes folks who have been affiliated since the beginning (1950s) and members who joined last week.

Does ONE have any branches or affiliations in other states or countries?

We did have affiliates in the 50 states and there is still a group in Long Beach that shares our name. However, we do share duplicate materials with organization around the world.

Your website features a joint project between ONE and UCLA’s LGBT Campus Resource Center, the LGBT History Timeline, aimed at “providing information to young people seeking a greater knowledge of their own history.” Can you tell me a bit about the “eureka” moment, if there was one, leading you, along with Dr. Ronni Santo from UCLA, to develop the idea?

When our former executive director Stuart Timmons was on board he applied for a joint grant with Dr. Sanlo, built around a completely different project. After Mr. Timmons left, I joined with Ronni to produce, with the aid of the California Community Partnership Grant, what is now the LGBT Timeline. The central concept was to get students and lay people in the community to submit entries and to help build an online resource for young people to learn about their history. This began, in my mind, after my students at the University of Southern California were polled and I found that as many as 90% did not even know who Harvey Milk was because learning about his history was forbidden in high schools along with other gay topics. It was like having Martin Luther King erased from American history to me—an entire generation was unable to find out about its history because a homophobic agenda shaped their curriculum. We then sought to provide a place where LGBT students could build their own history.

Once the site is complete, do you have a specific plan of action to make LGBT youth aware of it?

My main plan is for the site to always be a work in progress. I want to continue to have students and the community submit entries and to build a Wikipedia-like resource. Each semester I pitch to have students to write new entries and to solicit new material for the website. Anyone can contribute by writing to ONE at our website.

SWiSH made its first public appearance at the NYC Pride Parade in 2003 and finds it an invaluable forum for connecting with the local LGBT community and its supporters. Does ONE have a presence at the Los Angeles Pride Parade?

Yes, we often work in cooperation with the Christopher Street West (CSW) group here in Los Angeles, which has produced the Parade since 1970. Last year, the opening of our ONE Archives Gallery and Museum in West Hollywood featured an exhibit about the history of CSW. This year we will host a retrospective on the life of Pat Rocco, an activist and entrepreneur here in Los Angeles in the 1970s who helped revitalize the Parade after it faltered in 1973. We provide exhibit materials, historical reference materials, and images to those affiliated with the Parade, as well.

If you had to pick one permanent item in ONE’s collection that has the most meaning for you personally, what would it be and why?

Actually there are a number. Lisa Ben’s Vice Versa magazine published in 1947 is one. When I imagine this woman at her typewriter banging out carbon copies of the magazine, it seems almost unbelievable how much courage that took. We also have early letters from the ONE magazine readership describing the horrid conditions for same-sex-desiring people in the 1950s. They feared the post office, persecution from their government, and the loss of employment just for reading our publication. And not a day goes by that a photograph doesn’t turn up that shows that we have always been there living our lives and trying to hold our heads high despite recrimination from a number of sources. Again, there is no one thing because ONE’s resources are vast. I am always finding new inspiration.

How do you believe history will ultimately judge the LGBT movement in 50 or 100 years? Will people look back and wonder why acceptance was so long in coming, or will social stigmas and inequalities remain?

I think it will all seem “quaint” someday. Much as today we look back at racial equality struggles and see the absurdity of that kind of discrimination, or look at women’s rights and know how silly some of that was, one day we will look back at LGBT struggles with incredulity. I can see a real shift among my students for whom identity based on sexuality is already becoming a thing of the past. With the advent of queerness, many of my students don’t feel compelled to be lesbian or gay but hold a sense of themselves as complete humans without the need for a sexualized or romantic identity.

I often tell my students that I too would not have a gay identity were it not forced upon me by oppression. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be gay, because my identification with my brothers and sisters and those who have joined with us makes me very happy and a part of a greater movement. However, I look forward to a time when I can just be who I am without regard for labels and recriminations about who I love. I think we are well on our way to a better time when much of the discrimination against gay people will seem silly.

If you would like to give financial or volunteer support to ONE, please visit their website at www.onearchives.org. They are also happy to accept print and media materials for their archives and permanent collections.

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