Q5 (#6): Susie R. Bock

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Susie R. Bock

Susie R. Bock


Susie R. Bock is Head of Special Collections and Director of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at the University of Southern Maine. She has almost 30-years experience managing primary materials and developed collections preserving the history of Maine’s LGBT communities. She was the recipient of the 2011 Friend of USM Women & Gender Studies Award.

Queer!NEA recently featured an interview with Ryan Conrad, a Concordia University PhD candidate who conducted a research and digitization project at the Sampson Center. I thank Susie for giving us an opportunity to learn more about the LGBT Collection at USM by sharing her own thoughts and perspectives.

Q1. Could you give one or two examples of the ways the collections have been utilized by researchers? How has your work and the work of scholars contributed to a better understanding of Maine’s LGBTQ history?

S.R.B. It has been used in 3 annual events in  2005, 2006, 2008 for the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine (the parent institution of the LGBT Collection). These events include an opening reception, lectures, exhibition and printed exhibition catalog. For digital resources from these events, go to
https://usm.maine.edu/library/specialcollections/programs-and-publications
or
http://digitalcommons.usm.maine.edu/sampson_center/

Our work has made it clear that LGBT people and culture exists throughout the community, whether that community is Caribou, Maine, or Portland, Maine or San Francisco. The LGBT community has changed as does the overall society, and reflects human history just as well. You can not understand any period of history without knowing all the stories, not just the dominant culture.

Q2. What would you say, if anything, is unique about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection at the University of Southern Maine? Does its focus on a smaller state such as Maine present any distinctive challenges or rewards?

Because the LGBT Collection is part of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, one sees clearly how any under-represented group, any minority, can suffer, and thus the principle of civil rights being absolute in the United States, not subject to the whims of the majority, is a bedrock that allows America to thrive.

Maine is a large state, with a small, disperse population. The internet had good and bad effects on the material culture we collect. Before the internet, people were forced to create local organizations and communicate by print. These all created tangible material to collect. The internet has replaced much of this activity, yet not created sustainable resources. However, the internet makes it easier to communicate and promote the LGBT Collection and has aided collection development.

Q3. The LGBT Collection, along with the African American Collection of Maine and the Judaica Collection, constitute the majority of the holdings of the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. How does the mission of the LGBT Collection correlate with the work of the Center as a whole, and how can the LGBT holdings inform perspectives on civil rights as a whole in Maine?

The LGBT Collections makes Maine stand out in the study of civil rights. In what many would judge to be an American “back-water” in terms of culture and economics, is in fact the first state to pass anti-discrimination legislation by a general election. This would seem to infer, that everyone can understand and champion the importance of civil rights for all. That “life as it should be” means everyone is valued.

Q4. The Sampson Center has given out the Catalyst for Change and Lifetime Achievement Awards. What role do you and the Center seek to play in activism and social justice initiatives?

We preserve and make available the stories that can educate and empower activists. If you remember history, you are not doomed to repeat it.

Q5. Can you name a collection in the Sampson Center’s holdings that you find to be particularly interesting or noteworthy? If so, why do you think it is significant?

Yes, it is the series of LGBT collections that chronicle the local and then state fight for anti-discrimination legislation because it is a triumph of the best qualities of human nature. And this story gives me hope for the future.

Everyday, I love my job, because what I do matters.

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Q5 (#5): Doug Johnstone and the Provincetown History Preservation Project

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Doug JohnstoneDoug Johnstone


Doug Johnstone is the Town Clerk of Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the coordinator of the Provincetown History Preservation Project. The Project maintains a digital archive of items relating to Provincetown history on its website.

Q1. The Provincetown History Preservation Project’s “About Us” page states that, prior to the start of this project, “the material had since been stored in an inappropriate and inaccessible attic storage location and was quickly fading from public memory.” What inadequacies did you see at the time, and what made you decide that these materials were worth preserving and sharing?

The sentence references the initial focus of the Provincetown History Project: the material and artifacts that were once a part of the Provincetown Heritage Museum, in operation from 1976 until the doors were closed to the public in 1999. The Museum, and its contents, remained in the closed building from 1999 to 2002, when the Provincetown Public Library was scheduled to move into the old Heritage Museum building and the contents of the Museum were then moved to “temporary” storage on the third floor attic space in one of the Town’s municipal buildings, a wooden structure originally built in the early 1800’s. The attic space was only accessible by a narrow wooden staircase, with little to no ventilation and subject to heat and humidity. The Town’s plan in 2002 was to have the material conveyed to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, but negotiations between the Town and the Monument had broken down completely by 2004 over additional money that the Monument required the Town pay in order to properly house the collection. While the initial dollar amount of $800,000 the Monument was requesting was ultimately reduced to $500,000, the Town could not afford to pay, and by 2005 the short term storage location had become more or less permanent.

The space was cramped, dusty, humid, not secure, and completely inadequate. Due to limited space, boxes were piled on top of each other and amongst physical artifacts. Any manner of material, including glass plate negatives, photographs, paper documents, and books were mixed in with actual artifacts, that included just about everything from whale bones, assorted furniture, oars, signage, cannon balls, and netting – all on top of each other, with no clear pathways or room to get to a particular box even if it could be easily located.

I had the archive index on my computer. By default I became the person people came to in order to research or access material they believed to be a part of the Heritage Museum. There was no way that researchers, or the public in general, could directly access the material, so it was up to me to retrieve items for review. There were several problems with this, as you can imagine: the attic storage was not in the building I worked in; inevitably, whatever box I was looking for was always on the bottom of a large pile and way in the back under the lowest part of the roof; material, once retrieved, needed to be returned to the proper box; the attic itself was secured with a simple lock and chicken wire, with little or no security as numerous people had access to the key and there was no daily oversight of the attic storage area.

There was never a doubt in my mind that the material was important and needed to be available, as it was carefully and thoughtfully curated for the past thirty years by one of the Town’s foremost archivists and founder of the Heritage Museum, Josephine Del Deo. Once I knew for certain that the material would not be transferred to the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and that the Town had no plan for the material other than to leave it in the attic, I began to discuss the problem with others in the community and that was the start, in 2005, of the Provincetown History Project.

Q2. It seems like digitization and accessibility have been at the heart of this project from the beginning. How did you decide on this approach for sharing Provincetown’s history? What are some challenges and rewards you have encountered along the way?

There were several goals, some of them immediate concerns that became priorities and others more long term. We needed to get the material out of the inadequate attic storage area and to find a suitable location that would allow us to inventory and assess the material. Another one of our goals was to get the material out in public view, for if it simply remained in boxes it would likely fade from public memory or vanish altogether. Digitization appeared the best way to accomplish this goal while also protecting the originals as much as possible.

There were many challenges in dealing with the material at hand: finding sufficient space to inventory and assess the material; finding people with the time, and in some cases expertise, to help with the evaluation process; equipment to scan selected material, not to mention archival supplies to protect the material; money to pay for equipment and materials as no budget was allocated for this purpose; and ultimately development of a website. As if that wasn’t enough, a further long range goal was to display the physical artifacts in some way throughout the Town’s municipal buildings. This group effort relied on much hard work, good will from the community, monetary support from incredibly generous donors, community grants, luck, and what I can only attribute to divine intervention.

The experience has truly been a rewarding one. Working with others in the community on a common vision is a great experience. Meeting goals that at times appeared insurmountable continues to astonish me. A few years into the History Project we also began to digitize the material in the Town’s own municipal archives, and also began receiving significant material from the public and other Town institutions that otherwise may not have been available to the public at large. Having all of this material available to the public through our searchable website is incredibly satisfying. My own ongoing education about the Town’s history and the importance of preserving and remembering our past has been an unexpected and much appreciated benefit as well.

Q3. You were the Town Clerk when Provincetown began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. How do the materials in the Same-Sex Marriage Collection help create a portrait of the town at that time?

The material found in the Same Sex Marriage Collection on the History Project website is from my own files that I managed to keep at the time and was planning to archive in 2010. I remember thinking in 2010 that it was way too soon to place it on the History Project website, but felt it important to remember the event that had such a positive impact on the community. Provincetown became a focus of intense national and international attention during that period, and I had wanted to show the immense outpouring of excitement and support from the community not only on the issue of fairness and equal rights for all, but also to the Town Clerk’s Office specifically. Town government officials took a truly activist stance in response to then Governor Mitt Romney’s attempt to prevent issuance of marriage licenses to same sex couples, and their leadership actions are an important reminder of what our community values. The plan is to add to the collection as material presents itself. While certainly not the definitive record of events from that time, it provides some insight to any future researcher interested in the issue.

Q4. Collections such as the aforementioned Same Sex Marriage Collection and the Safe Harbor/AIDS Archive provide glimpses into the ways one community has responded to developments that have impacted queer people nationwide and beyond. Building on the last question, but thinking more broadly, what can an understanding of Provincetown’s history teach us about queer history in the United States?

The two collections referenced in your question represent, to me, the importance of documenting and remembering our past. As specific members in the community change, and as the community itself changes, it is far too easy to forget the joy, celebration and fight over same sex marriage that the community experienced, for example, or the true heroism, dedication and loss experienced in Provincetown in response to HIV/AIDS. Each collection is a snapshot of the community at that particular place in time and clearly show the community values of the period. Provincetown, like other communities, is always changing. Provincetown’s response to the AIDS crisis within the community, and even more recently the Town’s reaction to same sex marriage, both relatively recent events, are already relegated to a memory that not everyone who lives here shares. As a community, if we don’t know where we came from and what we valued, we risk losing our identity.

Q5. Is there a particular item or aspect of Provincetown history that is particularly intriguing to you? Why is it so interesting or significant?

Personally, I am always on the lookout for material related to the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This time period is little represented in Provincetown History Project material that is currently in the collection. I suspect people might have thought it not of historic value, or historic enough, to save or consider donating or lending to the Town. Parts of the Town’s collective memory of that period may also have been lost far too prematurely due to the ravages of AIDS in the community in the decades that followed. As a teenager experiencing Provincetown for the first time in the mid 1970’s, the sense of belonging and excitement in being gay was palpable at a time when this was certainly not the case throughout the country. Gathering material from this period may provide further evidence in the historical chain to help determine just what it was about Provincetown that brought about that spirit of openness and acceptance. This is a question I find people asking to this day, and will likely continue to ask well in to the future.

Q5 (#4): Ryan Conrad

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Ryan ConradRyan Conrad


Ryan Conrad is an Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD candidate at Concordia University’s Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Society and Culture, and he teaches in the university’s Interdisciplinary Sexuality Studies program. Conrad has written for a variety of publications, and has edited several anthologies for Against Equality, “a digital archive and publishing collective” that he co-founded.

Q1. This summer, you are digitizing a variety of LGBTQ newspapers at the University of Southern Maine in the Special Collections’ Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine. Could you talk a bit about your inspiration and goals for this project, as well as anything interesting you’ve come across while working on it?

I am digitizing a collection of LGBTQ newspapers from the 1990s because I am interested in researching the parallel histories of the AIDS crisis and the battles over non-discrimination laws in Maine. The AIDS crisis arrived a bit later to Maine thanks to its geographic isolation from the rest of the US and it’s largely dispersed rural population. The battle over non-discrimination laws begins in earnest in the early 1990s and doesn’t conclude until the passage of a state-wide law by referendum in 2005. So there is this interesting and devastating overlap between the loss of life during the AIDS crisis and the massively public homophobia resulting in resounding legislative defeats over the most basic rights to housing and employment. Maine is unique in that it is relatively easy to overturn laws passed by the legislature by gathering signatures and putting a law to referendum. This is known as the people’s veto in Maine, and has largely been used by social conservatives to overturn laws they disagree with. This happened with many non-discrimination laws in Maine, but also more recently with gay marriage in 2009. My goal with this project is to do a discourse analysis of the ways in which LGBT community-based journalists talked about the political mood of the decade. I’m really interested in the work of Raymond Williams (structure of feelings), Jonathan Flatley (affective mapping; counter-moods), and Deborah Gould (emotional habitus) in thinking about the ways emotions and collective mood shape the realm of what is politically imaginable/possible. I’m trying to wrap my head around the conservative turn in gay and lesbian politics in the 1990s and thinking about affect and emotion is a useful place to look for clues beyond the obvious impacts of economics and financialization which queer and feminist theorists like Lisa Duggan, Yasmin Nair, Silvia Federici, Samuel Delany and others have already done quite successfully.

Q2: In “Against Equality, In Maine and Everywhere,” you talk about the gap between the needs identified by working-class queer and trans Mainers and the goals of larger political groups leading up to the 2009 marriage referendum in Maine. Similarly, you recently wrote on your website, regarding your current project in Maine, that you are “excited to be thinking about affect & trauma as it relates to the pre-protease inhibitor AIDS crisis days outside of major urban north american gay centers and how Maine’s multi-year failed non-discrimination ordinances intersect with this history.” How can greater access to materials such as newspapers aid the push against dominant political narratives and movements that are disconnected from the material needs of marginalized queer and trans people?

The newspapers I’m digitizing vary in form and content, and surprisingly there were a lot in circulation in Maine. 10%, Apex [now available on the USM website], Community Pride Reporter, Fast Times, Our Paper, and The Gay & Lesbian Times are amongst the serials I’ve been looking at and what’s wonderful about them is that there is constant criticism amongst the different papers as to how issues should be framed and which issues should be prioritized. The “Letters to the Editor” sections of these papers are treasure troves of internal community dialogs. Whether it’s the exchange between lesbian feminists and the police chief over how to support a LGBT non-discrimination campaign, or whether or not seeking inclusion for LGBTs within the boy scouts should be a movement goal or not because the boy scouts are inherently militaristic and misogynist. I don’t see a lot of these kinds of conversations happening today, as most internal dialogs are lost on insular Facebook comment threads that contain more sniping than thoughtful criticism—not to mention how difficult it is to track and archive online content in this form. Plus, large multi-million dollar non-profit LGBT rights organizations largely dismiss and disregard dissent, if not downright muzzle it.

I think what these papers offer is a recent historical example of how we used to have more valuable public conversations about movement priorities than we do now because we leave that to the so-called experts that run these high profile well-funded non-profits that are more accountable to funders than any semblance of community. In digging through these papers, I’ve also uncovered a more radical political LGBT history than the one we are told by the media and pop-historians who rehash superficial queer histories every June. Queers in Maine have been fighting against our murder, rape, violence, misogyny, rural poverty, isolation, access to reproductive health, universal health care, safer sex education for young people, and the list goes on. This local history is there, but somehow the story we are told as queer Mainers is both urbancentric and false. We go from Stonewall (our liberation), to AIDS (our downfall), to gay marriage (our redemption) in a linear progress narrative that is being told by the mainstream gay media and liberal LGBTs alike. I hope to be able to provide a more localized and more accurate depiction of our collective recent past that tells a more complex and inspiring account of how we arrived where we are today.

“Dykes Against the Klan,” Annette Dragon Papers, Courtesy of the LGBT Collection, Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

Q3: The Sampson Center at USM holds a collection of materials that were donated by you. Some of these materials seem to predate Against Equality. How did you initially become interested in queer activism and archives?

In 2005 I assembled a ‘zine called Out of the Closets and Into the Libraries that I made for a workshop at the Gulf of Maine Social Forum, which took place in my hometown of Lewiston. The ‘zine and workshop began because I had just graduated from undergrad and lamented that I barely learned anything about queer people or politics. I never learned my history and felt a bit lost. I grew up in a small, socially conservative town in Rhode Island and didn’t know a single out gay person until I was in college in Maine. So for me this early LGBT history project began as a way for me to figure out how to reconcile my hard-line anarchist anti-capitalist politics (thanks to reading Emma Goldman as a punk rock teenager) with my sexuality, which to me at that time only seemed to exist as a commercial niche market that I was decidedly not interested in. I was looking for proof that others like me had come before and with a bit of persistence, I found them, lots of them! So my interest in queer history began as a need for affirmation and proof that you can be both queer and radical. Today I deeply value queer history, because without it, pride is just a shitty commercialized parade.

Q4: You have edited several anthologies for Against Equality, which are now available in one volume as Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. You’ve also written and spoken about access to digital resources and the desire to complement digital archives with print publications.1 How have these initiatives with Against Equality been successful so far? Considering that the number of digitization projects, such as the one that you are currently completing, is increasing, how could archivists and those interested in expanding access to information benefit from keeping these ideas in mind?

The Against Equality archives are unique because we are solely a digital archive, meaning we only exist online. Creating print publications for that project is sort of doing the reverse of what most archives are doing today. In fact, we are pretty much running in the opposite direction, archiving digital work and then creating print publications from this previously published web-based material. Most archives today, and projects like the one I am doing at the Jean Byers Sampson Center, are trying to figure out best practices for digitizing print material that is not available publicly online yet. It has been interesting working with Against Equality because we are really doing something that feels quite unique and our publications have been incredibly successful, distributing over ten thousand books over the last five years including nearly 1000 to incarcerated LGBTQ folks that have no access to the digital world. But the problem of digitizing work is something I think about a lot as I imagine a lot of others do. When I was doing research in 2009 at the New York Public Library it was rather difficult to get my hands on the physical objects from Gran Fury that I was researching because I was told that the material was all scanned and available online. The archivists were sympathetic to my requests as I argued that seeing, touching, smelling, and engaging with physical objects, especially large ones like broadsheets and posters, was important to my understanding of said object. But I think this is something many of us that work for and with archives are thinking about these days: how to best share information and cultural objects digitally in order to make them more accessible, without decontextualizing these things from their thing-ness.

“Front page, Apex Vol 2 No 9,” Courtesy of the LGBT Collection, Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine, University of Southern Maine Libraries.

Q5: Gay marriage is legal all throughout the United States now. As this has been the primary focus of mainstream LGBTQ activism for so long, there is now talk about what the “next” struggle should be. Why is it imperative that we continue to have an understanding of a variety of queer histories if we are to challenge these current developments and narratives?

I understand why people would talk about the “next” struggle, but in that way of framing the issue we actually lose sight of the fact that gay marriage has failed to provide much-needed comprehensive family law reform for many different combinations of families (gay and straight) that are left behind by the couple form. Feminists have been making this argument for a century, but this history has been ignored and usurped by today’s gay and lesbian marriage activists. A lot of people can easily see why gay marriage was not necessarily the most urgent priority, but I think it is important to push it further and actually make it clear that gay marriage itself was a bad goal and fails many of us by retrenching a model of privatization where all material needs should be met through a closed family unit headed by a conjugal couple. Sure there are lots of other battles today on which we need to be fighting in addition to family law reform, but I think the rhetoric of the gay marriage campaigns has been so successful in marginalizing other forms of family and kinship networks that it will actually be more difficult now to make those demands of our governments and social institutions. In passing gay marriage we did nothing to dislodge the ideology of family, and today we need to continue the fight to make family law support our families as they exist, and not the other way around by forcing our kinships to match the confines of the law. The battle for gay marriage has been ahistorical, anti-feminist, and extremely conservative. We must not let the present moment of gay marriage jubilation, or the coming moment of trans jubilation over the imminent admittance of trans people to the US Military, rewrite our much messier and hard fought histories of struggle against heterosexism, imperialism, oppression, and hierarchy.


Notes

1 Ryan Conrad, Karma Chávez, Yasmin Nair, and Deena Loeffler, “Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion,” in Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion, ed. Ryan Conrad (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014), 9-11.

event: roger & frank: gay life & love in the 1950s

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via The History Project and featuring our own Bob Young!

Bob Young, a librarian and collector of vintage photos, will give a talk about a collection of rare 1950s snapshots that document the life and love of a gay couple named Roger Pegram and Frank Bushong. Young purchased the snapshots in 2010 from a collector who found them ten years earlier in a Philadelphia junk shop. He will describe the biographical research he’s done in attempt to learn as much as he can about the lives of the two men, and he will place the photos in historical context by discussing what they can tell us about gay life in the years before Stonewall. In addition, examples of 1950s snapshots from The History Project’s collection, that complement and enhance Young’s talk, will also be presented.