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Importance of Preserving LGBTQ+ History

“Who controls the past controls the future.  

Who controls the present controls the past.”

This quote, from George Orwell’s 1984, refers to the concept that past events continue to exist only through two means: human memories and written (or digital) records. In the book, the protagonist’s job is to revise historical records to make the past conform to what the government wants it to be.

While 1984 is a dystopian novel designed to shock, the concept of erasing history unfortunately isn’t a new one. Erasures aren’t always intentional — they might also be the result of ignorance or carelessness. 

Regardless of how or why erasures happen, the bottom line is the same: the people who document history have an obligation to make sure that they record and share the history of all groups, including and especially the history of marginalized groups who are all too easily overlooked, misrepresented or deliberately excluded.

I think about this issue a lot, but even more so during Pride Month. Unlike many other marginalized groups and minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals in earlier generations were often not known as such for much of their lifetime. How do you document the history of LGBTQ+ individuals if you do not know who they are, or if identifying them as such would endanger them? How do you look at organizational histories to see what contributions were made by their LGBTQ+ members when those members were often not free to be themselves?

While the closeting of LGBTQ+ individuals in the United States is less common now than it was in previous generations, the same is unfortunately not yet true in many other countries. How do we document and share the history of LGBTQ+ movements in those cultures?

I don’t have answers to all of those questions, but I do know that it’s vital for archivists to fully embrace their responsibility to be vigilant about including as many diverse sources as possible in their present collections plans. Archivists have a great deal of power both to save history and to erase it. 

Dominique Luster, Teenie Harris Archivist at the Carnegie Museum of Art, gave a TEDxPittsburgh talk in 2018 that is a wonderful articulation of this! She talks about how archivists have the power and responsibility to boost marginalized voices.

This is a huge part of what HistoryIT does: we work hard to ensure that the history “on the edges” is documented and preserved before it gets obscured or disappears. We understand the importance of being able to place yourself in a larger narrative in order to understand who you are.

HistoryIT isn’t the only entity out there working to be sure all of our history is safe for the future. In March 2020, a new archive was released: Archives of Sexuality and Gender: International Perspectives on LGBTQ Activism and Culture. The archive includes rare resources that offer historical perspectives into the populations and regions of the world that have long been underrepresented when it comes to studies of sexuality and gender. However, it is worth noting that this is a product one must pay to access, which limits its usefulness to the general public!

Not an archivist yourself? You can still help. When you’re researching a topic, think about the source of the material you’re reading. If you’re reading about LGBTQ+ civil rights protests in the United States, for example, are there any articles written by LGBTQ+ individuals who attended the demonstrations? If you’re the historian for a Greek organization, do your archives include any special mention of the activities and contributions of LGBTQ+ members, or of your organization’s participation in activities associated with Pride? Even if your organization has a history of not respecting the importance of  diversity and inclusion or hasn’t intentionally preserved the history of marginalized individuals, it’s important to acknowledge that and look at how your organization has and will continue to evolve over time.  

Together we DO have the power to educate the future. Let’s make it a more inclusive one.

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