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Importance of Preserving LGBTQ+ History

By Kristen Gwinn-Becker, HistoryIT Founder & CEO

“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 through two means: human memories and written (or digital) records. In the book, the protagonist revises historical records to make the past conform to what the government wants it to be.

While Orwell designed 1984 to shock the reader, 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 people who document history have an obligation to record and share the history of all groups. This especially applies to the history of marginalized groups who are too easily overlooked, misrepresented or deliberately excluded.

Complexity of Preserving LGBTQ+ History

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. How do you document the history of LGBTQ+ individuals if you do not know who they are, or if identifying them would endanger them? How do you look at organizational histories to see what contributions LGBTQ+ members made when they were often not free to be themselves?

While closeting LGBTQ+ individuals in the U.S. is less common than it was, the same is not yet true in many other countries. How do we document and share the present LGBTQ+ movements in those cultures?

How Historians Are Evolving

I don’t have answers to all of those questions. I do know that it’s vital for archivists to embrace their responsibility to include diverse sources in their present collections plans. Archivists have a great deal of power both to save history and to erase it. 

Dominique Luster gave a TEDxPittsburgh talk that‘s 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 document and preserve history “on the edges” before it gets obscured or disappears. We understand the importance of placing 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, GALE released a new archive: Archives of Sexuality and Gender: International Perspectives on LGBTQ Activism and Culture. The archive includes rare resources that offer perspectives into long underrepresented populations and regions of the world. However, it‘s worth noting that you have to pay to access it, which limits its accessibility!

You Can Help Too

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 wanting to share about LGBTQ+ protests in the U.S., for example, do you have any articles written by those who attended? If you’re the historian for an organization, do your archives mention the contributions of LGBTQ+ members? Is there documentation of your organization’s participation in Pride? If your organization has a history of not respecting the importance of diversity and inclusion — acknowledge that. Then look at how your organization has and will continue to evolve over time.  

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

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