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Comfortable Being Queer To Myself

Joan Nestle by K. Kirk

Joan Nestle used those words last night as she spoke at a fundraiser that Kate and I hosted for OutHistory.Org, the LGBT online history project originated by gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz, and housed at the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at CUNY. (Please go to www.OutHistory.org and donate and/or contribute your own archives to this project.) Also joining the event last night were Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and expert on Eleanor Roosevelt, and many activists and students in the New York area who care about LGBT history. Jonathan’s enthusiasm for queer history is inspiring, and his commitment to making the process of documentation, research, information sharing and analysis accessible is what makes OutHistory.org exciting.

There are several important LGBT history projects underway today, and they are cited in the Links section of OutHistory. They include the Stonewall Library in Fort Lauderdale, the Chicago and Boston LGBT History Projects, the SF and NY Public Library collections, the GLBT History Museum in SF, among others. There is an effort underway to organize a National Museum of LGBT History and Culture in the nation’s capitol. These are critical efforts at gathering data on a movement, a set of communities, and a set of cultures still to invisible, and which are still inventing ourselves.

Exhibit from GLBT History Museum SF

Joan Nestle is the co-founder of Lesbian Herstory Archives, an actual physical archive based in New York which gathers an extraordinary collection, and she is author of many books, including some that chronicle an aspect of some lesbian lives that has often been judged, ignored, mocked, or otherwise fallen on disfavor several times in the last forty years– the butch-femme dynamic.

Joan has always been a shaman, a transcendent messenger, someone who opens up new ways of seeing. Her message last night made me think again. Comfortable being queer to myself is how she described herself at the age of 70. But it could well serve as a mantra for the small, but brave, field of activists who are creating LGBT archives and history projects and documenting our wildly diverse and creative communities.

Joan noted that what interests her most in the task of LGBT history, more than the collection or documentation of our existence, is the opportunity it provides as a space for critical reflection. History is potent, she suggested, because it offers a chance for critique and discussion of what came before — why we did what we did, whether we could have chosen a different approach, what it meant and what it could have meant if we had. She suggested that history projects and archives are indeed actions against forgetting — as the historians make visible the creativity, struggles and courage of LGBT people. But they are also imaginative spaces that illuminate a way forward — as the LGBT movement thinks critically what it once imagined as possible and what it currently pursues.

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