There may be no better way to connect with the past and its people than to examine actual material objects produced and handled in an earlier time. Documents, images, and other materials can offer a close-up view of life as it was previously experienced. For people interested in LGBT history at GW and in Washington, D.C., the university archives in the Special Collections Research Center in Gelman Library preserve objects that can instantly transport viewers to another time.
Some of these objects are the archives of GW Pride, a campus organization that flourished under various names for decades since it was formed by a small group of students in October 1971 as the GW Gay Liberation Alliance. (The latest records in this collection are from 2005.) These historical documents include posters for events such as drag balls and an ice cream social called Queer Sundae. There are publications relating to many topics, such as self-help and health.
“In the university archives, we strive to document all aspects of university life,” said Jen King, collections coordinator and manuscripts librarian. “Student life is important, and this collection documents an important piece of the university’s history.”
Some of the other LGBT resources in the archives are the reporter’s notes and interview records of Lou Chibbaro, a longtime reporter for the Washington Blade, and photographs by JEB (Joan E. Biren). There are papers relating to the National Organization for Women (NOW) and dissertations on lesbian body image, gay male couples and negotiating trans/queer spaces. Records of the AIDS Action Foundation from 1984–2006 are here, and so are papers from the D.C. Front Runners, a social group. Many images selected for a GW bicentennial look back at LGBTQIA+ activism through the years are stored here as well.
Student groups and classes regularly request to view materials in the collection, which is also open to all researchers. Recently, a researcher looked through Chibbaro’s notes hoping to find transcripts of a trial the reporter had covered years ago. The archives are a treasure trove for historians and should inspire pride, according to Geneva Henry, dean of libraries and academic innovation and vice provost for libraries and information technology.
“By preserving the vibrant history and courageous voices of the GW and Washington area LGBT community, we celebrate their indelible contributions and honor their remarkable journey,” Henry said. “Our university archives stand as a beacon of pride, ensuring that their stories inspire and empower generations to come.”
The Special Collections Research Center is located on the seventh floor of Gelman Library and is open to researchers at any level. Some archival materials are stored off-site, so users are encouraged to contact the Center to request materials ahead of time.
“We want this history to get out there,” King said. “We also have an obligation to the past—to maintain this material and preserve it. Ten years from now, somebody might use this for a dissertation, or as part of a book they write. By holding this material, we're letting people know that this history is important—and it's important enough to preserve.”
While some researchers are directly interested in the LGBT history, the collections are used for multiple disciplines. People interested in cultural groups may want to view records of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C.; records from the Whitman-Walker Clinic (now Whitman-Walker Health) and its former executive director, Jim Graham, who became a D.C. Council member, offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of policy discussions. Graphic design students might use it to investigate poster or T-shirt design for community organizations.
“This collection specifically is used a lot in instruction sessions,” King said. “We work with a number of instructors who use these primary sources when teaching research in a history or an American studies class.”
Citizen archivists are welcome to contact the center if they would like to donate materials pertaining to the university or to the district. (Collectors of material beyond the purview of the GW archives are welcome to ask for referrals to other repositories.) If people don’t give their collections to archives, King said, they risk becoming invisible to history.
“If alumni read this article and realize they have their own little archive that they were wondering what to do with, they should contact us,” King said. “That would be wonderful!”