Stories of LGBT, Chicano and Religious Communities Uncovered in GW Archives

2015 University Archives Diversity Research Fellows decode missing history.

April 29, 2015

Archies 2015

During a presentation on the history of religion at GW, junior Paul Lisbon gestures toward the university seal, which includes the motto "Deus Nobis Fiducia" or "God is our trust."

By Brittney Dunkins

Intricately drawn posters advertising dances for LGBT students, detailed blueprints for an interfaith religious center and a “multicultural student recruitment” report were among the materials culled from the George Washington University Archives by the 2015 Diversity Research Fellows.

Using these sources, graduate students Amanda Figueroa and Brady Forrest and junior Paul Lisbon pieced together seldom examined histories of GW’s LGBT, Chicano and religious communities.

Though different in their approaches, the students’ research shared a common issue—gaps in information.  

“Part of the story is what is not there,” Mr. Forrest said when presenting his research on the evolution of GW’s LGBT community at the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library April 20. “The idea of an archive makes you ask the question, ‘What is being recorded, and who are we leaving out?’”

This question was echoed throughout the fellows’ presentations. They spent the 2014-15 academic year researching their topics with the support from a $2,500 Office of Diversity and Inclusion grant.

This is the second consecutive year that the library was selected to receive funding for the program.

“This is an opportunity for them to go into the archives and start working with primary source material—something that doesn’t usually happen until advanced graduate-level work,” Vice Provost for Libraries and University Librarian Geneva Henry said.

Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion Terri Reed added that their work celebrates the importance of including the often absent voices and experiences of underrepresented groups to GW narratives.

“Oftentimes depending on who is telling the story and how it is told, we marginalize these experiences or make them seem less important or peripheral to the history of GW,” Dr. Reed said. “It’s significant and more useful for our community to discuss and consider the perspectives of individuals that, though central to the history, are often absent when seeking to recount or understand it.”    

 A Single History of Pride

While delving into the history of GW’s LGBT community, Mr. Forrest found that changes in the names and representations of LGBT student organizations signaled new levels of inclusiveness for sexual identities.

For example what began as the largely male Gay Peoples Alliance, later became the Lesbian and Gay People’s Alliance, followed by the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance, then GW Pride and finally Allied in Pride.

“The GW Pride logo says ‘proud since 1971,’ which is interesting because it didn’t exist until 2000,” Mr. Brady said. “It means that these past organizations are considered a part of one history.”

Graduate student Brady Forrest discussed the evolution of LGBT organizations and representation at GW. 

Mr. Brady also tracked the evolution of LGBT organizations through school dance posters, noting that through the years there was a shift away from highly “fantastical” and sexualized fine art drawings.

“The posters show this great artwork and this fantastical idea of themselves,” Mr. Brady said. “It’s important to note that this is pre-AIDs epidemic, which is why the images are more sexual and hint at promiscuity, and you can see that change.”

Later there is a toga party-themed poster and a 2000s-era poster features a bare-chested man—an ode to HBO’s wildly popular show  “Queer as Folk,” Mr. Brady said.

As the poster images changed, so did the level of support from outside organizations as event co-sponsors. Student groups such as the Student Association and Residence Hall Association began to openly support LGBT events.

Notably missing from the archives were representations of transgender students. 

 “It’s not whether a community is friendly, it’s who it’s friendly to,” Mr. Brady said. “What appears in the archives—or does not appear, brings up a great question about  ‘Who gets to be proud?’”  

Imagining ‘Chican@’ Identity

For Ms. Figueroa, exploring the history of Chicanos—which she separated from the cultural Mexican-American identity because of its ties to political resistance—at GW was a deliberate choice to “find herself” in the university archives.

In her presentation, she stylized the term with the “@” symbol in order to give equal weight to male and female identities. Though the term Latino is more popular, it is a “catch-all” term to describe a collection of rich and varied histories, Ms. Figueroa said.

She framed the discussion with Jacques Derrida’s “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.” In the book, Mr. Derrida explores the human compulsion to document experiences, which he termed  “archive fever.”

“I am a Chicana, so this topic was inherently personal to me,” Ms. Figueroa said. “Realizing that I had the university's support in reimagining ‘Chican@’ experiences regardless of the ‘archive fever’ that keeps them out of the archive proper was amazing.”

The project was a process of decoding the absence of Chicano representation in the archives. Her research focused on how Chicanos and other identities are reduced when they are lumped together under a single “multicultural” identity. 

For example, she said, a 1990 GW recruitment document for “multicultural student populations” does not mention a single specific group of students. This lack of naming is an example of how individual cultural and ethnic identities are generally categorized as “other” by the term multicultural, she said.

Graduate Student Amanda Figueroa discussed the political nature of the Chicano identity in her presentation. 

“What the archive preserves through this document is the institutional memory of wanting to reach these populations,” Ms. Figueroa said.

Additionally, coverage of the 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign” in D.C. by GW’s student-run newspaper the GW Hatchet avoids any mention of Chicano organizers such as Corky Gonzalez and Reies Tijerina, Ms. Figueroa said.

“Gonzalez and Tijerina felt that race and class were inexorably linked and could not be dealt with as separate issues,” Ms. Figueroa said. “Their leadership in this campaign contributed to that focus, but in the University Archives we can only find that message recorded from the mouths of student newspaper writers.”

Religion in Academics and Practice

Mr. Lisbon said he was drawn to the topic of religion because of his own relationship with it. As an active leader in GW campus ministry, he had a nagging feeling religion was being overlooked.

“Rather than celebrating faith, we often tend to downplay it because of the negative connotations that it has in modern society,” Mr. Lisbon said.

In his research, Mr. Lisbon tracked the level and type of participation in religious communities at GW through archival materials such as photos of chapel services and prep materials for “Religion in Student Life Week.”

He also interviewed Dewey Wallace, GW professor emeritus of Christianity and religion in America. Dr. Wallace proved an invaluable source because he kept a detailed collection of his work and the work of GW students, Mr. Lisbon said.

The project begins with the founding of GW by Baptist missionary Luther W. Rice in 1821 and includes the history of the university’s only chaplain, Steven R. Sizoo, and an exploration of the struggle of the Religion Department to find its footing between religious practice and study.

Map of GW circa 1950.

“There was this idea that ‘we need to keep people in the tradition they were raised in,’” Mr. Lisbon said. “The religion department didn’t know where they fit in, but eventually focused exclusively on academics.”

A striking element of the history is the “all-faith religious center” proposed by former GW President Thomas Henry Carol in 1961 as a meeting place for all religious communities.  The project was canceled when Mr. Carol suddenly died in 1964, Mr. Lisbon said.

Though it was never built, the university archives preserves the idea of an all-faith center at the university.

Mr. Lisbon explained that the university focused mainly on Christianity and Judaism until the mid-1960s when Eastern religions took a more prominent place in university culture. From 1975 to the late 1990s, college campuses became increasingly secular.

Today there is vibrant but less prominent community of 10 religious groups on campus, he said.

“Doing this research gave me a lot of anxiety about the religious community at GW,” Mr. Lisbon said. “What I found was that there are a lot of places where you can find religious conversation and intersectional conversation here at GW, but you have to look for it.”