Out of the Archives and Into the Streets
Archival activism illuminates LGBT voices
Who's talking about the LGBT community, and what’s being said? Well, it depends on who you ask: We are fierce, fabulous and proud; responsible for the decline of every civilized society; desirous of equal rights or “special” rights. Housed in one of many nondescript storage facilities that pepper the Albuquerque roadsides is an astonishing collection of materials—374 boxes worth, to be precise—all designed to answer those very questions.
The boxes were unveiled to me during an afternoon with archive collaborators and long-time friends Bennett A. Hammer and Barbara Korbal, the two minds behind the Bennett A. Hammer LGBT Archives Project. Archive founder Hammer is a civil rights activist and a former National ACLU Board Director. He drove us three to the outdoor storage unit, a menagerie of three small animal toys staring at the dashboard from a gap in the front seat armrest. He's the self-proclaimed hoarder with lofty nonpartisan dreams.
“I'd been collecting articles for years and very few people knew about it,” said Hammer. “I was living in an apartment building. I was downstairs near the laundry room and there was a shopping cart full of Wall Street Journals. That was at the end of 1992. Clinton was talking about gays in the military. That was a big topic.
“I took them all up to my apartment, and I said I'm gonna go through and cut out any gay and lesbian articles,” Hammer continued. “I must've had the sense then that this [the archive] wasn't just something for me.”
Project director Korbal is the working-class academic/activist who has devoted herself to putting the whole thing together. “The knowledge that I'm using for the archive collection comes from two places: activism/street work and my scholarly stuff,” said Korbal. “I consider it an appropriate blending.”
While archival work is neither as confrontational, nor as glamorized, as the life of the street-beating, fist-pumping, “Fuck the man!” activist, it is activism nonetheless. It is an activist gesture to acknowledge not only that one's experiences will have a historical impact, but also to collect materials for the purposes of preservation—
When asked if other people besides me have been brought out to the storage unit for a look-see, Korbal (the more effusive of the two) chimed in, “Yes. We've decided that from now on we're going to bring people here when they're asking us about the archives because people don't get it. They think that this thing is done; they don't understand.”
We parked at the unit, then all piled out of the car and into the choking summer heat. I squinted in the glare as the unit door lurched upward, then went wide-eyed at the daunting sight of stacks upon stacks of white cardboard file boxes. Lining the walls. Resting atop pallets. Boxes full of history, all in various, carefully catalogued stages of progress. I stood slack-jawed for a moment, but Korbal reassured me that this was nothing unusual. “This is what a normal archive looks like when it's given to a facility,” she said.
The Hammer Archives’ angle is queer representation—that is, how the LGBT community is being represented by and for the mainstream. Korbal said that around 60 percent of the archive is devoted specifically to New Mexico LGBT history, comprised of “alternative press, mainstream and organizational documents.” The archives have materials that pertain to the whole range of the LGBT experience, from advocates and detractors alike. But why keep the oppositional materials? A lot of people would be inclined to say that they don't really want to hear what hatemongers like the Westboro Baptist Church or the late Jerry Falwell had to say.
“We have the whole discourse represented,” Korbal said as she reached into a clear plastic bin and pulled out a mint condition lilac t-shirt from 1987’s National Coming Out Day. “We have gay and lesbian alternative press. We have all the mainstream press. We have the whole thing fleshed out. If a person were gonna look at 1993, they would have something from every group that's speaking at that time on this topic.”
“The idea of this initially, with all the misunderstanding about gay people, was to invite people to understand gay people better,” Hammer explained. “To do that, you couldn't just hide what they were saying. You want both sides to understand each other, instead of just fighting with each other all the time.”
According to the archivists, it’s crucial to understand the language that’s historically been used by writers opposed to LGBT rights. “You don't have to respect or agree with it, but you have to know it,” said Korbal. “Narratives exist side by side and simultaneously, and unless you have all these narratives speaking to each other, there is no cultural conversation.”
“This is the second archive I've done,” said Korbal. “The first one was the Neil Isbin Papers. I did his papers. It took me seven years. He died of AIDS in 1996.” Isbin's collection includes thousands of documents pertaining to LGBT organizing in New Mexico and can be viewed at the Fray Angelico Chavez History Library (part of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe). Upon completion, the Hammer Archives will be accepted at Fray Angelico Chavez as well.
“This will be a researcher's dream when it's done,” Korbal enthused. “I only know that because I've used archives myself in my work. Bennett and I have perfected it.”
“This is as scrupulous as you can get,” Hammer agreed.