Tamara de Szegheo Lang: Exhibit Introduction
When we began this project, the research team had no idea of the wealth of references to international locations that we would find in the U.S. homophile press. The references quickly added up to over 950 articles, letters, and other items (129 – Africa; 209 – Asia and the Pacific; 240 – Canada; 135 – Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Soviet Union; 120 - Latin America and the Caribbean; 123 – Middle East). Though some of the sources referenced multiple regions, in total more than 800 items were identified. Since this number was so much higher than expected, we were only able to digitize and upload approximately 200 to the online archive and exhibit. We did this work chronologically - currently the uploading of the digitized materials has reached the end of 1957. We expect to extend this project so that the online archive and exhibit can grow in future years.
As mentioned in Marc Stein’s introduction, the initial research took place online using keyword searches of EBSCO Publishing’s LGBT Life with Full Text. Following this, each researcher searched manually through the periodicals in Toronto, Canada. Though the three primary homophile publications in the period studied (1953-1964) were American, they travelled widely to Canada and were easily accessible to our Toronto-based researchers. ONE was accessed at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, the Mattachine Review at the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library, and The Ladder at the University of Toronto’s Ivey Library. After detailed lists were made of the sources and regions referenced, scanning was undertaken at the same locations using a flatbed scanner, a document camera, or an iphone scanning application, depending on the availability of these devices.
From the beginning of the project, Marc Stein envisioned this resource as first and foremost an archive available to researchers, whether they are interested in these regions, based in these regions, or studying the transnational character of these publications or LGBT life more generally. In particular, he hoped to encourage researchers to revisit the U.S. homophile periodicals and promote their use for projects on U.S. and non-U.S. history. The archive and exhibit is therefore structured around introductory essays, annotated bibliographies, and archives of digitized primary documents for each region. In addition to these resources, we have included introductions to the project and to the exhibit, as well as an interactive map that introduces the project and archive to visitors.
In debates about digitizing historical materials that address marginalized communities (whether they focus on non-normative sexualities and genders or other aspects of marginalization), archives scholars have to weigh the costs to the material and community-building aspects of community-run archives when putting digitized materials online, where they lose some of their context. The primary argument for digitization is one of promoting access to materials that are so often not preserved or readily available. This holds especially true for resources that might be of interest to people who are trying to conduct research outside North America. In a project that focuses on transnational representations of the world in the U.S. homophile press, this seems like an especially important consideration.
Though some of the articles included in this archive are already digitized through EBSCO Publishing’s LGBT Life with Full Text, these resources are only available to researchers in academic settings (through library subscriptions) or at a high cost. We wanted these sources to be available to those who may not have these affiliations. In addition, the LGBT Life resource prioritizes news and feature articles and does not include all sections of the periodicals. These aspects of the magazines can prove absolutely crucial to researchers and can provide much insight on how the U.S. homophile press represented other regions, as seen in the regional essays that highlight advertisements for books and films (see: Healy Thompson's Introduction) and letters sent from people located in other countries (see: Marc Stein's Introduction). These letters might prove especially useful for researchers who want to hear voices from outside the United States, whether they are from these other regions or are from Americans who were visiting these regions (as in the case of the U.S. military during the Korean War, see: Carly Simpson's Introduction).
Though we were not able to digitize and upload all the items that were identified, the annotated bibliographies can give researchers important insight into what is and is not included in the archive. These bibliographies are intended to introduce readers to the kinds of materials that referenced other regions (whether news, fiction, etc.), the specific countries or cities that were referenced, and the issue of whether these regions were discussed in detail or were simply referenced in passing. In limiting the annotations to these three factors, we wanted to ensure that the lists were concise and quick to browse while still offering pertinent information. With this information, we hope, researchers will be able to quickly determine what is or is not of interest, leading them to the online archive, to other online resources, or to their local LGBTQ archives to find out more.
For a more detailed analysis of the sources, we provide an introductory essay for each region. During the writing of the regional essays, the researchers carefully considered how to tailor their work for particular audiences. In responding to the goal of providing an archive of primary sources, the researchers faced a number of decisions about how to introduce the sources. As academics, the authors found it challenging to hold back on providing substantial analysis of the sources that they had carefully identified. Throughout the writing of the essays, the authors had to remind themselves to focus on providing summaries (quantitative and qualitative) instead of venturing too far into critical analysis. At the same time, the authors wanted to show, through their essays, the socially constructed nature of the sources. The articles, letters, and other materials they considered cannot be taken as facts but rather as complex and contentious sets of representations. Just as we see the names of countries and their borders changing significantly throughout the period studied, so too do we see the homophile magazines’ representations of these countries and cultures changing.
In most of the regional essays we see conflicting, contrasting, and contradictory representations of the region. Though some items represent the region as less liberal, open, and tolerant than the United States, others argue that it is more liberal, open, and tolerant. These contradictory messages can be explained by a number of different factors. First, the regional divisions we have chosen do not always align with a united set of formal laws, social patterns, or cultural values. With the wars that were waged, the rapid decolonization that occurred, and the cultural battles that were fought during the 1950s and 1960s, even if we had studied individual countries we would likely have not been able to come to any definitive conclusions about these representations (see: Shlomo Gleibman's Introduction). Second, many of the authors of the homophile articles conflated the country or region with related historical or mythological representations (for example, the Judeo-Christian bible and ancient Egyptians for the Middle East), their cultural producers (for example, famous musicians, composers, and authors), or their fictitious representations (for example, short stories or poetry) (see: Marva Milo's Introduction). These did not always speak to the lived experiences of gender and sexual transgressors in the countries or regions at the time. Finally, many of the homophile articles used representations of regions outside the United States to strategically make arguments about the United States. For example, as a number of the regional essays explain, the representations of other countries were often used as a way to critique America’s treatment of homosexuals (see: Dasha Serykh's Introduction). To do this, the laws, customs (historic or contemporary), and social environments of other countries needed to appear more liberal than those of the United States in order to support the authors’ arguments. In each of the regional essays, the authors allude to these social constructions while also trying to provide basic information that could aid the researcher in finding relevant primary sources and in using their own critical lens to analyse them.
While providing useful bibliographies and scanned materials for researchers both within and outside academia was the primary goal of this project, so too was creating an exhibit that would be accessible for OutHistory visitors who knew little to nothing about the time period, the homophile press, the regions, or international dynamics. As a scholar of public history and audience engagement, I did not want this exhibit to appeal solely to researchers who already had an existing interest in these sources, these regions, or these topics. In my dissertation research, I look at the ways that community-based queer archives and museums try to stage emotional relationships between visitors and queer histories through their public exhibitions. Throughout this research I have contemplated many exhibits (artistic and historical, in community-based and mainstream venues) and often imagined how I would plan an exhibit of my own.
Though researchers often have much patience (and even passionate enthusiasm) for sifting through large quantities of documents, people with a casual interest in a topic rarely do. In trying to engage these casual observers, museum studies scholars have emphasized the importance of bringing historical sources to life. This can sometimes be achieved through the creation of interactive experiences, where visitors are made part of the history being presented. The aesthetic components of the exhibit should also not be overlooked, whether this is accomplished through the use of eye-catching images or in the design and presentation of artefacts and accompanying texts. At times digital exhibits can facilitate these aspects (for instance, in their inherent interactivity), though they can also limit forms of engagement (for instance, in their two-dimensional nature).
When all my theorizing was actually put to the test in designing this OutHistory exhibit, there were a number of challenges I faced. First, I usually deal in the material realm. Though I believe that digital and new media exhibits have great potential to enhance relationships between exhibit visitors and the past, my research has thus far focused on the material aspects of objects, documents, and artworks that can reach forward out of history and touch visitors in the present. Working with a website, especially when I have little web design training, challenges many of the factors that I focus on exploring with respect to exhibits.
In addition, the dominance of text in this archive and exhibit cannot be avoided. The introductory essays and annotated bibliographies are vital pieces of the project, as are the accompanying scanned materials. The scanned documents, though they have an interesting visual quality – providing the viewer with a sense of the size and texture of the magazines and an undeniably vintage aesthetic – are still ultimately text-based. To enhance the text-heavy pages, I have asked the researchers for striking images or especially interesting headlines or articles to embed in their regional essays.
The bulk of my efforts with respect to audience engagement went into creating the interactive map feature. The map, created using Knightlab’s Storymap, uses visuals and interactivity to introduce the exhibit visitor to a number of the digitized archival items. Storymap allows for a large-scale world map as background for a number of geographic points, which I have then linked to chosen items from the archive. The geographic points (and linked archival items) are joined by lines and as the visitor scrolls through the materials, the map image moves accordingly. This gives the visitor a sense of the travels that these discourses have made, as well as a sense of the fact that none of these places that are referenced can be theorized in isolation. At the same time, this allows the visitor to only “visit” a specific region by clicking on sections of the map without exploring the whole exhibit.
I included quotations from the regional essays to contextualize and introduce the region, followed by two items from each, whether a letter, a poem, an image, or a full-length article. These items are not shown on the map in their entirety but it is my hope that they will do the work of piquing visitors’ interests and leading them to the longer essays or archive, which are linked to each aspect of the map.
Whether you are a student, a journalist, an academic, an OutHistory enthusiast, or an armchair historian, we hope you enjoy the U.S. Homophile Internationalism Archive and Exhibit!