by Linnea Due
When Paula Lichtenberg hopped on an elevator at the San Francisco Main Library in March, 1985, she was pleased to find Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in the same car. “Are you going to the meeting?” they asked Lichtenberg.
“What meeting?” Lichtenberg wondered, an innocent question whose answer would develop into a lifetime commitment to preserving gay and lesbian history. The meeting in question, called by Willie Walker, Greg Pennington, and Eric Garber, was an open-to-the-public confab about collecting gay and lesbian history. Walker, who worked as a nurse on the AIDS ward at San Francisco General, knew that valuable historical material was being discarded right and left. While a few organizations were collecting artifacts, there was no central institution or unifying theme. Says Lichtenberg about that first meeting, “There were about fifty or sixty people. This came out of Walker’s mind. He was in the lesbian gay history project, and he saw this as a potential to form a historical society. It was his concept, but there were other people interested in gay and lesbian history. A group of librarians were forming a gay library. Some people were collecting periodicals. Scott Smith had Harvey Milk’s artifacts. Walker and Greg Pennington had collections, and they wanted some place to put all of these things together.”
It was the Wild West in terms of preserving gay and lesbian history. Gay Studies was not yet on the horizon, and few universities were collecting material. “The history project people were primarily interested in doing research,” says Lichtenberg, “and there was not much available in academic or public libraries. Gay historians such as Lou Sullivan and Alan Berube worked outside of academia.”
That first meeting resulted in the formation of the San Francisco Bay Area Gay and Lesbian Historical Society, a permanent archive accessible to the public. The organization later changed its name to the GLBT Historical Society of Northern California.
Two factors were vital from the start: the organization was co-sexual—it would collect gay and lesbian artifacts and history, later broadened to include transgender and bisexual history. Says Lichtenberg, who ended up serving on the board for ten years, “We were trying to be all-encompassing in terms of women, men, transgender, the leather community. We were trying to reach as many aspects as we could.”
The other important proviso was that the collection be accessible by the public. Those not allied with universities had difficulty accessing the small amount of material housed in academic institutions. This open-to-the-public approach was put into practice as the fledgling organization held panels and exhibits at the women’s building, MCC, and other institutions. Early panels included a program on the Black Cat bar and on 1978’s Proposition 6, which would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools; Eric Garber shared his work and slideshow on the Harlem Renaissance. A quarterly newsletter noted acquisitions and called for donations. “For the first ten years our focus was primarily on collecting materials,” says Lichtenberg. “And while we were thrilled to get Del and Phyllis’ papers, the Mattachine Society material, and Harvey Milk’s artifacts, we also wanted things from everyday people. Some of our best stuff are photo albums and those sorts of things that show how people lived.”
Bay Area native Linnea Due is an award-winning writer and editor.