Queer Southern History: Building Community Archives to Preserve a Diverse LGBTQ+ Legacy

Paraders holding posters Central Alabama Pride parade, 2018. Courtesy of Invisible Histories Project (iHP).

A network of community-based archives is helping to fill in the missing social history of LGBTQ+ people across the South.

"Archiving is resistance. Every time we identify something, we are resisting the notion that we don’t exist.”

Growing up in the small Alabama town of Dolomite in the 1970s, Tony Christon-Walker recalls, “I didn’t have the words for what I was. I didn’t have gay role models to show me that I was going to be okay, that there was nothing wrong with me.” Which is why Christon-Walker, now the director of prevention and community partnerships at AIDS Alabama and an organizer of the first Birmingham Black Pride (Bham Pride) in 2018, was responsive last year when he received a message from Josh Burford, an archivist and LGBTQ+ educator.

Burford explained that he and Maigen Sullivan, the gender and sexuality diversity coordinator at University of Alabama and an LGBTQ+ educator, had just launched the Birmingham-based Invisible Histories Project (iHP), a non-profit with a mission to collect and preserve the material history of the Queer South.  Would he be willing to donate materials documenting the launch of Bham Pride to iHP’s community archive?

“Josh told me what he was doing with iHP and I says, ‘great, but don’t forget about black people,’” recalled Christon-Walker. “But I didn’t have to remind him that black gay people are constantly being left out.” Walker, who is HIV positive and a cancer survivor, felt that iHP aligned with his life-long work to combat stigma and ignorance in the black community. “I donated copies of just about everything we had from the 2018 inaugural Bham Pride—flyers, concept art, contracts,” he says. “As a 12-year-old, it would have meant a lot to me to see this material.”

Group of panelistsInaugural Queer History South Conference panel in March 2019 with collection donors Daroneshia Duncan-Boyd, Tori Wolfe-Sisson, Glenda Elliott, and Tony Christon-Walker. Courtesy of iHP.

That need to be represented is one of many voids Burford and Sullivan are working to fill with iHP in the South, which is home to the largest LGBTQ+ population regionally in the US. The starting point: connecting LGBTQ+ Southerners to their rich and complex history. “You’ve got to see the past to imagine a queer future,” says Burford. “Archiving is resistance. Every time we identify something, we are resisting the notion that we don’t exist.” 

He and Sullivan found a partner institution in the University of Alabama (UA) in Tuscaloosa; both received undergraduate and master’s degrees at the Tuscaloosa campus and Sullivan is currently finishing her doctorate at the Birmingham campus. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded UA and iHP a grant of $300,000 that will support the project as it broadens its reach. “We have been talking about expanding to Mississippi and Georgia for a while,” explained Sullivan, “and with the Mellon investment, now we can.”

As they did in Alabama, Burford and Sullivan will help LGBTQ+ individuals in those states connect with institutions to build a network of community-based archives. The Mellon grant will support iHP satellites on two campuses--the University of West Georgia and the University of Mississippi at Oxford--where iHP staff will advise faculty on oral history projects, coursework, and research while graduate students gain hands-on experience sourcing and cataloguing materials that may also inform their scholarly work.

students at table with archival boxesUndergraduate history class from the University of Alabama visiting iHP at the Birmingham Public Library archives. Courtesy of iHP.

The goal is to launch iHP networks in every Southern state, ultimately inscribing a kind of “rainbow history trail” across the region. “A lot of the work we do is convincing people that their collections have value, that their stories matter,” says Burford. There is a sense of urgency to collect those stories before they disappear, so iHP has prioritized outreach to LGBTQ+ people over 70. “Our queer elders are in critical health, so we feel a sense of urgency to spend time with them and listen to their stories and their struggles and joys,” Burford explained. “So much has already been lost.”   

The ever-growing archive now comprises hundreds of pieces from some twenty collections: diaries, correspondence, internal memos, photographs, banners, quilts, and such contemporary memorabilia as pins, t-shirts, and stickers. The oldest item is a chapbook of poems handwritten in 1912 found in a thrift shop. Files and boxes have come from ordinary LGBTQ+ citizens; advocates like Tony Christon-Walker; and prominent figures such as Patricia Todd, an openly gay member of the Alabama House of Representatives, and Glenda R. Elliott, a longtime activist and professor emerita at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

parade with bannerAuburn University Gay & Lesbian Association marching in the 25th Anniversary Stonewall March in New York, 1993. Courtesy of iHP/Birmingham Public Library.

“It means a great deal for me personally and professionally to be involved in the project,” says Elliott, who has given dossiers from three different LGBTQ+ community programs in which she held leadership roles, including the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, a statewide organization that worked to protect LGBTQ+ students in K–12 schools from bullying, harassment, and violence. “The archive will validate the lives and legacies of LGBTQ+ individuals and provide a foundation for current and future generations to form their identities.”

After cataloguing, iHP holdings are dispersed among several regional partner institutions, including the Birmingham Public Library and the Special Collections of the UAB Libraries, where they can be easily accessed. “A piece of paper in a box means nothing if nobody can get to it,” says Sullivan. Public programming s is getting the word out too. This past March, the inaugural Queer History South Conference, organized by Burford and Sullivan, was held in Birmingham. The networking opportunity was a huge success. “Being in a room with 150 people representing the Queer South and hearing about their challenges and successes was a game-changing moment,” says Burford. “The feedback we’ve had is that it was energizing,” says Sullivan, who added that in the weeks and months post-conference, “folks are continuing to connect in a genuine way.”

Flyer advertising AIDS servicesFlyer for Mobile AIDS Support Services (detail), circa late 1980s. Courtesy of iHP.

As iHP’s profile rises, they hope the South will finally be recognized for its role in shaping the LGBTQ+ movement. “In the 1980s, activists from New York came to meet and learn from activists here,” added Burford. “That’s the piece that’s missing from mainstream LGBTQ history,” which has tended to focus on people and events in coastal cities like New York and Los Angeles. “Discounting us is such a disservice to all the work Southern Queers have done,” says Sullivan.

At a time of deep political divisions in the US, taking a stand feels more urgent than ever to Burford and Sullivan. “We do our best work in these moments of change,” says Burford. “There is a hunger to do this work now,” says Sullivan. “If the Queer South is suddenly a hot topic, then we unapologetically feel that we need to lead that conversation.”