Donald Trump had hardly been sworn into office when the LGBTQ rights pagealong with other issues the Obama administration deemed importantvanished from the White House website. At a time when many marginalized communities’ rights and livelihoods are under threat, a Durham County Library online exhibit is strengthening the city’s LGBTQ community by preserving just what the new administration hopes to eraseits history.
Love + Liberation (www.durhamlgbtqhistory.org) showcases oral histories and artifacts from Durham’s LGBTQ community. Organized by decade, the website features relics ranging from scanned documents and letters to audio clips and old photographs.
The exhibit’s main organizer, Luke Hirst (who uses they/them pronouns), was driven by their own experience as a queer Southerner to start a collection that carved out a space for the LGBTQ community. Hirst, a Florida transplant who has called Durham home for ten years, felt lost and isolated when they arrived in 2004, and says they found comfort in coming-out stories in books at the Durham County Library.
“I didn’t know about any stories of people like me existing before,” Hirst says. “It was very affirming.”
After talking with members of the LGBTQ community in the city and learning about events that cemented the community in Durham, like the early pride marches, Hirst began searching for documents and artifacts that would eventually compose the online exhibit. The project took off after Hirst met Lynn Richardson, then a senior librarian at the Durham County Library, at a documentary studies course at Duke in 2009.
After brainstorming together, they decided that the project would be a perfect fit for the North Carolina Collection, which collects and archives stories from different Durham demographics in the library’s permanent collection. Other collections are dedicated to the civil rights movement and the history of Durham soul music.
“The LGBTQ people of Durham have made so many contributions,” says Richardson, who headed the North Carolina Collection for sixteen years. “It’s an activist community and it has a history worth telling.”
Hirst and Richardson began collecting physical materials like pamphlets, business cards, and photographs that members of the community donated, which resulted in fourteen large document boxes full of pieces of history. Now many of them have been scanned and organized in the online exhibit. Some of the most affecting pieces include the oral histories Hirst and Richardson collected through the Story Room at the Museum of Durham History.
The clips range from a lesbian woman talking about being referred to a psychoanalyst by her pediatrician to a black lesbian woman exploring the ways in which people with multiple marginalized identities face intersecting oppressions. Gay men are also represented widely. The “Greensboro Five” were murdered at an anti-Klan demonstration in 1979, and an anti-gay hate crime at the Little River bathing spot in North Durham County resulted in the death of a man who was mistakenly perceived as gay. According to the exhibition, these two events launched the Durham LGBTQ community into more public activism, which led to the state’s first gay and lesbian pride march, called Our Day Out, in the city’s downtown in 1981.
Joanne Abel, a sixty-seven-year-old lesbian woman who contributed to the project, remembers both events vividly and recalls her experience at the first pride march.
“It was exciting but also a little scary,” remembers Abel. “We wanted to show that we were not going to be intimidated by the things that happened at Little River. It was about the community coming together.” Abel worked at the Durham County Library at the time, and while she had out to her supportive coworkers, she hadn’t yet done so with her family.
“My family is very Southern Baptist. My parents sort of knew and were supportive privately but not publicly,” says Abel. She remembers that the parade organizers had to ask the merchants on the route if they could march in front of their stores, and even recalls some participants wearing paper bags on their heads for fear of retaliation.
“We didn’t live in fear and most people weren’t afraid, but some felt they could lose their jobs or their kids,” Abel recalls.
Five years later, in 1986, Abel helped put on a public exhibition showcasing LGBTQ history at the library, which met with some opposition from local churches but was backed by then-mayor Wib Gulley. Abel says that this online exhibit serves as a sort of continuation of the work that has taken place in the city for more than six decades.
“I’m glad this rich history is going to be preserved,” Abel says. “It’s a real affirmation that the community feels like it’s important enough to save. This project creates a safe and fun space for us. Everyone’s story is important.”
Those who wish to contribute their stories can do so by recording them at the Story Room in the Museum of Durham History or by calling the N.C. Room at the Durham County Library.
“We need to record our stories while we remember,” Abel says. “The more marginalized a community feels, the less likely they are to preserve stuff, but the library can do it for you. We need to appreciate our history and diversity and stand together and preserve what we can to be safe.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Free Love.”