Pieces of History
More than a decade and a half into the epidemic, HIV/AIDS has amassed a history that is both tragic and hopeful, that encompasses the most public and the most profoundly personal.
Many pieces of that history can be found in the National Museum and Archive of Lesbian and Gay History, housed in New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. Founded in 1990, the Archive is devoted to the lives and history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Although preserving the history of the fight against AIDS is not the Archive's primary purpose, the extensiveness of its AIDS-related materials testifies to the epidemic's impact on the homosexual community, and the importance of that community's response. In the United States, unlike in most of the rest of the world, it was among gay men that the virus first made itself known. In the face of public and official indifference at best, it was gay men and their friends and allies who led the fight for medical research, education and prevention efforts, and services for those who were ill.
Thus, among the periodicals that the Archive collects are SIDA Ahora, Body Positive and the People with AIDS Coalition's ("PWAC") Newsline. Among the organizations represented in its vertical files, containing materials that come in "one piece of paper at a time," are ACT UP, GMHC, and PWAC. Then there are the discrete collections of materials from organizations and individuals. It is the individual papers (in the language of the archivist, materials from organizations are "records," those from individuals are "papers") that offer perhaps the greatest insight into the epidemic's effect on the lives of individuals and of a community.
By far, the most well-known person whose papers are housed in the Center Archive is Michael Callen. A vocal AIDS activist and advocate from the time of his own diagnosis in 1982 until his death in 1993, Mr. Callen was a co-founder of PWAC and editor of its magazine Newsline, co-founder of the PWA Health Group, and co-founder and one-time Board President of the Community Research Initiative (CRI). He was the author of two books dealing with the epidemic and co-author of a third, and was known as a singer/songwriter and member of the Flirtations, an a cappella group.
While the collection includes some personal material from his days as a grammar school teacher and some of his songs and poems, the majority is AIDS related. For example, there is a great deal of material having to do with the AIDS organizations with which Mr. Callen worked, along with programs and talks he gave at various AIDS conferences, and interview notes and proofs from his books.
At the other end of the spectrum are the papers of James R. Perry, a Supreme Court historian and a PWA. Mr. Perry, who also died in 1990, was not an activist. He was a gay man who engaged in lengthy correspondence with several friends in this country and abroad, saving both the letters he received and copies of those he sent. "So," according to Center Archivist Rich Wandel, who catalogued the Perry Papers, "it's a real personal look at the disease. He and his best buddy both had the disease. And there's a period of time in the correspondence where you begin to realize what's happening here is that they're no longer able to do for each other what they've always done for each other as friends. They don't yet understand that it's because of the disease. They haven't come to that realization yet. All they know at this point is, 'You're not doing for me what you used to.'"
Several of the Archive's other discrete collections offer historical perspectives and personal insights into what HIV/AIDS has meant in the lives of gay individuals and the gay community. A sampling:
The Wayne H. Steinman Papers contain a wealth of material amassed during Mr. Steinman's tenure as Liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community for the New York City Comptroller from 1984 until 1990, a crucial time in the development of New York City's response to the epidemic.
The papers of Michael Weltman, who led an openly gay delegation to the U.N. on World AIDS Day 1991, include correspondence with individuals around the world, much of it containing personal testimony about HIV and AIDS.
The New York Memorial Quilt Records chronicles a 1988 project of The Heritage of Pride and the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, in which 1,200 quilt panels were made at the Center's Quilt Workshop and displayed on the Great Lawn in Central Park before being sent on to the NAMES Project for inclusion in the national AIDS Quilt.
Bill Bahlman, whose papers are still being catalogued, was active in the Lavender Hill Mob, an early direct-action organization dealing primarily with AIDS and the predecessor of ACT UP. The collection contains a great deal of material about the Lavender Hill Mob and about ACT UP, with which Mr. Bahlman was also associated, and includes printed testimony before various meetings of the Presidential AIDS Commission.
Some 350 AIDS posters from around the world were gathered by Michael Shernoff, a health education and prevention specialist at GMHC, and donated to the Center Archive. The collection was exhibited as "Graphic Fact: AIDS Posters from Around the World" in 1991 and 1992.
The Jay Blotcher Collection contains newspaper articles, flyers, press releases, and correspondence from his days a Media Coordinator for ACT UP, a period that included the International Conference on AIDS in Amsterdam in July of 1992.
Marty Robinson was one of the founders of the Lavender Hill Mob, and his collection contains not only papers, but such things as stickers and lapel buttons from that organizations early days.
Although the Archive does not have the main body of ACT UP records, which were given to the New York Public Library and may be examined only under NYPL's rather stringent rules of access, some of the organization's materials are included in the collected papers of individual members. In addition, the Archive's collection of ACT UP New York Records, 1991, consists of materials relating to the distribution of the proceeds of an album made by the Red, Hot & Blue Project, of which ACT UP was to receive a third.
When the idea of creating the Archive of Lesbian and Gay History first came up in 1988, Center Executive Director Richard Burns recruited Rich Wandel, Project Archivist for the New York Philharmonic and a gay activist since 1970. Wandel organized the materials and established the Archive, and today, as mentioned previously, he serves as Center Archivist. The hallmarks of the Archive are ease of access and ease of use; it has a strict policy of nondiscrimination on any basis. The only grounds on which someone would be denied the right to use the Archive is if Wandel finds reason to believe that the person would pose a physical threat to the material, through carelessness, sabotage, or theft.
"If Newt Gingrich came in here and wanted to use the material," says Wandel, "I'd probably watch him like a hawk, but he'd be allowed to do so. Or, if a 10 year old came in here ( this is very different from your average large institution, so the odds of it being an appropriate place for him or her are small ( we would sit down and talk about it. And I would do my best to direct him or her to the information needed. If that included our materials, fine; if it meant sending him or her somewhere else, fine. But there's no 'I'm sorry, you're not old enough' kind of thing. There's no 'You're obviously not a serious researcher' kind of thing. Anyone here, from within the community, from outside the community, is welcome."
The Archive is open Monday and Thursday nights from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., and Wandel is there to help people find what they are looking for. The first step in finding materials is checking the computer, where the materials in the discrete collections are housed, for the reference numbers of collections by topic. Searching under "AIDS" will get you several screens of listings.
The next stop is a loose-leaf book that contains descriptions of each collection, arranged numerically. The section for each selection begins with a "finding aid," which explains how the Archive obtained the material and establishes its right to have it, and lists materials that were part of the original donation but were deemed not of sufficient historical importance to keep in the collection. Wandel explains that this list can offer insights about the person whose papers are in the collection. Holiday cards, for example, may not be of particular historical interest, but the fact that they were saved tells us something about the person.
Also in the finding aid is a brief biography or organizational history, with an emphasis on the period covered by the materials in the collection. Some living donors prepare their own biographies. This is followed by an overview of what is in the collection, then finally a folder-by-folder listing of the materials. The James R. Perry Papers, for example, consist of 143 folders, plus date books, diaries, scrapbooks, and photo albums. A "Summary Guide to Current Collections," which contains synopses of the information in the finding aids, is also available at the Center or by mail to help researchers, particularly those from outside New York, determine whether the Center Archive has the material they need. Most of the Archive's material is also listed in Research Libraries Information Network, an on-line catalogue for libraries called "RLIN."
Wandel and the Archive's trained volunteers are also available in person or by phone to help users locate materials. Phoning ahead is suggested, since he has a pretty good idea what the Archive does and does not have. "The more you tell me about what that thesis, or paper for high school, or curiosity or whatever, is," says Wandel, "the more I'll be able to help you find what you need. But it's not a requirement."
Many of the materials in the collections are donated or willed to the Archive. Michael Callen donated most of the papers in his collection to the Center Archive in 1990, when he left New York for California, and left the balance to the Archive in his will. James R. Perry willed his papers to the Archive. Michael Shernoff donated the posters in his collection.
Complete sets of organizational records are often hard to come by. Those organizations that become large enough to have their own offices usually keep their own records, rather than donating them to the Center or another archive. The records of smaller organizations ( and there are a lot of them ( tend to be scattered, and often no complete set exists anywhere. However, when a former secretary or president cleans house and wants to get rid of obsolete records, it can result in a windfall of valuable material for the Archive.
Often the materials are donated by family members, lovers, or friends, after someone has died. Wandel is always on the lookout for unexpected items of historical interest. When a person settling someone's affairs offers to donate a stack of periodicals that the Archive already has, for instance, he asks what else may be about to be thrown away. "People tend not to credit what is actually the more valuable stuff ( the diaries, letters or snapshots they kept or any of a number of things of that nature ( which are far more important to an archive because they're rarer than The Advocate or Body Positive or whatever."
Wandel confesses to some initial discomfort when dealing with survivors. "I felt a little bit like a scavenger, to use the nicest term, until I realized that what I'm saying when I'm talking to this person or this family, is 'This life is valuable; we want to save it.' And in a strange way sometimes, it's like a two-minute bereavement counseling."
Some materials are just left anonymously, sent in the mail or dropped off at the Center's reception desk. These gifts too are valued. One such donation is the framed memorial to Gregory Joseph Villone. No one at the Archive knows who Mr. Villone was, who had his photograph and a letter from him framed, or who donated the memorial to the Archive. But this gift occupies a place of honor on the wall of the Archive's office.
(The National Museum and Archive of Lesbian and Gay History is located at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, 208 West 13th Street, New York, NY 109011, (212) 620-7310.)
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.