Out of the Archives
By Walter Meyer
All good things must come to an end. And after a little over five years, the time has come to say goodbye to Lambda Archives. Not completely — I will still do special projects for them now and then.
It has been a fun and enriching time. I have been interested in history since childhood trips to Gettysburg and Philadelphia. Once I came out, I became very interested in LGBT history — something I had never learned in school, so when the chance arose to work at Lambda Archives, I took it.
I was between writing gigs after the company that had been working on producing my TV series went bankrupt and I had no major projects in the pipeline. For years, then-board president Maureen Steiner had been asking me to donate a copy of my gay novel and my LGBT-themed writings for Out, Advocate, the Los Angeles Times and other periodicals as well as the thousands of photos from AIDS Walks, Prides, and marriage equality events. She ended up hiring me to be part-time office manager, a job that quickly morphed into much more.
In the time I have been at the Archives, I have managed to write four more books, but now have so many other projects flowing in, that it’s time to leave the Archives to work on them. I wish I could clone myself so that one of me could continue working at the Archives while the other one wrote books and produced my stage play and television series. And maybe I need third clone to travel, which is the other thing leaving the Archives will allow more time for.
My time at the Archives has been filled with wonderful experiences. Maureen gave me pretty free rein to do a lot of creative projects. I researched and created walking tours of the LGBT history Hillcrest. (Those will continue under a couple of awesome volunteers.) Maureen had long dreamed of a series of symposia about LGBT history and I was able to create our Out at the Archives series which covered a wide range of topics.
As a writer, I enjoyed writing our Out of the Archives for Gay San Diego (this paper, now known as LGBTQ San Diego County News), and also working with interns, volunteers and researchers to cover different aspects of our history.
I learned from reading what they wrote as I learned from so many others. Too many to list properly and I apologize to anyone I missed, but I appreciated the help of community members who have already given so much: Chuck Kaminski, Pat McArron, Jeri Dilno, Bridget Wilson, Doug Moore, Al Smithson, George Murphy, Benny Cartwright, Meredith Vezina. So many of these folks had already put in decades of service, but when I called or emailed them needing information or help, unfailingly they did their best to provide what I wanted. So much of our history still resides in the memories of the people who made it.
I had known many of these people for years but got to know and appreciate them so much more because of my work with the Archives and their enthusiastic support. One of the pleasures/regrets was getting to know Mel Merrill, who was a board member when I started at the Archives. Mel was an inspiration in so many ways and always taught me something.
Working at the Archives also meant I got to work with and become a friend of the top LGBT historian in the business, Lillian Faderman. We really got to know each other as we created the LGBT exhibit at the San Diego History Center. One of the most memorable moments of my tenure at the Archives came the first day the exhibit was open to the general public. Lillian and I were doing a walk-through with members of the SDHC staff and I was taking notes on some small corrections that needed to be made. With tears in her eyes, a young woman approached us and gushed over how wonderful the exhibit was and how important it was. Even though I consider myself a decent writer, I would be hard pressed to write a better statement of what I would want a high school student to say about what the exhibit meant to her. I asked her if she identified as LGBTQ and she said no, but she was so happy for her queer friends for whom the exhibit would mean so much.
I was subsequently hired by the SDHC to write the companion book for the exhibit, of which Lillian will be writing the foreword so the exhibit will be able to last much longer on paper. And I am proud of working with Professor David Cline and his students from SDSU who are working to digitize the exhibit so it can live online after it leaves the museum.
Other special moments stand out; too many to list here, but, a sampling:
The Archives is open to visitors any time a staff member is there and a sign out front welcomes passersby. One day, a man stopped in with his son, who was perhaps 10 years old. The man had seen the sign and wanted his son to learn a little about LGBT history. They spent close to an hour here. The boy didn’t seem all that interested, but the father asked good questions and wanted to acquaint his son with a part of history that he likely would not get in school. Whether the man suspected or knew his son was gay, he never said, but I thought it was very cool of the father to want to open his son up to the possibilities.
I had only been working here a short time when a man stopped in with a few photo albums. He said his great-aunt had died in San Diego and he had come out from Buffalo, New York, to settle her affairs. He said the aunt had not had much contact with her family over the years so they were somewhat surprised that she had left her house and its contents to the family. He showed me some photo albums and said, “I think she was a lesbian. These look like photos of gay pride in the 1980s.” I looked at the albums and said, “These look like photos of gay pride in the 1980s! I think your aunt was a lesbian!” I give the man props for taking the time to call The Center (they referred him to us) and he took the trouble to bring in the albums. It makes me wonder how many pieces of our history large and small have been lost when a nephew showed up from out of town and just threw out everything that didn’t concern his family? How many estranged relatives would have gleefully launched a purge of a family member’s LGBT past?
It has been my privilege to help ferret out and preserve what we can of our history. Mel Merrill use to like to quote Winston Churchill: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” We in the LGBTQ community must preserve our own history because it so often neglected by others and I am proud to be part of that preservation.