By Wendy Sue Biegeleisen
Lambda Archives volunteer
I began volunteering at San Diego Lambda Archives about five years ago, assertively persuaded by then-board president Maureen Steiner. At the time, I was the primary caregiver for my elderly father, which took up most of my time. I needed a diversion a few hours a week away from our home that was a positive, fulfilling experience and brought me joy. Sadly, the last two years of his life, Pop needed a lot more care and I had to stop volunteering. This was my life at the time, until Pop passed away in December 2018 at 91 years of age. He lived a good, long life and truly enjoyed the love and attention from my lesbian and gay friends, especially when we attended eight of the San Diego LGBT Community Center’s Winter Holiday celebrations, though he said he only went with me for all the delicious chocolate desserts.
One of the first things I started doing to rejoin the world, a few months after my Pop’s passing, was to start volunteering again at Lambda Archives. What I do is a lot of fun and brings back many memories as I “came out” in San Diego as a baby dyke of 16, back in 1976. The task I have been gifted with is to identify old photographs, when and where they were taken, people in them, what events, along with other significant historical information about a photo. The photos are then digitized along with the photo’s history by Ken Selnick, Lambda’s archivist. The work is like putting together a history puzzle and the prize is discovering the hidden secrets about our San Diego LGBTQ past.
One of my favorite photos from Rick Duffer’s collection, a photographer for Update Gay newspaper, is of a very young Christine Kehoe and Pat Burke in the early 1980s, having a beer together. At the time, they were the editors of rival San Diego gay papers, Chris at The Gayzette and Pat from Update. In part of the collection of photos Chris Kehoe and Julie Warren have donated to Lambda Archives is a photo of Chris and former President Bill Clinton. The importance of this photo is that at this American historical period, a formal public photo of an open lesbian politician with the governing president of the United States was extremely rare occurrence.
While volunteering, I also enjoy seeing memorabilia of our LGBTQ past. One item in particular is a familiar wooden sign, reminding me of the fun times I had at the Wing Cafe, which was a feminist coffeehouse/performance space in Golden Hill during the 1980s. On occasion, I ran lighting and follow-spotlight for women’s music concerts and events that happened at the Wing Cafe. There are very few photos of these performances and the Archives is in need of much more photos and memorabilia from our San Diego lesbian feminist groups, bars and experiences.
One feminist comedy performance group that had a start at Wing Cafe, SDSU Women’s Studies events and The Flame lesbian dance club, was the “Kathy and Mo Show” featuring Kathy Najimy, best known for her performance in the movie “Hocus Pocus” and Maureen Gaffney, from the TV comedy “Absolutely Fabulous.” A little personal herstory: Mo and I went to Clairemont High School in San Diego, we were in the drama club, graduated Class of ‘76 and worked at The Old Globe Theatre together in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Paradigm Feminist Bookstore and Café, owned by Karen Merry, was another gathering place located on Adams Avenue — a gathering place outside of the bars, for lesbians/women in the 1980s and 90s during the second wave of feminism. We could count on something wonderful happening there at least once a week. Many different types of music, comedy, and poetry slam performances happened there, such as the Kathy and Mo Show, Alix Dobkin, Robin Tyler, Mary Dolan, Judy Fjell, Romanovsky and Phillips, Sue Palmer and her jazz band. Paradigm also hosted book author readings and signings by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Lillian Faderman, Sally Miller Gearhart, Barbara Ruth, and Gloria Steinem just to name drop a few amazing feminists of our time.
I’m sure I’ve gone through and identified thousands of photos by now and there are still many more to go through — thankfully, I’ll be volunteering for a very long time. There are so many photos of San Diego LGBTQ sports and recreation groups, the Imperial Court de San Diego events throughout the years, the early AIDS years, ACT-UP protest actions and the start of AIDS/HIV organizations, our choruses, the Metropolitan Community Church Follies and other spiritual organization celebrations, the many fundraisers that have happened in our bars, LGBTQ political organizations, protests for equal rights and, of course, LGBT Pride parades, rallies and festivals.
I’d encourage San Diego LGBTQ folk who have been active in the many varied factions of our San Diego community to visit our Lambda Archives, donate your photos and memorabilia, and please come join me in volunteering to identify our LGBTQ history within the photos. Volunteering is also a wonderful intergenerational experience sharing time and stories with the interns from SDSU who work on a variety of projects for Lambda Archives. Volunteering is a lot of fun and we also share a lot of laughs, memories and personal stories when we’re together!