Local LGBT history must be preserved. It is essential for our community’s past, our present and our future. Documenting our history in publicly-viewable and publicly-accessible ways also acts to ensure that our community, its past struggles and its past victories, are not forgotten.
I was reminded of how important history is on a recent trip to Philadelphia. I traveled there in February for a weekend seminar for LGBT journalists. Near the end of the trip, we took a short tour of the city. I was absolutely amazed to find several LGBT-related historic marker signs scattered across the city. Such signs are a constant and visible reminder of the place of LGBT people in Philadelphia’s local history. That reminder is not only visible to LGBT people, but to all members of the local community. In essence, such historic markers act by themselves to create constant visibility and potential future progress for LGBT people.
Here in Charlotte, over the past several months, some local community members have been establishing nascent projects to help document and preserve local LGBT history. These community members have already begun the process of starting a formal community history project for Charlotte. Even here at the newspaper, we’ve brainstormed ways to help preserve our extensive, nearly 40-year library of LGBT history contained in the archives of The Free Press, The Front Page and qnotes, among other publications.
Community history projects can take many forms. We need them all, including oral histories, documented research projects and essays, historiographies, photo essays and more.
And, like Philadelphia, we need historic markers. Charlotte is full of historically-significant locations scattered across the city. Such locations include The Scorpio. Though the club has been located at its present site on Freedom Dr. only since 1974, it was originally established in 1968, making it a pre-Stonewall gay bar that, 45 years later, is still in operation.
Other bars come to mind, too, such as the old Oleen’s, one of the first gay bars in Charlotte. The building that once housed Oleen’s is now a Dunkin’ Donuts, but the immense history contained there is the beginning of a social fabric that was forced to develop in the shadows and without the privileges, like churches and civic groups, afforded to other minority communities. The Bar at 316, formerly Liaisons, is a longtime LGBT gathering spot as well. The bar is still located next to the original Charlotte location of White Rabbit, once the one certain place LGBT community members could find LGBT-related community information, books and magazines long before acceptance of LGBT-themed material in mainstream retailers.
Early queer history in Charlotte, as in other cities across the U.S., does, indeed, revolve around bars and bookstores. Yet, there is so much more. Early newspapers like The Free Press operated in the mid-1970s. Early gay rights groups, religious groups and social groups also operated in the 1970s. Each of these historic milestones happened in real-life locations, be they homes, churches, bars or elsewhere. Each are deserving to be remembered and marked for future research and education. Historic markers would do the trick.
But, we must act fast. Important details in our local LGBT history are in danger of being forgotten — details which can only be recalled from memory and experience. And, as the earliest generation of Charlotte’s LGBT leaders and visionaries age, it is imperative that we begin to document their experiences and stories. Sadly, we have already lost some of these early leaders and, along with them, the stories they could have told about what it was once like to live as queer people here.
Our community is strong. It is growing. It is achieving more. We are gaining acceptance where acceptance once seemed impossible. But, to truly know where we are going — and to understand it in all its wonderful complexity — we must know, understand and make available the details of our past. We must know from where we have come if we truly desire to create a more fulfilling and progressive future.
In the coming weeks and months, as community members continue their conversations, I hope I can play a role in documenting our local LGBT history. I hope you, too, will join us. If interested, feel free to reach out to Josh Burford, the lead organizer of the newly-established community history project, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, begin your own conversations among friends and acquaintances. What makes the studying of history so great is that much of it begins simply with personal stories and recollections. Many of you have such stories. So do your friends. Talk about them. Write them down. Share them. From such a simple beginning will spring a wealth of knowledge. : :