History you can hold in your hand is what awaits visitors to a repurposed frat house, which houses the largest archive of LGBT historic materials in the world.
“I think it’s great to be able to read materials online, but coming into the archives, holding diaries of people who passed away from HIV/AIDS, or being able to read letters people wrote to one another when their relationship was secretive, because they were afraid of being arrested or losing their job, you realize the depth of our history,” said ONE Archives Foundation Executive Director Jennifer Gregg, regarding the two million+ items they donated to the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries in 2010.
As for the Foundation’s origin story, Gregg explained, “The name comes from the Thomas Carlyle quote, ‘A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one.’ The organization started in 1952. It was founded by members of the Mattachine Society, which was the first organized group for LGBTQ rights… The organization’s founders started ONE through the publication of ONE Magazine [1953 to 1967], and from there, the archives began. James L. Kepner (aka Jim Kepner) was a bibliophile, who began collecting in the 1940s. His collection was housed in multiple locations, including his own residence, and grew and grew over time.”
Today, USC maintains that collection (three million+ items), and provides a staff of two full-time archivists, a library supervisor, a director, and, at times, curators, and contract archivists. The Foundation supports their work by, Gregg said, “enhancing and diversifying the collection, helping to identify gaps, and making the Archives more visible to the public.”
The Archives serve as a source of information and inspiration for scholars, attorneys, journalists, exhibition curators, teachers, students, and filmmakers. (Photographs from the Archives, for example, appear in the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic, “Milk,” and the staff often interacts with researchers to provide information on file, or refer them to other sources, worldwide.)
Joseph Hawkins, Director, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, has been involved with the project since his days as a USC grad student in the early 2000s, when the Archives were moved into their current location, just off the USC campus.
“Archives can be pretty daunting places,” Hawkins said, describing his team’s work as “time-consuming… But we try to unpack these boxes and tell you the stories” (A single banker’s box worth of materials can cost $500 or more to process. Tasks include imposing an intellectual order, placing materials in an acid-free environment, and creating a finding aid, so those materials can be easily accessed by researchers.)
Echoing Gregg’s observation about the interactive aspect of the Archives, Hawkins noted, “It’s transportive to be in the presence of these materials. When people come here, they’re getting in touch with their history, and we provide objects that illustrate how things came to be… They move you.”
There are materials representing 48 languages in the collection, “that we know of,” Hawkins said (about 80 percent of the collection has been cataloged), and “we also have 8,000 magazines… with titles nobody has ever heard of. There was one in the 1930s called Bachelor, which is code for ‘gay man.’ RFD is for gay people in rural districts.”
Although materials from the original 2010 donation comprise the vast majority of its current content, the collection will continue to expand, Hawkins said. “We’re always taking in organizational collections,” he noted. “Once professionalization occurred in the gay and lesbian community in the 1980s, all these big organizations were founded. And for many of them, their papers were sitting in garages and storage units. So lately, we’re getting a lot of those.”
Recent additions include collections from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, San Francisco’s Center for Sex & Culture, the works of author Larry Townsend and pioneering black filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, and Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue.
Hawkins also noted the late 2015/early 2016 donation of materials from Edith Edye, who arrived in Southern California in the 1930s, and “gets a job at RKO Studios. She becomes Lisa Ben, an anagram for lesbian. The story is great. But what’s really fun is, when her collection came in, she had a box that was filled with little plastic viewers that had pictures of ladies in the nude, and also a guitar case with a leopard skin exterior and pink crushed velvet in the inside.”
In terms of contemporary donations, Gregg cited increased visibility as a reason for the Archives’ expanding collection. “Because we live more openly,” she noted, “people are thinking about their legacies, whether it’s the impact they’ve had on changing the hearts and minds of their families, their impact within the movement, or being out at work. Those are all things we’re looking for.”
Gregg said the Foundation is “teaching people how to maintain their collections,” and making sure they know how to gift their collections “to places that are meaningful to them — the ONE Archives, their alma mater, or their hometown.” To facilitate this, a presentation called “Archiving is Activism” is given throughout the country.
“When you think about it,” Gregg said, “making sure that we’re visible, making sure that our stories are shared in an accurate and authentic way, is activism.”
With USC as steward of its collection, the ONE Archives Foundation furthers its mission of “telling the accurate and authentic stories of LGBTQ people, history and culture” through community outreach programs, educational training, and exhibitions.
Originating at ONE Gallery in West Hollywood (626 North Robertson Boulevard), Foundation exhibitions tour the country, and they create original exhibitions via collaborations with other organizations and archives. (Upcoming is “Metanoia: Transformation Through AIDS Archives and Activism,” opening March 11 at NYC’s LGBT Community Center.)
Recalling their popular 2017 exhibition, “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.,” Green noted it “started around an individual named Mundo Meza, and by researching that one individual, the curators realized there was a huge queer network in Chicano LA, that started in the ’60s.”
The resulting exhibition encompassed art, music, and performance from queer Chicana/o artists in Southern California, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s — an era bookended by the gay liberation/feminist movements and the AIDS crisis. Fashion, punk music, and performance were among the conduits for artistic expression, cultural criticism, and activism.
The Foundation’s LGBTQ Research Fellowship Program, now in its second year, welcomes participants from all around the country, Gregg said. “We offer stipends for them to do their research, everything from the history of conversion therapy to lesbian parenting in a welfare state. So they’re very focused in their research.”
Currently in its first year, the Foundation’s Youth Ambassadors for Queer History program came to be, Gregg said, “because we know that LGBTQ youth remain among the highest-risk populations in the United States, and schools across the country continue to be hostile environments for queer youth. So we started it as a mentorship program, for students to become ambassadors for LGBTQ history and culture. It provides students an opportunity to come into the Archives and explore the history… and they create additional resources, through their research, which will then be utilized in their schools.”
In its first year, the program’s eight students reached approximately 1,000 high school students in LA County.
“When they realize how far back their history actually goes,” Green said, “that’s part of making our history visible.”