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UNC-Charlotte compiling history of LGBT community

By Mark Price
msprice@charlotteobserver.com
gayarchives_01
DAVID T. FOSTER III - dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com
9/19/13 - Josh Burford (left), Assistant Director for Sexual and Gender Diversity and Meredith Evans, Associate University Librarian for Special Collections, display some of the items collected in a UNC Charlotte library effort to create an archive on the history of Charlotte's LGBT community.

More Information

  • How to help

    If you have information that might be included as part of UNC-Charlotte’s new LGBT archive, contact Joshua Burford at mailto:joshburford@outlook.comor call 704-687-7127.



UNC-Charlotte professor Joshua Burford is a detective of sorts, trying to piece together one of the more controversial chapters of Charlotte’s history: The rise of the local gay and lesbian community.

It’s a project being done on behalf of the university, which intends the resulting archive to be opened to the public as part of the special collections held at the J. Murrey Atkins Library.

That library is also the official repository for the papers of Charlotte’s mayors, and collections detailing the history of motor sports and the local Civil Rights movement.

The university does not see itself as making a statement of any kind, but experts say the implication is clear: Charlotte’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community has won its place in local history, to be studied, weighed for influence and measured for impact.

It’s a project that also makes UNC part of a national trend, one that has colleges leading the way on saving a part of U.S. history that many in the general population haven’t yet acknowledged as historic. And it comes just a year after North Carolina voters approved Amendment One, which bans gay marriage in the state.

“There is no national museum for LGBT history like there is for other identities and there is no national movement to put it in one repository,” said Burford, an assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at UNC-Charlotte’s Multicultural Resource Center.

“LGBT history is under-studied and many don’t even understand why collecting it is important. But it’s the same as collecting the history of any group that has been oppressed based on gender or race.”

It’s an area of expertise for Burford, 38, a specialist in LGBT history who joined UNC-Charlotte a year ago.

Library officials say it was a happy coincidence that he pitched the idea of an LGBT archive at the same time they were looking to diversify the maps, manuscripts, drawings and books that make up the special collections.

Meredith Evans, a librarian for special collections, likens it to saving material related to the city’s Civil Rights leaders or key members of the Jewish community, both of which are already part of the special collections.

“The LGBT community as a group has changed laws, changed how we live, even changed how we think about things,” said Evans.

“Part of our job as archivists is to have the forethought to realize that impact and see it as history being made. And what we’re doing now is gathering the evidence of events, people and places that tell the story.”

This includes telling the story of those who publicly criticized or worked against the LGBT community, she added. “We need both sides of the story.”

‘Statement of legitimacy’

Among those who applaud what UNC-Charlotte is doing is John D’Emilio, one of the nation’s authorities on LGBT history. He’s now at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but taught from 1983-95 at UNC-Greensboro, where he recalls a newspaper article in nearby Burlington once referring to him as “The Fag Doctor.”

D’Emilio believes times have changed in the state, and that what Burford is doing will allow local LGBT history to be included as part of the curriculum in area schools.

“To not have gay people be a part of history is a way of denying that they belong, so UNC-Charlotte’s effort is an important step,” D’Emilio said.

“Whenever a mainstream institution takes a stand on something, whether it be black studies or women’s studies or gay and lesbian studies, it is a statement of legitimacy and recognition.”

D’Emilio noted that large cities like San Francisco and New York have had LGBT collections for years, but it’s only in the past decade that the idea has taken hold at colleges across the country. Duke University is among those that have an LGBT archive, but it’s not locally focused and consists mostly of materials donated by activists, educators and playwrights.

UNC-Charlotte’s effort will be different, in that Burford says he intends to create a repository for the complete history of Charlotte’s LGBT community.

D’Emilio believes Burford’s plan will garner a lot of local support, despite the controversy that continues to surround all things LGBT related.

“Anyone publicly opposing the collection of this material now would appear backward, but I never underestimate the capacity for people to be ridiculous,” D’Emilio said.

Looking for records

Burford quietly began his quest for material in October of last year by contacting leaders in the LGBT community and asking for their records. He’s looking for records from LGBT clubs, health groups, community activists, and even correspondence from elected officials on the subject of LGBT matters.

Among those he has called was Wesley Mancini, a successful fabric designer who created a nonprofit 13 years ago to fund charity programs that encouraged LGBT tolerance.

It was his response to a Mecklenburg County commission vote to withhold arts funding for anything that had gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender themes.

Mancini has agreed to give the foundation’s records to the UNC archive. He says he’s flattered to be considered an activist, but believes gay rights leaders made bigger sacrifices in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when opposition was more violent.

“I never saw myself as defiant. I just thought I was doing the right thing and helping to educate the community,” said Mancini.

“What I hope the young learn from these archives is that it wasn’t easy to have the freedoms they have. We went through a lot worse times and they are literally written in blood of their predecessors.”

Price: 704-358-5245
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