UNC Charlotte launches LGBT history collection

Josh Burford (left), asst. director Multicultural Resource Center, is launching an oral history project to talk to historical figures in the LGBT community for their perspectives on history. Burford and Dawn Schmitz, archivist at the Atkins Library, displayed some of the collection on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016.
Josh Burford (left), asst. director Multicultural Resource Center, is launching an oral history project to talk to historical figures in the LGBT community for their perspectives on history. Burford and Dawn Schmitz, archivist at the Atkins Library, displayed some of the collection on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

North Carolina’s General Assembly didn’t used the term “second-class citizen” in a new law that limits legal protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people, but historians say the intent of House Bill 2 will be clear enough to future generations.

LGBT people have long been considered outcasts and troublemakers by some sectors of society, which is why Joshua Burford of UNC Charlotte’s Multicultural Resource Center expects the university’s latest project could cause a stir in the community.

After winning national honors in 2015 for launching an archive devoted to LGBT Charlotteans, Burford is taking the collection a step further with an oral history project aimed at recording the stories of LGBT figures who thrived despite widespread prejudice and persecution.

Examples interviewed so far include Charlotte’s first openly lesbian candidate for mayor and the first transgender woman elected to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention (held in Charlotte in 2012).

Calling such people “historical figures” is one of many indications of just how fast times are changing for the LGBT community, Burford says. Experts say what’s happening now is not unlike the civil rights period of the 1950s and ’60s, when blacks defiantly tried using accommodations reserved for whites.

Such people were then considered agitators, Burford says. Now, their acts are viewed as brave and historic.

“We want people who’ve been an active, visible part of the (LGBT) community for years. And we also want those who have taken a less visible role and maybe don’t see themselves as leaders,” said Burford, noting extra effort is being invested in finding the stories of young gays, lesbians and black Gay Pride groups.

“We want them (the young) to see themselves as part of history and to make that connection to the generations before them.”

A volunteer group drawn from Charlotte’s LGBT community is partnering with the university’s Atkins Library to coordinate the project. The library will house the oral histories as part of the Special Collections section, in anticipation of the LGBT rights movement being widely studied in the future.

It’s coincidental that the project is being publicized just a few weeks after the N.C. General Assembly passed HB2 in a special session. The law not only negated Charlotte’s newly adopted policy allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their gender identity, but it made clear that LGBT people aren’t afforded specific civil rights protections in North Carolina.

Transgender activist Janice Covington Allison of Charlotte is among the people already named to be part of the oral history project. Allison made history by being elected a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

However, her public profile also includes being booted from a women’s restroom last year at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. That incident occurred the same night the Charlotte City Council debated a nondiscrimination ordinance that would have expanded protections for LGBT people.

That city ordinance was passed earlier this year, which prompted state leaders to respond with HB2.

“I never imagined anything I’ve done as being historic at the time. We (transgender women) were too interested in just surviving. We had a lot of people against us,” said Allison, noting even the lesbian and gay community often had a hard time understanding transgender people.

“If I made history, it’s because I sought to do things that I personally wanted to do, because I’m human like everybody else. I love fishing and football and going to races, and I don’t want to be discriminated against when I’m doing it. I wanted to be treated like everybody else.”

Burford is seeking suggestions on others to include in the project, which will be made available to the public via the Internet. Among the 20-plus people already named for inclusion:

▪ Sue Henry, a business owner who was the city’s most high-profile LGBT figure of the ’90s. She was the first openly gay candidate for mayor of Charlotte in 1995. (Pat McCrory won.)

▪ Bob Barret, professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte. Barrett took a high-profile stand for the gay community in the late ’90s when members of Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted to withhold arts funding for anything that was related to the subject of gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender people. He helped create an organization called Citizens for Equality, which staged a defiant news conference on the steps of City Hall.

▪ Boom Boom La’Tour (Ricky Carter), a family restaurant manager who led an after-hours life appearing in local clubs as one of the Carolinas’ most famous drag entertainers for nearly five decades.

▪ Charlotte native Tonda Taylor, 76, is another example, though she led a more low-key life compared with others in the project. She is best-known for being the founder of Time Out Youth, a charity that advocates for LGBT youth. Taylor was executive director for 14 years, stepping down in 2004.

“I and Bob Barret are part of that (LGBT) generation that lived through the years when everything was so negative and taboo and hostile,” says Taylor, whose oral history stories include once losing a college scholarship after a school official learned she was a lesbian.

“Over the centuries. this group, our group, has been so persecuted and so misunderstood. ... We are seeing remarkable progress in a short period of history, when compared to other movements. But the negative times are important to remember as we make all these incredible new strides.”

Be part of LGBT history

To volunteer to be a part of the LGBT Oral History Project at UNC Charlotte or to suggest people for inclusion, contact Joshua Burford at joshburford@outlook.com or 704-687-7127.