Photo courtesy of OutCentral Collection, Albert Gore Research Center
Tennessee is a dangerous place to be queer. The state Legislature continues to propose and pass bills that take direct aim at queer people and other marginalized groups. This legislation has been dubbed the “Slate of Hate” by LBGTQ+ activists.
Recently, Tennessee passed a bill that bans public “adult cabaret performance.” It specifically cites “male or female impersonators” — drag queens. Many LGBTQ+ Tennesseans are concerned that this jeopardizes their safety. In addition, the legislature passed another bill that prevents transgender youth from receiving gender-affirming healthcare.
The Slate of Hate is not new — it is an ongoing threat to queer people in Tennessee. In 2021, the state passed a bill that made it possible for parents to prevent their children from learning about LGBTQ+ issues in school.
That particular bill was the tipping point for Sarah Calise — a Floridian turned Tennessean and full-time librarian at Vanderbilt University. On top of all that, she is queer. She was worried about what this would mean for students.
“As a historian and archivist, I knew that queer and trans people have existed forever,” she said.“I just felt really sad and fearful for the K-12 students that were queer or trans. Their own history was going to be banned from school.”
At the time, Calise was working as an archivist at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), just south of Nashville. She was pleased when she learned the university had received a collection of records from OutCentral — a queer community center in Nashville that closed in 2018.
An OutCentral board member who went to MTSU salvaged many documents before the center closed, then asked the university if it wanted the records. MTSU accepted and assured the board members that the documents would help further the Albert Gore Research Center, which focuses on the state’s political, social and cultural history.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Calise wasn’t able to do a deep dive into the OutCentral records until 2021 — just when the legislature allowed parents to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ content in public schools.
As archivists sifted through the documents, which from the surface weren’t very exciting — mostly business and financial records, meeting minutes and other run-of-the-mill papers — Calise stumbled upon a gold mine of Nashville’s queer history. She said the stash included about 400 photographs from 1990s-era pride parades, picnics and celebrations.
The collection of photos is now accessible online through the Al Gore Research Center. One of the photos shows protesters with their fists up or holding signs that read “Act up! Fight for a cure” and “Silence = Death,” as they march forward with a banner that proclaims, “Time’s up! Act up!” Another features people showing off the backs of their shirts emblazoned with the words “love is a basic human right.”
It also included about the first two-and-a-half years of Nashville’s gay and lesbian newspaper, Dare — later known as Query. The newspaper started in 1988 and unfortunately ceased publication in 2004.
As Calise pored through these records, she couldn’t shake the thought of the Slate of Hate, which was threatening the preservation of queer history in schools. Here she was, working with abundant evidence of Nashville’s vibrant queer past while the State wanted to prevent this past from being shared and talked about. The State wanted to lock it away forever.
Calise knew what she had to do. She thought to herself, “I can digitize this stuff and make it publicly available.”
Calise held quite a bit of power in this moment. “They can’t ban that — they don’t have that kind of authority over us as an archive,” she said. So she started digitizing all the photographs and newspapers. Calise was so inspired that she later earned a master’s degree in information sciences from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. For her capstone project, she created a website that preserved these previously archived materials. This little website was named Nashville Queer History — a project that Calise hasn’t stopped working on since its launch in September 2021.
Nashville Queer History now has more than 4,000 followers on its ever-active Instagram account. The group — still spearheaded by Calise — hosts many events for the community and continues to educate others on queer history through their work.
“I didn’t think it was ever going to blossom into what it is today, but it’s been a wild, fun and rewarding journey thus far,” Calise said.
The project is run fully by volunteers and donations, though Calise shoulders the majority of the financial burden of keeping it afloat. Within a year, the numbers of volunteers passionate about helping had increased. The turnout at their very first meeting surprised Calise.
“That was really awesome, to have that kind of reaction to what I was doing,” she said.
The Nashville Queer History site also includes videos from past Pride events and photos of a short-lived Nashville drag bar in addition to the photos from OutCentral and the collection of the Dare newspaper. Calise highlights particular people and events on the archive’s website as well.
Although Tennessee politicians want to erase these queer people, here they were, excited to help and, as Calise puts it, to “feel connected to their ancestors.” As the group has grown, Calise started holding monthly meetings last January at public libraries across Nashville. Though supported by an accepting community, Calise still remembers where she lives. It is necessary — for what she calls “safety reasons” — that the locations of these meetings change and remain as private as possible, so members direct message her to learn the addresses.
Similar to Nashville Queer History, the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, runs solely on donations and volunteer work. Founded in 1974, the Lesbian Herstory Archives were born in Joan Nestle’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It took almost two decades until Nestle’s apartment became absolutely overtaken by the volume of documents and other memorabilia that are the archives. The need for official space became apparent, and in 1993, the Lesbian Herstory Archives moved to its new home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where it is located today.
At the start of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, those in the community surrounding it “were very aware of the fact that what they were doing was historically important,” said volunteer Rachel Corbman, a trained archivist with a doctorate in women’s, gender and sexuality studies from Stony Brook University.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives is the largest lesbian-specific collection still in existence. “It’s interested in collecting and preserving all records of lesbian lives and experiences,” Corbman said. As for what exactly the Lesbian Herstory Archives collects, Corbman jokingly describes some contents as “anything touched by a lesbian.”
The lesbian feminist movement took root alongside the gay liberation movement, both following the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The Stonewall riots began in late June of that year after police entered the bar and arrested employees and people who weren’t wearing what was deemed as gender-appropriate clothing. This was not the first time that police discriminated against queer people, but it triggered a riot that united LGBTQ+ people of all different identities.
These movements continued to snowball, and many more groups of queer people came together to work toward a common goal. Some created what Corbman described as “a consciousness-raising group.” In 1974, one group in particular got their minds set on the idea of creating an archive that focused on lesbian history. “Everyone realized at the time that traditional libraries were not collecting it,” Corbman explained. “Lesbian Herstory Archives was imagined as a way to kind of fill that gap.”
She continued, “The Lesbian Herstory Archives is part of a broader groundswell of other community-based archives that were doing similar work in the 1970s and were in fact in dialogue with each other.”
Just a look at the Lesbian Herstory Archives on social media shows the sheer number of usually now-defunct queer groups that have existed in small towns throughout the United States. On Long Island, LHA has showcased a queer history of the region that is unknown to many. A flyer with an illustration of a woman riding a horse with graphic text announcing “Women of Weight Take Space” was published by a lesbian group with that name in Huntington, New York. There are no other records that show the existence of this group, yet the many flyers from the Lesbian Herstory Archives reveal a previously vibrant and passionate organization.
Looking at these organizations from the past unveils stories of queer people who have always existed. It is humbling to know that this fight has been one that has seemingly been ongoing forever. It also makes one wonder about what it was like to be a part of these groups at the time.
“Most grassroots groups are very short-lived,” Corbman said. “It…is just a part of the lifecycle of these kinds of groups.” The archives hold proof of the existence of these groups that otherwise would truly have been forgotten.
The Lesbian Herstory Archives has remained a pillar of the community, and they still accept donations of materials to add to their archive. Their digital collection is a scroll that makes your fingers ache trying to look through it all. A colorful collection with shirts like one from Long Island that reads “an army of lovers will not fail.” A visitor could get lost perusing the button collection with messages like “Mother Nature is a lesbian,” accompanied by an illustration of a field with trees. One button prominently declares “it’s a bitch being butch!” Other messages echo through the decades: “Lesbian visibility is lesbian survival,” “We Are Everywhere,” “There are more of us than you think!” — these all still ring true today.
In November of 2022, the Lesbian Herstory Archives became an official New York City landmark — the first LGBTQ+ landmark in Brooklyn.
What is it that drives someone like Nashville Queer History’s Sarah Calise — or like the founders of Lesbian Herstory Archives, Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle — to spend so much time and money on a mission to preserve queer history? “Anger,” Calise said, breaking into a laugh. Then, she quickly added, “Mostly love for my fellow queer people.”
The anger is aimed towards “the bigotry and nonstop ignorance that the Republicans-slash-Conservatives have had on the state for quite some time,” Calise said, specifically citing the intense gerrymandering of Tennessee’s voting districts.
This anger is the flame that keeps Calise moving forward. Nashville Queer History is creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ Tennesseans who have their rights threatened every day. Calise is also slated to write a book for Vanderbilt University Press on the queer past of Nashville.
After Betsy Phillips, who works in the Vanderbilt University Press marketing department, became aware of Calise’s research, she was excited to reach out about a book as there wasn’t much published on the topic.
Calise explained that the book would be the first to cover Nashville’s queer history, specifically from the 1920s to today — “even though, we know, logically, queer and trans people existed” before then.
Calise believes all the work will be worth it. “I didn’t grow up with this history,” she said. Still, she feels uniquely positioned to make an impact within this niche of the queer community. “I have the skills, the perfect combination — I am queer. I am a public historian, archivist-slash-librarian. I know how to do this, I can preserve a history.”
So yes, Tennessee is a dangerous place to be queer. Many places are. But projects like these archives underscore the reality that queer people and communities have always existed and always will. And no politician can erase the stories of real, everyday queer people that these archives tell.
Calise knew that preserving this history was important, and that she had to use her specific skills and assets to do it. “I don’t see anyone else doing it, so it’s gotta be me,” she said. “And hopefully people join me along the way, which has happened.”