Preserving LGBTQ History For Future Generations

By Lisa Liebman

“The denial of our very existence has always been a primary tactic against us,” says  Richard Wandel.

Wandel is referring to the LGBTQ community; and as the longtime archivist of the LGBT Community Center National History Archive located in New York City, he has been working to preserve a record of that existence for more than 25 years.  

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Brent Nicholson Earl’s arrest for protesting President George Bush’s address at a 1990 AIDS conference in Arlington, Virginia. Credit: Outweek Magazine collection, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

An amateur photographer and LGBT activist who had recently helped mount a New York City Hall exhibit titled “Prejudice and Pride,” Wandel, now 71, was approached about the archivist role by Richard Burns, the executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (now called the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center) in 1989. Wandel accepted what was  —  and remains — a volunteer position and has been organizing and preserving material related to LGBTQ life for the Center ever since.

The archive, initially conceived as an archive and a museum, began in 1989 with “The Center Show,” a series of on-site installations. Among the contemporary artists featured was Keith Haring, whose sex-positive mural “Once Upon a Time” — created in 1990 in what was then a Center bathroom, nine months before he died of AIDS — is still on view today.

The New York Public Library was the first to donate to the archive — there’s no budget to buy material — passing along its collection of gay periodicals after transferring them to microfilm. From there, Wandel reached out to any and all of his contacts to request personal papers, photographs, videos, records, and what has since become a large international collection of LGBTQ periodicals. Now, researchers come from all over the world to take advantage of the approximately 2,000-square-foot collection stored off-site in New Jersey and brought to the Center as needed.

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Liz Eden and John Wojtowicz’s 1971 wedding at New York City’s Yellow Brick Road Bar.  Credit: Richard Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Among the materials representing the LGBTQ community are several large photo collections, including those from Wandel and Leonard Fink. Beginning in 1970, Wandel documented the city’s gay liberation movement, its leaders, and demonstrations by the Gay Activists Alliance, of which he was a past president. He also photographed the wedding of John Wojtowicz and Liz Eden; Wojtowicz’s attempt at bank robbery to pay for Eden’s sex-reassignment surgery later became the basis for Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon.

Like Wandel, Fink was also an amateur photographer with an “excellent eye,” the archivist says. In 1967, Fink began photographing life in New York City’s Greenwich Village. His Gay Pride parade photos begin with the first New York City event in 1970. (Parades were also staged in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago that year to mark the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots after a 1969 police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar.) In 2014, Coming Out: Photographs of Gay Liberation and the New York Waterfront, a book of Fink’s black-and-white photos with a preface by Wandel, was published by the Center and Swiss imprint Edition Clandestin.

The archive also includes photographs from Outweek, a weekly gay and lesbian magazine published from 1989 to 1991 that reported on AIDS activism, as well as on organizations such as Queer Nation and Act Up. Wandel says other interesting collections include those from playwright and actor Jackie Curtis with his plays, poems, and other memorabilia; and Supreme Court historian James R. Perry, whose personal papers included correspondence with a friend about an illness they both had, which turned out to be AIDS. There’s also a cache of videos, including filmed events from Center panel discussions in the ‘80s and ‘90s with, Wandel says, “people you never heard of,” as well as luminaries like playwright Edward Albee and actress Elaine Stritch. Wandel and his all-volunteer staff of 12 are in the process of digitizing them.

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John Paul Hudson (a.k.a. John Francis Hunter) at a 1971 Gay Activists Alliance demonstration protesting the Board of Education in Brooklyn, New York.
Credit: Richard Wandel, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Journalist Eric Marcus, creator and host of the podcast Making Gay History, which features his previously recorded interviews with members of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, says archives like the Center’s are important because they provide a sense of heritage for young people “who don’t have an understanding of how far and how fast we’ve come — and the people who’ve made that possible.”

He notes that, until recently, many older LGBTQ activists didn’t save their things because they thought they had no value. As a result, so much from early generations has been lost, which makes people like Wandel and the Center archive so important. In fact, Marcus says he’s “indebted” to Wandel for providing a photo of transgender activist Sylvia Rivera for his very first podcast. Unsung advocates like Rivera, Wandel and others, he says, “tell us who we are, where we came from, and why we have a reason to be proud.”  

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Lisa Liebman is New York City-based freelance writer covering entertainment, pop culture, women’s issues, and more for outlets including VanityFair.com, Vulture, and Glamour.

Cover photo: New York City Gay Pride March, 1974.
Credit: Leonard Fink, courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Copyright © 500 Pens. June 2017