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LGBTQ CA archives start to reopen

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The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood is currently open only to researchers. Photo: Courtesy Mazer Archives
The June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood is currently open only to researchers. Photo: Courtesy Mazer Archives  

Should the COVID-19 pandemic remain in retreat through the summer then the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives in West Hollywood should be welcoming a female researcher from France this September who is coming across the pond to conduct research among its holdings. It is also eying a fall opening for a new exhibit about lesbian magazine Curve.

The publication's founder, Frances "Franco" Stevens, had donated the magazine's archival material in 2010 when she sold it to Avalon Media in Sydney, Australia. (She recently bought it back.) Her wife Jen Rainin, the CEO of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation named after her father, granted the Mazer $10,000 to process the Curve Collection.

It allowed for the 40-year-old Southern California archival center, initially founded in Oakland, to hire an archivist who worked throughout the pandemic last year to ready the magazine's materials for use by researchers and others. It was some of the only work the archive was able to do, having closed to the public last March.

"During COVID some of that was slowed down, but we did not stop processing it," said Angela Brinskele, a self-described lifelong lesbian who is the Mazer's director of communications.

Located in the city-owned Werle Building at 626 N. Robertson Boulevard, the Mazer has yet to open to the public. In May, it began allowing researchers back in on an appointment-only basis.

"We are letting researchers in by appointment only with really strict COVID guidelines. We take everybody's temperature and we wear gloves," explained Brinskele in a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter in early June. "The archivists who work with us haven't been comfortable until the last few weeks having more than one person per room in the archive or one person at a time."

Roughly $6,000 in funding it received from the city of West Hollywood this year allowed the Mazer to mount an online exhibit for Pride Month about women in music utilizing materials in its Betsy York Collection. The Mazer, named after the late lesbian activist and historic preservationist June L. Mazer, who died of cancer in 1987, has never been able to hire a full-time archivist.

Yet because of the grant funding it received over the last year, the Mazer had "the most productive year we've ever had in probably 10 years," said Brinskele. "A lot of organizations like us have gone under in the last year because they could not survive the pandemic."

Like its LGBTQ archival counterparts across California, the Mazer had to vastly curtail its accessibility and move online any programming it wanted to continue to provide when the COVID pandemic starting raging across the Golden State last March, leading health officials to order nonessential businesses and facilities to temporarily close their doors. With nearly all of those operating restrictions lifted as of June 15, the archival centers are beginning to return to normal operating procedures.

Seeking state funding
They are also looking to state lawmakers for funding assistance since the health crisis upended their revenue streams, which in a normal year are already minimal for most LGBTQ archives when compared to their larger, more mainstream counterparts. The Mazer, for instance, has a yearly budget of $50,000.

It is hopeful that a $750,000 allocation it and a coalition of LGBTQ archives from across California had requested earlier this year, and that state legislators included in their budget proposal, will survive the ongoing budget negotiations between the Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom. The state's new fiscal year begins July 1.

"It is extremely important," Brinskele, who works part-time for the archives, said of the state funding, "because we rely on the community for donations otherwise. If we don't get grants, we really have no paid staff generally without grant money. That makes everything harder."


Terry Beswick, center, shows elected officials a fragment of Gilbert Baker's original rainbow flag at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. Photo: Gooch  

The GLBT Historical Society based in San Francisco coordinated the joint ask from the eight LGBTQ archival groups, which includes the ONE Archives housed at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles, San Diego's Lambda Archives, and the James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center at the San Francisco Public Library. A request they made last year to maintain the $500,000 granted to them via the California State Library in the fiscal year budget that began July 1, 2019, was denied.

"This is not a lot of money, but for queer archives in California, it goes a long way, especially for us as we try to recover from the pandemic just like everyone else," said GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick, a gay man. "For our archives, we have had stacks of things mailed to us we haven't even opened yet to be accessioned into the archives. That is just the tip of the iceberg."

Their funding ask this year, as the B.A.R. first reported online June 1, was a top priority for the Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, the affinity group for out legislators. And as the archives explained in a letter sent earlier this year to the caucus leaders, it is vitally needed to help them recover from their being forced closed due to the COVID pandemic.

"Over the last year, while we have faced daunting funding challenges, we have largely been unable to access our physical collections, stalling new acquisitions, and slowing processing and digitization efforts. This year, as we hope to return to normal working conditions, we have much work ahead of us," wrote the LGBTQ archive leaders.

The San Francisco LGBTQ archival group's staff was forced to work from home throughout the pandemic and only recently was allowed access to their offices and the archives housed in the basement of a building on central Market Street. Since last spring, the staff had focused on adding archival material already digitized into the appropriate online collections.

"They have not been able to digitize anything for the last year or been processing the existing collections, so they will need to spend some time to catch up here," said Beswick.

The COVID pandemic also led the archival group to inform people who wanted to make donations they needed to wait until the archives reopened. Sadly, noted Beswick, some prospective donors died during the last year.

"There is a risk of things being lost," he said, "so that is the backlog we have to deal with."

It began scheduling in-person research appointments on a limited basis at its downtown archives center June 1. It reopened its GLBT Historical Society Museum in the Castro district June 4 with the public unveiling of a segment from one of the first rainbow flags that flew in front of San Francisco City Hall during the 1978 Pride parade.

The late gay supervisor Harvey Milk had urged gay artist Gilbert Baker to design a symbol for the occasion. With the help of his friends Lynn Segerblom, who now lives in Southern California, and James McNamara, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1999, Baker came up with a rainbow flag design that had eight colored stripes, with one version also sporting a corner section of stars to mimic the design of the American flag.

Baker would go on to reduce the number of colored stripes to just six and turned the rainbow flag into an international symbol of LGBTQ rights. He died unexpectedly in 2017, and the foundation created in his name recently discovered the until-now thought to be lost flag fragment and donated it to the GLBT Historical Society, which also maintains Baker's papers.

The San Francisco museum hopes the new exhibit will drive visitors to it as it has seen its city funding significantly reduced this year. It was turned down for a $150,000 arts commission grant it had applied for and was also not granted the $250,000 in funding it had applied for from the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development.

Instead, it was awarded $50,000, which is a steep drop from the $400,000 in city funding it had received last year. Thus, the nonprofit is unsure of how much longer it can continue to operate its museum in the Castro, where its current lease expires in January.

There is a chance the Board of Supervisors will add back some operating funds for the historic preservation group as it takes up the city's fiscal year 2021-2022 budget in the coming weeks. In a Guest Opinion in the B.A.R. this week, Supervisors Matt Haney, the budget chair, and Rafael Mandelman, the board's only LGBTQ member, propose adding $100,000 in capacity building efforts for the historical society. Mayor London Breed did allocate $10 million toward the purchase of a site for it to build a larger LGBTQ museum in the city, with another $2 million to help cover related expenses.

"Our budget from the city is up in the air right now," Beswick noted in an interview with the B.A.R. in late May.

Queer religious archive plans its return
The Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley has also begun to slowly reopen. Founded in 2000, with a yearly budget now of $400,000 and a staff of six, it will celebrate its 21st anniversary this September.

Bernard Schlager, a gay man who is an associate professor of historical and cultural studies at the East Bay religious school, has worked at the center for two decades and was named its executive director 11 years ago. Among its archival collections are the papers of the late Jesuit priest John McNeill, an important early Roman Catholic gay writer, and Andrew Ramer, a gay man and Jewish poet in his early 70s who lives in Oakland.

It also has the papers of lesbian evangelical writer Virginia Mollenkott, who would later identify as omnigender and died in 2019 at the age of 88. In addition to its archives it maintains, the center also runs a certificate program for 300 graduate students studying sexuality and religion.

"The archives is important but a small piece of what we do," said Schlager. "It has been largely closed, but we are opening up now slowly. We are a center for education, research, advocacy, and community building."

Its campus is partially opening July 1 and planning to be fully open by August 15 ahead of the fall semester. Since last March, the archival center has conducted all of its programming online.

"We hope this fall they will allow us to let people in. Right now we are completely closed," Schlager told the B.A.R. in early June. "People will need to have proof of vaccination."

It houses more than 15 collections related to the LGBTQ and religious movements and individuals. In the summer of 2019 it received the archival collection for the LGBTQ-focused Metropolitan Community Churches denomination.

It is eager to begin stabilizing some audio and visual parts of the archival materials as well as some physical objects that are part of the collection, in addition to making it entirely accessible to the public. The stabilization work is being funded by an $18,000 grant from California Revealed, a California State Library initiative that helps public libraries, archives, museums, historical societies, and other heritage groups digitize, preserve, and provide online access to materials documenting the state's history, art, and cultures.

"Because of COVID we've not spent it. We are not allowed to get our specialist into the stacks," explained Schlager.

He expressed optimism that the state funding allocation for the group of LGBTQ archives would survive the legislative budget talks. He pointed to the grant funding and other financial assistance his center and others have received over the years as evidence that state leaders understand their importance.

"I think it is great the state is showing its support for preserving the archival record and history of LGBTQ people, families and communities," said Schlager. "I expect the governor to sign it. He has been a strong supporter of LGBTQ organizations as far as I understand it."

He added, "I am also aware the state has quite the surplus this year, one maybe once in a lifetime or a century, so I say share the largesse."

The other signatories of the funding request were the Archives and Special Collections at UCSF, whose holdings include the AIDS History Project, and the OUTWORDS archive in Los Angeles focused on LGBTQ elders.

Brinskele with the Mazer archives told the B.A.R. she wishes the state would be as supportive of the LGBTQ archives as West Hollywood, its home since 1985, has been of it with city funding and support over the years. Researchers from across the globe now utilize its holdings, she noted.

"We are a one-of-a-kind valuable resource to the community," she said. "If more people, more cities and the state of California thought that more often, we would be in really good shape."

For more information about the religious archives, visit its website at https://www.clgs.org/

The Mazer's online collections can be found at https://www.mazerlesbianarchives.org/

The GLBT Historical Society's website is at https://www.glbthistory.org/


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