Guest Opinion: Let's preserve LGBTQ culture

  • by Johnny Townsend
  • Wednesday May 15, 2024
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Author Johnny Townsend. Photo: Courtesy Johnny Townsend
Author Johnny Townsend. Photo: Courtesy Johnny Townsend

We must preserve LGBTQ content while we can.

Russia has laws against "gay propaganda." In Hungary and other eastern European nations there are varying degrees of discrimination and censorship as well.

In the U.S., right-wing lawmakers and school boards are already banning some LGBTQ books. They've announced publicly their goal to label all LGBTQ content as "pornographic" and then use that label to ban all LGBTQ content in the U.S.

If Republicans win in November, this growing threat — and growing reality — could become national law almost overnight.

One way we can preserve LGBTQ books, music, film, and other material is to vote for candidates who don't support a fascist theocracy. We must get involved, even run for office ourselves, in local elections and not focus solely on national races.

Of course, as we saw on January 6, 2021, voting for democracy may not be enough. As a friend of mine in Canada told me recently, "If [Donald] Trump wins in November, all hell will break loose. But if Trump loses, all hell will break loose." Friends in Portugal and Italy have shared the same concerns.

And friends in the U.S., too.

As a teen, I recorded family history while my oldest relatives were still around to tell their stories. I worked in a public library for four years. I wrote the first book on the UpStairs Lounge fire, the 1973 attack on a French Quarter gay bar that killed 32 people, and was an associate producer on the documentary "Upstairs Inferno." I believe in documenting and preserving history.

I've studied enough history to know we aren't immune to fascism and dictatorship in the U.S. While I fervently hope we avoid it here, it would be foolish not to prepare.

So ... what do we do while also fighting to save democracy?

The same thing I do when I write a novel — I save back-ups.

I've donated my UpStairs Lounge research and other materials to ONE Archives in Los Angeles. But there are several other LGBTQ archives around the world, including the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, and we can send some material to each of them. As a writer, I'm not supposed to use clichés, but "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" sounds fitting here.

There's IHLIA in Amsterdam, QRAB in Gothenburg, the Schwules Museum in Berlin, Forum Queeres in Munich, The ArQuives in Toronto, and more.

These archives accept personal papers, LGBTQ artwork, DVDs, photos, wedding announcements, lecture notices, syllabi, info on gay bowling leagues or biking groups or senior potlucks, lesbian music festival notices, and any other material that could help future historians understand LGBTQ culture in our times. We can donate our journals as well, requesting that our journals not be made accessible to researchers until after our death (or even a certain length of time after our death).

People should contact the archives first with details of what they want to donate. Different archives specialize in different materials, and all archives have limited space. What that mostly means is they don't want duplicates. If they already have a specific book or film, they may not want a second copy.

But if people have anything original — handwritten manuscripts, old letters (remember those?), or even printed email correspondence — most of these archives will be happy to accept it. Twenty of my original gay patchwork quilts are in ONE Archives in Los Angeles. Original charcoal nudes given to me decades ago I've since gifted to IHLIA in Amsterdam. QRAB in Gothenburg has the artwork I commissioned from a gay Portuguese artist for the cover of one of my books.

Over the past year, I've sent more materials to other LGBTQ archives around the world. There's no guarantee those archives will be safe, either. Fascism and intolerance can rise anywhere.

So we should share the wealth, because we don't want a Library of Alexandria event where our one main LGBTQ archive burns to the ground, with priceless items lost forever. (Julius Caesar, in 46 BC during a war, had his soldiers set fire to ships in a port, which spread to the library in Egypt, causing considerable damage.)

While mailing materials to other countries is expensive, people should also consider donating funds to help cover any import fees on their end or simply to support their ongoing work. Even if people have no materials of their own to donate, they can still send them a few dollars if they are able.

While we're at it, let's contribute a few dollars to local LGBTQ publications and organizations here so there will be culture to document.

Just as preserving LGBTQ history requires a multi-pronged approach, doing so is only one part of preserving democracy. Let's rally, let's march, let's campaign for strong candidates, let's vote, and let's make sure the U.S. becomes a safer place for everyone.

A climate crisis transplant who relocated from New Orleans to Seattle in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Johnny Townsend, a gay man, was an associate producer for the documentary "Upstairs Inferno," for the sci-fi film "Time Helmet," and for the deaf gay short "Flirting, with Possibilities." His books include "Inferno in the French Quarter: The UpStairs Lounge Fire," "Please Evacuate," "Racism by Proxy," and "Orgy at the STD Clinic."

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