By Rod Hensel
The Gayging Advocate
There comes a time in the aging process when you realize that you have become, in the eyes of those younger, a historical figure. For LGBT people that moment usually comes in preparation for annual Pride activities, when interest in the early days of what we called “Gay Liberation” intensifies. My historical figure moment came earlier this year with a call from Buffalo State University about tee shirts.
Tees, as it turns out, are a pretty good reflection of the movement dating back to just after the Stonewall riots of 1969. Many of them were locally produced in large and medium sized cities across the country, and worn in public at a time when being identified as LGBT could have dire consequences.
Buffalo’s early tees were collected by my friend and genuine historical figure Madeline Davis, who before retirement was chief conservator and head of preservation in the local library system. She was also active from the start in the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, the first gay rights organization in the region, which is where I met her. Davis started collecting photos, papers, tees and all sorts of things in her home. She later transferred custody to create the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York housed at the E. H. Butler Library, SUNY Buffalo State.
Until last year, those tees of years past were hidden away largely uncataloged and unpreserved. Then enter Hope Dunbar, new to the college’s archival operation, with a keen interest in the LGBTQ collection.
“I was looking at the collection to see what needed to be processed right away and came upon the t-shirts and decided they should be stored by being carefully folded to preserve the imprint and wrapped in acid free tissue paper, “ she said. “As physical objects, they help you realize that history is something that happens to real people. And a T-shirt is so intimate. It’s a physical representation of an idea, an idea that you’re choosing to put on your body”
But before tucking them away in boxes, Dunbar wanted to photograph and digitize the tees so they could be viewed on line, which could be an expensive undertaking. In researching funding she discovered there was already a national project underway to document LGBT tees stored in local archives across the country. The project, “Wearing Gay History,” began as a graduate student project at George Mason University in the Fall of 2014 with development of an open source, archival web-publishing platform to make it affordable to digitize entire tee collections to bring attention to LGBTQ history outside the major east and west coast cities. With the addition of the Buffalo collection this spring, the site (http://wearinggayhistory.com) has over 3,700 tees on display.
Buffalo’s oldest tees from the 1970’s, if they still exist, are not part of the collection. “We didn’t get tees until I think the late 1970’s,” Davis recalled. “The first ones, the years after Stonewall, we ordered from New York City. One was Navy Blue with a gold lambda, and another was blue that said ‘Gay Activist Alliance.’ I think the first we ordered locally was in the late ’70’s and it was blue with gold writing that was a lambda sign and the word Buffalo, but we don’t have one of those (for the archive).”
In fact it turns out the oldest shirt in the Buffalo collection had been donated some years ago by that lesser known historical figure…me. The shirt, produced when I was president of the local Mattachine group, proclaims “GAY PRIDE FEST ‘81 BUFFALO NY.” They sold for $6.50 each at a handful of gay-friendly businesses and at a series of Pride events throughout June that was capped by a July 4 dance aboard the USS Little Rock, part of the then-new naval museum on Buffalo’s Lake Erie waterfront. When I turned it over to Madeline I had found it in the back of my closet, wrapped in its original cellophane.
The other tees in the collection are from the 1990’s onward and produced for the annual pride celebrations and other special events planned by the community. Many were produced as part of the successful effort to pass marriage equality in New York State. Dunbar said the archives still receives tees from donors, and Davis says she still has hopes that tees from the early 70’s, as well as that first “Lambda Buffalo” tee, will one day turn up.
Both agree that the collection, or parts of it, should one day be placed on public display at a suitable venue, but until then they are properly conserved in the archives and can be viewed on line at http://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/lgbtq shirts.
Dunbar believes the LGBTQ archives are essential. She noted attending openly gay events took personal courage, especially in the 70’s and 80’s.
“It’s a way to preserve these records created by individuals who fought for certain rights,” she said. “People do have the ability to change systems. Seeing past victories creates a possibility of hope for the future.”
I think we need that kind of hope more than ever in 2017 as our community faces unprecedented challenges. You can trust my opinion on that because, however minor, I’m a historical figure.
Rod Hensel is based in Buffalo, NY where he was a gay activist and Mattachine Society chapter president in the ’70’s and ’80’s. He later co-founded Stonewall Democrats of Western New York. He is currently helping to organize the SIlver Pride Project of the Pride Center of Western New York to address issues of concern to LGBT seniors, and writes on LGBT senior issues for Buffalo’s Loop Magazine. You can find him at facebook.com/rodney.hensel.