“Who Tells Your Story?” LGBTQ Community Archives Forum Recap

Elise Chenier leading activity at “Who Tells Your Story?” Photo Credit: John Andries.

The following recap was composed from notes taken by Michael Caroll during a breakout session discussion following “Who Tells Your Story? An LGBTQ Community ArchivES Forum” at William Way LGBT Center, Wednesday, March 13, 2019. The forum opened with panelists Elise Chenier (Director, Archives of Lesbian Oral Testimony), Steven Fullwood (independent archivist and founder, In the Life Archive, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), and Che Gossett (archivist, Barnard Center for Research on Women) discussing their work on collecting and preserving the histories of lesbians, queer African Americans LGBTQ, and transgender persons. After the forum, attendees discussed the representation and role of resistance in the archives.

Attendees defined resistance much the same way audience members at other listening sessions have: as both everyday practice and as archival material. For individuals in communities where oppression presents challenges on multiple levels or makes life particularly difficult, joy, turning to the mundane, or refusing to be invisible can be forms of resistance.

Resistance can be found in materials or information that haven’t been filtered through the mainstream. Though archivists are trained in verification methods that can privilege men and heteronormativity, they must be sensitive to the original context of materials collected by the LGBTQ community. The archivist can practice resistance by carving out space for materials removed from mainstream methodology. Archivists also can support community resistance by being more directly integrated into these efforts. They can, for example, actively document ongoing resistance or facilitate intergenerational conversations. In general, participants viewed archives much like they do libraries: as informational outlets with valuable documents. Archives are institutions to glean knowledge from, but not necessarily add knowledge to.

While participants expressed a desire for their stories to be preserved in traditional institutions, they also acknowledge a need for archivists to find ways to help people collect and preserve their histories/experiences in a safe way that does not incriminate them. People who identify as LGBTQ sometimes need to remain “closeted.” Archives can achieve this balance and ultimately enrich their collections with more diverse stories by building trust and relationships with the communities they serve. When community members feel free to participate, then they are more willing to engage.

Steven Fullwood presenting at William Way LGBT Community Center. Topic: Who Tells Your Story? An LGBTQ Community Archives Forum. Photo Credit: Johnnie Ray Kornegay III

Martyr for Gay Rights was Little-Known Prison Reformer

Editor’s Note: The recent bestselling novel by Jessmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, investigates the generational trauma of a racist prison system and this year is the Free Library of Philadelphia’s “One Book, One Philadelphia.” Philadelphians are encouraged to read it together, accompanied by workshops and public programs connected to the novel’s themes. The prison system has been dehumanizing incarcerated persons throughout modern history, but prison reform has been a location of resistance for as long as prisons have existed. In this post, we want to highlight a record of resistance held in the Free Library of Philadelphia Rare Books Department.


Oscar Wilde as Inmate and Subversive

By Caitlin Goodman

In 1895, the writer Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame. But the debut of his newest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, only narrowly avoided a tabloid scene: the Marquess of Queensbury was planning to throw a “bouquet” of rotting vegetables at Wilde. His vendetta was instigated by the romantic relationship between Wilde and the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Gay sexual relationships were illegal in England at the time, and Wilde sued the Marquess for libel after being called a sodomite. But Wilde did have sexual relationships with men, and many were willing to testify to it. Wilde dropped his libel suit, but was immediately charged with sodomy and gross indecency. The first trial ended with a hung jury, but a second trial found him guilty. Wilde spent two years in prison, mostly at Reading Gaol.

Typescript of the redacted and previously unpublished portion of De Profundis discussing Wilde’s relationship with Douglas. It was read into public record in open court during Lord Alfred Douglas’s libel suit against Oscar Wilde’s biographer, Arthur Ransome. 1913.

In Wilde’s time in prison he was denied books, and only permitted reading and writing materials after the direct intervention of a politician. (A resonance with the present day: the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recently reversed a much-criticized ban on donating books to incarcerated people.) Once able to write, Wilde spent his time on a long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde gave the letter to his friend and former lover Robbie Ross with the instruction that Ross type up two copies and send the original on to Douglas. Ross (rightly!) feared that Douglas would destroy the manuscript, and instead sent only a typed copy, which Douglas did promptly burn. Wilde died a few years after his release from prison and Ross heavily redacted Wilde’s letter and published it posthumously as De Profundis, a meditation on the spiritual and emotional cruelties of prison.

Oscar Wilde’s handwritten draft of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a fragment of Canto III. 1897.

Wilde today is perhaps best remembered as a wit and a martyr for gay rights but the last piece he published is instead a powerful critique of the prison system. After leaving prison, Wilde also left England, never to return. He spent the summer with Robbie Ross, where he wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In contrast to much of Wilde’s earlier work, the poem adapted the English folk tradition of ballad recitation. It was first published anonymously in early 1898 credited to “C.3.3.” – Wilde’s cell location in Reading Gaol. It was over a year until Wilde’s authorship was widely known, after the poem had already found widespread and immediate success.

Final page of the first American edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, crediting the poem to C.3.3. 1899.