Let’s Get Our History Out of the Closet

Yes, those boxes in your closet with old newsletters, conference programs, meeting notes, letters, posters, buttons, and everything else you’ve collected during your involvement with LGBT religious movements – those are the written record of our history. Getting those items preserved in a repository or archive is the best way to ensure that our voices and stories are heard by future generations. After all, historians can include our stories only if we leave our records.

You may ask, “but how do I go about doing this?” The LGBT Religious Archives Network (LGBTRAN) can help. LGBTRAN’s ground-breaking approach to preserving history does NOT collect physical records or papers. It is essentially a “virtual” archive.

LGBTRAN has two primary purposes. It is a resource center to encourage and support LGBT religious leaders and groups to preserve their papers and records in appropriate repositories. It is also an electronic information clearinghouse where scholars, students and other researchers can locate existing LGBT religious collections and other historical information.

On the web site, you’ll find:

  • a Pioneers Gallery with biographies and photographs of more than 90 LGBT religious leaders;
  • a Collections Catalog with fully indexed listings of more than 100 LGBT religious collections currently in archives;
  • a Recommended Repositories listing of archives that are interested in preserving LGBT religious records;
  • an Archives Exhibit with digital copies of some early LGBT religious documents; and much more information on LGBT religious history.

The seeds of LGBTRAN were planted back in 2000 when, after 20 years of activism in LGBT religious movements, I began talking with the administration of Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) about the dearth of writing and neglect of our history by academia. After more than a year of planning, including many conversations with leaders of different LGBT religious groups, LGBTRAN began to take shape and was launched in the spring of 2002. An Advisory Committee comprised of leading LGBT religious historians, archivists and activists from diverse faith traditions agreed to oversee the development of the program.

LGBTRAN is a rather unique archive project because it takes a proactive approach to encouraging preservation of records and historical study about LGBT religious movements. Our presupposition is that LGBT religious movements have had a profound impact upon religion in the U.S. – and around the world – and will continue to do so. In order to understand these historical developments accurately, it is essential to hear the voices and stories of LGBT religious leaders.

Furthermore, because the LGBT religious groups that have been most visible in the U.S. have tended to be Christian one might presume that LGBTRAN documents only the history of LGBT Christian groups. On the contrary, LGBTRAN is working to preserve the history of LGBT persons and their allies in all religious expressions-and throughout the world. Preserving the history of groups and leaders that have been less visible is crucial to historical preservation-these are the voices that are most often lost to history.

LGBTRAN’s newest venture is an Oral History Project. The major limitation of preserving history through written records and papers is that not all groups and leaders have kept written documents – or they may have been lost or destroyed. The best way to preserve an historical record of these persons and groups is through collecting oral histories-in which persons’ recollections are recorded, transcribed and preserved.

LGBTRAN is currently undertaking a pilot Oral History Project in which it will conduct interviews with a small, diverse group of LGBT religious leaders. These model oral histories will be posted on the web site. Beginning next year, LGBTRAN is intending to partner with other LGBT religious groups to enable them to begin collecting oral histories in their traditions.

LGBTRAN is truly a collaborative project that depends upon the support and participation of LGBT religious activists and groups. The two staff persons-archivist Doris Malkmus and myself as coordinator-are employed very part-time. Most of the work that has been done to preserve records and collect information for the LGBTRAN web site has been contributed by volunteers.

You can begin learning more about LGBTRAN and how you can assist in preserving LGBT religious history, by joining the private and confidential email list that gets monthly updates on LGBTRAN’s work.

And back to where we started – what to do with those boxes in the closet? LGBTRAN has a free resource, Guide to Preserving Historical Records, that you can read or download from the web site to help you begin preserving the records and papers that you have.

Remember that if we do not preserve our historical records, then future generations of historians and students will not be able to accurately portray the pervasive changes that we have brought about in religious institutions and practices.