Whenever a minority group fails to be the biggest topic during a presidential election, you know progress has been made. Early on in the 2012 debates, gay equality was all the rage, with the most poignant moment arriving in a YouTube video shown at a GOP primary debate in which gay soldier Stephen Hill asked Republican presidential hopefuls if they would repeal DADT—to which he received a memorable round of boos from audience members thanking him for his service. By the time Romney and Obama faced off, however, gay was out and uteri were in, with a dash of economic and foreign policy.
Gay equality is far from being put to rest, but as with other historic hot-button issues—interracial marriage, segregation, women's suffrage—when people get tired of debating, when they don't have the energy to address it vehemently, over chicken sandwiches, no less, it's a sign that obstacles are being cleared for advancement. The other sign that a minority group is seeping into mainstream consciousness is when it receives legitimate scholarship and study, when it's recorded, archived and preserved to document the struggle endured and the sacrifices made and to educate future generations on a way of life that, hopefully, no longer exists—the Jewish community and its archives on the Holocaust set the bar high, to which all other groups aspire.
The documentarians in UC Irvine's Special Collections, Archives and Digital Scholarship department recently moved those in the LGBT further down that path of mainstream legitimacy with its extensive collection on gay life in Orange County, from the days when a metaphorical Orange Curtain really did separate the sane from the stupid to the present. The archive began in 2005, when Barbara Muirhead and Dick Hitt pounded the pavement (literally traveling across the nation) on the long journey of acquiring magazines, fliers, oral histories, official correspondence, pamphlets and photographs from gays and lesbians who had not only experienced what it was like to be gay in OC (and Long Beach) over the past 50 years, but who also took part in creating an infrastructure to support their peers, friends and families.
Now, after seven years of collecting and cataloging, the head of the special collections, Michelle Light, has unveiled this wealth of historical data to the public to encourage further scholarship, as well as to request even more archival donations. The amount of material is, indeed, staggering, and while some of the collection might seem heavy on the text side, once you start reading, you can't stop. You also can't stop being disgusted, especially if you're gay.
Case in point: a 1988 response from UCI to a gay grad student who requested his partner be able to live with him in university housing since they were, by all intents and purposes, married. They even had a domestic partnership agreement, which must have been written up by a lawyer since no government legality existed back then. The university responded that while the administration had reservations and a hot internal debate ensued, it was concerned that allowing the gay couple to live together might create “a potential for a significant increase in the number of nonstudents” on campus. Read: fag parties. The request was thusly denied, citing the university's inability to re-define marriage from the accepted state guidelines.
There's also literature on anti-gay legislation such as Proposition 6, the infamous 1978 Briggs Initiative written by Fullerton state Senator John Briggs that would have made it legal to fire not only gay teachers, but also straight teachers who expressed any support or sympathy for the “gay lifestyle.” Then there's the 1986 Lyndon LaRouche-associated Proposition 64 that might have paved the way for quarantining HIV-infected people, which also went down to defeat—all nasty reminders of a past that is still present (just talk to Calvary Chapel folks about the gays).
On the upshot, the collection also has hundreds of small-press, under-the-radar pamphlets, fliers and early magazine incarnations that document the unrelenting determination of a hidden people to connect with and support one another: a 1976 Gay Students Union brochure with workshops on gay aging, feminism and dealing with assault; a nostalgic archive of men playing beach volleyball in the 1970s that looks straight out of a Marlboro Man commercial; and a 1982 newsletter for Parents and Friends of Gays explaining that if you “keep quiet” about your gay loved one to others, you're essentially saying you're ashamed of him or her—so be proud of your loved one and speak up. There's also the 2002 proclamation by then-Governor Gray Davis that domestic partnerships are legal in California and, from 2003, photos and literature on OC's first Dyke March, one that officials repeatedly tried—and failed—to shut down.
It's an important history, as well as a unique one. And since those of us who are gay and appear to be “well-adjusted” and “normal” inadvertently promote the notion that being gay is easy—even now—it's a history whose documentation and preservation is imperative. Gays have no homeland. They have no set of traditions or guidelines. They are a part of every group of people on the planet, and their struggle has been, and continues to be, fierce. This collection is an important step down the road that leads to equality—a road that, if current cultural and judicial trends are any indication, is on the verge of becoming a full-fledged highway. Now that's one for the archive books.
This review appeared in print as “Another Road Less Traveled: UC Irvine documents the struggles of OC's LGBT.”