Thursday, July 17, 2008

Review: Lesbian Herstory Archives

As a follow up to my last post on managing my gender and sex identity within women's spaces, I wanted to add a review of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. The Lesbian Herstory Archives, in Brooklyn, houses the largest collection of works on lesbians and queer women in the world. The LHA is also dedicated to making the space accessible by housing it in the community, a conscious effort to not bar access by race or class, and to not demand identification. They also have a point about an individual always living in the space of the archives so that the space is a home, and not an institution. I really enjoy that idea, as it allows the archives to seem emotionally accessible as well.

One of the most exciting things for me was seeing an exhibit in homage to Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson. I have read essays about the case and campaign, and even tried to buy the book, Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home?, but it’s sadly out of print. However at the archives you can not only read the book but also leaf through pamphlets, speeches, and even T-Shirt collections relating to the campaign to bring Sharon home, and more broadly to instill a system where the wishes of folks with disabilities are respected and not patronized or ignored. Luckily, in keeping with the campaign, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has a wheelchair access ramp, and a fully accessible bathroom. However, the second story where the magazines and personal archives are stored does not appear to be wheelchair accessible.

The second most exciting thing, beyond standing in a room where the lives of queer women were being preserved, honored, and saved for generations to come, came when Alison Bechdel entered with her girlfriend Holly. Alison is the creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the author of “Fun Home”. Her cartoon, which is rumored to be based in the Twin Cities and involves a highly diverse queer cast, was the first place where I found a reflection of myself as transgender within a largely LGB community. Alison's character Jasmine transitions early on with the help of another character, Lois, who also provides Jasmine with a genderqueer role model. Seeing Jasmine's identity being affirmed and supported – despite the differences in race, socio-economic status, and age – helped me immensely. Beyond that, though, Alison's writing and art is clear, witty, beautiful, and extraordinarily reflective of many lives. Below is a photo of us trying to look tough but just looking nervous and eerily similar.

[Image Description: a snapshot photo of Alison Bechdel and me. We are standing inside in front of a white-curtained window and a red "Dyke Avenger" flag. Alison is on the left in a short-sleeved green button-up, and I am on the right in a black muscle-T. We are both white, petite, wearing glasses and have dark black/brown short-cropped hair. We are smiling goofily at the camera.]

I’m glad I swallowed my dual fears of being read as female and of “invading” a women’s space. The Lesbian Herstory Archives were amazing – full archives on various women’s lives dating back for decades, material on all sorts of queer women including some extensive transgender files, and collections that spanned genres and political/social identities. The Archives, though, did not necessarily make me feel accepted or part of a greater community. And I think that's OK. After all, I'm not a member of the queer women's community - I'm certainly tangential, and I care deeply about it. As a man entering a space designed to honor women it's only appropriate that I feel a little nervous. After all, reflecting on that nervous energy helps me to reflect on my male identity, and tat's something I always welcome, challenging as it is.

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