For many scholars of LGBT and queer history, the archive has become an important source not only of information but also of theorizing about queer experience and possibility. As Charles Morris writes, queer archives show us how “queer lives, past and present, are constituted by voices that swell with the complex measures of our joys and our struggles against annihilating silence” (“Archival” 146). Archives established primarily to document the lived experiences of queer people, such as the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn and The ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, provide historians, scholars, and lay people a sense of what it was like to be queer at particular moments. They also suggest how a narrative of emerging—and changing—queer experience might be constructed over time. As recovery projects, providing us resources to narrativize past and often painful experiences of individual and cultural homophobia and trauma, archives of LGBT experience may provide us powerful opportunities to think critically about systems of oppression and the interlocking mechanisms of the “personal” and the “political.”
Such archives serve not only historians, however, seeking to recover a buried LGBT past; they point to the contestations about that past as well, particularly as many queers seek to locate their experiences (of oppression, but also of community building and the formation of productive counterpublics) in particular socio-historical circumstances. The work, for instance, around carefully documenting the New York City’s Stonewall Inn Riots in 1969 is an exercise both in recovery of specific historical moments and in interpreting those moments to narrate a sense of the queerly historical. Judith Halberstam, writing about transgender archives in In a Queer Time and Place, notes that “[t]he archive is not simply a repository; it is also a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory, and a complex record of queer activity. In order for the archive to function, it requires users, interpreters, and cultural historians to wade through the material and piece together the jigsaw puzzle of queer history in the making” (169-70).
The particular difficulties of this work—this piecing together that Halberstam notes—present both challenges and opportunities not just for historical work but also for understanding the rhetorical dimensions of queer archiving. For, as Morris writes, “archives are indeed rhetorical sites and resources, part of a diverse domain of the usable past that … functions ideologically and politically” (“Archival” 146). Working extensively with a variety of lesbian archives, Ann Cvetkovich in An Archive of Feeling: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures argues that queer archives “address particular versions of the determination to ‘never forget’ that gives archives of traumatic history their urgency” (9). However, archiving that traumatic history is often difficult, particularly given the fact that so many queer or homo-erotically inclined individuals led secret or double lives deep in the closets of systemic homophobia. Cvetkovich explains:
That gay and lesbian history even exists has been a contested fact, and the struggle to record and preserve it is exacerbated by the invisibility that often surrounds intimate life, especially sexuality. Even the relatively short history (roughly “one hundred years”) of homosexuality as an identity category has created the historiographical challenge of not only documenting the wide varieties of homosexual experience but examining documents of homophobia along with earlier histories of homoeroticism and same-sex relations. (242)
Given this difficulty, historians and archivists often rely on “ephemera, the term used by archivists and librarians to describe occasional publications and paper documents, material objects, and items that fall into the miscellaneous category when being catalogued” (243). Underground newsletters, photographs, and letters, court documents—all become part of a potential queer archive that not only collects but connects incidents in narratives reconstructing particular queer experiences…