All posts by Yvonne M Pitts

Day Four: Lesbian Herstory Archives

by Brit Hemphill.

After some much-needed rest following a busy day of ACTing UP and visiting the Stonewall Inn, we met downstairs in the lobby to further digest yesterday’s experiences. We spoke about the inability to comprehend the body count of the AIDS epidemic and the frustrations we share with the government for their severe benign (some might argue against benign) neglect. Then we broke for a short break before making our way to our first event of the day.

The weather continued to be a pain—spitting rain all day and a bit chilly for early June, but we persevered and took two subways (we’re pretty much pros at following Lowell and Dr. Pitts now) to the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn.

There we met Deb Edel—one of the founding members of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. She was a sweet, charming woman in stripes who welcomed us with cookies and tea, instantly making us feel at home. We settled into a room full of books from floor to ceiling, accented with artifacts and photographs scattered about.

Deb shared with us a brief history of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. The Archives started in 1974 by a group of dedicated individuals who were not librarians by trade, but had spent much time in libraries. In the early 1970’s, to investigate the history of the LGBT world, one would have to basically out themselves to a librarian to receive material.

Many thought this was too much exposure and found the white-glove policies of handling archives to be troublesome. That’s where this strong group of mostly gay women and men came in. Deb told us that they “made a very deliberate decision for this (the Lesbian Herstory Archives) to be a people’s history to be touched and felt.” The purpose of the Archives is for one to “get their hands dirty” and be able to explore international lesbian history in a hands-on type of way.

We were then given a tour of the Archives, which spanned a beautiful three-story building (the top floor is the living quarters for someone who takes care of the building). Room after room, closet after closet, and hallway after hallway were filled with materials. Many of the materials are filed away by the woman’s first name to help dismantle the patriarchal implications of identifying a woman by her last name.

I was amazed by the sheer amount of archived material the Lesbian Herstory Archives has. There wasn’t just non-fiction and fiction books—there were biographies, photographs, interviews, periodicals, clothing, buttons, posters, a piece of a strap-on (yup), and much more. One of their current projects is digitizing 3,000 cassette tapes of interviews and recordings of women’s events from all over. These women work hard to continually improve and add to the Archives, and are all volunteers. Their sheer goodwill and dedication impressed me.

After our tour, we had the opportunity to poke around the Archives and do some of our own research. I took a look at the endless ACT UP materials, while others looked at lesbian pulp fiction, sexology, witchcraft, and much more. Any and all subjects were covered in the Archives.

Following the Archives, we were all set free for the day to do as we pleased. Some of us took naps to gather up our strength from yesterday and tomorrow’s big day. Others shopped, went for some casual drinks at the Stonewall Inn, or explored the city on their own. Now, as I write this twenty past ten pm, we are feverously working on signs for tomorrow’s action. The excitement in the room is palpable.


By Holly Fitzpatrick

It’s been two days in New York City, but it still feels too much like a dream to be real. To be fair, traveling was much more stressful than I anticipated (flying was the easy part, but getting to the NYU dorms and checking in really drained my energy). I found myself grateful, for once, for the uncomfortable, anti-bedbug twin dorm mattresses, as I slept, excited to begin the hands-on learning.

In the morning, we met with Dr. Jonathan Katz, who promised us an illuminating tour of the MET and the Leslie Lohman Museum.


Beginning with the art of Greek and Roman antiquity, Katz emphasized that what seems like one thing to us may actually be something entirely different. Social attitudes are heavily influenced by culture and time period. For instance, the practice of pederasty may be labeled as homosexual activity today, but in reality, there was no difference for an Athenian man to have a sexual relationship with a woman, a boy, a slave, or a prostitute.

This being said, it is still incredibly infuriating for the museums (which are funded by wealthy, upper-class patrons) to ignore the issue entirely. The following drinking cup, attributed to Douris ca. 470 B.C.E., was captioned by the MET as “it is difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to characterize the situation precisely.” The political tone of such a piece emphasizes the fear that people in power have of marginalized groups. Even today, women with free agency, especially when engaging romantically with one another, are dangerous, political criminals worthy of erasure.


Moving on to modernist art, Katz emphasized that, above all else, art is not a window into reality, instead, art is a construction. The artists that we focused on were ones who refused to cater to the dominant culture of the time (or if they did, it was only for survival). Some artists, like Edgar Degas, depicted everyday femininity, refusing to submit to the traditional nude (created for the wealthy, male gaze). Ultimately, it is important to note that the church often payed the bills for artists. Resistance and eroticism had to be depicted so that it could survive the church.

The MET had its modern art section closed, so instead of touring the Leslie Lohman Museum, we went to the MOMA after lunch. I had a bagel, and needless to say, it was delicious.


Modern art is meant to be expressive, but deliberately so. Katz spoke of the painstaking detail that went into even Jackson Pollock’s work. This brings up an interesting point, however: male modern artists began working with manly tools, and their expressiveness allowed them even more connections within the art world. Women, on the other hand, are seen as naturally expressive; a woman using her expressiveness as a career meant that she was unintelligent. It is indescribably infuriating to know that the same thing men were praised for in the art world, women were despised for.

Helen Frankenthaler, Jacob’s Ladder 1957

Some modern female artists took art off the walls and onto the floor. These women melted traditional art down to its components, which allows for numerous interpretations of female frustration; women’s work is on the floor, lower than men’s work.

The day ended by talking about Andy Warhol. Katz described him as sophistically un-schooled, and refusing to acknowledge the distinction between fine art and commercial art. Before today, I had never questioned the significance of Campbell’s soup: they all have similar labels from the same company, but are all fundamentally different. Katz also, funnily enough, pointed out the camp that Warhol infused into his Campbell’s soup art. Warhol was also very interested in the distinction between the social and the private: he only depicted Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, and Elvis Presley after they suffered public scrutiny. Katz emphasized that the distinction between public persona and private life is something that queer people know all too well, something that is necessary for survival.