Oral History Collections Funded by LVEHC Shine Light on Local LGBT History and Stories

With funding from the LVEHC, two oral history projects have recently been completed to chronicle pivotal experiences of the local LGBT community in the past half-century. These projects were made possible due to collaborations between the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, Lehigh University and the SouthSide Initiative, and the Trexler Library at Muhlenberg College.

The first of these collaborative teams collected ten oral histories from LGBT elders in the Lehigh Valley. Their aim was to interview leaders of transformative social and political organizations that worked to support LGBT people and to advocate for equity in our region. In the first year of collection, stories were recorded of activists from major regional organizations, including Le-Hi-Ho (1969-1990s), MCCLV, Pennsylvania/Lehigh Valley Gay and Lesbian Task Force (1994-1997), Pennsylvania League of Gay and Lesbian Voters, PA-GALA (1997-2005), the Lehigh Valley chapter of the National Organization for Women, Pennsylvania Diversity Network (2004-2016), and Eastern PA PFLAG (early 1990s -present). While the narrators discuss these organizations, they also share personal stories about their lives. Narrators frequently discuss their families of origin, their experiences in educational systems, and their awakenings to the challenges facing LGBT people in their communities, regions, and larger nation. In this way, the oral histories provide a strong account of the connections between personal experiences and organizational work toward equity in the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania. Each interview is a valuable contribution to a stronger understanding of forms of discrimination faced by LGBT people in the Lehigh Valley and the vibrant activist work to address such discrimination from the 1960s through the present.

The second of these collaborations was born in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and saw Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center and the Trexler Library at Muhlenberg College collect LGBTQ community health experiences over a  40-year span.

The project team gathered text-based and oral histories of LGBTQ community members’ experiences during the current COVID-19 pandemic and juxtaposed them with oral histories of LGBTQ community members’ experiences in the Lehigh Valley during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, providing context and prompting reflection on how these public health emergencies have impacted the lives of LGBTQ people locally.

Liz Bradbury, who  conducted many of the interviews, reported, “Because we are in the middle of the  pandemic, there is a profound fear of the unknown [among interviewees] that echoes  the fears that the people who experienced the AIDS crisis had when they were in the  middle of the epidemic.”

Kristen Leipert, who archived the interviews, shared, “The most interesting thing was how social life prompted all of this AIDS activism, and at the time, I don’t think they  realized how important it was. They thought they were just helping their friends and their community.”

“Those who talked about AIDS enthusiastically spoke about the strong and passionate, positive response to AIDS by people in the local LGBTQ Lehigh Valley  community during the crisis and beyond,” Liz Bradbury agreed. “They talked about FACT’s fundraising and people’s efforts to care for those who were sick. But with COVID-19, all the interviewees remarked on the inability to do anything about it, and  how that was dispiriting.”

By far the majority of the people interviewed said that their biggest fear regarding COVID-19 was that if they got it, they might spread it to someone who might die. Both sets of interviewees expressed anger at the lack of coordinated federal government response to the public health crisis. The HIV/AIDS interviewees likened the current situation to the insufficient government response to HIV/AIDS for the first six years of the epidemic.

Regarding the impact of the project on the LGBT Community Archive, Special Collections and Archives Librarian Susan Falciani Maldonado said, “This project has been absolutely vital to the four-year-old archive’s ability to capture the stories of community members who have lived through pivotal periods in history. The oral histories collected have quadrupled the number of oral histories that the archive previously held. While we continue to collect physical archival material through growing outreach and word-of-mouth, the LVEHC funding enabled our young archive to develop our oral history collections rapidly to a point that would have taken years to achieve otherwise.”

Both oral history collections will be made available in their entirety to the public, along with their transcripts at http://trexlerworks.muhlenberg.edu/lgbt_oralhistory/ as well as through the LVEHC Digital Archive. A virtual exhibit is forthcoming.

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