Defining Safe: NU Library archives offer a window into decades of queer life

Seeger Gray, Senior Staffer



Northwestern’s special collections contain a variety of rare, fragile and notably comprehensive materials, including a significant amount of publications produced by members of LGBT communities. In this episode of Defining Safe, those who teach with and learn from this collection speak on the importance of archives in understanding the struggle for liberation.

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SEEGER GRAY: A list of queer-friendly rural businesses. A PSA promoting safe sex. Front-page stories documenting wins – and losses – for LGBT rights. All those and more can be found in the timeworn pages of Gay Community News.

SEEGER GRAY: Gay Community News ceased publication in 1999. But at Deering Library, anyone can see a near-complete collection of the Boston-based periodical.


SEEGER GRAY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Seeger Gray. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern.

SEEGER GRAY: “Gay Community News” is only one periodical out of over 400 LGBT publications, largely from the 1970s, that are publicly available as part of the Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections.

SEEGER GRAY: But what are special collections? In the words of Jason Nargis, the special collections librarian for instruction and curriculum:

JASON NARGIS: It can be pretty much anything, but the common denominator is that it’s not commonly findable, easily accessible material.

SEEGER GRAY: Some of the library’s diverse collections include letters written by Frederick Douglass, photographs from the 1870 Siege of Paris and films of Northwestern football games from as far back as 1929.

SEEGER GRAY: To protect these rare items, visitors must request to view them in a Deering reading room, rather than checking them out from the library.

SEEGER GRAY: Nargis says LGBT periodicals became a collecting focus for Northwestern during the late 1960s and early 1970s because some librarians at the time were also progressive activists.

JASON NARGIS: They, along with the curator, had an interest in collecting materials that documented the protest movements of that day.

SEEGER GRAY: Nargis says Northwestern’s reputation for seeking out materials related to second-wave feminism helped it initially acquire lesbian periodicals. After that, the library expanded its collection of gay, bisexual and transgender periodicals.

SEEGER GRAY: Decades of collecting have made Northwestern a destination for researchers studying queer history.

ABBEY MAYNARD: It’s not uncommon for us to have professors from other institutions come and visit us and look at parts of this collection.

SEEGER GRAY: That’s Abbey Maynard, a research and collections specialist at the library.

ABBEY MAYNARD: We also do a fair amount of scans for distance researchers for these periodicals. We also get quite a few classes that come in here and look at it too.

SEEGER GRAY: Amy Partridge is the associate director of Northwestern’s Gender & Sexuality Studies Program. As an associate professor, she’s taught multiple classes using LGBT periodicals as primary sources.

AMY PARTRIDGE: It’s through these periodicals and these position papers that conversations are happening across the country, and theories that we now take for granted are actually being developed.

SEEGER GRAY: Communication senior Lucy Harrington took a research seminar with Partridge last winter quarter. Harrington says looking at physical periodicals felt less overwhelming and more exciting than searching vast online archives.

LUCY HARRINGTON: It’s like going through a treasure trove … It’s kind of fun looking through all of the periodicals and looking for the specific date that you know you want.

SEEGER GRAY: This quarter, Partridge is teaching a first-year seminar about coalitional politics in the 1970s. The course has students dig through Northwestern’s special collections and study primary sources from a variety of activist groups.

SEEGER GRAY: According to Partridge, the archived publications reveal collaboration between groups typically seen as separate, like the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, as well as the Gay Liberation Front.

AMY PARTRIDGE: It’s those kinds of 1970s-era liberation movements that I think are being explicitly referenced in liberation movements today. I think they serve as inspiration, as a kind of roadmap for how to organize for radical social change.

SEEGER GRAY: Nargis, the special collections librarian, says Northwestern’s special collections and similar archives are vital sources of information that may not have survived anywhere else.

SEEGER GRAY: He also adds that physical documents like the LGBT periodicals offer a window into a more nuanced and personal past.

JASON NARGIS: Sometimes there’s handwritten notes on them, sometimes there’s address labels from the people who initially bought them or subscribed to them. The materials give evidence to the complexity of the people who created them. And I think that is something that really allows people to almost time travel.

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SEEGER GRAY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Seeger Gray. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Mika Ellison, the digital managing editors are Ava Mandoli and Erica Schmitt, and the editor-in-chief is Alex Perry. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

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Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @seegergray

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