When Joseph Hawkins was growing up, being gay could get you hurt.
Gay bars at the time weren’t the kind of places with front doors, he said.
“You had to go through an alley, and there could be a person waiting to beat you to death just for being there,” Hawkins said.
Those kinds of experiences weren’t uncommon — they just weren’t talked about. For much of American history, queer life was lived behind closed doors, and those willing to step out of the shadows were rewarded with persecution and sometimes state surveillance.
For Hawkins, a professor of anthropology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, it’s crucial to remember those kinds of experiences. As director of the ONE Archives at USC Libraries, Hawkins oversees the largest LGBT archive in the world.
Located in a former fraternity house just north of the University Park Campus, its halls are stacked with cartons full of once-forbidden history. There are discreetly labeled travel books to gay-friendly businesses; illustrated sheet music for gay vaudeville acts from the 1890s (“My Regular Girl Is a Fella, and I’m Her Regular Beau”); and the personal effects of countless LGBT Americans who loved and struggled to love, both privately and as acts of protest.
There are names that have been rescued from the dust. Lynn Edward Harris, for example, a self-proclaimed “true hermaphrodite” who lived most of his life as a woman — he was Junior Miss Costa Mesa in 1962 — before reverting to become a man. Or Sidney Bronstein, a gay veteran who kept an extensive diary of whom he slept with during World War II. He illustrated many of these men as well and gave the material to the renowned sex researcher Alfred Kinsey for study.
Then there’s Esther Herbert, a 92-year-old woman from Twentynine Palms. Hawkins tears up talking about her. She had shared 50 years together with her partner and saved all the letters they had sent one another while in the women’s army corps. She had them tucked away in old turkey boxes collected over many Thanksgivings. Hawkins still remembers feeling moved as she unpacked a life’s romance in front of him.
“Even during these horrible times of oppression, people found ways to live together,” Hawkins said.
The fact that ONE Archives exists is a testament to the progress made by the gay rights movement. At the same time, Hawkins still has students who come to him struggling with their sexuality — some even suicidal over it. Unearthing the past in this way works both to end the isolation of queer youth as well as challenge persisting assumptions about queer culture.
When the phrase “traditional marriage” gets carted out in every debate over gay marriage, Hawkins said, it overlooks the vast diversity of romantic arrangements that have escaped cultural memory.
“That’s a political action, to dig up that history and show people that what they believe is real is so radically different from the reality,” Hawkins said.
The archive’s role in activism has been a complicated one. It emerged from the ONE Inc. organization, itself the natural outgrowth of ONE Magazine, the first widely distributed gay rights publication in the country. When Hawkins became president of the archive’s nonprofit board in 2003, he found many of its stewards still had a protest mindset. But developing an archive takes a different set of skills, such as organizing materials, acquiring new collections and applying for grants.
“We needed to spend less time talking about raising hell and more on how to bring the collection under control,” Hawkins said. The collections were about 3 percent controlled at the time; Hawkins estimates they’re about 95 percent controlled today. He said that from 2006 to the present, ONE Archives has been awarded about $1.6 million in grants.
In 2010, it became part of USC. USC Libraries Dean Catherine Quinlan recognized the value of the collections, Hawkins said, and was critical in its acquisition, securing the archive’s permanence.
“She has been a great champion for us,” Hawkins said. “We were low-hanging fruit — no pun intended — in terms of getting this place into the library.”
More recently, ONE has been providing materials and training for LGBT-specific history lessons that will be provided as curricula throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District this year. In sharing the stories of queer pioneers, the archive still plays an active role in furthering the values of the original ONE organization. Rescuing items from garage sales and basements, it serves as our culture’s memory of queer America.
“I think for this organization to do its job, that’s what we do — we put the gay back in history,” Hawkins said.