By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
Over the centuries, queer history has often dwelled in obscurity—marginalized, overlooked and literally hidden away in closets. Whether tucked away and forgotten in photo albums and memory boxes within homes, irretrievably lost as community elders pass away or deliberately mislabeled and kept out of the public eye in the vaults of institutions, these narratives have lingered on the peripheries of archives, museums and history books for far too long.
While major urban centers such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago proudly honor and embrace their queer roots, the South largely bears the weight of lost generations of history—where tales of resilience, queer joy and radical activism were often overlooked or forgotten entirely. Until now.
Joshua Burford and Maigen Sullivan, co-founders of Invisible Histories, a nonprofit formerly known as the Invisible Histories Project, left their higher education jobs in 2018 to create a sprawling network of university, library, museum and archive partners to preserve and document the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people across the South. In essence, Invisible Histories functions as an intermediary between the queer community and various institutions, working to unearth, research and save LGBTQ+ history.
Since then, their reach has extended to four states—Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and now the Florida Panhandle. Along this journey, they’ve unearthed more than 130 LGBTQ+ historical collections, cultivated partnerships with 15 local and two national repositories for storage and preservation, curated multiple museum exhibits and digitization projects and fostered a following that engages in both academic and community dialogues surrounding queer history.
Filling In the Gaps
In December, Invisible Histories officially launched its Panhandle Expansion by collecting LGBTQ+ materials from Pensacola to Tallahassee. Upon entering a new region, their approach involves establishing connections and building a team within the queer community, visiting established collections, as well as playing a pivotal role in dispelling the distrust the LGBTQ+ community often has with institutions.
“Part of the reason this history has been left out is because of old-fashioned homophobia,” explained Burford, co-founder, director of outreach and lead archivist. “When people found LGBTQ+ materials in collections, they were removed, put away or never cataloged. Then, at the tipping point of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘90s, when the activism started to get radical, there was an attempt by archivists to protect any LGBTQ+ collections they had saved, so they reclassified them under ‘women’s studies,’ or ‘sexuality,’ or other vague terms that rendered them totally invisible.”
This invisibility extends to the mistrust many harbor toward institutions’ ability to not only preserve and protect, but also actually keep artifacts accessible. Many queer collections across the nation are held hostage or subjected to “constant processing,” a tactic employed to keep them out of the public eye or withheld from researchers who could otherwise utilize these materials.
“Historically speaking, queer history has been marginalized in both community and academic institutions. Now, more than ever, that history is at risk of being lost,” said Jessie Cragg, curator of exhibits for University of West Florida Historic Trust. Cragg played a crucial role in curating the 2022 Historic Trust exhibition “Queering Spaces.” The exhibition not only delved into the roots of the Emma Jones Society and LGBTQ+ history in Pensacola, but also served as a catalyst for the Historic Trust to expand its collections to better reflect wider demographics.
“The work the Invisible Histories team is undertaking is filling a huge gap in collections—not just for the Florida Panhandle, but for the South as a whole,” Cragg said. “Archives are only as good as the material they contain; more than that, they are only worth having if people can access them. Striving for a more complete and full collection that not only celebrates but honors all people who call Northwest Florida home is the mission of the UWF Historic Trust. And by partnering with the Invisible Histories project, we hope to continue to fulfill that vital directive.”
To guarantee sustained accessibility, Invisible Histories employs a memorandum of understanding with repository partners, delineating expectations for maintaining the circulation of materials. Although currently in the early stages of establishing repository partnerships in Florida, they face a challenging political climate, particularly with the “Don’t Say Gay” laws, among others targeting LGBTQ+ materials in education.
“We aren’t going to let the political environment stop us from collecting,” said Sullivan, director of research and development. “We just have to be creative and have a robust legal document to protect our collections. What we like to do for our most at-risk places, when collections are at risk from political interventions, is create duplicates and either keep those duplicates ourselves or take them out of the state to another library or archive.”
Making History Tangible
The Invisible Histories team isn’t preserving history just for preservation’s sake; they want to ensure materials get into the hands of people who need them most, whether that’s researchers and students, queer youth in need of positive role models, activists leading the charge or the general public through exhibitions. Their goal is for these materials to create a domino effect that not only inspires, but also demystifies beliefs queer people cannot find community and happiness in the South and must leave for more progressive cities.
“All these memories, both good and bad, are very painful to see surface sometimes. Because you’re seeing history that this generation has been robbed of learning,” said Margaret Lawson, assistant director. “I think the rhetoric that queer people should just leave the South stems from these generations that have been robbed of knowing their history here, knowing the deep roots that queer history has in these areas. We want to preserve these memories and stories locally so that when a young queer person grows up in these rural areas, they don’t feel like they’re the first queer person to ever exist in that small town.”
In order to inspire future generations, the work of collecting materials often starts with educating people about the role of archives. Many people don’t understand where to donate materials, what materials are valuable or what happens to their objects after being donated.
“People don’t understand that archives don’t own the materials,” Sullivan explained. “We’re just stewards of publicly owned knowledge. We try hard to convey that an archive is just a place for your things to be safe. It’s not ownership or taking materials away from the community, because we’re making sure that we’re bringing them back, keeping them local, keeping them accessible. Most archives don’t do that; their materials just sit in a box and don’t rot. Instead, they fade from memory and may as well be rotted. We would rather something be touched a million times and fade to nothingness but have inspired and empowered thousands of people, because living people are more important than pieces of paper.”
As Sullivan explained, a significant portion of queer history is at risk of being lost due to the passing of queer elders. To address this challenge, a crucial facet of their work entails proactive education for elders through planned giving initiatives. This involves equipping them with the necessary tools to prepare for their eventual passing and guiding them in determining the future destination of their materials.
“We lost so much history and so many people to the AIDs epidemic. Many of the people who passed early from AIDs were the culture bearers, those people were well-connected in their communities. People were in a panic mode trying to keep other people alive. So, nobody was worried about keeping or saving materials, because, again, people matter more than things,” Sullivan elaborated. “The queer community often has chosen families as well, and they don’t plan your estate. It’s usually your next of kin, your distant aunt who thinks you’re going to hell and wants to get rid of all your ‘gay stuff.’”
Collecting the historic materials that manage to survive is still not an easy feat. For most donors, these materials are deeply personal, emotional and often dredge up unprocessed grief for the loss of loved ones and friends.
“Often times, people have a drawer, closet or box that they have never opened after that person passed away, and then they open that box for the first time ever to donate their materials to us,” Sullivan said. “It’s grief processing everywhere because there wasn’t safe space for public mourning. Many of these people couldn’t say they lost their spouse and needed two weeks off work, so they went back to work the next day and literally put everything in a closet. Trying to mitigate that unprocessed trauma and grief for our elders is the hardest part of what we do.”
By putting these artifacts on display in exhibits and physically in the public’s hands at events, the Invisible Histories team is making this history tangible again and helping other elders realize their own personal archives hidden in storage within their own homes.
“When you start making this stuff visible, people start to believe that their own stories matter, because they do,” Lawson said. “They get more comfortable. They point to pictures in our exhibits or presentations and say, ‘I have pictures just like this at home. I can’t believe you’re interested in it.’ So, we’re creating a pathway to connect them to safe institutions, libraries and archives to donate their materials.”
Preserving the Future
Invisible Histories isn’t just interested in the past, they’re also dedicated to helping current-day activists, LGBTQ+ organizations and other political groups preserve their current history for the future. They recently launched a new project introducing Queer History Field Kits, which are backpacks full of supplies designed to help activists and organizers document the history of LGBTQ+ activism and organizing taking place in their communities.
“This program was designed for activists on the ground, whether they’re at protests or just doing work in their communities to document what they’re doing,” Lawson explained. “The kits include portable mics that people can use with their phones, guides on how to conduct oral histories, how to save your protest signs and fliers and how to preserve digital artifacts. A lot of current movements, especially in rural areas are born digitally, so we want to give people the tools to recognize and preserve them along with physical objects.”
Beyond providing kits and engaging in hands-on community archive training with various organizations, Invisible Histories aims to initiate a comparable program focused on documenting and preserving entire political campaigns of LGBTQ+ politicians, irrespective of the campaign outcome. By weaving together the threads of the past and the present, Invisible Histories endeavors to capture a comprehensive narrative highlighting queer perseverance, struggle and progress.
In doing so, they have also created research opportunities for students, faculty and community members in archives, research and preservation and created a space for hundreds of LGBTQ+ historians and archivists to network at their annual networking event and conference, Queer History South. This extensive network not only breathes life into the materials collected within archives, but also perpetuates their influence on ongoing research, shaping the trajectory of LGBTQ+ history and its scholarly exploration for generations to come.
As Invisible Histories begins to collect materials across the Panhandle, they will also build programming around it, hopefully adding collections to local archives, digitizing materials to access online and planning future exhibits to ensure community members can interact with this history and learn more about their own roots.
But first, they start with you—the queer reader or ally who will share this project with their network, helping spread the word across the Panhandle that Invisible Histories wants your photo albums, love letters, LGBTQ+ newsletters and zines, memorabilia from gay bars, your stories and history. To facilitate this process, comprehensive guides, such as “Archiving at Home,” are readily available on the Invisible Histories website. These resources are designed to empower community members, aiding them to extract their own memories out of the closet.
“Ultimately, we’re a community-based organization, and we want to work with individuals in the area to collect their history. Everyone has a piece of this history,” Sullivan said. “We want to meet those people in the Panhandle, so that we can preserve the most accurate picture of this history that we can get. This isn’t about your local queer celebrities or that one famous activist; it’s about the entire community, and we want everyone to get involved. Everyone can help in some way, even if it’s just donating $5 to the project or donating a box of photos.”
Call to the Public: Do You Have Any Materials Related to the Following Pensacola Groups, Places or Regional Publications?
Krewe of Zeus
Emma Jones Society
Christopher St. South Quarterly
The Albatross (The Gulf Coast’s first feminist/lesbian publication), Volume 1, Issue 2, printed in 1994
More Examples of Materials Invisible Histories is Looking to Collect Locally
• Photos: physical pictures, electronic photos, negatives, photo albums
• Files: paper items related to your individual life or organizations, electronic files in various formats
• Correspondence: letters, cards, emails
• Family memorabilia: pictures of entire family, items from trips, marriages, deaths
• Mementos: T-shirts, matchbooks, buttons, give-away items, bar membership cards, any items you have collected from LGBTQ+ events
• Posters/Flyers/Handbills: examples of events, fundraisers and other LGBTQ+ activities
• Books/Magazines/Newspapers/Newsletters: regional examples from the South or local authors.
• Group Records: meeting minutes, documents related to founding of group, photos of events and members, board membership lists, financial records, filings, T-shirts, giveaways, emails. If there are confidential documents, they can be kept out of circulation necessary.
• Textiles: banners, T-shirts, drag dresses, Mardi Gras costumes, various types of clothing from events or marches, quilts, handmade items
• Scrapbooks: various types from different events or important life events
• Recordings: tapes, audio, visual, CDs, DVDs, reel to reel tapes, LPs/Vinyl, digital files, oral histories