The archival poems, letters, and papers on display brought about many different emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, and sadness.
For people getting their first glimpse of these artifacts at Washington State University Pullman, seeing what the LGBTQ+ community experienced in the past was eye-opening.
The display last fall from the WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections was part of the Queering the Archives Initiative, a collaborative research project searching for untold stories of queer life on the Palouse.
Josie Cohen-Rodriguez, student life and community coordinator in WSU Pullman’s LGBTQ+ Student Center, and Lotus Norton-Wisla, community outreach archivist in the WSU Libraries, lead the Queering the Archives Initiative, which seeks to amplify LGBTQ+ voices and perspectives in the region and create spaces for learning, conversation, and collaboration between students, faculty, staff, and community members.
Among the items on display were WSU policy papers from the early 2000s advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion, a short documentary produced by a WSU queer student in 1999, and gay rights legislative documents from the Thomas S. Foley Congressional Collection.
Norton-Wisla says many of the students gravitated toward a collection of underground comics, some of which convey a lighthearted look at life in queer communities. Some students were drawn to literary manuscripts on display, including a 1961 poem titled “Gay Retaliation.” Cohen-Rodriguez said the poem is not explicitly queer, but raises issues and ideas that resonate today.
People showed passion for all the materials, says Norton-Wisla, but more than 100 letters of complaint found in the records from the office of the WSU president evoked the most emotion from readers.
The letters were sent from individuals in communities like Pullman, Spokane, Colfax, and Seattle to Glenn Terrell, who served as WSU’s president from 1967 to 1985, and members of the Board of Regents. The letters overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the LGBTQ+ community, and many were written in direct response to proposed university policies prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals who sought to participate in campus organizations and leadership positions.
“While students talked and shared with each other what they liked about the items on the table—and laughed at many of the comics—they were also reckoning with some of the difficult letters of opposition and people that advocated for discrimination against queer people,” Norton-Wisla says.
The timing of the letters’ discovery, when many states across the nation are adopting legislation to restrict LGBTQ+ civil rights, is not lost on those involved in the Queering the Archives Initiative.
Cohen-Rodriguez says while the WSU community has shown a lot of interest in and support for the project, one of the challenges moving forward is determining how to keep momentum in an increasingly hostile environment in which the experiences and stories of LGBTQ+ people are being erased from the broader cultural and historical narrative.
The Queering the Archives Initiative is instrumental in preventing that erasure. By resurfacing and exploring these documents, and expanding the collection, Cohen-Rodriguez, Norton-Wisla, and project participants are working to make their own history.
“With this project we are trying to reclaim our history, and at the same time, dream of what a better world looks like and what we are doing to get there,” Cohen-Rodriguez says.