Reflections on the LGBTQIA Consortium Fellowship

Allison Cabana (she/her) is a Doctoral Candidate in the Critical Social Psychology program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She has been an adjunct at multiple CUNY campuses teaching Psychology & Health Sciences. Her research interests span an interdisciplinary breadth and include participatory methodology and pedagogy, critical race, feminist and queer theories. Allison’s dissertation work specifically focuses on Oral Histories exploring the diversity of experiences of folks of Mexican descent in the US. When she’s not doing academic work, she enjoys spending time with her dog and being outside on a beach, in a forest, or in a park somewhere.

The best part about being involved in the curation of the CLAGS archive through the LGBTQIA Consortium Fellowship this Spring 2023 semester has been engaging in conversations about queer and trans history, alongside Mina Rees librarians Elvis Bakaitis and Polly Thistlethwaite. I was anticipating an exploration of files in drawers, binders, and boxes in the CLAGS office, and more than one complex spreadsheet to keep track of these items – and had my expectations met in that respect. However, it was also a rather fun experience to dig around and create an order seeing what was kept and preserved over the years. The experience of finding correspondence from the 1990s and 2000s, seeing the planning documents and programmatic decisions made by CUNY administrations, deciphering unmarked folders, and learning about events with topics still relevant in 2023 was intriguing.

I was not anticipating that the experience would provoke the same types of questions that LGBTQ+ academics, activists, and scholars are engaging with today around archives, inclusion, funding, and narratives of history – and to see some of the nuance of these conversations emerge in the early 1990s. The exploration of these questions as a small archival team has made this semester-long experience thoughtful and engaging.  

Questions emerge from this work like:  

  • Who creates space for LGBTQ+ folks in the academy and in the research world?  
  • Who, including organizations, funds this important work? And how do folks continue to work to make it sustainable and ongoing?  
  • How do organizations navigate different priorities and intentions from community? And what are some possibilities when those experiences, expectations, and/or priorities diverge?  
  • How do we learn, know, and share LGBTQIA+ history with a lens that at once honors the past and asks critical questions about what we need to move forward?  

Of course, none of the above questions have distinct or one-size-fits-all answers. As I share my experience of this LGBTQIA Consortium Fellowship, it feels pertinent to mention that as a member of this archival team, I am neither trained as an archivist nor as a librarian or data science specialist.  Polly and Elvis both have experience in a similar exploratory environment, the Lesbian Herstory Archives (a community-based archive), but none of us have traditional archival experience – which in many ways has made this queer archival process more creative, and generative outside of formalized conventions.  I have experience as a researcher, a research assistant, and graduate student in utilizing archives that already exist. I entered this process of addressing and sorting material via my experience as a social scientist, and a current doctoral student in Psychology. 

Yet in collaboration with Elvis and Polly, and their distinct relationship to archives and LGBTQIA+ history, the experience was priceless. Instead of answering the above questions, part of the conversation shifts to how we continue to engage these kinds of questions and what this archive, and future queer and trans archives might look like. Whose work is included? What types of sources or content are highlighted, or even simply included in the archive? Who is noticeably absent and silenced? And equally importantly, how can researchers access these materials?

It has been an interesting experience to sort through and begin to archive documents spanning 30 years of CLAGS as an organization. There are a plethora of events and conferences detailed in the files – the first events included in the archive, which even began a few years before the “official” founding in 1991. There are countless flyers and details about events like “Seminars in the City” (a type of public facing intellectual space); the creation and maintenance of the International Resource Network that spanned the better part of a decade in the early 2000s; benefits and fundraisers, topical conferences (single and multi-day), and awards/fellowships in every year of CLAGS’ history. There are also organizational documents like meeting minutes, correspondence between board members, marked ‘eras’ with foundational Executive Directors and CLAGS leadership – and video and cassette recordings from many of these periods.

A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to work as a research assistant with the founding Executive Director of CLAGS, Dr. Martin Duberman, and to be witness to many of the materials in his own archival collection, housed at the New York Public Library. Working with Dr. Duberman brought up much of the same excitement that working as a part of the LGBTQ Consortium this past semester has, cultivating a desire to understand trans and queer history, and to engage with organizations like CLAGS that exist at the institution I am a part of (CUNY broadly, and the Graduate Center specifically). These histories are simultaneously celebrated and complex. Engaging in an archival process that itself is a queer process of an LGBTQ+ archive feels especially pointed. The questions of how to sort, how to organize, how and/or IF to make publicly accessible all arise and come with a complex set of issues.  

As with many of my academic and otherwise related endeavors, I don’t feel like I’ve come away from this process with definitive answers to any of the questions that have come up. But also, I DO feel like this process has been transformative in a way that encourages me and those around me to continue to engage in these questions. What will we contribute to the archive from 2023, or from next year and generations to come? I look forward to finding out. 

About the Author

Ingrid Conley-Abrams is an Adjunct Reference Librarian at the Mina Rees Library.