It was New York City, 1974, when the women decided to stockpile pieces of a neglected history.
Deborah Edel and Joan Nestle drove across New England, veering onto back roads and through tiny towns. They scoured church bazaars, garage sales and old general stores, biting back excitement when they discovered a book by Colette or a tattered photograph of women dancing together. The sense of mission was not lost on either one: "turning rejection into cherishing," says Nestle.
They sent out a newsletter appeal to lesbian groups around the country: "For us, there is excitement and joy in sharing the records of our lives, and our Archives will be as living as the material we can collect and you can send us."
Soon after, their post office box began to fill.
Families sent mementos of daughters and sisters who had died. Poets Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde donated personal papers. Nestle's Upper West Side apartment turned into a community center, with weekly visitors, readings and art shows, all growing from the exploding collection.
Today the road-trip mission is the Lesbian Herstory Archives, one of the oldest and largest lesbian archives in the world, a three-story brownstone in Brooklyn brimming with the history of a movement: a jacket worn by a lesbian medic during the Vietnam War; a ticket stub from a moonlight cruise along the Hudson in 1973; love letters--stacks of them--penned from one woman to another.
The archive celebrates its silver anniversary tonight with a gala at Pace University in Manhattan. It has been 25 years since Nestle and Edel, joined by a few other women activists from New York's Gay Academic Union, became fed up with the lack of history of lesbian lives.
"The vision was something like a museum with books, a library and a photo album together," says Edel, 55, today a school psychologist in New York. Nestle, 59, is a lesbian activist and nonfiction writer now living in Australia.
Lisa Duggan, a professor at New York University who did research at the archive for her 1995 book "Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture" and the forthcoming "Sapphic Slashers: Love, Murder and Lesbian Desire, 1880-1930," remembers the original room in Nestle's apartment as "an absolute treasure trove."
"There was nothing else at the time like it," Duggan says. "It stimulated an entire archive movement. Even now, you can't be writing about lesbians and not go there--there's too much there that's not anywhere else in the world. And what made and makes it so unique is the range of materials, all treated as great treasures. It's a very personal place, revealing the texture of everyday lesbian life, not just famous ones."
When the collection moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 1993--long having outgrown the apartment--it retained the feeling of a home.
Like the home of a great grandmother, the house smells of old paper and soft perfume, a surprise in every odd nook. In the bathroom stands a four-foot screen covered with buttons ("Victoria Woodhull Marching Band," "How dare you presume I'm heterosexual!"). The smell of patchouli drifts from a closet, lingering in the cotton of one of hundreds of donated T-shirts.
White bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling around the parlor. A first edition of "How to Write" by Gertrude Stein shares space with "Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology" and "Diana: A Strange Autobiography."
The author of the latter, Diana Frederics (a pseudonym), wrote: "I must write this book as if I were a person of importance. And, indeed, I can do that if I think of myself as a type, rather than as an individual. As an individual I am without importance except to myself; as a type I am quite important, for I belong to the third sex."
The book's copyright is 1939.
Stacks of lesbian pulp fiction from the '50s, covers bursting with color and images of voluptuous women, boast titles like "Trap of Lesbos" and "Loveliest of Friends." The first of these paperbacks came out in 1939 but were quickly pulled as the Legion of Decency protested and World War II began. The genre resurfaced and was most visible in the 1950s. Though there was an emphasis on sex, many of these stories had tragic endings--with lovers dying, or the lesbian seductress becoming a heterosexual.
Photographs are everywhere: on walls, in albums and tucked between the pages of donated books. Two pictures from a mall photo booth are in a chipped gold frame, a scrap of notebook paper along the bottom: "I love you, Max. Hang in there, baby."
Unpublished papers ("Dyked out in Paris: 1926") share a second-floor room with files on every lesbian group and topic imaginable, from the Deaf and Gay Lesbian Center in San Francisco to the Conference of Catholic Lesbians in New York. Stacks of periodicals fill another room, many from the 1970s and long gone from publication. The Ladder, a monthly journal, dates back even further, published from 1957 to 1971 by the Daughters of Bilitis--whose mission was "promoting the integration of homosexuals into society."
Countless researchers, from the makers of the 1999 documentary "After Stonewall" to the authors of "Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia," have tapped the extensive collection. Kay Turner spent almost two years sifting through boxes of personal papers for "Between Us: A Legacy of Lesbian Love Letters."
"The archive has what no one else in the country does: love letters and narratives of love from the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s," said Turner, a co-founder of Texas Folklife Resources, a nonprofit organization in Austin. "It's just amazing. I found a packet of typed love letters written in the 1960s by a woman named Bunny, neatly tied together with a red ribbon. When I saw that, my heart stopped."
Now in its 25th year, the archives remain a grass-roots effort. A core of about 10 volunteers maintains the collection, whose address is not published for safety reasons. Information about how to contact the archive can be found on its Web site: (www.datalounge.net/network/pages/lha).
By now the archive is not unique. Regional archives, universities and even libraries across the county are collecting lesbian materials. Still, donations pour in. Some recent additions: boxes of books from a small women's press going out of business and photos of a woman with cancer, taken by her friends.
"This is all about convincing people that their lives are worthwhile," said Maxine Wolfe, a longtime volunteer. "We just keep saying: 'People will want to know who you are, what your life was. Don't throw away. Give it to us.' "