The role of William & Mary alumni in defeating anti-LGBTIQ regulations in Virginia could have been lost to history but for a group of student researchers working with the newly formed W&M Mattachine Research Project: Documenting the LGBTIQ Past in Virginia.
Up to the early 1990s, state law prohibited the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or ABC, from issuing licenses or permits to a whole host of people – prostitutes, alcoholics, narcotics users and known homosexuals among them.
“It was one of the ways in which Virginia – though Virginia wasn’t alone in this – contained gatherings,” explained Leisa Meyer, faculty advisor and professor of American studies and history. “It was a way of surveilling and disrupting meetings of LGBTIQ people, whether they be social or political.”
In 1991, after a local Ramada Inn initially refused to issue a permit to W&M GALA, the university’s gay and lesbian alumni/ae association, for a Homecoming event, the organization joined as a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging the Commonwealth’s discriminatory regulation. They won.
W&M’s connection to overturning the legislation was just one episode in the political history of LGBTIQ people in Virginia that the 16 students working with the W&M Mattachine Research Project unearthed over the course of the semester.
They will present the fruits of long Saturdays spent in archives here and in Richmond at 4 p.m. on Monday, April 4, in Swem Library’s first-floor research room. A reception and exhibition walk-through will follow at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. RSVP here or call (757) 221-7872.
Producing, not just receiving, knowledge
The project launched this semester with a $2,500 donation from the nonprofit Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which conducts archival research and education programs focusing on gay and lesbian legal, political and policy history, according to its website.
“I compare them to Johnny Appleseed,” Meyer said, noting that the money was designed to launch the project in Virginia at William & Mary. Working nationally, the organization hopes to create a comprehensive database of materials available to the public at no cost.
The student researchers, most of whom received some course credit for participating in the project, attended two special training sessions at Swem to ready them for the inquiry – one focused on using electronic resources and databases to find materials and government documents and the other introducing them to archival research and protocol.
Over the course of the semester, the students spent time researching in Swem’s special collections and traveled to archives and special collections at the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library. They also attended the queer youth summit at the University of Richmond.
“I do this work professionally and I had no idea about all of this material the students found,” Meyer said. “It’s fabulous.”
For a number of reasons, Meyer said, William & Mary was a natural fit for starting the research in this region. W&M already has a strong scholarly foundation of work considering the lives of the LGBTIQ community, both on campus and off, in the oral history Stephens Project and the Richard Cornish Endowment Fund at Swem, while the John Boswell Initiative and lecture promote scholarship on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender life in the United States and in other countries.
W&M also emphasizes substantive, meaningful research opportunities for undergraduate students, even more in the new general education College Curriculum, or COLL. COLL 300 in particular will press students to think differently about their place in the world through contact with cultures other than their own, Meyer said.
“Part of the new COLL curriculum is focused on getting people away from Williamsburg a little bit to do research and to find materials that might help them think about the world in different ways, so they might produce knowledge, not simply receive it,” Meyer said. “This seemed like a wonderful opportunity to explore what the new curriculum will allow students to do in terms of intensive research and also in engaging with communities that are distinct from what they might find in the Williamsburg area.”
The project is also enjoying remarkable support from every corner of campus, including American studies; the Boswell Initiative; gender, sexuality and women’s studies; the history department; the law school; the LGBTIQ Research Fund; the Sharpe Community Scholars program through the Roy R. Charles Center for Academic Excellence and the National Institute for American History and Democracy.
History Chair Cindy Hahamovitch and former W&M Rector Jeffrey Trammell ’73 have been supporters from the beginning, Meyer said. The Provost’s Office and the Dean of Arts & Sciences Office helped fund a graduate fellow, while the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity awarded the project an IDEA grant.
Swem also purchased two new databases it had been considering, prioritizing them because of student requests and their value to the project, said Martha Higgins, reference and instructive librarian. Swem now offers access to Archives of Human Sexuality and Identity: LGBTQ History and Culture Since 1940 and GenderWatch.
“You can’t ask for anything more,” Meyer said.
‘We don’t know what’s in all these archives’
Jan Huebenthal is a doctoral student in American studies and the project’s graduate fellow who provided logistical assistance for the semester, launched the group on social media and designed the project’s webpage.
“The work has been so incredibly rewarding for me, personally and professionally,” he said, noting that up to this point, his research involved cultural studies, not archival research.
The undergraduate students are diverse in their majors, but most had no prior experience in archival research or working in special collections.
Taylor Medley ’17 is majoring in gender, sexuality and women’s studies and public health. It was she who, while looking for information about ABC regulations at VCU, came across the first seven paragraphs of an article that had been torn out of the Washington Blade, an LGBT newspaper in Washington, D.C., announcing the defeat of the ABC restrictions on the grounds that they were discriminatory. The second-to-last sentence noted W&M GALA’s involvement. What really surprised her was that she found information in Richmond, not at Swem. (They’ve since found more at Swem).
“That got me thinking about how we don't know where all of this information is,” Medley said. “We don't know what's in all of these archives around the state and the country. That’s why this work is so important.”
Ming Siegel ’16 has a self-designed major of constitutional theory and history. She spent much of her time researching anti-sodomy laws, the papers of Equality Virginia and how individual politicians in Virginia responded to LGBTIQ rights issues.
Mostly she found what they expected to find, including documents on how to politically counter the Christian Right. But the big surprise for her and other researchers was finding the extent to which various religious groups in both Williamsburg and Richmond supported the LGBTIQ community with sincere outreach efforts and response to the HIV crisis.
Siegel said they also gained insight into how Virginia’s legislators have navigated issues of LGBTIQ equality over the past few decades.
"Politicians were clearly thinking about the issue of gay rights and had it in their minds, but they tried to balance this emerging issue of gay rights with some of their more traditional constituencies,” she said. “We think, especially now, that Democrats are in favor of same-sex marriage and gay rights, but back in the ’90s, when the issue was still kind of new, [Democrats] had to really think about the issues and where they wanted to go with it.”
There were standouts, though. Dan Delmonaco ’17, a history major, helped prepare one poster for the exhibition that highlights a politician who, running in the 1980s, adopted a pro-LGBTIQ platform as a straight ally. He didn’t win, Delmonaco said, “but it was just interesting to see someone speaking so vocally about it, who was running for public office at that time.”
Delmonaco will continue his research with a Summer Research Grant awarded by the Charles Center. In the future, Meyer hopes that the W&M Mattachine Research Project grows and includes opportunities for additional outreach and coordination with the Stephens Project. The group has already been asked to join 13 other universities in another documentation project, Queer History South, she said.
“We're seeing this project as potentially paralleling the Lemon Project in terms of being an ongoing research project that allows us to not only consider William & Mary in relation to how a broader LGBTIQ community has functioned, but also in the Commonwealth and in the South,” Meyer said. “It's a way also of making William & Mary more visible in terms of this work, and in some ways in the vanguard of this work.”