- Archival Queer
Washington, DC, June 1999: The metal detector and visible arsenal at the threshold of the FBI was less intimidating than the archivist's inevitable first query: "So tell me about your interest in J. Edgar Hoover." In reflection, I am reminded of queer historian John Howard's comment, "Obstacles in this project were considerable, not the least of which, my own occasional reluctance to declare: 'I'm researching homosexuality and gender nonconformity in Mississippi.' Given persistent prejudices there as elsewhere, such a flat, unadorned statement would have assured a lack of cooperation from many I encountered—archivists . . . among them."1 For my own part, I confess that were I not confident in the FBI's reputation for candor, cooperation, and commitment to the Freedom of Information Act, not to mention its heartening history, begun with Hoover, of championing the GLBTQ (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer) community, I might have interpreted my archival experiences there—the arctic temperature in the so-called reading room, the mysterious disappearance of an index to the files, the redacted documents, the photocopies that the "assistant" continually but, of course, inadvertently handed to the historian sitting next to me—as in some important sense politically motivated.
Chicago, November 2004: On a panel devoted to Robert Ridinger's recently published anthology, Speaking for Our Lives: Historic Speeches and Rhetoric for Gay and Lesbian Rights,2 I disclosed that beholding this volume for the first time was a moving experience. Queer archives affect me viscerally, evoking deep yearning and defiant purpose. At that moment I remembered Countee Cullen's response to Edward Carpenter's Ioläus, the activist anthology of male friendship, of historical queerness, that booksellers apparently called the "bugger's bible." In 1923 Cullen wrote to Alain Locke, who had recommended it, "'It opened up for me soul windows which had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.'"3 I also remembered sitting beneath the gaze of George Washington in Princeton's archive at the exhilarating moment I discovered behind penciled excisions the queer American [End Page 145] love story of the 1930s that adventurer Richard Halliburton's executors and biographers had hoped to consign to oblivion. Awash in these memories, the poignancy of Ridinger's title stood in bold relief: queer lives, past and present, are constituted by voices that swell with the complex measures of our joys and our struggles against annihilating silence. As Jonathan Ned Katz astutely observed of these cultural and political stakes as he opened his own pathbreaking anthology Gay American History, "To speak our name, to roll that word over the tongue, was to make our existence tangible, physical; it came too close to some mystical union with us, some carnal knowledge of that 'abominable' ghost, that lurking possibility within."4
Nashville, March 2005: In my course on the history of American public address, a frustrated lesbian student came to discuss her stymied quest for a text from GLBTQ history for her final term paper. She couldn't locate one in our textbook, Reid and Klumpp's American Rhetorical Discourse, not in the section entitled "Expanding Civil and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century" or anywhere else in the copious volume. Nor did she have success in searching our rich supplementary archive, the touted website Americanrhetoric.com. Certainly she must be mistaken. No, with the exception of a link to another resource containing interviews and lectures by James Baldwin, there is not a single GLBTQ speech in the massive bank. Perhaps my student can take heart knowing that the archive does include the character Cher's address "All Oppressed People Should Be Allowed Refuge in America" from the epic film Clueless, and the link to Focus on the Family if perchance she decides to "come out" of homosexuality.
My rather obvious point here is that archives are indeed rhetorical sites and resources, part of a diverse domain of the usable past that, despite the sincere if not conceited espousals of disinterested custodianship by its representatives, nevertheless functions ideologically and politically...