As many of us will know from personal experience, lesbian histories aren’t always easy to find. It can be isolating when you’re looking for stories that reflect your own – especially when you’re young and might be lacking in opportunities to have a particularly diverse social life – only to be told they don’t exist. Knowing that other women have lived and loved in the same way you desire to can play an important role in giving us that vital bit of encouragement to be openly lesbian. There’s more than a little truth in the saying “you can’t be what you can’t see”, and erasing lesbian women from mainstream accounts of history was very much a tactical decision on the part of men invested in upholding patriarchy.
The lesbian nature of countless women’s lives was deliberately obscured by the men around them. Letters and diaries were destroyed, lovers instead euphemistically described as ‘friends’ in family accounts, and all trace of sapphism obscured. This erasure happened for a reason: if women didn’t know about lesbian life, were kept unaware that it was possible to build lives for themselves that did not center men, then the foundations of patriarchy remained safe from challenge.
Patriarchy depends on men having unfettered access to women’s sexual, reproductive, domestic, and emotional labor, all of which is normalized through heterosexuality. But for lesbians, directing your energy into other women is the default setting of life. This means our very existence is oppositional to patriarchy. Lesbians prove that there are ways of living outside of male ownership, that the current set-up of our society is not the only possibility.
Given the extent of the problem, the degree to which lesbians have been forcibly removed from history and culture, change can feel impossible. How can we prevent lesbian erasure from happening in the future when it has been endemic in the past? How can we honor the lives of our foremothers when so much effort went into obscuring them? The Lesbian Archive and Information Centre offers a wealth of answers. A revolutionary bit of curation as activism, the Archive has documented and preserved bits of lesbian life in Britain for over thirty years.
The Lesbian Archive is a broad and beautiful resistance to the historic erasure of lesbians. The collection began in London back in 1984, funded by the Greater London Council. All materials were donated to LAIC, resulting in an eclectic mixture of artifacts and documents that shine a light on lesbian lives. Initially, the Lesbian Archive mainly consisted of books: feminist non-fiction to educate, lesbian literature to edify, and even pulp fiction to entertain.
The earliest artifact dates from the 1920s, the most recent of the present day. From the papers of Barbara Burford, a pioneering Black lesbian feminist, to the melodrama of Beebo Brinker, an iconic early example of lesbian representation, the Lesbian Archive has it all. There are records of political organizing, love letters, oral histories, clippings from newspapers and magazines, feminist newsletters – fragments that, when put together, create a vivid picture of lesbian women’s realities.
Public funding can be precarious for such projects. There was a time, during the 1980s, when one woman was employed full-time and two part-time to curate and care for the collection – which is not so easy to imagine in a Britain now characterized by austerity and the regressive politics of Brexit. And yet the 1980s were no utopia, especially not for lesbian women and gay men.
In 1988 Section 28 was passed, a law which made it illegal for local authorities to share information promoting or showing homosexuality in a positive light. This complicated the situation for the Lesbian Archive. In 1995 there were no more avenues of funding open to the Archive, and so it left London and found a new home in the north. As is evidenced by photographs, badges, signs, newsletters, and t-shirts, many lesbians pushed back against this hostile climate – including Sue John, a co-founder of Glasgow Women’s Library, where LAIC is now housed.
The Lesbian Archive has been part of the Women’s Library for over twenty years, a distinct collection that continues to grow. Glasgow Women’s Library is Britain’s only accredited museum of women’s history, and so it’s by far the most secure place for LAIC to be. In addition to the Library’s staff and archivists, the Lesbian Archive is sustained by volunteers. It is also open to the public. With a lot of feminist archiving comes the tricky question of ownership: when pieces of women’s herstory are locked away, mainly accessed by people with a university education and institutional power, the principle of sharing knowledge can be betrayed. Fortunately, the Women’s Library has managed to balance access with caring for the Lesbian Archive. A collection like no other, it gets visitors from around the world.
When I started volunteering at Glasgow Women’s Library, it was the most exquisite shock to discover there was a whole section of the collection put together with the goal of celebrating lesbians. It was the first public space I’d ever entered where there wasn’t just an absence of shame attached to the word lesbian, but an undeniable pride.
I gravitated towards the Lesbian Archive, at first shyly and then – after enough time had passed for me to let go of some of the stigma I’d been carrying – with enthusiasm. It was an education like no other. I spent hours unabashedly flicking through lesbian fiction on the lofty heights of the mezzanine – if there was a copy of the book, I’d borrow it from the Library’s lending collection. If not, I’d track down a cheap copy on eBay. Through the Lesbian Archive, I became a far more adventurous reader and quenched my thirst for representation.
Lots of details about the Lesbian Archive have colored my own life, and – no doubt – the lives of countless other women. One afternoon I found a box of letters and poured over them. The best ones were sent by a woman called Fern who signed off with a detailed illustration of her namesake plant. There was also consistent representation of Black lesbians, which was a total novelty to me.
LAIC holds the records and materials of the Camden Lesbian Centre and Black Lesbian Group, which to the best of common feminist knowledge was the first ever Black lesbian organization in Britain. The photographs, in particular, were a revelation – so many Black lesbians united in joy and purpose.
By sheer chance, I met one of the original members of the Lesbian Archive at a feminist conference not long after I began volunteering with the Women’s Library. The lesbian world is a small one, after all. I told her about the delight I’d found in the collection, and she asked about how it was looked after. Apparently, my answers were satisfactory – we were both happy with the state of the Lesbian Archive. There is a kind of magic in how the collection connects lesbians with other lesbians.
Visit the Lesbian Archive at Glasgow Women’s Library: 23 Landressy Street, Glasgow G40 1BP