Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

The archivist



You’d never know it to belly up to the Bonham Exchange’s Crockett Bar, or while shakin’-that-ass, shakin’-that-ass up in the third-floor ballroom, but the august red-brick building at 411 Bonham contains a Wikipedia’s worth of Queer memory. And I’m not talking about those kind of memories: the ongoing ( if hazily recalled) plethora of crazy anecdotes about dance-floor nights which get added onto every weekend, and seem to hang like strobe-lit ghosts in the Bonham’s quiet halls on weekday afternoons. No, memory is more concrete than that. In a seldom-seen parlor in the back part of the Bonham Exchange’s business wing, past the efficient management office where Niecy Lewis keeps order, and beyond Kenneth Garrett’s shrine-like hideaway, Chief Archivist Gene Elder painstakingly amasses, maintains, and continues to collect materials for the HAPPY Foundation’s LGBT History Archives.

The first time I go to visit Gene Elder at the Archives, I’m so mind-boggled by this underground mélange of museum, library, grandma’s attic, and gay Narnia that I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot elves — or, more properly, fairies (of the tiny, flying, nymphlike variety) — capering in its shadowy corners. It’s an old high-ceilinged room in an old building — musty, capacious, motley. Antique wood-and-glass display cases, shiny metal file cabinets, and scores of boxes, folders, shelves, and baskets line the walls, sit stacked on every surface, and damn near form stalactites and stalagmites within the room’s center space. And within them lives a wildly eclectic, exhaustive, and generally indescribable array of periodicals, original artwork, old photographs, books, religious artifacts, art materials, personal effects, recordings, handwritten letters, academic research files, and even costume jewelry. It’s a fragile assortment of priceless artifacts pertaining to a fragile and priceless shared human history. Many of the original owners, makers, readers, and writers of the Archives materials are gone now.

Elder has painstakingly recorded and studied it all, and now thinks about what will and should become of the Archives when he’s gone. He’d like there to be a team of librarians, of curators and preservation experts, who will pore over every last theater playbill, scrutinize every photograph and protest flyer, while he sits “propped up in the back somewhere, saying, ‘Ohh, yes, I remember that!’”

Coming into being as it did during the first awful years of the AIDS pandemic, and acting as a repository of so many personal effects of those lost during it, the Archives could seem like a pretty lachrymose endeavor, a monument to an epoch of unbearable loss tended by a man who survived to bear witness. I ask Gene about this tireless organizing and collecting of so many personal narratives ended too soon, of a community racked by grief — does it ever make him … well, sad? He smiles, sighs. Attending to the Archives, he says, “helps me feel less sad. It’s a way of honoring them, of course.” But it’s also an art form, a rallying point, and a repository of enormous humor.

Humor forms so much of the basis of what HAPPY, Gene, and the Archives are all about, and it’s one of the aspects of the current Archives’ torch that Elder’s keen to pass on to the next generation.

The HAPPY Foundation, according to its mission statement, is dedicated to “’Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’ the preservation of GayBLT history, encouraging contemporary art and promoting ballroom dancing.” It’s an oddball manifesto for an organization which since its inception in 1988 has actually attained non-profit 501(c)(3) status, but Gene muses that, “If we’d just made it a ‘gay archives,’ we thought there might not be much interest. We decided that was too narrow, and we wanted to form a foundation that stood for, well, something fun! I mean, ‘gay archives,’ that sounds depressing. Who’d want to go to a fundraiser for that? That’s not where you’re gonna find a husband.”

A good illustration of the spirit and legacy of the Archives comes when I ask Gene to show me his three favorite artifacts and tell me something about them. He chooses a newish set of file cabinets donated by a friend, into which the archivist has organized files including religious writings, marriage-rights materials, and information on other LGBT Archives across the country. A second is a cache of info regarding the notorious “Barbette,” a tranvestite aerealist from Round Rock, Texas, who was the toast of le tout Paris in the 1920s — kind of a white, gay Josephine Baker.

The third is an enormous three-ring binder’s worth of writings, clippings, and images, a dissertation on the LGBT civil rights movement, early episodes of then-nascent AIDS activism such as the 1987 march on Washington and the AIDS quilt — written by Wade Strauch, who himself passed away from the disease in 1992. He completed it in ’87 for a San Antonio College class. Sitting weighty on a reader’s lap, it bears the sorrowful gravitas of a holy relic.

Gene soon lightens up the mood. He went (with Wade) to the march on Washington in 1987, he tells me, and was one of the activists who volunteered to get arrested on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. After being cuffed with irksome and uncomfortable plastic straps alongside a score of other men and herded onto a bus, Gene miraculously produced a pair of nail clippers and quietly cut himself and others free. “We didn’t make a run for it or anything,” he says. “I mean, we’d volunteered to be arrested.” Later, the group of arrestees started chanting at the arresting officers — who were wearing plastic gloves, in order, presumably, to protect themselves from gay-borne contagion — “Your gloves don’t match your boots! Your gloves don’t match your helmets!” And while being processed out at some outlying police academy’s gymnasium, a man at the head of the line cried out, “Oh no! They’re gonna make us take P.E. again!”

But lest you believe that the HAPPY Foundation Archives is just a repository of camp, Elder has done copious research on other, better-funded and properly housed, archives around the country, and takes serious note of the increased academic attention they’ve received. Cornell University, for example, has a renowned collection of lesbian pulp fiction collected by a single donor, whereas Duke’s soon-to-be-catalogued LGBT archives specialize in transgenderism. Harvard, Yale, and UCLA house LGBT archives, as well. Gene Elder finds it irritating that no local academic institution collects anything similar. “Sure, they’ve got gay books in their libraries, but what about original artifacts, original materials?” He asks. He wants it understood: The collection at the HAPPY Archives isn’t just poignant, or personal; it’s relevant. Important.

And it needs your help.

As yet, the HAPPY Archives lacks the budget or equipment to document the collection; photographs, for example are becoming brittle with age, but the task of scanning them into more durable, digital form is enormous. Video tapes, too, have a relatively short shelf-life, and need digitizing.

“I hope this article will persuade people to donate objects, papers, personal effects,” he says. “Or at least start a file of `their` own. This is our history, and needs to be collected.” He says that when he was younger — during the heyday of the San Antonio Country, let’s say — he was “completely oblivious” to the necessity of, or even the possibility of, “gay history.” He didn’t know Stonewall had happened until years after, didn’t know about court cases and legislative changes, and didn’t much care.

“I wasn’t thinking about history,” he insists. “I was thinking about disco!”

But now he presides over this trove of information as a senior researcher of a sort, bearing the deep authority that comes from years of wide reading and deep thinking. He’s also animated by something deeper: the intellectual curiosity and unselfconscious, curiously un-selfrighteous compassion of any natural-born historian. He’s an archivist by medium, career, and calling. But as he says, it’s his “karmic mission” as well. •

You can reach Gene Elder and the HAPPY Foundation at [email protected]. You can also reach him at the HAPPY Foundation’s office Wednesday through Friday, from noon-4pm, at (210) 227-6451.

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