LGBT History Month: Uncovering history in the Task Force archives

By Janice Thom, Director of Operations for Development, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

“I don’t have much of a story to share with you but I wanted to tell you I exist.” — Anonymous letter from late 1970s

Part of our preparation for the Task Force’s 40th anniversary in 2013 was a trip to our archives at Cornell University. My colleague Jack Harrison and I headed up to Ithaca, N.Y., last week. Even with my library degree (and my sensible shoes), I wasn’t really excited about doing this research. I’m not sure what I thought we’d find — decades of canceled checks and old T-shirts, maybe. Budgets from 30 years ago when a dollar was a dollar — and we didn’t have many of them? Yellowing newspaper clippings…

Well, there were no canceled checks. But I was right about the rest. But what was in those ancient, tiny budgets and what was on those bits of newsprint. And on those fading silver-coated faxes. There are boxes and boxes about gays in the military. Folders in every box about gay bashing, our families, our children, adoption. Equality. Transgender people. Bi-phobia. People of color. AIDS. Prisoners. Sex. Sexuality. Rural dykes. Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Health, elected officials, elections.

And photographs of people lobbying, demonstrating, being arrested and dykes in power suits testifying before Congress. Strategic plans, those budgets with not nearly enough money for the tiniest staff imaginable (how did we get it all done?), carbon copies of grant applications, surveys, reports, letters from our families, news articles about visitation denied and custody won, Creating Change programs that were 10-pages long, research reports, photos of people knocking on door after door after door in towns, cities, states.

In other words, I couldn’t have imagined. Even having lived big chunks of the last 40 years working in the movement, I clearly didn’t have a clue.

The Task Force has been involved in all of this for every minute of its nearly 40 years. Jack and I were able to quite literally touch all of this history. We kept nudging each other, holding up a photo and whispering “Look at this. Who is this? Would you. Look. At. This” over and over during this total-immersion experience. Of course, the history of the Task Force is also the history of the movement in the U.S. Leafing through folders of memos and photographs, we traced the trajectory of organizations that the Task Force gave birth to or that were born at the Creating Change conference, as well as coalitions we were part of and the issues that drove their creation.

Task Force Executive Director Ginny Apuzzo getting arrested in front of the White House for demonstrating.

Long before DADT, we lobbied hard to allow our community to serve in the military. There are folders full of letters from soldiers to our Military Freedom Project. One, written by a Marine captain sometime in the early 1980s, says: “I would like to know what I can do… I don’t have much money but I have a lot of motivation when it comes to this issue.”

When AIDS was called GRID, the Task Force set up a crisisline, joined with other organizations and tirelessly, ceaselessly pushed for action. Ginny Apuzzo, then our executive director, was arrested in front of the White House at a demonstration demanding attention be paid.

Kevin Berrill might have been the first person to keep track of the violence against our community. With nothing more than newspaper clippings and phone calls, he tracked the horrors of beatings, bashings, murders and finally convinced the federal government that violence against queers needed to be tracked. Even before we were trying to Queer the Census, we were fighting the federal government to keep track of what was happening to us and our families.

Kevin Berrill testifying on violence against LGBT people.

And Creating Change. 2013 in Atlanta will be the 25th conference, a great kick-off to our 40th-anniversary celebrations. Some names come up again and again. We’ve gone from program books that were mere fliers to more recent editions that shatter the 100-page mark; we’ve moved from registration done on paper to an online world.

Many of the issues have remained the same. But far more important is the fact that we’ve always been determined to create change and that we have.

We walked away from our time at the archives, proud to work for an organization that’s been in so many of the critical fights since the beginning. To be part of a community that has always refused to be silent, never accepted being invisible … amazing. I’m glad that we’ll be able to share these images and this information — and more — as we celebrate our 40th anniversary next year.