For 31 years, a non-descript two-story house in Northampton, Massachusetts has hosted a large archive on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. It’s one of ten national collections, but now, the curator is struggling to keep it open.
There’s nothing on the outside of the white-painted and peeling Victorian house to suggest it’s a national depository on LGBT history. Turns out there’s a reason for that.
“We had terrible backlash. We received death threats,” says curator Bet Powers – a 64-year-old transgender man. He moved the collection here from Chicago in 1983, when Northampton was just gaining a reputation as a gay and lesbian mecca. But there was still a strong anti-gay sentiment.
“I came home from work, and on the recording was – we’re gonna get you, die queer, die fag, we’re going to burn your house,” Powers says. “Then I called supporters — lesbians mainly in that era — and some came to the house and brought their dogs.”
The attack never came, and the threats have long since stopped. Gay marriage is now legal in almost two dozen states, and the Northampton Pride march attracts thousands of people every year. This is precisely the sort of cultural transformation Powers tries to document.
“I’m an actor in the history that I’m also teaching about,” he says.
In fact, the nonprofit Sexual Minorities Archives doubles as Powers’ living space, where he says up to 500 researchers visit every year. The first floor – including the kitchen and bathroom — is crammed floor to ceiling with 10,000 volumes of books, plus posters, t-shirts, bumper stickers, and rare periodicals.
“So the house we’re standing in has the only full set of One Magazine, for example, which published in 1952 – the first gay publication, homosexual publication in the United States.”
The literature stacks have some standard categories – non-fiction, pulp fiction, politics – and a few tongue-in-cheek ones — including “B for Bull—-“.
“It’s a small section of books that classically are hateful, they’re homophobic,” Powers says. “We think people should know about them historically but we want to label them clearly so people know what they’re getting into when they look at these books.”
Many items arrive as unsolicited donations, including an assortment of gay pornography that Powers says is kept hidden from visiting youth groups. Other collectibles were bought at auction.
“I’ll show you the rarest book in here,” Power says, taking out a plastic blue folder. “It’s a 1939 First Edition of the World is Round by Gertrude Stein.”
He opens to the page of Stein’s famous quote — Rose is a Rose is a Rose — which Powers says has been appropriated by the heterosexual world.
“It was dedicated to a woman named Rose,” he says. “It was a lesbian statement that has been changed by society into something nonthreatening.”
This is a common theme for Powers — re-claiming and relabeling art and culture for the LGBT community. Or even reclassifying artists themselves. The music room, for instance, holds records by openly gay singers, like Elton John, but also performers like the late Lou Reed.
“Lou Reed himself was not LGBT, but his lover was a transgender woman. …’Walk on the Wild Side‘ is an anthem to transgender people.”
While much of the archives is dedicated to the wider LGBT culture and history, one whole file cabinet is filled with materials about Bet Powers himself — as a female to male transgender case study.
“When I was four years old, I knew I was a boy,” Powers says. “I thought I was an alien who’s been dropped here from the moon.”
After the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Powers came out as a lesbian – and was promptly written off by his family. Later, he evolved into what he calls ‘stone butch’ – a precursor to transgender male. To illustrate, he stands in front of a large oil portrait of his younger self in all black with metal studs and chains.
“That’s what I looked like and dressed like, all through the 80s and 90s,” Powers says. “I was into the leather scene.”
Today, he wears a plaid button down shirt and jeans, with wrinkled skin and a tired expression. Up until a few years ago, he supported the archives through a day job in corporate communications. But he says a chronic disease has forced him to go on disability, and now, the biggest threat to the archives is economic. His landlord wants to sell the house, and Powers is frantically trying to raise money for a down payment — with banking deadline this week. Otherwise, the collection would likely go into storage since donating it to a library or university, he says, would risk marginalizing the materials.
“If I felt that mainstream history and historians in general were being proactive in researching and telling the story of my people, then my job would be complete,” he says. “But it’s not happening, and so my job goes on.”
The sexual minorities archives this summer received a Umass grant to digitize its collection, but Powers says that work will be hampered if he’s forced to find a new home for the organization — and for himself.