Staff Spotlights: Collecting Today’s Stories at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

What if I told you that the things around you – your home, your friends, yourself – could tell a story worth archiving? It might seem difficult to think about archiving the present, but this practice is part of the approach that drives many museums, archives and libraries: it’s easier to gather important things now than to leave the processes of searching and collecting entirely for the future.

June is Pride Month in many countries around the world, and the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto has three exhibitions up this month that uniquely focus on the stories of its community and this generation’s lives. I recently had the opportunity to visit the CLGA and speak to the staff about the exhibitions and how they became involved with the CLGA. Here are their stories. 

Photograph of embracing lesbians from Jamaica from Imaging Home: Resistance, Migration, Contradiction. Ulelli Verbeke. A. and H. are lesbians both from Jamaica. They have been together for 3 years. Over these past years, they have been targets of robbery, housing discrimination, rape and police harassment in Jamaica. They are seeking asylum in Canada. Image from Imaging Home: Resistance, Migration, Contradiction at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Karen Stanworth originally became involved in the CLGA as a means of pursuing curatorial work outside of her academic life. Stanworth has been actively exploring the role of visual culture in how communities are represented and the ways in which visual culture can affirm identities and relationships among people. Stanworth curated the exhibition Imaging Home: Resistance, Migration, Contradiction, an exhibition that brings together documentary video and images that explore what “home” means to people in a world – their world – of continued homophobia and oppression. Stanworth explains that the driving force behind Imagining Home “was the compelling need to draw a diversity of people to the archives, to help illustrate the depth of material held in the archive, [and] to create a focus on the vulnerability of VHS tapes in our collections and in private collections.” Stanworth also wanted to encourage potential donors to “start to think about leaving the evidence of their lives – photographs, letters, videos, etc. - to the archives.” In the future she hopes that this evidence, in particular the VHS tapes (which are quickly degrading), can be digitized for posterity.

Photograph of seated muslims from Queer and Muslim: Finding Peace Within Islam. Photograph by Samra Habib from the exhibition Queer and Muslim: Finding Peace Within Islam at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

Marcin Wisniewski was drawn to the CLGA because of its importance in “preserving the history of queer lives in the [Greater Toronto Area] and Canada.” Wisniewski has recently had the opportunity to curate Queer and Muslim: Finding Peace Within Islam, which is a satellite to an exhibition of photography by queer Toronto artist Samra Habib called Just Me and Allah: Photographs of Queer Muslims, currently travelling to various venues. Wisniewski says that this exhibition “dares to present a controversial subject - the existence and lives of queer-identified Muslims…which defy any preconceptions we may hold towards Islam and its believers.” While there are some texts on male homosexuality in Islam, this exhibition has the specific goal of broadening the representation to include people who are lesbian and transgender. A short video accompanies the exhibition, which ”gives a literal voice to this strongly silenced community.” This exhibition, and the stories that form it, are meant to provide examples of queer Muslims who have made peace with their sexuality and live lives that incorporate their own interpretation of Islam. Wisniewski hopes that with funding, the images in these exhibitions can be turned into a book, and the video expanded into a documentary.

Images from Sex Lives and Videotape at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives Images from Sex Lives and Videotape at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay ArchivesImages from Sex Lives and Videotape at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Sarah Munro says that it wasn’t until her work archiving images of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that archiving the stories of people in Toronto started to attract her. She comments, “It's somewhat ironic that I had to travel halfway around the world in order to consider the human histories that were waiting to be discovered in my own backyard!” She came to be involved with the CLGA because of her interest “in exposing the histories of people whose stories might not otherwise be told: marginalized communities whose struggles are all the more important because they've been repressed.” However, she notes the question she asked herself when she began working with the CLGA: “As a straight woman, what gives me the right to speak about queer histories?” She continues, “Of course now I know from experience that belonging to a particular community is not a prerequisite for caring about those people's stories; sometimes it is enough to stand alongside them. I'm not trying to be anyone's voice, I'm trying to make their own voices stronger.”

Munro, who has a degree in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management, curated the exhibition Sex Lives and Videotape, which focuses on the CLGA’s VHS collection and is the latest in a series exploring the diverse materiality of artifacts within the archive. Munro says, “Because the advent of VHS coincided with what many would consider the ‘Golden Age’ of LGBT activism, there is this sort of parallel history. Much of the queer content that was commercially available on video impacted the way that LGBT people saw themselves.” The exhibition explores both homemade videos and commercially available movies. One section of the exhibition has VHS cases with an image of a movie cover on the front, and quotes Munro gathered of how these videos helped individuals see queer people, and themselves. Munro explains that her starting point was to look back at her own history: “I'm (just barely) a child of the eighties, and so I recall owning a lot of VHS tapes as a child…[and] they all had an impact on the way I viewed the world. I would watch them again and again, and tailor my behavior to the things I saw on the TV screen. I certainly don't think I'm alone in that.”

Since the CLGA’s founding in 1973, it has grown and evolved over time. As such, the means by which queer communities document their lives affect the content and form of the CLGA’s collections. VHS tapes are nearing obsolescence, which makes now an ideal time to reflect firsthand on the relationship between an object’s medium and its message.

Imaging Home: Resistance, Migration, Contradiction and Queer and Muslim: Finding Peace Within Islam bothwill open from June 24 to October 5, 2014. These exhibitions will coincide with WorldPride, which is being held in Toronto this year for the first time in North America.Sex Lives and Videotape recently closed on June 6th, 2014. 

The CLGA is largely a volunteer-run organization. If you would like to support it and future programming you can find more information about donating here

A big thank you goes to William Craddock, who helped organize my interviews with Karen Stanworth, Marcin Wisniewski and Sarah Munro, who graciously took time from their busy schedules.