LGBTQ+ Collection Guide
This guide has been created to help researchers broach the research area of LGBTQ+ experiences and histories. As there is no overarching LGBTQ+ collection, potential materials might be found within the various collections within any of the University Archives and Special Collections.
Barriers to research
Beginning this kind of research can be difficult. The impetus for collecting these records was often unrelated to the sexualities and/or gender identities of the individuals recorded within them. Because of this, descriptions of the materials do not usually mention these aspects even when they are present. Due to the taboo nature of LGBTQ+ issues and people, there may have been hesitance in the past to make obvious those aspects of the archive which were deemed unsuitable. Another complication to the visibility of LGBTQ+ histories is that gender and sexuality have historically been conflated. Transgender histories are therefore further obscured. While there is an LGBTQ+ presence within the archives, due to these historical constraints it has often been rendered invisible. It is vital then to ensure that LGBTQ+ histories are not lost by increasing visibility as well as accessibility to these often overlooked or hidden parts of our archives.
Beginnings: some tips on how to begin your search
The terminology for LGBTQ+ lives and experiences poses a challenge for searching. Our contemporary understandings of, and language used to describe, LGBTQ+ experiences and identities have not always been used. Terminologies of gender and sexuality are constantly shifting. Words such as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’ or ‘queer’ were not necessarily in their current use before the mid- to late-twentieth century. People in the past may have used terminologies both to describe themselves and other people which are outdated or offensive today. However, in order to get the most out of search results, we sometimes need to use the language that would have been used at that time. For example, the term ‘homosexual’ is often perceived as dated today given its medicalised history. However, it was a term commonly used to refer to individuals who might self-identify otherwise today.
However, searching directly for terminology does not always provide the best results. It is often better to employ broader search terms and to examine anything which might be of relevance given the lack of explicit description of LGBTQ+ content within materials in the past. Another technique can be a more lateral search. That is, researching into which social movements or events were ongoing at a given time. People invested in one social movement will often be invested in others. You can also use the ‘related subject tags’ that appear on the catalogue search pages to search through all the materials which have been tagged for the same or similar subjects.
The University Archive Collection can provide a starting point for research. Different parts of the collection may provide useful insight into specific events that were happening at the time – both internal and external of the university – and how these were being responded to. However while there is some relevant material in the 1980s there tends to be less before and after this period until the 2010s onward.
It is also useful to think about broader terms. Where LGBTQ+ presence is mentioned, sometimes euphemisms or more indirect terminology were used by past archivists which might reflect more the archivist’s bias or misunderstandings than factually reflect the content.
Given the complexity of gender and sexuality throughout history and the difficulties of historical sources, it may be difficult to ascertain if a source contains relevant material. It is also sometimes difficult to know how someone in the past would have or did identify themselves. We do not want to label a figure when we do not have access to how they would have felt. However, by not marking these sources at all we risk erasing the presence of potential expressions of LGBTQ+ history. In these cases, we have affixed information statements to suggest possible ways of reading these materials in an LGBTQ+ light. This was inspired by the work of queer archivist Lizeth Zepeda. Rather than focusing on labels, Zepeda writes that it is more important to read historical sources ‘as open to the possibility of queerness without presuming an identity’. We have therefore tried to avoid always making explicit assumptions about the past while also indicating the potentiality for other ways of viewing these materials that might honour the LGBTQ+ pasts potentially within the materials. In doing so, we hope to challenge a cisnormative or heteronormative default view of archive materials. Similarly, we have tagged these materials using broader thematic keywords such as ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’.
Nevertheless, there may be occasions where it is appropriate to more definitively identify a past figure and use specific subject tagging. There may be enough information about or by this figure to ascertain how they would have identified. Some figures may have been publicly outspoken about themselves or left information in other materials to which we have access. With modern materials, we will try to work in consultation with donors to ascertain a person’s identity. In any cases where we assume an identity, we will continually review how we have labelled a figure in light of possible new bodies of research, materials or contact from others.
Where we do use terminology for the materials, the agreed terminology to be used has come out of discussion forums with both students and staff at the University of Leeds. We have also consulted existing terminology lists such as those used by Stonewall, It Gets Better Project and the Digital Transgender Archive. We have used ‘LGBTQ+’, as an umbrella term to encapsulate various gender identities and sexualities, as an overarching subject tag for reasons of accessibility. However, this is not to suggest homogeneity of LGBTQ+ communities, individuals, or identities. Given feedback during the discussion forum with students, we have refrained from using ‘queer’ as a subject tag given discomfort surrounding an institutional body using this reclaimed term to identify or label individuals. However, we have used ‘queer’, as in a queer reading of the archive, to reflect the influence of queer theory and queer studies on our approach to archiving here. It has been agreed that these terminologies will be reviewed every five years to recognise the evolution in preferred language and to remove terminology which might no longer be acceptable.
Some of the documents within the archives may have emerged from places of suppression and therefore contain attitudes or language which we do not condone. Where this is the case, sensitivity statements have been affixed at the top of the page before information on the material begins. Where instances of transphobia or homophobia occur, they are tagged as such alongside terms like ‘transgender’ or ‘gay’ to prevent possible distress. They are used alongside, rather than instead of, these terms so that records are more locatable.
We actively want to expand the LGBTQ+-related materials within our archives. Therefore, if you have materials related to LGBTQ+ history and experience at the University of Leeds that you would like to share, please contact us.