Monday, June 9, 2014

From the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives: The Dyke Olympics and Other Lesbian Pastimes

The audiovisual materials in the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives include an assortment of home movies and recordings of speeches, conferences, dances, parades, concerts, fundraisers, socials, retreats, news stories, comedy routines, television episodes, movies, and documentaries. In addition, there are also thousands of prints, slides, and art depicting everything from the making of documentaries to events like gay pride parades, meetings, classes, camps, protests, parties, retreats, and the Dyke Olympics. As a graduate student researcher on the project, I cataloged and began the process of digitizing these materials.  

The audiovisual collections of the Mazer Archives offer amazing insights into a wide variety of lesbian and ⁄ or feminist communities throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Home videos, photos, and audio recordings illustrate both the everyday lives and influential activism that took place within these communities. While digitizing the audio collection, I listened not only to speeches, lectures, and performances, but also to dozens of social functions ranging from dances to raffles. At these events, anonymous attendees largely discussed their support for one another and pride in their communities. These conversations–along with scrapbooks filled with images of families, celebrations, and travels–illustrate an ethos of compassion, care, and hope often obscured in popular representations of lesbians, gays, and feminists from this period, which tended to focus on AIDS, discrimination, or scandal. While mainstream media represents lesbians always in relation to heterosexuals, the Mazer Archives represent these communities on their own terms. 

At the same time, the many recordings of academic and activist conferences depict the complexity and variety of lesbian identity and feminist praxis. The topics ranged from the history of lesbianism to ecofeminism and the latest in breast cancer research. These conferences demonstrate not only the impact of lesbian and feminist communities on many current global issues, but also the many debates and arguments during the period concerning definitions of feminist theory and how this theory could best be practiced. I became captivated by an administrative meeting at a conference for Jewish lesbians, which quickly turned into an impassioned debate over whether or not male children should be allowed to attend panels or the conference’s childcare program. In order to make the conference a safe and open space for lesbians, the organizers only wanted lesbians to attend. Some in the audience feared that allowing lesbians to bring their sons would make other audience members feel uncomfortable and less inclined to discuss personal and⁄or controversial topics. Others feared that by not allowing sons to attend, those parents who could not afford childcare would be unable to attend. While grappling with a seemingly small issue, this debate exemplifies the complicated and always negotiated nature of feminist praxis at every level of life. These small and enduring moments are also what make the Mazer Archives such an important collection, very much worth preserving and making available to a larger public.

-- Jonathan Cohn
Photos by Elaine Mikels

Monday, June 2, 2014

From the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives: Collective Intimacies

Over the past three years I have been fortunate enough to process many individual collections from the Mazer Archives, each taking on its unique contours, representing both an historical moment as well as generously contributing to the collective intimacies of the lesbian archival record. Over time, one begins to recognize that almost every collection contains evidence of community involvement and organizational activities, professional commitments as well as deeply personal materials, evidence of the impossibility of separating or compartmentalizing lesbian lives. 
The collection policy of the Mazer Archives has always been generous–“anything a lesbian touches”; its local focus and grassroots history are clear. These collections are vital snapshots of the history of Los Angeles, bringing social movements into relief in formal and informal manifestations. It is here where we see the indispensability of community archival practices, self-documentation, in telling history on one’s own terms,  capturing not just the facts of the past but the messiness of their construction. 
It is inevitable that while working so closely with materials, you begin to become attached to certain collections, certain relationships, and certain senses of humor that you can glean from personal correspondence. At times, collections seem to be in communication with one another, filling in gaps, serving as connective tissue between seemingly disparate women. Some collections serve as hubs in a wheel, fanning outward to capture not just the movement of a community but the movements of individuals within that community. By collecting materials not traditionally thought of as archival, the Mazer Archives attempts to express and reconstruct everyday life instead of focusing just on the exceptional. T-shirts are alongside financial documents, crafts next to birth certificates. 
Many of the collections were deposited informally, friends dropping off boxes, women donating materials for their friends and lovers. As a result, we often may not know much about the donor, able only to use the contents to fill in the gaps. After months of research, reaching out to the community and even making a pilgrimage out to an address contained in a collection, I recognized a mystery donor in the artifact of another. Still housed at the Mazer Archives is a standing screen constructed by Ester Bentley (see above). A collage of photographs, drawings, decorations, and aphorisms, it is titled “Celebrating the Women in My Life, 1915–200?” (Bentley died in 2004). Although I knew from speaking with those active in the Mazer Archives, as well as through my processing work, that the collections represented a networked collective in various states of organization throughout its history, the screen provided a visual understanding of those connections through a single individual’s life experiences. This screen captures not only the many connections that were so difficult to find through a paper trail alone but also the impetus behind the Archives. “Each picture will be to the last a fleeting moment rescued from the past” is written on the screen, highlighting the immense amount of love, care, and work that has gone into and will continue to go into these archives. 
-- Stacy Wood