Queer History as Queer Safety

By Jennie Lusk

“Our history is only as good as the documents that we have.  And our history is only as accurate as the diversity of the documents.

That’s what Barb Korbal says, and she ought to know.  

The archivist and historian has spent the better part of two decades making sure the history of New Mexico’s queer community is not forgotten—or worse, buried.

The news, documents, photographs, studies and films of queer people “are still underground,” Korbal said, “just like our gay community used to be.” Saving and sharing LGBTQ history is “a crucial component of ending the erasure of sexual and gender minorities,” she continued. Until queer history is known, LGBTQ people are in danger.

“I’m sick of hearing about young people who think they’re dirty or bad [because of their sexual orientation or gender identification],” Korbal said. “They’re afraid to come out, and no wonder. The world has changed—but not completely. Even if half the people support you, there are still people pissed because you’re gay. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.” 

Korbal identifies as bisexual “with a tilt to the lesbian side.”  She’s “out” about her identity but even so rarely mentions it, she said, because just mentioning it can mean dealing with the anger of people who do not understand a thing about how humans differ. The more information the general public has about how many people—old and young—do not fit in rigid heterosexual constraints, the safer everyone will be.  

Korbal, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico whose dissertation is titled “AIDS in New Mexico: A Medical, Legal, Social Justice Examination,” recalled the confrontation she had to win in order to get access to the Kinsey Report from the Purdue University in 1992. “It was under lock and key in the library!” she says, but adds that her determination finally guaranteed her access. Today it may seem quaint that basic information such as the Report would be withheld, but resistance to releasing information on the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in humans for a time successfully erased the facts. 

Consistent insistence on facts of human sexuality has begun to make life a bit safer for LGBTQ people, thanks to individuals such as Korbal who have gathered, organized, and made accessible information on the diverse history of humans. Korbal’s first project in bringing queer history to light was archiving Bennett Hammer’s decades of newspaper clippings of gay events, people, and policy development in New Mexico.  After archiving two other collections elsewhere, Korbal is now readying troves of materials donated by 12 different queer organizations with ties to New Mexico. As with the Hammer archives, the dozen queer projects when complete will be housed at UNM’s Center for Southwest Research. 

The dozen new projects Korbal has received include organizing and lobbying documents from Jim and Jean Genasci, early Parents and Friends of Lesbian and Gay (PFLAG) leaders who worked beginning in 2003 to add protections for sexual preference and gender identification to the New Mexico’s Human Rights Act (HRA). The PFLAG efforts, joined with bills introduced as early as 1997 by Rep. Patsy Trujillo and 1999 by Rep. Gail Chasey, were finally successful in 2013 with the passage of Senate Bill 28, sponsored by former Senator Cisco McSorley. 

Korbal’s new dozen also includes the Wimin in Movement in New Mexico collection, treasured relics of an annual women’s music festival that drew performers and audiences to New Mexico for 25 years. She has the oral history project of Old Lesbians for Change that includes over 40 stories of New Mexico subjects, as well as the organizational documents, minutes, group discussions, and promotional literature of its New Mexico chapter.  

A New Mexico member of Daughters of Bilitis, one of the oldest lesbian organizations in the country, had the foresight to donate her materials documenting the efforts and initiatives of the organization to Korbal’s 501(c)(3) organization. So did the collector of a run of gay periodicals from Las Cruces, “A Normal Heart.” A Washington Heights D.C. based AIDS support group from the 1980s, the Lavender Heights Community Group, has contributed its collection.  

Some 55 VHS tapes, including ones from early Pride events in Santa Fe, were donated by videographer Kathryn Bryce, whose regular show “Gay Times” was produced at College of Santa Fe. Training and educational materials from the NM National Association of Social Workers (NASW) LGBT caucus; from Common Bond; from Out! Magazine, and from New Mexico AIDS Services are in the archival process, too, and ultimately will be available to the general public as well as to professors researching, lecturing, and publishing on women’s and queer history.

The collections reflect the diversity of New Mexico’s population and are historically remarkable for that reason alone, Korbal said. “Archives typically suffer from the ‘Great White Man’ theory,” she said—i.e., that a person worthy of documenting was a person of power, and a person of power is often a White male. As with New Mexico in general, the queer community here in New Mexico is diverse.

Korbal believes that New Mexico is an example of the power and influence of Democratic Party policies. “New Mexico is always on the forefront of change,” Korbal said, pointing to the state’s support of people with AIDS as but one example. ”At one time, all the Republican states around us passed AIDS discrimination legislation. We in New Mexico just didn’t. We worked against it, blocked it and now the surrounding states are changing.”   

Korbal willingly admits she has a special fascination with history, but her fascination is not academic. It’s educational. She wants the world to know about the importance of the ideas, lives, ideals and accomplishments of the queer community in New Mexico and beyond. She aims to create a world where LGBT people can live without fear, discrimination or violence.  

Each of the 12 collections in the works now will be titled by the name of the donating organization at the Center for Southwest Research. Korbal had in mind grouping the 12 together as part of the “Q Educational Archives.” However, the rise of Q Anon of late has her rethinking the title. She’ll announce a new name when she decides on one. 

Meantime, people can access the queer archives as they are completed at the Center for Southwest Research. And of course, they can contact Korbal to donate to the 501(c)(3) organization, to labor with the project, or to contribute ideas.  For more information, contact the archivist at bkorbal@msn.com.