Discover LGBTQ History at MSU Special Collections

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The month of June is unofficially recognized as Pride Month for the LGBTQ community. Individuals all over the country recognize and celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history and culture in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in New York, which began June 28, 1969.

A touchstone event in the gay liberation movement, the Stonewall Riots were demonstrations by activists in New York City in opposition to the social and political discrimination of the LGBTQ community. In 1969, homosexuality was widely discriminated against, so gay clubs served as places of refuge. In the early hours of June 28, the Stonewall Inn, a club in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, was suspected of serving alcohol without a liquor license. The club was raided by police, and violence quickly ensued. The riots continued for days, solidifying a legacy of fierce resistance against discrimination.

Throughout June there will be a series of festivals, parades, parties, marches, gatherings, workshops, concerts and more to call to attention the accomplishments and impacts of the LGBTQ community. To celebrate Pride Month, many seek different channels to learn about LGBTQ history and culture. If you’d like to explore this multifaceted topic, there is an extremely valuable and accessible resource readily available on the Michigan State University campus: The Special Collections at the MSU Main Library. 

Established in 1962, Special Collections houses fragile and rare materials that require more attention than the library’s main collection. Since its creation, Special Collections has gathered and collected materials and media of all kinds in a multitude of topics. A large part of the collection is primary sources and popular culture rather than the more scientific materials and secondary sources in the main collection. Special Collections is well-known for its vintage comics and rare books, and students are occasionally assigned to visit it for class. Although most visits are for academic reasons,  Special Collections is available to the public. The protected materials are unavailable to be borrowed, but they can be accessed through the Reading Room.

The LGBTQ History and Culture Collection features a core collection of 7,000 items, with many others organized into specific categories. If you’re searching through the archives on the library website, many materials tagged as LGBTQ can also be found in topics like “popular culture” and “radicalism.” The LGBTQ collection at MSU began in the late 1970s, when library assistant Anne Tracy started collecting items at local garage sales. In addition to many items of popular culture, Tracy found magazines, books and objects that were produced by LGBTQ people. She understood their importance and encouraged Special Collections to house them.

There are different types of media in the LGBTQ Special Collections. A large part of the collection are magazines and newsletters. There are also original printings of rare books, reprints of even rarer books, comics, poetry, art and some materials that don’t easily fit into any category. 

“In Special Collections, we collect individual voices: zines, newsletters from local LGBTQ+ groups, the personal papers of activists — material that has not been shaped by a historian into a particular narrative or filtered by an editor,” said Ruth Ann Jones, Special Collections education and outreach librarian.

Because the content is unfiltered, there are materials that contain explicit themes. Although explicit, the materials reveal the author’s everyday thoughts and actions during decades of transformative popular culture.

The fact that this massive collection even exists at MSU is immensely important. Not too long ago, anything other than heterosexuality was not only silenced but harshly punishable by law. Many of these materials were forced to be created and shared in secret, despite all the discrimination that the LGBTQ community faced. There could quite possibly be hundreds or thousands of materials and objects that were found by oppressors, destroyed and lost to the past. An entire community of people ingeniously networked and connected in secret — a truly underground culture. Through these materials, people in the LGBTQ community who were in hiding could validate themselves and define and shape their true identities.

These materials can be used to learn not only the discrimination that LGBTQ community faced in the past, but also what they are still facing today. 

“It’s so important for us to keep adding to the LGBTQ collection. Not only [to fill] in gaps in the historical materials, but also newer genres like zines and whatever comes after that,” Jones said. “These are voices that were silenced in our culture until recently, and some are still being silenced. LGBTQ+ primary sources are important because they make our understanding of the past more truthful. And, I dearly hope that preserving this collection [and] using it in exhibits and classes tells LGBTQ+ students that we care about embracing and supporting them.”

Homosexuality and gender studies are more easily discussed in today’s conversations compared to 1969. More celebrities and well-known people in the zeitgeist of today have publicly “come out,” increasing LGBTQ representation in popular media such as TV, movies and books. However, that does not mean that all the problems are solved. Although homosexuality is no longer illegal in the United States, people who identify as anything but heterosexual still face social discrimination.

For many who don’t identify or aren’t questioning, it can be overwhelming to realize all the uncovered history there is to learn. Maybe you recently were introduced to identities different than the ones you were raised with – and that’s OK, as long as you make an effort to understand. LGBTQ history didn’t start the day you found out about it.

So when you see all the celebrations for Pride Month, take a second to learn something new about LGBTQ history and culture. By visiting Special Collections at MSU, the resources are, literally, at your fingertips. 

Visit the MSU Libraries website, lib.msu.edu, to explore the content of the LGBTQ collection, or visit the Special Collections Reading Room on the first floor of the MSU Main Library.