Gay History: Introduction
Identifying as a gay person, then coming out and living a gay life in the light of day is still a relatively new concept. Sadly, in many parts of the world the process of coming out is still far from a reality. Luckily here in Amsterdam, where PLANETROMEO HQ is located, being gay has been part of everyday life for decades. Elsewhere, gay people were so hidden from society, you’d be forgiven for thinking homosexuals only appeared in the 1960’s.
Despite a vibrant and established gay scene in Berlin pre WW2 and some other pockets of gay tolerant centers in Europe, being gay was largely invisible until very recently. Before the 1940’s some gay men lived like vampires, only coming out under cover of darkness, communicating almost by telepathy, and having forbidden sexual encounters in graveyards or abandoned places. We cruised in lost and lonely nooks and crannies. We were invisible in society and so, looking from the present to the past it is very hard to see evidence of our existence. All the more reason to gather what records and stories we can, to highlight our secret fight, to take our place in history.
There are countless stories of gay couples in history but so many are considered rumor and legend. In Dublin, a famous gay couple, Hilton Edwards and Michéal MacLiammoir, established a theater, The Gate, almost a century ago. Today this theater is one of the finest performance spaces in Europe.
Other homosexual heros and artists throughout history include, Alexander the Great, Gertrude Stein, Leonardo da Vinci, Marlene Dietrich, Tchaikovsky, and Oscar Wilde to name but a handful.
The list goes on and as time moves forward, facts and myths intermingle. Things become cloudy over time. Without documents to back stories up, or living witnesses to bear testimony, these claims can be refuted or covered up.
Therefore, we have gay history archives in the world working to preserve this history. Many start voluntarily, and with time and dedication grow to be valuable parts of the communities and societies they belong to.
Here in Amsterdam, IHLIA is the gay archive and LGBT heritage organization. This initiative began in 1978, when a group of students at the University of Amsterdam began documenting gay life. It started out small with the ‘Homodok’ having simply two boxes of files.
Shortly afterwards, IHLIA’s gay archive began to grow and from 1978 to now it’s moved around a little, finally coming to its current and permanent home here in the main public library, OBA (Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam), next to Centraal Station.
The archive has been assembled from many resources and in many ways. They often receive donations of documents from members of the public. Perhaps a family member has passed away and the relatives discover in his or her belongings an assortment of photos documenting gay pride Berlin in the early 90’s. The family can contact IHLIA and offer to add this photo diary to their collection.
The most impressive and illustrious addition to IHLIA’s collection is, arguably, the restoration of the Schorer library. A project we will look at more closely in a future blog post. Schorer was a gay rights activist, the first in the Netherlands and one of the first in the world. He pieced together a gay library resource, pre WW2. During the occupation, this library was lost, but due to an inventory, a grant, and the hard work of IHLIA, much of this library has been restored. Historians can now access and research the library materials available on sexuality and gay theory from the 1940’s.
Another important function of gay archives is to offer a safe place for people to record their existence, when the places where they live are intolerant to their love and their gay identity. In the past, couples from Indonesia, (a former Dutch colony,) have sent pictures and documents to IHLIA simply to prove they have lived and loved in Indonesia, despite the status quo of their own nation.
We will be exploring these amazing stories of our brave and beautiful history here on the PLANETROMEO Blog over the coming 12 months in collaboration with IHLIA.
Gay people did not just happen in the 1960’s. We’ve been around since the beginning, we were simply afraid to come into the light. Now that we are safe in certain parts of the world, we’re free to go about recording that story and to attempt to uncover a greater understanding of our place in history and within mankind.
Follow the links below to connect to our history pieces as they are released;
IHLIA was originally the International Homo Lesbisch Informatiecentrum en Archief but are now the LGBT heritage organization of The Netherlands as their remit has grown.
IHLIA houses literally thousands of documents relevant to gay culture, to our collective history and story. The documents are available to everyone. So if you’re researching a thesis on LGBT theory or history you can book a session there and look at their photographs, magazines, books, and journals. Journalists researching articles and curious members of the public can also book an appointment. IHLIA is open to, and available for, everyone. Due to the fragile nature of many of the pieces, items cannot be taken home. The best way to access this wonderful resource is to visit the inventory on their website, select the documents you wish to read and make your appointment to visit.