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State’s LGBTQ history coming out in Iowa City-based library and archive
IOWA CITY - The transgender and gender nonbinary individuals Aiden Bettine interviewed for an oral history project he founded would often pull out materials to help them convey their life stories. But he found that outside of university archival spaces, there wasn't a space in Iowa dedicated to preserving LGBTQ history.
For individuals who faced violent homophobia or transphobia in college, Bettine said these spaces weren't ones that all people trusted to share their story. He saw an opportunity though for a community archive in Iowa that is explicitly tailored to LGBTQ Iowans.
So now, the Hawkeye State's LGBTQ history is coming out.
A project that started as a nebulous idea with some archival items stored in people's apartments has turned into the LGBTQ Iowa Archives and Library housed on the lower level of the Wesley Center, 120 N. Dubuque St.
While there are LGBTQ Pride groups across the state that typically celebrate Pride Month in June every year, this organization focuses on fostering a deeper understanding of the lives, struggles and triumphs of queer Iowans past and present. Much of the focus in LGBTQ history is on life in large cities such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago, but this archival space preserves and shares history from the urban and rural communities of the Heartland.
'Instead of always looking at it as a kind of a dearth of LGBTQ life, it's the reality that we're all still here in this community, and all the queer folks still thrive across Iowa and we still exist,” said Bettine, a University of Iowa history graduate student and a community and student life archivist with the UI.
AJ Lewis, a visiting assistant professor at Grinnell College who is providing support for the project, said the absence of documented history became apparent in his work on LGBTQ oral history with his students.
Lewis said he told his students, 'You're kind of starting from ground zero. We have to actually start the documentation in a class, here, so that somebody can hopefully write about it eventually.”
The enthusiasm for the organization already 'speaks to ... the need for more historical documentation in a way that's accountable to communities in the present locally,” Lewis said.
The organization has four key functions: a lending library, oral history resources, a gallery space, and archives for community members and scholars to rove such as paper documents, objects or audio visual items.
A donation of 1,200 books from the Des Moines Pride Center in November 2020, containing quintessential LGBTQ history books largely from the late 1900s, served as a catalyst for the group's growth into a physical space. Among the organization's kitschy collection are books from the Nancy Clue series, a 1990s lesbian parody of the popular Nancy Drew series by San Francisco artist and author Mabel Maney. And there's an Iowa tie - journalist and author Mildred Wirt Benson, who wrote some of the series' earliest mysteries, graduated from the UI and was a Ladora native.
Bettine said it took a couple months to fix up the space and catalog the books, and then after the holiday season when students returned to town, the team opened doors to the public. Masks are required and there are limits on capacity for now, but the organization also offers contactless pickup for those who do not feel comfortable browsing in-person.
The organization is entirely volunteer run and donor funded. Bettine said the group is in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
A particular point of pride for Bettine is the history-by-letters snail mail the organization sends across the country. More than 100 individuals and more than 20 organizations from across Iowa and beyond receive the letters.
These monthly mailings share a topic related to the Hawkeye State's LGBTQ past, such as a biography or narrative of events, and offer a short handwritten narrative inviting people to learn and share more about Iowa's queer history.
'That's a really great opportunity for us to educate everyone on Iowa's career past and know that LGBTQ people have and always will be a part of our state's history and do make impacts,” Bettine said.
Although the organization focuses on shining its spotlight on LGBTQ history, Bettine said the current moment has called the group to action to preserve LGBTQ rights in Iowa.
LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa is tracking a string of at least 15 anti-LGBTQ - particularly anti-transgender - bills introduced in the state Legislature. One bill would risk outing students if schools ask for their pronouns and another would prevent trans individuals from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
'When we think about what our mission is and our (group) as a history-oriented organization, history in the making also matters,” Bettine said.
There has been a strong response to the organization from LGBTQ Iowans, Bettine said, with some people saying things like, 'I grew up in Iowa, and I wish I had this when I was a teen.” But some straight allies also are looking to get involved or to support its work through donations.
'LGBTQ history is for everyone to learn and know,” Bettine said.
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If you go
' What: LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library
' Where: Lower level of the Wesley Center, 120 N. Dubuque St.
' Hours: 6 to 9 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday; 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
' Visit online: lgbtqiowa.org