lesbian herstory archives internship update #2

my first day at the archives was spent alone in a stuffy upstairs room with my big box of buttons- mainly from the 80s and 90s, and a few from the 70’s. each button is given a number, which is then entered into a spreadsheet along with information like size, text, year, and any other notable details about the button. then the button is scanned and uploaded into an online directory for all of eternity. the job is really cool, and i didn’t get much work done the first day because i couldn’t stop looking through all of the buttons. i had seen pictures of some of these very buttons before, and it was really surreal to hold them in my own hands. there are a ton of buttons from old organizations and events, including many from the michigan women’s music festival. there is so much herstory in these small bags of buttons alone. i think my favorites are the hand drawn ones. i think its really unfortunate that we don’t make buttons like this anymore. it’s unfortunate that button makers cost hundreds of dollars, because i really would like to bring this craft back into popularity in lesbian culture.

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just a few of my favorites

the second day i was there was my favorite so far. i met a very kind older woman when i accidentally startled her, because she didn’t notice me come in or go upstairs. after helping her move some boxes around and looking through some old materials, she showed me some of her favorite things around the second floor. she apologized a bunch for talking my ear off but i’m so glad she did. she had so many facts for each object hanging on the wall, and i loved knowing that this was firsthand information and stories from her own experiences. to hear someone talk about what things were like when they were my age 50 years ago is so amazing. later on a tour group came to see the archive and i went on their official tour, which was great because i got to learn so many little things about the place and people i’m surrounded by. the tour group bought us pizza which was ever so kind, and by the middle of the day a bunch more volunteers had shown up. getting to know all of them with a pizza party was great, even though i think i cataloged like 2 buttons that day.

day 3 is most notable for being the day i was locked inside the archive for two hours. someone must have set the alarm without realizing i was quietly working upstairs, and when i got up to leave, the loudest alarm i have ever had the displeasure of witnessing went off. if you were planning to burglarize the archives, i would highly recommend you make alternate plans, if only because the alarm will almost definitely cause permanent hearing damage. i hid behind as many doors as i could to muffle the sound, ironically settling down in a closet, and eventually it turned off. i knew if i moved it would start right back up again, so i waited completely still for two hours until the archives caretaker came home.

day 4 started with me setting off the alarm again, but i was saved by a disembodied voice that called out to me and told me what to do and as a result, the alarm was only blaring for about 10 seconds. once i was in i searched the entire building but couldn’t find anyone. the only conclusion i can draw from this is that the goddess is alive and she hangs out at the lesbian herstory archives.

the rest of the days have started blending together, not in a bad way, but in the sense that i feel welcome and comfortable here, and coming in to catalog buttons and see the other archivettes has become a highlight of my week. i love to see what others are working on- a documentary on the disappearance of lesbian bars, a phd on the archives photo collection, research on political banners, the archives social media presence. there’s so much going on and i’m so glad that us and future generations can have access to this great place.

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the de-butching of alison bechdel

something odd is going on with the fun home national tour. at first i thought only i had picked up on it, and that maybe i was being too critical out of love for the show, until i made a post about it on tumblr and received hundreds of responses agreeing with my concern. a lot of us are wondering, fun home, why isn’t alison bechdel being portrayed as butch anymore?

alison

i love you, beth “butch is a beautiful thing” malone

for context, let’s take a look at the original broadway costume for alison, which was consistent through the off broadway and broadway runs of the show. a simple red ringer tee, loose fitting black jeans (not pictured, i know), short and sensible haircut, no jewelry. a fine butch outfit, something bechdel and other butch lesbians would likely wear.

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what’s with those thumb holes, anyway?

and then, almost every aspect of the original costuming was changed when the show moved to tour. it seems that someone confused “butch” with “unfashionable,” two words with absolutely no correlation. they changed alison’s shirt to a weird, possibly chiffon vertical striped monstrosity, unbuttoned to show a camisole, covered by a weird athletic jacket type thing, gave her fitted jeans, and a necklace and earrings. in recent pictures it seems to me that she also hasn’t cut her hair in a while, which contributes to an even more feminine vibe overall. i guess some of these changes are insignificant on their own, but together the result is that the character is no longer really butch at all.

we’re left wondering what necessitated these changes. the same person designed the costumes for all three american stage versions of fun home, and all character’s costumes have stayed consistent throughout the different runs, aside from alison’s. alison’s costume was perhaps the most important costume in the entire show, as it represented her full realization of herself and acceptance of her butchness. now, she is being portrayed as a woman who grew up, accepted she wanted short hair, but maintained all other aspects of enforced femininity.

when kate shindle was first cast as alison in the tour, many of us expressed doubts regarding her ability to portray the character. not because she was former miss america, but because of the constant discussion of her status as former miss america spread around for the shock factor. this was coupled with her reluctance to cut her hair and attempts to persuade the show to allow her to wear a wig. we were concerned that she was not willing to fully and authentically take on the character she auditioned for, since it seemed she was constantly trying to distance herself from her character. unfortunately, it seems as though this may be the case. of course i can only speculate, but i must wonder if former miss america, who tried to persuade production to allow her to wear a wig, would also persuade them to change her costuming to be more typically feminine. it hurts, because beth malone was so full of joy to play a character that looks and feels like her. and it hurts because there are so many talented butch actresses out there who don’t have nearly as many casting opportunities to play someone who looks like them.

maybe it wasn’t kate shindle’s fault at all. maybe it was a result of the ever present need to make the show more palatable to an overwhelmingly straight public. the show is always marketed as a show about a family, a show about parents, a show about identity and coming of age, but very rarely is it publicly portrayed as a show about a butch lesbian. a butch lesbian just isn’t relatable to most theatergoers, but a short haired feminine lesbian might make the cut for tugging on those liberal heartstrings. i believe they have succeeded at making the show palatable to straight people, but they have alienated lesbians in the process.

regardless, it seems more research into butchness, its history and culture, is necessary from everyone involved in the show and bechdel’s portrayal. when portraying any oppressed minority group of people, research, understanding, and respect should be priority. i need the fun home tour team to understand that simply having short hair and wearing pants does not make a lesbian butch.

whatever the reason for these changes, many lesbian fans of bechdel’s writing and the show feel hurt, betrayed, and misrepresented. bechdel is a real person, a member of a real group of people, a group that is desperate for accurate and affirming representation in the media. fun home is a show for everyone, but it means more to lesbians than any straight person can understand. i wish that the tour production team was more conscious of that.

lesbian herstory archives internship update #1

i was originally planning to document this experience in my journal, but by popular demand i will be writing updates online as frequently as possible. there’s so much here that i want to be able to share with lesbians from all over who may not be able to experience the archives firsthand. the lesbian herstory archives in brooklyn are seriously one of the most magical places i’ve ever set food inside of. when i first visited last year, i remember being completely lost and unsure of how to take it all in, and i believe i just spend an hour or two sitting on the floor reading a compilation of the writings of adrienne rich.

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some pics snapped by me/my girlfriend during a visit to the archives in 2016

despite my incredible timidity, that short awkward visit changed my perspective on a lot of things. so much of lesbian media, like dykes to watch out for by alison bechdel and the L word, portray close-knit lesbian communities. that was something i always longed for but didn’t believe actually could exist. the archives are the first place i’ve been where i feel like lesbian community is still alive and vibrant offline. it was a much needed reminder that we as a community are still here and are still building, sometimes even without much influence from modern queer cultural influences. in fact, i didn’t hear the word queer once during my time spent there. the space is primarily a radical feminist and lesbian prioritizing space.

not only are we still here, but were not going anywhere. i used to feel like lesbian community was left behind in the 70s, but its still right here. it will be here for lesbians that grow up after me.

my internship orientation only reinforced my excitement and joy for the opportunity. my supervisor is one of the most delightful women i’ve ever met, and i immediately felt enveloped into so much more than i could imagine. she told me about so much in those short two hours, from stories of the dykes on bikes nyc chapter rolling up in formation to volunteer at the archives, to horror stories of cointelpro. it was a lot to take in, theres so much more history that i need to learn.

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some pics i took during the book sale- including vintage lesbian pulp fiction novels

while im not officially starting regular hours until july, i did go down to help out at the annual book sale on june 10th. after a crazy morning involving a two hour train delay from new haven, i got there just in time for everything to be finished until it was time to clean up. still, i loved seeing everyone who came into the book sale. i loved realizing how many people like me there are in the world. i bought sinister wisdom issue #45 for my growing collection of the literary magazine. then i put all the leftover books in boxes and nearly died from wiping out on the stairs when putting them away (ten days later i still gave some gnarly bruises). i came home so exhausted but so full of love and joy.

so in closing i want to thank everyone who got me here. the lesbians older than me who built this place and kept it going, the lesbians in my online community who helped me embrace myself, my internship supervisor who probably wouldn’t want to be named publicly, and becca and olivia for reading my cover letter and encouraging me to send it. thank you all! x