Reflections on Working in a Community Archives During a Pandemic

by Gabrielle Garcia
Published April 16, 2021**

There’s something particularly chilling about handling memorial objects for local loved ones who had passed from HIV/AIDS while living through a devastating pandemic where the same government negligence continues to exacerbate human loss. 

Inventorying and handling these objects are a gentle and deliberate ceremony. Each one is touched with care and viewed with focused intention. As a 23 year old lesbian, these physical memories are a solemn reminder of the generation of LGBTQ community members we have lost to HIV/AIDS. I see an individual who was born the same year as my mother and my heart aches for this life and all these lives that had been cut so tragically short. There is so much grief and love to be held. In a country sacked by the coronavirus pandemic with 300,000+ deaths within less than a year, the pain is an unbearable weight. 

On the other hand, there is anger swirling inside me, because similar issues—a for-profit healthcare system, severely lacking public program infrastructure, and government and economic systems that choose profit over human life—are STILL bearing their full force on the most marginalized, leading to countless preventable deaths. The scapegoating within the derogatory euphemisms, “gay disease” and “China virus” are emblematic of the common theme of dehumanization in governmental and societal reactions to both viruses. At the same time, it’s crucial to remember how the Ronald Reagan administration did not publicly acknowledge the existence of AIDS until 4 years after the epidemic in the US began and how many people with AIDS were denied medical care (both related to and unrelated to their AIDS diagnosis)1 or provided less favorable treatment due to homophobia and transphobia.  

I’m grateful that Lambda Archives has been able to house these crucial items and memories.2 If we don’t archive our stories, histories, and memories…who will? The transmission of knowledge, memory, and joy between different generations of LGBTQ folks is of utmost importance for our survival, connection, and health. There are many lessons to be learned from past and present AIDS activism and organizing, including the formation of mutual aid networks and support systems that continue to blossom now. 

In addition to my powerful interactions with HIV/AIDS related materials, taking inventory of other items in the California State Library (CSL) Project has also been an emotional experience during the pandemic. Coming across an intimate Sinister Wisdom poster3 stirred up feelings of longing that have been a gnawing thorn in an era of necessary social distancing. At the same time, seeing a poster for a 1990’s lecture by Angela Davis at UCSD4 made me reflect on the continued importance of her abolitionist, anti-racist work today, having not too long ago finished reading her books, Are Prisons Obsolete? and Freedom is a Constant Struggle


Encountering materials from local LGBTQ bars and theaters, such as Diversionary Theatre and The Flame Nightclub, are reminders of the physical gathering spaces that have been restricted or otherwise lost to us. The case of The Flame, which had been shut down years ago and is now being turned into apartments, is a stark reminder of the dwindling number of lesbian/queer womxn’s bars in the United States and the danger they are in during these pandemic times. There are 15 such bars left.5 Gossip Grill is presently San Diego’s (and California’s) only lesbian bar and is one of the two remaining lesbian bars on the west coast. Being able to access such a space (prior to COVID-19) as a young adult has brought me closer to my local community and allowed me to confidently explore my butchness and my lesbianism. 

While my role as a Project Assistant at LASD has only just begun, I have deeply experienced the archives’ emotional and educational potency. I look forward to learning more about the materials I’ve encountered so far and the many more in the collections. A key lesson that emerges from this early experience is that archives must have continuous connections with the local community. Even in our socially distanced and crisis-filled present, we must actively cultivate our relationships and forge anti-racist and anti-oppressive community.

Prompts
1. If you’ve read Are Prisons Obsolete? and/or Freedom is a Constant Struggle, what are your thoughts on the connection between their contents and memory work and archives?
2. What LGBTQ spaces have you been missing in these pandemic times?

Please either comment your thoughts below or email ggarcia@lambdaarchives.org.


**This blog post was written in December 2020 and refers to an earlier stage of the CSL project.
1 A local example of this was the case of Robert Walsh who was unfairly denied care from a chiropractor due to his HIV/AIDS diagnosis. Footage of his deposition for the lawsuit against this discrimination can be found here: https://calisphere.org/item/80da03501e172b348317137434ddaea5/
2 While writing this, my project manager, Dana, informed me of a notebook in Lambda Archives’ collection belonging to Gary Cheatham (L2015.11), which contains information about the people with AIDS that Gary took care of before he himself passed from AIDS-related complications. I’m filled with an eagerness to view such a precious item and learn about the lives it contains, but also an anticipating ache in response to the emotional weight of this haunting memory.
3 L2014.01. Sinister Wisdom is a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal established in 1976. http://sinisterwisdom.org/.
4 L2011.13. Vertez Burks Collection, Lambda Archives of San Diego.
5 https://www.lesbianbarproject.com/the-15-bars-home.


Gabrielle Garcia (they/he/she) is a Project Assistant at Lambda Archives. He is a white Cuban Jewish non-binary butch lesbian with class and educational privilege and abolitionist left politics. Additionally, they are an artist and designer, aspiring archivist, and a 2019 graduate from Scripps College with a BA in Media Studies and two minors in Art and Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. She is interested in the intersections of art, media, film, publishing, archives, and the LGBTQ community (especially butch lesbians). They will be applying to library and information science masters programs this winter.