Coming Out of the Stacks

Alex Asal, History M.A. Candidate, UMass Amherst

The summer before I started my career at UMass, I finally got around to reading a book that had been recommended to me a half-dozen times: Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, by Allan Bérubé. I’ve also been interested in the history of LGBT people pre-Stonewall, and this book was particularly fascinating to me because World War II has such a prominent role in Americans’ cultural memory. Immediately I wanted to find more—more stories, more analysis, more intersections, more everything. Unfortunately, scholarly work that looks at LGBT people during the war is relatively thin on the ground, and much of what I found drew almost entirely on Bérubé’s work rather than bringing in new sources.

Therein lies the problem. How can one find “new sources” for this topic and this time period? Bérubé was lucky enough to collect oral histories from gay and lesbian veterans, but in 2017, few WWII vets are left to tell their stories. The federal government may preserve documents about anti-homosexual policies and trials, but those often fail to capture the details of an individual’s lived experience. And in a time when “queer” and “homosexual” were dirty words and related terms were not widely known (or not yet invented), few LGBT people put their identities on paper in clear, readable terms. If historians want to draw any conclusions, they have to dig through mountains of documents, dozens of archives, and a near-impenetrable wall of careful innuendo. It’s almost impossible for someone who doesn’t already know where to look.

So I set the topic aside until the summer of 2017, when it popped up again in an unexpected place.

This summer, I was an intern with the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History. Like many archives, the Archives Center frequently fields requests from offsite researchers and provides them with scans of relevant materials. The Archives Center, however, is ahead of the curve when it comes to digitizing their materials. Every scan that is requested is carefully catalogued in the Archives Center database, with the goal of ultimately making it digitally accessible to the public. My job was to process these scans so that they could be uploaded to the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive (SOVA), which hosts the finding aids for all Smithsonian-related archives.

The first step was to open a collection in Adobe Bridge and add or correct metadata for each image. One collection that fell under my purview was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection, an artificial subject-based collection that aims to collect materials “related to all aspects of the LGBT community and the civil rights issues pertaining thereto.” Not everyone represented in the collection is LGBT, but the accessioning archivists do their best to find as much material as possible to represent the lives of both acknowledged LGBT people, and those who lived in same-sex environments regardless of sexual orientation. By studying these environments, historians can start to theorize what was considered “normal,” slightly suspicious, or definitely “queer” according to the time period in question.

I was going through the collection in Bridge when I first came upon this photo:

A photograph of Billy and Howard, last names unknown, in suits and Navy caps. LGBT Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

My curiosity was piqued. The description of this photo was simply “Billy and Howard,” and the metadata listed a location inconsistent with the finding aid, so I happily journeyed off to the stacks to find the information myself. The photo was part of a collection that belonged to Gordon Larson, a lieutenant colonel in the Army who retired during the war due to illness. Most of the photos were from his life after the war; he lived in California and frequently traveled with a group of friends, many of whom also sent him portraits, photo booth strips, and snapshots of themselves, singularly or in pairs.

Larson’s photos came to the Archives Center via an antique shop, so unfortunately many of the details that would help identify these men have been lost. The man on the right, Howard, was in the Navy during the war; another photo in the collection features him performing in a Navy drag show, and he probably broke out his Navy cap for a post-war costume party. Everything we know about his life comes from short notes scrawled on the back of photos he sent to Larson, some of which have yet to be digitized. One of my favorites declares that he was “26 and loving it! Gay as hell still.”

I returned to my computer and edited the metadata for this and the other 200 photos from the LGBT Collection that were in my processing queue. The next step was to pull up the finding aid in Archivist’s Toolkit, which assigns reference ID numbers to objects at the series, folder, and item levels. My supervisor uploaded everything to the Digital Asset Management System (DAMS), where users on the Smithsonian network can store and edit files. In this case, I was editing the files to include the Archivist’s Toolkit reference IDs. Archivist’s Toolkit houses the finding aid information; DAMS houses the files. The reference IDs link the two halves.

When I opened the LGBT Collection in DAMS, however, I found more than I expected; in addition to the images I had uploaded, 176 pages of correspondence had been uploaded via the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Franklin Robinson, one of the archivists, had accessioned this correspondence, which was sent to a man named Philip St. George in the 1940s and 50s.

A scan of the letter sent from Corporal Stephen Kazor to Philip St. George, written on U.S. Army Parachute Troops stationary. LGBT Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History. Transcription available.

The above letter is the first one in the collection. It was written by Stephen Kazor, who at the time of writing was a corporal in the US Army Parachute Corps in training at Fort Mackall. Much of what Kazor writes in this letter is frustratingly vague. “I know one thing as I’m starting on this letter, I’ll never be able to talk to you and say the things I’d like to, the way I would if we were together,” he opens. Later he remarks “I think back to all the things that happened while I was in NYC and am wondering if I’ll ever be lucky enough to ever again be so happy. Go ahead and tell me that I’m silly for blabbering like that.” Is he talking about gay trysts, a swing dance competition, or a really good pastrami sandwich at a New York deli? We have absolutely no idea.

Some of this ambiguity may be due simply to the nature of the genre. Written communication does tend to be less effusive than verbal communication, and there was little reason for Kazor to waste paper and ink describing whatever happened in New York if his recipient remembered it clearly. However, it is worth noting that Kazor was an enlisted man, which meant that all of his correspondence was liable to be read by military censors. Censorship was primarily concerned with military secrets, but some officers would use correspondence as evidence that a service member was in contact with known homosexuals and was perhaps homosexual himself, which was grounds for disciplinary action—even dishonorable discharge. Archivist Franklin Robinson was able to track down a later New York Times article that confirmed Philip St. George was gay. If Kazor knew that, he would have good reason to be cautious in what he put to paper.

Although the letter may not be as descriptive as we would like, the fact that it survived and made it to the archives is remarkable; so, too, is the fact that it’s now easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection. As I mentioned, this letter, and the rest of the Philip St. George Correspondence, was uploaded to DAMS from the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center. Here, volunteers can transcribe journals, correspondence, and handwritten government records, which is a great boon to those of us who struggle reading the faded cursive writing on many of these documents. As an added bonus, these typed transcripts become attached to the digital files so that they are fully searchable when uploaded to a public website.

I spent some time perusing this fascinating collection of correspondence, but soon it was time to get back to work. I attached reference IDs to all of the images in the collection and linked the files back to Archivist’s Toolkit, where I could generate a slideshow that integrated with the finding aid on the SOVA website. Now, when users are reading the finding aid, a small blue box alerts them when a particular resource is available online, and related images are grouped in a slideshow.

An issue of ONE Magazine, featuring a photo of US sailors and the headline “Homosexual Servicemen.” LGBT Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

The most important thing you need when dealing with an archival source is context. In an ideal world, there is a body of scholarship that can help you out; I’ll admit that the reason I focused on the two documents I’ve shared today is because Bérubé’s book taught me about wartime censorship and post-war gay communities, so it was easy for me to put these documents in the context of that discussion.

But the next best thing is to understand the internal context of the collection. Although there are a few gaps, visitors can still peruse the Gordon Larson photos as a group—those with sharp eyes can pick out Howard and Billy in several different images. The Philip St. George collection contains not just a few cherry-picked letters, but a prolific collection of envelopes, some of which have become separated from the original letters. This raises all kinds of questions—not only “what was in the missing letters?” but “what can we learn from the different addresses on these envelopes?” and other observational questions that might lead us to an understanding of Philip St. George’s life and his relationship to his friends.

The LGBT Collection spans over a century’s worth of materials, which also puts these series into the context of LGBT history. Although the World War II materials make up only a small part of the collection, they can be read along with documents like the above issue of ONE Magazine, which featured an article about gay servicemen in 1960, or the collections of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which sought to provide legal advice and protection to LGBT members of the military during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Some of the records of the Mattachine Society, which was formed in 1950, are contemporaneous with these documents even if they don’t focus on the military specifically.

On its own, these are all mildly interesting documents; together, they inform a historical narrative. And by making documents available online, the Archives Center at the National Museum of American history is ensuring that historians and the public have the tools they need to explore all the narratives that the stacks have to offer.

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