Date June 21, 2024
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Student-curated exhibition explores history of LGBTQ student experiences at Brown

"So That We May Write and Be Heard," on view at Stonewall House, unearths and expands on a decades-old collection of collaborative journals written by students at Brown, and adds alumni reflections.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Brown University’s LGBTQ Center was established and took up residence within Faunce House in 2004, it inherited a room full of boxes.

For decades, those materials sat unprocessed. While cataloguing the contents had long been a goal of the center, staffing transitions and hiccups in funding, time and student availability — and eventually a pivot to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic — made it difficult to maintain consistent progress on the project, said LGBTQ Center Director Caitlin O’Neill.

So in 2022, when the center moved into its own dedicated campus space, Stonewall House, the boxes came along.

“Just tons and tons of boxes,” said Anthony Boss, a rising senior at Brown who works as the center’s undergraduate archivist. “We didn’t know who collected them or how they got there, but they were there.”

Equipped with the right resources, O’Neill said preserving the materials became a priority.

Now, thanks to a research and curatorial project by Boss and 2024 Brown graduates Ellen Huggins and Anna Marti, the contents have been unpacked, reviewed and curated to form the foundation of a new exhibit on display at Stonewall House.

So That We May Write and Be Heard: Journaling the Lives of LGBTQ Students at Brown from 1983-1998,” which is on view through the summer, showcases a collection of eight collaborative journals authored by former students involved in queer activism on campus. The entries cover topics like self-identity, LGBTQ community and activism during the height of AIDS epidemic, and they are accompanied by present-day reflections from alumni who contributed to the journals. When the exhibit comes down, the journals will live on within the archives of the John Hay Library, and the full collection of oral history transcriptions will be donated to the Pembroke Center Oral History Project

At its core, O’Neill said the exhibit offers current Brown students a unique opportunity for historical and personal contemplation.

journal cover
The cover of one of the uncovered journals inspired the title of the exhibit.

“They’re able to reflect on the experiences of past iterations of the LGBTQ community at Brown and how vastly different their experiences on campus have been, while also acknowledging how similar some of their hopes and desires were for their futures,” they said.  

The exhibit stemmed from the timely collision of Boss’ work at the LGBTQ Center and his Fall 2023 enrollment in a course called Black Archival Experiments. Led by Assistant Professor of American Studies Kiana Murphy, the class examined a shift in archival work in which scholars have developed new methodologies to share the stories, histories and narratives of Black communities.

There, Boss met then-graduate students Huggins and Marti, who both earned master’s degrees in American studies from Brown last month. The trio teamed up for the class’ final project, and with a shared interest in working with physical archives, Boss knew the perfect place to start.

Huggins said they initially thought they would do a straightforward history project, perhaps creating a timeline of major LGBTQ community events and milestones at Brown through the 1980s and 1990s.

“But then we were like, ‘That feels like we’re not getting to what makes these journals so special to us,’” Huggins said. “Reading through them, it’s the voices that stand out. Building on the Black archival experiments experience, we knew we wanted to approach this by centering the people who actually wrote these journals.”

Let the material speak for itself

The formats of the journals are just as varied as the topics they cover, going beyond typical musings to include polls, surveys, drawings, feedback, poetry, photos and more. According to Boss, when they were created, the journals were likely left open in a communal space for what was then known as the Lesbian Gay Student Alliance, inviting students to write, read and respond to others’ entries.

Anna and Ellen point at text in a transcription
Huggins and Marti go through some of the oral history interview transcriptions, collected in notebooks that visitors can pick up and use as a supplement to the exhibit.

Unlike traditional archival materials like posters, meeting notes or legal documents, most of the writings in the exhibit weren’t intended for public consumption, and some content is deeply personal. And because the history is fairly recent, many of the journal contributors are still alive. Boss, Huggins and Marti carefully considered what was acceptable to share. 

“We wanted to be really thoughtful and careful about these records… because they’re dealing with a lot of heavy topics and feelings,” Marti said. “Plus, people’s identities can change over the course of their lives. We had to make sure that people were comfortable with what we were sharing.”

So they asked.

Poring over pages for months, the trio put their archival research and investigative skills to work, identifying and eventually tracking down — by way of public records, Brown Daily Herald archives, LinkedIn and Facebook messages, and Googling — dozens of Brown alumni who had contributed to the journals all those years ago.

“ It's so important to have something tangible like this for the next generation of Brown students. They'll get to see that there has been queerness on this campus before, and it's not a new phenomenon. ”

Anthony Boss LGBTQ Center Undergraduate Archivist

For any alum interested in participating in the exhibit, the team secured two different consent forms: one for permission to display their old journal entries, and a second for permission to display their corresponding present-day oral history interviews. They conducted 15 interviews, the full transcriptions of which are collected in documentation designed by Huggins that accompanies the exhibit. In addition to serving as a modern-day appendix that contextualizes the content, the interviews served also as an opportunity for the contributors to respond to the journal entries in their own words.

The transcripts offer an emotional addition as viewers make their way through an exhibit that doesn’t shy away from the realities of being part of the LGBTQ community in the late 20th century. Discrimination, vandalism, harassment and even violence are tackled in the writings. Despite the weight of the topics, the exhibit organizers hope that visitors are buoyed by joy, community and hope.

“The AIDS crisis was happening around this time, but I think [the journals] also show this undercurrent of people simply enjoying themselves and having a good time with their friends,” Huggins said. “There's such a sense of deadpan, sardonic humor, too, in these journals, which makes them feel really contemporary.”

Historical connection, community continuity

For Boss, the journals also offer something unique: a sense of historical continuity.

“Throughout the 1980s, we lost so many of our queer elders to the AIDS crisis, and it can feel like there’s a missing historical connection,” he said. “It’s so important to have something tangible like this for the next generation of Brown students. They’ll get to see that there has been queerness on this campus before, and it’s not a new phenomenon.”

Throughout the curatorial process, Boss, Huggins and Marti referred to salient lessons learned in Murphy’s class — namely, the silences and gaps in the archives. Through their research, they came across a student group called The Next Thing, which offered confidential support to queer or queer-questioning students of color.

Though The Next Thing has a small presence in the collaborative journals, the curators said it was imperative that the exhibit represent the group’s contributions to community at Brown. One wall is dedicated entirely to The Next Thing and other LGBTQ students whose voices may be missing or less visible in the archives.

Seeing their histories preserved and displayed for the next generation has been moving for journal contributors, who had the opportunity to view the exhibit during a recent Brown Alumni Pride Association brunch. Several alumni stopped by Stonewall House to take a trip down memory lane, and Boss recalled an exchange with an alumnus that ended in “happy tears” when Boss shared his appreciation for the queer trailblazers at Brown.

Part of the exhibit shows mock mailboxes, writing area
The exhibit includes a mock mailroom and materials for visitors to write their own notes and letters to LGBTQ Brown students or alumni.
“A number of them laughed and cried, moved by the opportunity to see exactly what their years of community organizing and efforts had finally yielded: a home for queer and trans students to be seen, supported and recognized for exactly who they are,” said O’Neill, the center’s director. “This is the real impact of the work that Anthony, Anna and Ellen have been doing, and I couldn’t be more proud that this is happening at Stonewall House.”

It was hard to choose a favorite part of putting the exhibit together, but interacting with alumni — who Marti said felt like old friends, after getting to spend so much time with their writing — offered a sense of closure to the exhibit and her time at Brown.

“Having it be something that they feel represented by and something that they’re excited to have displayed felt so powerful,” Marti said. “At that moment, it felt like it was all worth it.”

That’s a feeling that the exhibit organizers hope to instill in students for generations to come. In portion of the exhibit that’s nestled by a window that overlooks a serene green space, a big, open journal rests on a small table. In the spirit of their predecessors, everyone who visits is invited to sit down, pick up a pen and write.

“Your perspective and experiences — even if they seem imperfect or inconsequential in the moment — are important and worth preserving,” Boss said. “I’m so grateful that the people who wrote in the journals did that, and I just hope that this encourages people to think about the ways they value their current experiences and document them, both for others and their future selves.”