It’s been a little over two years since Joshua Burford moved to the Queen City. Adopting it as his newfound home, he wasted no time jumping in.
I remember the first time I met him. He’d already had an interest in community history, helping to create an LGBT community archive at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He was just as interested in gathering local history here. Sitting at the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, then still at the NC Music Factory, Burford spoke of all the possible ways the community could gather its history and preserve it.
Less than a year later, in August 2013, Burford worked with University of North Carolina-Charlotte archivist Meredith Raiford to launch the new Charlotte LGBTQ Community Archive and house it at the university’s J. Murray Atkins Library Special Collections.
In the time since, Burford, 40, has dedicated his free time outside of his day job to meeting with community members and ruffling through old boxes full of paperwork, fliers, newspaper clippings, meeting minutes and more.
“I’ve probably spoken to 600 or 700 people,” Burford says. “It’s intense. It’s wonderful.”
Both the personal and collective impacts of so many deep, significant conversations and historical research aren’t lost on him.
“It feels so wonderful to be a part of the collection and preservation,” he says. “People are so grateful, which is not what I’d expected. I’ve been told by a number of people — people who are in their 70s, their 50s, people who are 12 — that they feel grateful that someone is listening to them. The archive is listening to them, collecting their work and making sure it doesn’t disappear.”
There’s no doubt that the archive’s banner year, and Burford’s work in shepherding it, has been in 2014. In July, the documents and treasures collected in the archive enabled and supported Burford’s creation of a local LGBT history timeline — one of several components in the Levine Museum of the New South’s exhibit, “LGBTQ Perspectives on Equality.”
The timeline stretches from the late 1940s through the present, recounting a local LGBT community’s trials, tribulations and triumphs over decades of change and evolution.
Creating the timeline was a task that Burford relished. It also gave him worry.
“I was really scared when the timeline went up on the wall,” he recounts. “It’s a big deal to try to illuminate the history of a community you don’t belong to. I was worried I would leave somebody out or I was going to get something wrong, which is why I spent so much time working on it.”
Burford’s worries proved needless. When the timeline and the rest of the Levine’s LGBT exhibits debuted, they were met with astounding levels of praise and recognition — write-ups in local and national newspapers, including The Washington Post, appearances on WFAE’s Charlotte Talks and a community that seemed to jump at the opportunity to host events at the Levine, offering their attendees opportunities to view the exhibits.
Burford says he didn’t expect many of the responses.
“I knew when it came out, people would like it. I knew people would come see it. The requests for tours, I was prepared for that,” he says. “I just didn’t realize all the things it could do once it went up. Everything else that happened, I couldn’t have prepared myself for — conversations with Serbian journalists, a chance to work in different high schools and starting an LGBT history program in schools. I never saw those coming. And the million and one emails I’ve gotten from Oregon and Alabama and Kentucky and New York from people who said we didn’t know this was a thing, that it could happen and now we want to do this here.”
And the timeline has been an inspiration, too, coinciding with what seems like a resurgence of new community thought, activism and conversation. Burford’s too humble, though. He recoils when any credit is tossed his way. He calls renewed local activist fervor a convergence and coincidence — certainly not a result of his work, he says.
“You could see a new activist tradition sort of getting it’s feet again in the last few years. That’s not new,” he says. “The response we’re seeing now to Ferguson and what happened in New York are a direct offshoot of what’s happening in this country. People are tired of being stepped on and tired of feeling isolated.”
He adds, “In a sense, it’s just a happy coincidence that the timeline went up when it did and people are able to see what an activist history looks like. It really is an activist history. I didn’t intend for it to be an activist history, but that’s exactly what it turned out to be.”
But there’s no doubt the timeline has encouraged and inspired others. Older community members, Burford says, have been able to see their work — often individualized — within a larger context of history.
“They say they didn’t realize their work had had this impact,” he recounts.
And younger people, too, are learning. “If they did this in 1991 or in 1980, why aren’t we doing this now?” Burford says he’s heard young people say.
“It’s like a bookend sense of what’s possible and this meeting in the middle,” he says.
At the most, Burford takes credit only for providing the space for conversation and community, not any initial spark that might have acted as its catalyst.
“It would imply that I had a plan when I moved here, to say that I was instigating things,” he says. “I didn’t. It’s just kind of what I do. This is how I live my life.
“Maybe what people needed was a rallying cry. The people I have a relationship with in Charlotte — personally, professionally and politically — those people existed in Charlotte well before I moved here,” he says. “Maybe I’ve just given people an excuse to congregate. That’s what we wanted to do with this exhibit anyway. We wanted to pull people from the community in here and say, ‘You belong in all of this. Not just the physical space, but also in all of this history.’”
Burford’s impact in the community has been felt at his day job, too. At UNC-Charlotte, he works in the Multicultural Resource Center as its assistant director for sexual and gender diversity. Burford says the campus has had a “big year,” working to create a fully transgender inclusive and affirmative non-discrimination policy, building gender-neutral bathrooms in each building on campus and expanding LGBT studies courses.
“My everyday job never changed,” he says. “I’m teaching and working on policy and we’re building bathrooms. I’m working with students who come into my office. I just had a meeting today, in fact. The email I got, the student said, ‘I need to see you. I think I might be gay,’ so I spent today talking to that kid. All of that stuff is kind of happening at the same time.”
It’s on campus where Burford says he’s reminded just how far the community still must travel before it can claim full victory on equality and liberation.
“What’s interesting to me is that I’ve been doing this now for almost 20 years,” he says. “The problems I remember working on in my late 20s when I was doing grassroots activism stuff, the things I remember working on in my very first student affairs job almost 10 years ago, I’m still working on the same stuff now.”
The community’s increased visibility has been important, but he cautions: “We never really addressed the small stuff. We went big and forgot the little. Things are better. I’d be lying if I said they weren’t better. But better isn’t finished. I think sometimes people think better is finished.”
Burford wants the community — in Charlotte, regionally, nationally — to address a wider range of issues: racism, internalized homophobia, transgender inclusion and more. They are issues, he says, people aren’t hearing or talking about nearly enough. It’s one of the reasons why, this fall, he and others came together to present a series of community conversations and panels.
“I got tired of hearing people say no one was listening to them,” he says. “So, we are going to give people a chance to be heard and from that I hope we can build a plan. I think we need to work from a plan.”
That plan, Burford says, means collectively moving forward: “There’s enough people in this community, enough voices, enough talent and enough money for us to come together and come up with an idea of how we’d like to move forward,” he says. “It’s a shame in a town with this much influence and money and structure that we’re watching our infrastructure fall apart. It’s sad. It’s scary. I want us to do better.”
Talk to Burford for just a few minutes and his passion for grassroots change becomes easily apparent. So does his passion for history. He’ll tell you that exploring history is empowering, that it is the “anecdote” to our community’s two largest challenges — isolation and invisibility.
Burford’s leadership on these issues has been recognized once already this year. Readers who participated in this newspaper’s annual QList – Best of LGBT Charlotte voted him “Best LGBT Leader.” But that distinction doesn’t adequately qualify the level to which Burford’s accomplishments — despite his short time in Charlotte — have helped to transform local community conversations, priorities and history. And it’s all this work and commitment — at the archive, on his campus and everywhere in between — upon which qnotes is proud to name Joshua Burford our 2014 Person of the Year. : :