While much has been written about American LGBTQ history in New York City, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia since the 1990s, less attention has been given to the south – save places like Atlanta and Miami – until recently.

In Charlotte, efforts to collect local and print media history have been in place in the city over the past several years. As of last year, Columbia, South Carolina has taken the lead in the South Carolina region to give voice to LGBT history of the city and beyond. For those interested in learning, recalling or contributing to that history, the LGBT Columbia History Initiative is ready and waiting to share and collect stories of queer southern history.

Historic Columbia’s Roots

Nearly 60 years ago, a group of Columbia residents got together to form the area’s Historic Columbia Foundation. It all started with the goal of preserving a lone building, a 135-year-old mansion, known today as The Robert Mills House.

Like many houses of the sort, the home now serves as a museum with tours being offered and folks stopping by to learn more about the home, it’s original owner (Ainsley Hall) and the architect (Robert Mills) who built it.

Today, the city’s Historic Columbia Foundation has much more than the Mills house for history buffs and Columbia enthusiasts to discover and enjoy. The foundation has grown immensely and in a continuing effort to keep up with the times, now includes aspects of history its founders most likely could never have imagined.

To illuminate the experiences of Columbia residents in a diverse and inclusive manner, the LGBT Columbia History Initiative stepped up to the plate in 2019. At that time, the Historic Columbia Foundation partnered with the Queer Columbia Oral History & Digital Archive Project and the Harriet Hancock LGBT Center to lay the groundwork for the program. A mere two years later, and with financial support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the LGBT Columbia History Initiative was fully underway.

In connection with the University of South Carolina’s Department of Oral History and the South Carolina Library, the initiative serves as an interactive project which is described as “document[ing] the often unseen and untold stories of the LGBTQ+ community through the creation and dissemination of oral histories, historic site interpretation and archival collections.”

It’s no secret that LGBTQ individuals have existed and contributed to history and innovation since the beginning of time. Likewise, it’s also a well know fact that discrimination and oppression have long since silenced the voices of LGBTQ community members and the nuanced experiences of those individuals were fat too often muted and discounted.

For far too long, the existence and contributions of LGBTQ folks has been a whispered topic to be avoided, ridiculed, and left out of schoolbooks and mass media representation. In the not-so-distant past, when we finally did appear within these conversations, texts and media – we were shown in some insulting archetypal manner with offensive polarizing displays of us as flamboyant comic relief, pedophilic villains or tragic victims of homicide or suicide. That being said, this initiative is timely, relevant and appreciated by many as it strives to show and share the experiences of the LGBT community in all its diversity.

The LGBT Columbia History Initiative can serve as a wonderful educational tool and historical resource. One of the most intuitive and affirming components of the web-based initiative is how it allows subjects to define and speak for themselves. By showing value of oral history the project implicitly acknowledges  that for many marginalized communities, the passing down of stories verbally, from one generation to the next, is often the only way of documenting the lives of devalued citizens whose experiences were previously not recorded.

Historic Columbia’s LGBTQ History website landing page gives visitors the opportunity to read firsthand accounts of the history and lives of Columbia’s LGBTQ community. Upon arrival, site visitors will immediately be given the opportunity to engage with over 35 oral histories shared by participants of varied ages, races, orientations and gender identities. But they didn’t stop there. It’s how they did it that makes the experience so cool and interactive.

 On the Oral History pages, you’ll find profile photos, names and a paragraph quoting the pictured participant. Once you click the name of the contributor, you’ll automatically be directed to a page that provides a bio, the complete interview the quote was taken from and access to the audio version of the complete interview.

The interviews and discussed subject matter is as varied as the contributors. There’s commentary on coming out experiences, thoughts from a gay bar owner on the importance and camaraderie such safe spaces establishment can foster, talk about segregation within the LGBTQ community, reflections on how we handled the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic and more.

It’s important to point out the website is dedicated to how Columbia has been impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis and the area’s response, which was spearheaded by LGBTQ community members.

 For those who may not feel like they see themselves reflected in these oral histories or would like to contribute to the collection of stories, the Oral History page also allows LGBTQ Columbia residents to participate in the continued growth of this part of the initiative. There’s a menu link on the Oral History page so that anyone who is interested can contribute by scheduling an oral history interview of their own.

There’s no question, the initiative’s site is chock full of information that could literally keep a person on their laptop for days!  Riveting stories on the Gay History of the University of South Carolina, civil rights efforts and the relationship between female impersonators to Columbia’s Minstrel and Vaudeville Stages are readily available for perusal.  It makes no difference if you’re a native of Columbia, South Carolina or even a southerner – there are many fascinating stories to be found in Columbia’s LGBTQ community history.

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