After what seems an eternity of global pandemics, social upheaval, and constant economic pressure, the second convening of the Queer History South conference begins in Dallas at the end of September.
I remember talking with friend and colleague Barbara Lau at the Pauli Murray Center at Duke in 2014 about how difficult the work of locating queer history was for the both of us. After several cups of coffee and a laundry list of connections between the both of us, we decided to try and gather people together to see if it would be possible to work together to make LGBTQ history more accessible to queer and trans people from all over the South. And then North Carolina’s very conservative legislature decided it would be a great time to discriminate against our trans siblings. I imagined that the ephemeral effort to make this important meeting happen would disappear, never to be seen again.
Then in late 2018, my colleague and co-founder of Invisible Histories Project Maigen Sullivan and I started talking about what a great idea this conference would be if we could pull it together. Our work with Invisible Histories Project is to locate, preserve, exhibit, and research LGBTQ Southern History. This conference seemed like the perfect place to bring our burgeoning network of people together to see if the work could expand. Four months and many stressful days later we brought together 120 practitioners of LGBTQ history from all over the South.
The conference was old school grassroots with borrowed equipment, food discounts provided by friends, lots of volunteers, and the excitement of what this conference could mean for all of us. We had academics from large state schools, archivists working in rural communities, undergraduate students with a passion for the work, and a host of community people who came to share their stories, their wins and losses, and individuals who had been working on their own in their own communities to preserve stories of friends, lovers, lost family members, and joys they had experienced.
What we learned from the first Queer History South is that when siloed and alone the work was rewarding but difficult. When we were all together these stories of difficulty became points of connection that bonded us across state lines and occupations. Together we had the power of experience, knowledge of our own communities, the desire to trade information and support, and the drive to see our work not only continue but grow into something that we couldn’t even imagine.
People from rural West Virginia, Atlanta, coastal North Carolina, the Texas plains, and the bayous of Louisiana had more than just shared struggle, we had the gift of a piece of the puzzle and the desire to put all the pieces together to support work in places that we had never heard of.
Queer History South in a way became an anti-conference because we wanted to make a place that was open to everyone regardless of economic status, university affiliation, or years in the field. We wanted a place to share the work and push each other to think critically and act efficiently to make sure that not one more story was lost to the passage of time. What we all had in common was an understanding of how powerful the work was that we were doing and by doing it together we all came one step closer to our goal of making history of LGBTQ people across the South that much more accessible for everyone.
What started as a conversation between two colleagues in 2014 at a coffee shop in Durham has grown to become a network of 500 plus people who seek to preserve, challenge, and protect the ever evolving history of the LGBTQ South.
Queer History South isn’t just a conference to congratulate ourselves on our hard work, this convening is a chance to share the work and to inspire people with any interest in the queer and trans South. Queer History South is a way to push back against the notion that there isn’t an LGBTQ history of the American South.
We have grown from a very modest group of people meeting in Birmingham to this year’s conference being held in one of the largest cities in Texas. Our trip to Dallas this year marks a next step in our shared vision to keep the network alive with ideas, to shore up those people who need help, and to challenge the next generation of queer and trans scholars to dream a future that includes our history and our liberation.
Having a large Queer conference in this climate in a state like Texas seems risky to some, but for us we see it as a nod to what we have always done as queer and trans Southerners. We are taking back space that we already inhabit and showing how powerful we are when we all come together with a shared vision. I hope that as Queer History South continues to grow we will pick up people all along the way. Who knows, perhaps Charlotte would become a host for a future conference and that dream that manifested in a coffee shop in Durham will come true, just a few years later than we planned.
Josh Burford is a co-founder and Lead Archivist for the Invisible Histories Project based in Birmingham Alabama. IHP is working in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Florida panhandle to preserve LGBTQ Southern History. Josh lived in Charlotte for 7 years and helped to build the King-Henry-Brockington Collection of Charlotte’s LGBTQ history that now resides in the J. Murray Atkins Special Collections Library at UNC Charlotte. This archival collection is open to the public so please visit anytime.