Carolina Pride Alumni Network, UNC Libraries. (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.)

As LGBTQ Pride Month wrapped up last week, gay people in North Carolina are more visible than they have been in generations – holding parades and celebrations in the biggest cities across the country. state and its small towns, embraced by big business and celebrated in government proclamations.

However, June was also a tumultuous month for LGBTQ people in North Carolina. Even though transgender people in the state have won important legal victories, they have been targeted by state legislation and local GOP officials. Meanwhile, right-wing masked protesters attempted to shut down drag queen storytime events at libraries and private businesses.

These latest events are indicative of an environment that LGBTQ advocates say reflects the mainstreaming of extremist beliefs and the political scapegoating of queer communities.

This month, a new online exhibit from UNC-Chapel Hill University Libraries illuminates the true history of LGBTQ people at the state’s university system’s flagship school.

“Queerolina: Experiences of Place and Space through Oral Histories” is part of the larger “Story of Us” archival project launched by the Carolina Pride Alum Network. It includes an interactive map of campus and surrounding areas, with markers that activate the stories of LGBTQ alumni in their own voice.

Filling historical gaps and shedding light

Hooper Schultz, the doctoral student and oral historian who helped organize the exhibit, said the project helps fill important gaps in Carolina history that are all too common.

“Historically, in archival collections like at Wilson Library or elsewhere, the fact that someone was gay was often hidden — it was something that was considered embarrassment,” Hooper told Policy Watch this week.

Hooper Schultz

“Sometimes the family or the library itself would restrict these recordings or not label them as queer. So there’s a whole story that’s there, but it’s not apparent unless you know who to tell.

The exhibit’s oral histories date back to before World War II through interviews with former students conducted by Chris McGinnis in the 1990s and early 2000s. LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff had to stay in the closet or risk expulsion, firing, or even jail. But it was equally important to shine a light on the stories of queer people coming together and their community in Carolina, Schultz said.

“I think there’s this idea of ​​the abject queer person before 1995 or whatever year you want to say, where queer people really existed and were miserable and trying to escape to the city,” he said. Schultz said. “And it really is. You have stories of gay people in Tarboro in 1945. As a historian, I’m always aware of this, that we need to present the people we study as well-rounded, fully human, not a flattened image.

Too much of queer history is a document of persecution and adversity, Schultz said. While that is part of the story, he said, it is not enough.

“To focus only on what was and is wrong does not do justice to my community, nor does it do justice to the University of North Carolina,” Schultz said. It’s important to say ‘yes, there were people who were unmasked at university, who had horrible experiences of injustice’. But there were also people who were from somewhere else in North Carolina who could come to college and hang out. Many years ago he had that reputation and they had that experience. It is very important for this project.

Find a community

Alum Michael Williams tells one such story of finding community in Carolina in one of the stories in the 1991 exhibit.

During the interview process for the Teaching Fellows program, Williams said he was going to choose NC State as his favorite school. Then a friend who was a year ahead of him, a freshman at Chapel Hill, came back to visit their old high school and told him about the campus.

“And she said, telling me what Chapel Hill was like, ‘Well, there’s so many queers they’re practically having orgies in The Pit,'” Williams recalled.

“Well, I didn’t know what The Pit was, and I had never seen the UNC Chapel Hill campus before in my life,” Williams said. “But the following weekend, in the last interview, that last question was, ‘Do you want to change anything in your school choice ranking?’ And I said, “Yes, I would like to put UNC Chapel Hill at the top of my list. My number one favorite school. Just on that basis alone.

“I just thought, if there are so many Queer and proud people at UNC Chapel Hill, that this woman, who has become a raging right-wing homophobe, and is no longer a friend – very quickly quit to be a friend once. I went to college, actually – if she’s able to see this happening, and it’s happening so much she feels the need to comment on it, 250 miles away, I have to get to this place.

Gay youth finding a more supportive environment in university and college towns is still common, Schultz said, and is an especially important part of gay history in the South.

“There were a number of colleges in the south – Athens with UGA, VCU in Richmond, the University of Texas in Austin, where in the beginning the Gay Liberation Front organization performed and students moved to those towns with the expectation that it’s a liberal college town,” Schultz said. “We certainly saw that with Jesse Helms saying you didn’t need a zoo, you could just put a fence around Chapel Hill.”

Helms began speaking out against the increased visibility of gay people on campus in the 1960s through a syndicated newspaper column, Schultz said, before his rise to political power as a U.S. senator.

“In the 1960s, you start to see things like the Human Sexuality Information Counseling organization on the UNC campus,” Schultz said. “At that point, you see an opening to the existence of queer people in North Carolina.”

allies and adversaries

Some prominent modern political figures — including North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and current UNC system chairman Peter Hans — fought to defund LGBTQ groups in Carolina during their student stay there.

It’s important for modern gay youth to see the repeated scapegoating of LGBTQ people as a political tactic, Schultz said, but also that the community has always pushed through it.

“It’s important to realize that many of these same people were trying to defund campus women’s groups, the Black Student Movement and the Carolina Gay Association at the same time,” Schultz said. “It has less to do with their visibility and more to do with the fact that the state gives them funds and that people invested in a straight, white, patriarchal state are going to oppose these things.”

But the queer history at Carolina is also one of the important allies, Schultz said.

“An interesting part of UNC’s long history is how the Dean of Students, Dean [Donald] Bolton, was an extremely consistent ally of gay students in the second half of the 20th century,” he said. “Time and time again you see the dean writing letters to corporations and legislatures and worrying about how these students had the right to have these organizations on campus. That wasn’t happening on every campus in 1975. That’s one of the reasons you have some of the oldest LGBT student groups in the nation at UNC.

Schultz said he hopes LGBTQ alumni will finally see themselves as part of the university’s documented history through the project — and that it will be something for current and future students as well.

“Obviously it’s important for queer people to be proud of who they are,” he said. “Narratives that portray people as deviant and potentially dangerous to children are extremely harmful to young people. A big part of this project for me is what I would have liked to see as a young queer growing up in North Carolina. Presenting a presence on the UNC campus, showing these incredible myriads of queer people who have passed through the UNC campus.

Schultz points to George Chauncey, the American history professor at Columbia who recently became the first scholar of LGBTQ history to win the Library of Congress’ prestigious Kluge Humanities Prize.

“He talks about how you can see who matters and who doesn’t matter in America by looking at our historical accounts,” Schultz said. “To present something that says that gay people are not this anathema, this dangerous group, but rather we are gay people and we are part of your communities, we are here and we have always been here – it is important .”