what's the deal with queer archives?

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why are archives important?

Archives are a messy answer to a messy world. Left to their own devices, the artifacts of human life on Earth will rot. Books become musty and brittle, old CDs and vinyls scratch up, buildings and statues reduce to rubble in the wake of natural disasters. The entropy of the universe is always increasing, and mitigating this tendency toward disorder and decay requires some input of energy. The institution of archives - physical repositories for historical documents and materials - emerged at least as early as the third millennium BCE to combat this natural inclination to crumble, fade, disappear. For thousands of years and across the globe, a significant amount of labor has been directed towards not only the maintenance of old artworks and essays and stone tools and toasters and feather boas and YouTube videos, but also to the organization of those materials such that they continue to be discoverable and useful to new generations of human beings. The desire to archive is born from an anxiety: that which we do not intentionally remember will be forgotten, gone without a trace.

But the archive is fraught; it has never captured all of the objects of human creation, nor has it tried. There's not enough space (and very arguably, no reason) to hold every poem or mixtape or note scribbled on a napkin. And so archives make choices, and more often than not, those choices are dictated by patterns of power and oppression. History is not only written by the victors, as the saying goes, but also collected and stored for safekeeping by the victors. As such, the historical activity by straight, white, rich, able-bodied, cismen is well-documented, and much of the evidence of historical activity by nearly everyone else has been, to put it generously, the victim of entropy.

As historian Howard Zinn describes it, the power of archives is not "the politicization of a neutral craft, but the humanizing of an inevitably political craft" (Zinn 1997: 20). Even as archival activism has broadened the scope of who and what should be archived, the nature of the work is to curate, to include some things and not others, and to organize and embed what one has such that it is accessible.

ok, but what about queer archives?

The words "queer" and "trans" have evolved over time to describe those who are not heterosexual and not cisgender, respectively. These categories are loose and ever-destabilized, but they have emerged as the most useful ones at our disposal, at least for now. In a basic sense, queer and trans are leveraged as umbrella terms over the so-called "alphabet soup" of sexual and gender identity labels. "LGBTQQIP2SA" is the longest initialism I've seen written out - standing for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, pansexual, two spirit, asexual" - and it still doesn't encapsulate the full range of non-normative sexualities and gender expressions.

However useful "queer" and "trans" are to us as makers and users of archives, their usefulness is new. "Queer" was reclaimed from its pejorative origins by activists as a deliberately ambiguous alternative to the more defined lesbian, gay, bisexual identity labels. "Transgender" was first used in the 1960s, but wasn't popularized until the 1990s. This being the case, these new words are used in archives to describe old materials that don't identify themselves as such, and to link previously unconnected papers and objects. Of trans archives, K.J. Rawson says "Physical archives have always contained traces of transgender phenomena, albeit with varying degrees of intentionality. Prior to the development of 'transgender' as a discrete identity, a variety of state-sponsored materials--dress code laws, police documents, immigration reports, homicide records--provide a glimpse of the troubled meetings between gender-nonconforming people and the social and legal mechanisms that have attempted to define, control, and dictate gender norms." The process of building a queer or trans archive does not only include the intake of the un-archived, but the scouring of the already-archived for previously untapped meanings. Queer and trans archives demand a rearticulation of what we already have, and a reimagining of historical lineages.

That much of the few records of queer and trans life come in the form of phobic institutional documents is unfortunately telling: homophobia and transphobia have not only hidden these narratives in the dusty nooks and crannies of the historical record, they have also, both literally and metaphorically, killed them off, burned them down, erased them from our collective memory. Unaccepting parents, close-minded employers, schoolyard bullies, murderous bigots, and internalized self-hate have forced queer and trans people to hide a double life, live on the streets with few personal possessions, or die young - by killing themselves or being killed. Archives become an urgent confrontation with trauma, a jigsaw puzzle negotiation of presence and absence.

Archives of queer and trans history and cultural production emerged to collect and organize what has been ignored by record keepers. But to do so requires labor-intensive revisitations, warpings of first impressions, careful and justice-oriented search and rescues. But this work is imperfect: we can't revisit what was never collected, we can't collect what has already been destroyed. Archives are imperfect, but they are experiments in recuperations and blueprints for future practices.