A Research Experience

by Wendy Lu (WU Class 2018)

As a research assistant on the Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis Project, I have been conducting archival research in the Special Collections Department here on Washington University’s campus. I’ve been going through several boxes from the ACLU of Eastern Missouri and researching a legal challenge against the St. Louis “masquerading” ordinance from the 1980’s. Ordinance 15.30.010 of the Revised Code of the City of St. Louis prohibits people from appearing either in “a state of nudity or in a dress not belonging to his or her sex or in an indecent or lewd dress” and was ultimately overturned due to the ACLU’s challenge.

There have been several things I’m getting used to while working as part of the research team. This is the first time I’ve worked on a project where information can be added after the original deadline and still be of use to anyone other than me. When working on a deadline, sometimes I have to prioritize finishing over the depth of research I might prefer. I like being able to know all the little details of whatever it is I’m studying, and with the “masquerading” ordinance case, I’ve been taking a while to go through all the files because all the information is so interesting and I want to have all the information available for analysis later! However, in the past when I have had research papers due for class that I have not been able to research as thoroughly as I would like, I just turned in a paper that was more limited in scope and then went back and did more research just for fun. With this project, it’s been nice because I can remind myself that what nitty-gritty details I don’t get to cover in this stage of the project might still get covered in additions to the website after the online-launch in the fall.

newspaper clipping

1984 Article from St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper about enforcement of the law

This has also been the first time I’ve been doing research where there are ethical issues to consider. I’ve never done a research project that exposes me to sensitive information like I have on this project, and I really appreciate having the feedback of the professors and other researchers on the project because I had not considered that certain kinds of information cannot ethically be published in a research project! Information like medical records and booking photos (“mugshots”) are personal and sensitive, and researchers have to consider the implications of making that information readily available to the public. Especially because medical and police records are over-represented in LGBT history, given that these institutions generate the bulk of existing records pertaining to LGBT folk.

The idea that this is not an individual project I am doing, and instead will hopefully span several years and dozens of researchers is so exciting in that the research I am doing now is part of a bigger project. As much as I am currently enjoying working as a research assistant on this project now, I am looking forward to being able to read about what other undergraduate researchers have helped find years after I have left the project.

About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.