Fast-forwarding through history: reflections from a researcher

by Kristi Hagen (WU Class of 2018)

I joined the Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis Project in the fall of 2016, kicking off my work with a tour of the Central West End with Ian Darnell. I’m currently a junior majoring in anthropology, and minoring in history. I had taken Queer Histories with Professor Friedman my freshman year, which helped me in looking at the work involved in this project.

For the first part of my research, I went through the Gay News-Telegraph to record the spaces used by LGBTQ people. This helped give me a clearer picture of St. Louis LGBTQ history. As I focused on the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was hard not to get affected at seeing the rise of AIDS, even documented in a supposedly impersonal source as a newspaper. There were articles about the latest research, of outrage at the administration, listings of new organizations, pictures of the Memorial Quilt, and ads and obituaries taken out by friends of those who passed. While my goal was to write down the locations in which events and organizations met, I found myself time and time again drawn into these pieces of history.

The Gay News-Telegraph, 1981

Going through many years of the same newspaper is like fast-forwarding through history. I saw elections pass, community events and celebrations held, movies and books discussed, and organizations formed. I knew some of the outcomes ahead of the writers (no, Michael Dukakis will not become president) and at the same time was surprised by much more.

I then started working on gathering information on coverage of Miss Fannie’s Ball, which was a drag ball in the African American community held on Halloween night. My work involved looking at three of St. Louis’ black newspapers (the Sentinel, the Argus, and the American) around the time of Halloween, every year between 1950 and 1980. This was the first time I ever used microfilm, and I quickly grew to love the sound of the rewind and fast-forward. It felt like I was going on a quest through history, trying to find an advertisement, an article, or a photograph. Boredom can come up as you go through the motions of putting in microfilm, only to find no coverage that year. And so the years when there was a photo or an ad were all the more exciting.

1960 advertisement for Miss Fannie’s Ball, from the St. Louis Argus newspaper

Through this research, I came to better understand the relationship between the wider African American  community and the black LGBTQ subculture. The fact that the event was covered at all, and was always covered in a positive light, suggests that the relationship was more complex than that of outright homophobia from the black community. In the end, I came away with a more nuanced understanding of what social life was like during this time period.

 

About the author

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