Student project award: Reflections from Eric Gonzaba

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Wearing Gay History website, Screen Capture courtesy Adina Langer

Wearing Gay History website. Screen capture: Adina Langer

Every morning, we wake up and open our dressers or closets to find something to wear. If you’re anything like me, the selection is usually the first thing you grab as you wipe your heavy eyes and question whether it was worth staying up to watch an extra hour of Netflix the night before. Regardless of whether you put lots of effort into your daily wardrobe, it’s important to remember that our clothing is inherently political. Sure, our dress might be able to identify our class or gender, but it also has the ability to show the world much more about a person. Take for example message t-shirts, which can often provoke anger, support, or laughter at a given cause. My project Wearing Gay History attempts to document and explore LGBT history through wearable textiles, particularly the common t-shirt.

Why t-shirts? It certainly seems like an odd choice, given that the t-shirt did not become a popular dress item until the late twentieth century. Our queer past stretches back centuries (even millennia), and an archive on mostly t-shirts fails to encapsulate the full range of LGBT experiences. Yet, by focusing on these relatively modern, inexpensive garments, I hope to stress the incredible diversity of LGBT culture that developed over the past four decades, a transformative time period for LGBT people across the globe.

Wearing Gay History began as a final project in the introductory digital methods course for George Mason University history doctoral students, popularly known as CLIO I. I traveled to the Chris Gonzalez Library and Archives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and photographed their extensive collection of more than 300 LGBT activist t-shirts. I had worked with the collection before as an undergraduate student at Indiana University, where I created a small exhibit on the history of LGBT Hoosiers. After the course ended, I partnered with fellow GMU graduate student Amanda Regan to revamp the site, working to make it more user friendly and aesthetically inviting to visitors. Amanda’s impressive theme design draws guests in, allowing them to explore the history of queer t-shirts through multiple avenues, most prominently through themes, exhibits, and a map feature. After numerous visits to LGBT archives across the country following the completion of the course, the site now includes over 3,000 textiles from archives located in ten US cities.

What drew me to these garments was their vivid connection to everyday people. Historians use all kinds of sources to analyze the past, from diaries and letters to maps and photographs. But few things are more close and intimate to an in-the-past person than the clothing they chose to wear. This is especially true for LGBT people, who are often stigmatized as being part of a hidden, underground culture, their private lives often considered too eccentric to discuss openly. Wearing Gay History’s collection squashes these stereotypes of a culture fully relegated into a closet. In fact, the thousands of t-shirts on the site prove that queer people often kept those closet doors wide open.

The National Council for Public History’s award announcement for Wearing Gay History stressed the site’s focus on documenting histories of activism. The word activism often conjures images of student sit-ins or Marches on Washington, but activism is defined much more broadly on Wearing Gay History. Many of the t-shirts do indeed cover political issues, like the campaign to stop the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California public schools. However, the t-shirts also derive from community picnics, places of worship, music events, and even LGBT bowling leagues. Their diversity suggests not a hidden, closeted, ashamed subculture but rather a thriving and dynamic community unashamed to wear their queer hearts on their sleeves.

NCPH’s recognition of Wearing Gay History is a huge honor. It’s a testament to NCPH’s mission of supporting historians striving to make history accessible. As Wearing Gay History grows, I hope the site continues to serve as a constant invitation to see the past in new ways.

Eric Gonzaba is a doctoral student in American history at George Mason University. He received his BA in history and political science from Indiana University in 2012 and his MA in history and women and gender studies from George Mason University in 2014. His research interests revolve around the cultural politics of race and gender in late 20th-century America, particularly 1970s African American and queer nightlife.

Editor’s note: This post continues the History@Work tradition of honoring winners of NCPH’s annual awards. Eric Gonzaba is the 2016 winner of the NCPH Student Project Award. This award recognizes the contributions of student work to the field of public history.

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