Harlem Archive Collects Past Stories of Those Who Wrestled With Their Sexuality
By Winnie Hu
When she finally told her father, all he could say was “that cannot be; you need a man to take care of you and protect you,” she recalled. They never spoke of it again.
Ms. Thompson, now 65, is part of a new oral history project in Harlem that captures the experiences of 13 pioneers in New York City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Their stories tell of the hardship and discrimination they faced within their own families at a time when expressing their sexuality was neither encouraged nor accepted.
All of those interviewed for the project are black, and range in age from 52 to 83. They include a transgender woman who was once homeless and took female hormone shots on the street and a transgender man who was shunned by co-workers after they learned of his medical history. Another man was taunted as gay by his sisters long before he moved to New York and came out.
Their stories will be shared Tuesday night at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library system. The project will become a permanent part of the center’s “In the Life Archive,” a trove of thousands of books, photographs, original manuscripts and other works produced by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers. “In the Life” refers both to a phrase used for those lifestyles in black culture, and to the title of a 1986 anthology of black gay writers that was edited by Joseph Beam.
The new oral history project grew out of a February visit to the “In the Life Archive” by a group from a Harlem center for older adults run by Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders, known as SAGE. As they pored over the historical materials, many of them saw their own pasts. There were exclamations of “Oh, I remember this place.” One man even picked himself out in a photo.
Steven G. Fullwood, an assistant curator who started the collection in 1999, said the visitors’ memories helped bring to life a period of social and political upheaval, particularly from the 1960s through the 1980s. He added that those years had not been as well represented in the collection as more recent decades because many of those who might have contributed are no longer around, victims of AIDS, among other things.
The resulting project was completed in six weeks on a budget of $2,500, paid by the New York Public Library and SAGE. Mr. Fullwood and Peter Wright, a program coordinator at the SAGE center, spent hours recording the interviews themselves because they could not afford to hire anyone. The participants, all volunteers, each received a $25 gift card and a MetroCard to cover travel expenses. In addition, they will be presented with recordings and transcripts of their interviews.
At the SAGE center last week, some of the participants shared their stories. Jimmy Harris, whose sisters used to taunt him even though he dated girls, gave his age as “over 65.” One of 10 children in a poor, multiracial family, Mr. Harris moved to New York from Kentucky and flourished. He became the companion of a wealthy gay man who used to take him to the Plaza Hotel for dinner and shows. Later, at a gay bar in Greenwich Village, he met another man who became his partner for 31 years. Tall and charming, Mr. Harris worked as a legal secretary on Wall Street, a court reporter, and then as an actor and a singer. “Life opened up for me in every way,” he said.
But others struggled, and still do.
Tanya Asapansa-Johnson Walker, 52, said she became a transgender woman after serving three years as an Army specialist. She said she was physically threatened by men, and had to resort to what she called “survival sex work” because no one would hire her. She once squatted in an abandoned building on Staten Island, and used to get female hormone shots on the street with shared syringes. “It shows the gritty side of transitioning in the ’90s,” she said. “We had nothing.”
Though Ms. Walker has a small, rent-stabilized apartment today, she lives on $1,000 a month in Social Security disability benefits. Most of the other transgender women she knows are barely getting by, she said. Ms. Walker, who speaks about her experiences to community groups and others, added that while “some progress has been made, we have a long way to come.”
Mr. Wright, who goes by the nickname Souleo, said that he had expected more people to volunteer for the oral history project but found that some were wary of digging up painful memories. Mr. Wright, 29, who is black and gay, said that hearing the stories of those who did participate was inspiring, and underscored that big victories like marriage equality could not have been won without the day-to-day struggles of those who came before.
“I think the importance for me was having voices that have been oppressed given a platform and showing that the L.G.B.T. experience is more than just what we see today,” he said.
For Alex Gilliam, 55, the project was a chance to call attention to transgender men who he said were often overlooked. Mr. Gilliam blends in so well that his co-workers did not know he was transgender until a doctor’s office faxed his medical records to his workplace. Afterward, some of them started avoiding him, he said.
“I wait for the day when all this is not really necessary because I don’t see what the kerfuffle is all about,” he said. “All transmen want is job security, health care and just your basic human rights.”
Ms. Thompson, a retired nurse and social worker, said she wanted her experience to give hope to women who, like her, might have come to terms with their homosexuality later in life. Though her father, who died in 2013, never did accept that she was gay, her own son and daughter and her four grandchildren have, she said.
“I felt for the first time that I was at home with my sexuality,” she said. “All the boyfriends, gone.”