New York City’s Stonewall riot in 1969 is widely regarded as the genesis of the modern LGBT rights movement. But resistance started here in Los Angeles with the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950, the nation's first homosexual political organization. Several members of the Mattachine, including devoted bibliophile and science fiction fan Jim Kepner, met to discuss creating a magazine for homosexuals. In November 1952 they formed ONE Inc. and in January 1953 published the first issue of ONE Magazine, which would become the first widely distributed publication for homosexuals in the United States.
An avid hoarder, Kepner’s collection included other individuals' most intimate possessions, often things their families would have destroyed. In 1994, ONE and Kepner's archive merged, becoming solely a repository for LGBTQ materials. Under the strong directorship of Joseph Hawkins, ONE’s unwavering mission to preserve rare documents that mainstream institutions have historically deemed uncollectable or lacking merit can be traced back to the pioneering spirit of Kepner, who was operating in a time when loving the wrong person could make you a criminal.
Today, ONE Archive is the oldest continuing LGBTQ organization in the United States and the largest repository of LGBTQ materials in the world. ONE encompasses a collection of two million items, including pathos-driven letters which give a poignant insight into the lives of gay Americans of yesteryear. “There’s a particular aspect of actually coming here and touching the hem of the skirt, so to speak, that makes it a completely different thing,” explains Hawkins. “Just touching the letters written on onionskin by Esther Herbert to her girlfriend Marvyl, you sense that these are from a long time ago and the penmanship is completely different; so it’s not only the fact that we are a repository it’s the idea that in coming here there is an almost spiritual experience of being able to connect yourself to something that is so far removed.”
In the digital age, when ‘likes’ matter more than letters, analog data is disappearing fast. The need to protect queer cultural memory is more important then ever. Standout letters include one sent by the U.S. government to two men who were applying for a visa in 1975 that uses the word “faggots”, which is horrifying enough. But the physical act of holding a cultural touchpoint in your hand is transformative. “When you're really touching documents that have deep meaning for you as a member of this culture, it transcends all things and makes you connected to that event in a way that I don't think anything else does,” says Hawkins.
What’s fascinating is the secret language and pennames that many queer authors were forced to cultivate to protect their identities. Jim Kepner, one of the founders of this institution, had “Dr Fecal de Chevaux” as one of his pennames, which in French means, “Dr Horseshit”. Bailey Whitaker, an African-American man who gave this organization its name, went by “Guy Rousseau” at the time. Edith Eyde, who created the first lesbian magazine “Vice Versa” in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, went under the penname “Lisa Ben”, an anagram for lesbian.
“They were not only making up names they were making fun of things,” explains Hawkins, who is currently studying early science fiction fan clubs in the United States. Eyde also served as secretary of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society under the name ‘Tigrina’. Her fan letters throw light on the allure of imaginary realms for LGBT folk in an era when publications addressing homosexuality were automatically deemed obscene under the Comstock Act until 1958. “One of the really fantastic things here is that many people had to have pseudonyms because you couldn't have the same name to go to work because you’d be blacklisted,” says Hawkins. Eyde produced Vice Versa secretly at her job as a secretary at Hollywood's RKO Studios. If caught she could have lost her job, been arrested, and had her life destroyed.
While the public is encouraged to visit the Archive, Hawkins is keen to point out that this is not an immediate experience. “There’s all this deciphering that has to go on. So they have to be willing to sit here for a while to get it and be respectful of the materials that they’re touching,” he says. “It takes a kind of romance to get the information out.” Also, be prepared for an intense emotional and physical reaction. For some visitors, the smell of glue that they haven’t smelt in 25 years or just the mustiness of old paper can be a transportive experience. For others it can trigger memories of a lonelier time when modes of entry into the gay world were limited. Pre-internet, often the only lifeline people had was the naughty section of the local bookstore, which opened up alternative universes of perception (and occasionally chance encounters). That sense of catharsis, stored in the palpable fibers of these materials, gets carried into the present. “This creates a safe space. Right after the elections, people came here and hung out because it seemed like they could just be.”
What’s so striking is that these letters, filled with longing, were never meant to be read. Indeed many of them were going to be thrown away and lost forever. “We are nothing, we are horrible people who are supposed to be thrown away, pushed out, ignored. This space is actually where you come to find out that’s not true at all,” says Hawkins. “We as a group of people have been banned from having our own heroes, our own forebears, our own great leaders. They've been erased from history. This place is to correct that erasure. We’re allowing people to find their history that has been taken away from them,” explains Hawkins. “Being here and being with that gives you a sense of the world that you just don't get any place else.”