Looking to the past to create a ‘better future’: Queer Archives Project shares alumni stories of ‘bravery’

The Queer Archives Project features a quilt on their website made by Liza Roos Prior Lucy ’74 in 2010 in honor of the 40th anniversary of co-education at Lafayette College. (Photo courtesy of the Queer Archives Project)

In 1992, the Princeton Review named Lafayette College the number one most homophobic college in America. Now, faculty and students are working hard to change that narrative by sharing stories of queer-identifying alumni from their experiences in college and afterwards.

The Queer Archives Project (QAP) launched last April after years of preparation. The project is a digital site dedicated to honoring the identities and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community through the stories and reflections of the people who have lived Lafayette’s queer history, according the website’s welcome page.

The project grew out of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies professor Mary Armstrong’s 2014 class “Sexuality Studies.” While researching sexuality at the college, students began to build an archive that had been missing from the college’s history until that point: its queer history.

The archives grew into an oral history project in 2016, when Armstrong and her team began conducting interviews on LGBTQ+ Lafayette alumni after successful launch parties at homecoming and a New York City Pride event for LGBTQ+ Lafayette alumni.

Now, Armstrong works with the college’s Special Collections & College Archives and Digital Scholarship Services, as well as student researchers, to continuously add to the website, interviewing alumni and organizing the interviews by themes and keywords so that the website can be explored in many ways, such as examining all interviews pertaining to sports or Greek life. 

Bec Stargel ‘20, a student researcher on the project, said that one of their favorite parts about QAP is how it “breaks the narrative that either Lafayette just started to have a queer history one day or that things are perfect now, kind of exploring that queer people have always been at Lafayette and improvements that have been made but also the vast things that still happen and the ways to go.”

Kelsey Moum ‘21, a current EXCEL scholar on the project, said it is very cool that Lafayette is sponsoring the project because it is “in critique of Lafayette’s own history.”

“Because [QAP] looks into facts of Lafayette’s past that were not favorable, we can learn from the past to create a better future, which I think is very cool, it’s very powerful,” Moum added.

Armstrong said she is able to find people to interview for QAP through alumni relations and word of the project spreading throughout the queer community.

“The LGBTQ alumni community has not ever been formally recognized until this project came along. We were miles behind other liberal arts colleges nationally, in terms of reaching out to alumni that in fact as an institution have not treated well, and sometimes with real hostility,” Armstrong said. “It’s slow work building that community, but we have been lucky in that alumni relations has helped us connect…We’ve had people contact us and sign up for interviews.”

“One thing I really take away from this as I do these interviews is over and over again, the…incredible bravery of the LGBT community and the incredible generosity that they would come back and talk to Lafayette after the kind of four years that many of them had at this college,” Armstrong said.

Elaine Stomber, the College Archivist, works on the oral history component project with Armstrong managing the transcript editing process. 

“This project has been one of the most rewarding in my 30 years as an archivist. Our interviewees share powerful and inspiring stories that need to be heard by the Lafayette community,” Stomber wrote in an email. “I am proud of how the QAP supports our students’ research in new and exciting ways, documents underrepresented LGBTQ+ voices in the College Archives, and encourages a more inclusive campus community.”

Stargel said that they have enjoyed learning about the history of the student organization Quest, of which they have been on the board since their sophomore year.

“I keep noticing how hard every inch of progress was fought for by students and faculty,” Stargel said. “All we can really see is the context of the four years we’re here, so I think [QAP] has really helped me both realize all of the progress that has come from students before me…and also recognizing the impacts that people can have and the importance of continuing to push forward.”

In the future, Director of Scholarship Services Charlotte Nunes expressed interest in conducting text analyses of oral history transcripts that might illuminate aspects of queer history at the college, honoring the integrity of unique individual narratives while also exploring patterns that emerge, she wrote in an email.

“Especially with the introduction of the new Data Science Minor on campus, I look forward to the library supporting opportunities for students to use computational methods to explore oral history collections like the QAP,” Nunes wrote.

“There’s a lot to learn about American queer history largely of course. On a micro level, Lafayette’s queer history is very significant and can be more significant in our education as a whole,” Moum said.

Stargel expressed a fear that the college may use QAP to display a positive attitude towards LGBTQ+ rights without acknowledging the past.

“There’s sometimes the co-opting of diversity… I don’t think it’s happened so far, but there’s a little bit of a worry for me of people looking at the queer archives project as proof that Lafayette is not homophobic or that Lafayette is perfect and amazing…rather than recognizing that Queer Archives Project is actually a tool for not only embracing the good parts of Lafayette but also critically challenging Lafayette to do better,” Stargel said.

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