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BC's Gay&Lesbian Archives

by Kaschelle Thiessen

Image shows yellowed newsprint depicting a young person seated on the ground in a fabulous get up, feathered head piece, pearls, movie star sunglasses and wedding dress, surrounded by people's legs
Image shows yellowed newsprint depicting a young person seated on the ground in a fabulous get up, feathered head piece, pearls, movie star sunglasses and wedding dress, surrounded by people's legs  (Source:Rick Loughron )

Unlike other cultural ties that bind us, queer people often don't share our identities with our parents. Our parents are seldom the keepers of our stories: they do not hold photographs and histories, nor tales of our ancestors. We discover our brethren in bars and message boards, learn our culture in nightclubs and our language in queer spaces, attempting to excise the heterosexisim and hatred we internalized before we found ourselves, and each other. The multitude of ephemera which contains the richness of our lived experience has been lost by the straight scientists, doctors and academics who have scrutinized, studied, and documented their perception of our lives. Enter Ron Dutton, the curator of British Columbia's Gay & Lesbian Archives, who has been collecting our histories in his West End apartment as an act of social justice for the last forty-one years.

Ron speaks to the danger of allowing our stories to be told by academics or the straight world, saying "we know historically that has not been benign." He speaks also to the historical erasure of further marginalized voices within queer movements and the tendency for any coverage of queer lives to center on the stories of middle class white gay men. "That's why we have to tell our story," declares Ron, "nobody else is going to tell it for us." In 1976, as a librarian and trained archivist, Ron made the decision to start collecting everything that comes through his hands in a cardboard box under his bed. From the day he began, Ron made a commitment to seek out materials from outside the dominant gay men's liberation movement. "Old people, young people, ethnic minorities, women, immigrants, prisoners," he lists, "all kinds of marginalized people don't turn up in the newspapers." Thus began Ron's role as an archivist as means of social activism. "I believe that these sorts of services have a political role in the culture, and that the recovery and preservation in the history of marginalized people is fundamentally important for the whole of the culture." With this central belief as a foundation for his work, Ron has worked backwards collecting historical records of queer lives dating back to the 1700's, lovingly tended in his guest bedroom.

Ron Dutton's apartment manages to be both warm and inviting while also meticulously tidy. The guest room houses three quarters of a million documents, from VHS cassettes and protest pins to news clippings and meeting minutes. The archives shy away from nothing; alongside records of Drag performances are films entitled Surfer Dick, Kink, and curiously Blending Milk and Water : Sex In The New World. "It's the kind of stuff historians don't see because it isn't," and here Ron makes derisive air quotes with his hands, "respectable history." Ron therefore leaves nothing out, making no presumptions as to value or propriety of the material he archives. From the struggle of activists on the street to wet t-shirt contests at The Odyssey to child molestation trials in the courts, "if it's about us, it gets covered. The good, the bad, the ugly, the frivolous, and so on." In doing so, Ron has combated the tendency for the blind spots of straight academics to dictate what they believe is important about our lives. "My job is to ensure that we don't lose our story through neglect." Due to Ron's steadfast commitment to preserving our stories, queer people today have a way to access the stories of our ancestors. "We've been the outcasts, and the outlaws, and the outrageous," says Ron. We are now also the remembered.

Anyone needing to do research, or who would like to donate materials that illustrate our history, can contact Ron at 604-669-5978 or at rondutton@shaw.ca

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