“My deepest darkest secret is, I’m gay.” The line was read plainly but sincerely, a blunt and intimate confession that set the scene for the rest of the performance.
An immense variety of statements followed it, read by a cast of performers as diverse as the sentiments they conveyed: “Why couldn’t I have been born a woman?…I can’t believe it! I’m in love…I’ve been told Reagan’s brain is growing mold.”
From the auditorium of the Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library on the evening of Nov. 15, performers breathed new life into excerpts from LGBTQ journals kept by Queens College students from 1987 to 2017, in a special reading called Queering the Archives: Adapting LGBTQ Journals for the Stage.
The performance was a stirring tribute to the history of the queer community at Queens College, featuring three decades’ worth of community members exploring their identities and grappling with intense emotions and still finding the humor in it all. The entire script was derived directly from journals donated to the QC Special Collections and Archives (SCA), kept by members of QC’s Gender, Love, and Sexuality Alliance (GLASA), formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Union.
Throughout the decades, the journals were left open in the club room for members to write in whenever they chose to, about whatever they wanted to. Associate Director of the CUNY LGBTQIA+ Consortium and QC LGBTQIAA+ Programs Coordinator JC Carlson described the multifaceted nature of the journals:
“Like any good journal, there’s angst, there’s love, there’s loss, there’s ‘Oh my God, I’m panicking about my exam.’ They also became a place for students to just check in with each other. They would write in the journal, ‘Hi, I’ll be in the clubroom at 2 p.m. Meet me there.’ It just became a bulletin board of sorts,” Carlson said.
Funded by the CUNY LGBTQIA+ Consortium, the journals were adapted into a performance in collaboration with the “What Will the Neighbors Say?” theatre company, which has the mission of fighting for “a more empathetic world by presenting risky, provocative theatre” according to their website.
But before it took shape as a piece of theatre, the event initially came into being through a fellowship program existing in conjunction with the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, which tasks fellows with “processing collections of note and also trying to think beyond the processing of it,” according to QC SCA archivist Caitlin Waldron.
She explained that civil rights and social justice fellow Dani Stompor was tasked with processing the GLASA journals in the Spring 2023 semester; afterwards, the two of them began to work on access initiatives for the journals, including the LGBTQ Journal Party in spring 2023 that was attended by the “What Will the Neighbors Say?” theatre company, which subsequently sparked the idea of a staged reading of the journals.
“I quickly identified that there were a lot of moving entries that really made me feel like I was starting to cry. I really wanted to make sure that the journals wouldn’t just sit in a box where nobody could see them,” Stompor said.
After sifting meticulously through approximately 3,000 pages, Stompor narrowed them down to about 120 which they deemed most noteworthy and realistically stageable — they noted that there were a lot of doodles and illustrations in the journals that could not be easily conveyed on stage and thus had to be omitted.
“I tried to group the sections broadly,” they explained. “I tried to identify strains of something that one person may have said in 1991 that might speak to something that a student said in 2009.”
In one section, students passionately declared their love for other students, while they lamented their loneliness in another; the performance also featured sections in which students discussed their activism for the queer community, both on campus and on the national stage.
Waldron described the history of the queer community at QC, beginning with the Gay and Lesbian Union’s establishment in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis and just a few weeks before the creation of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an international grassroots political group that worked to end the AIDS pandemic.
“The first journals are the most lively and I would imagine there’s a lot of reasons for that,” she said. “There was this moment of rage and activism that was happening. You’ll see in the first journal especially a lot of AIDS activism being organized, like a lot of students in the club went to protest in the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.”
She also detailed histories more specific to QC that were documented in the journals, such as the coalition that formed between the Gay Lesbian Union and the Haitian Club after they were both denied the ability to give blood because of their respective increased risks of contracting HIV.
One of the last entries read in the performance served to emphasize a message connecting queer students throughout the decades:
“On a personal note, I want to encourage everyone to witness the gift we received from our sexuality. We mustn’t be frightened by the heterosexual majority into staying in our closets. We must come together, men and women, to show the world that we are intelligent, talented human beings, ready to offer much to this world,” the entry read.
Waldron remarked, “It’s hard to explain how much those journals mean to me as an archivist, as a lesbian archivist, as a person who went to Queens College — all of these things coming together. To me, it speaks to a continuance of time in a very special way.”
Waldron noted that the first five journals — spanning from 1987 to 1994 — are available online on JSTOR, and the rest can be found by appointment at the QC SCA. “The archives are first and foremost for use, and that includes undergraduates, graduates, and anyone from the Queens College community,” she said. “You’re students here; it’s your tuition. The resources are yours.”