Explore LGBTQ stories in Midwestern and rural America in Out in Rural America, which airs on WTTW and at wttw.com/live Thursday, June 24 at 9:30 pm. Plus, stream Out & Proud in Chicago, a history of Chicago’s LGBTQ communities.
You don’t expect to see an outrageously sized fabric tongue greet you from between sparkly plastic lips when you enter the staid shelves of an archive. Nor do you expect to hear the director of a library and archive explain that he once cleaned accumulated smoke and dirt off said tongue, “somewhat ironically with a toothbrush and soapy water. It’s sort of like the Sistine Chapel, same thing.”
The insouciant mouth used to hang in Carol’s Speakeasy, a legendary Old Town gay bar opened by the “mother of all drag queens,” Mother Carol, who was known for brashly sticking out her tongue. Now it is located in the Gerber/Hart Library and Archives, which collects and preserves items, papers, and books related to the culture and history of LGBTQ peoples in Chicago and the Midwest. “I don’t know how they got around the Rolling Stones trademark,” jokes Wil Brant, the director of Gerber/Hart, of the Carol’s tongue.
Located in Edgewater above a clinic of the LGBTQ-focused Howard Brown Health, Gerber/Hart contains about 160 collections in an estimated thousand linear feet of shelving, according to Brant. That’s in addition to the library, which has more than 24,000 volumes available to check out from its circulating collection. And it’s all still growing: Brant says the institution is running out of space, and will move in the next three or so years to a larger location, which will be its fifth.
All of that room is taken up by a wide range of materials, from the performance attire of a female impersonator to collections of photographs to periodicals, personal papers, posters, films of Pride Parades, women’s and gay liberation music, and much more. “We have comic books, merchandise catalogs, book catalogs, zines, pins, buttons, matchbooks, games, calendars, T-shirts,” lists Brant. Asked to name something in the collection that he finds especially fascinating, he answers, “The last neat thing I found is what is most interesting to me right now.” There’s plenty to find.
Gerber/Hart was founded 40 years ago, in 1981. It is named after two pioneering LGBTQ Chicagoans: Henry Gerber, who founded the United States’ first gay rights organization, and Pearl M. Hart, a lawyer who worked on behalf of women and gay and lesbian people while also defending immigrants and communists caught up in the Red Scare.
“At that time, public libraries, universities, colleges did not really carry LGBTQ books,” explains Brant. “So our primary thing was providing access to that,” through the lending library. “One reason why we’re here is because it’s important for people to connect with people who have similar stories—you can read a book about what someone else went through, you can research other organizations.”
Now, Brant says, about half of people visiting Gerber/Hart conduct research in the archive, and half take out books from the library. “Some of this you still can’t get at a public library, and we often have more stuff” than a general library, he explains. "Part of our mission statement is that knowledge is the key to dispelling prejudice."
As the collection has grown and important chapters in LGBTQ history have receded into the past, more and more scholars have begun to take advantage of the archives. There are the papers of Bill Kelley, a founder of the gay rights group Mattachine Midwest Society who was part of the first group of gay and lesbian leaders to meet at the White House. The first openly gay man to run for elected office in Illinois, Gary Nepon, is represented. Periodicals from early gay organizations offer a glimpse of early gay activism. Photos dating back to 1947 of the female impersonator Miss Tillie and her friends are visual evidence of gay life, and are featured every Tuesday on Gerber/Hart’s Instagram. (Some of Gerber/Hart’s materials are available online, with much more having been digitized during the past year of COVID-19.)
Even erotica has a place in the archives: “It does portray a certain amount of culture and body presentation,” Brant says, while some erotic magazines offer a survey of gay life throughout the country, highlighting gay bars from the past in smaller cities that are often overlooked.
Gerber/Hart also presents the histories that can be found in its archives to the public via exhibits on such topics as the activist group Queer Nation Chicago, the involvement of lesbians in the women’s liberation movement, and an upcoming exhibit on HIV and AIDS. Many of the exhibits are accompanied by events and other programming, which moved online last year due to the pandemic but will eventually be in-person again. The exhibitions themselves are also now being digitized.
“People sometimes ask us, ‘Why do we keep some of this stuff?’ " including ephemera or erotica. But Gerber/Hart preserves stories and experiences that might otherwise be forgotten.
Brant’s answer? “If we don’t, who will?”