In the Archives | Digitizing Volunteer Uncovers the Queer Past

Photo courtesy of Alexander Gray.

by Alexander Gray

For a few months now I have been volunteering on the GLBT Historical Society’s project to digitize the pre-internet run of theBay Area Reporter (1971-2005). The initiative is sponsored by the Bob Ross Foundation, created by the late publisher of the weekly LGBT newspaper. On any given day, I go through issues of the BAR, scanning each page for posting on a website that will be open to all free of charge.

The task may sound tedious, but I find it fascinating: I’ve always felt more in touch with the distant country of another decade or year when I find it reflected in old periodicals. Paging through newspapers and magazines from the past, you see your own time more clearly: the absurdity of outdated ads or hairstyles that hint our own trendy times will soon look quaint, the foreboding of headlines that only in hindsight reveal good news or bad news was on the way.

Take for example an ad for Steamworks that I spotted in a Bay Area Reporter from the mid-2000s. A man is doubled over as if crying, his figure half lost in the shadows. The copy reads, “He could have gone to Steamworks,” implying that the man is sad because he didn’t get laid. Below the bathhouse logo is information about STI and HIV testing.

Suddenly, this ad, an act of humor on the part a gay bathhouse, is a portal to the gay world after the emergence of AIDS in 1981. Suggesting the horny, the funny and the sad all at once, this small piece of newsprint helps us recognize the complexity and importance of our queer past. When we’re done posting thousands of pages of the Bay Area Reporter, discoveries of this sort will be available to web users from around the world.

Alexander Gray is an archives volunteer at the GLBT Historical Society.