LGBTQ Collection Donated to Vancouver Archives

Longtime archivist, former head of the Vancouver Public Library’s history division, and queer rights activist Ron Dutton donated more than 750,000 items documenting the British Columbia LGBTQ community to the City of Vancouver Archives in March.

Anti-violence rally, Vancouver, 1979
BC Gay and Lesbian Archives collection, Photographs series (AM1675-S4)

The City of Vancouver Archives in British Columbia holds a wide range of records, from official Vancouver government documents to material documenting the city’s history and growth. Now the city’s rich LGBTQ history has its own place in the archives. Earlier this year longtime archivist, former head of the Vancouver Public Library’s history division, and queer rights activist Ron Dutton donated more than 750,000 items—including 7,500 photographs, 2,000 posters, 60 sound recordings, and 220 videos. Dutton began acquiring material in 1976, and has maintained the meticulously organized collection in his Vancouver apartment, offering access to members of the media, researchers, historians, and students.

Dutton’s collection, now formally known as the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives, holds 16.4 meters (nearly 18 yards) of subject files and 8.6 meters (9.5 yards) of periodicals. It includes videos of charity drag balls, photo documentation of Pride Festivals from 1981–2009, and materials related to HIV/AIDS activism, a 500-page court transcript from the trial of a homophobic hate group, and subject files pertaining to a range of topics such as art, immigration, censorship, gender identity, hate crimes, health services, religion, sports, and youth activism.

AN ARCHIVE GROWS

Dutton began collecting material relating to British Columbia LGBTQ culture in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s and a number of social justice movements—civil rights, the women’s movement, and the antiwar movement—were sweeping cities and campuses across North America. The Gay Liberation Front had consolidated as a formal political movement in Vancouver in 1971.

“There was this electricity in the air around people self-determining and self-identifying, and demanding that they were the proper repository of their own stories," Dutton recalled. "So I jumped in. I couldn't wait to get involved and put my energy to my own community, and to apply that rhetoric and those tactics to my life and my community's life."

Dutton and his fellow activists were going to change the world, he told LJ, but at the same time he wondered who was going to document that process. “So I simply started grabbing everything that came to hand and tossed it in a cardboard box," he said.

International Women’s Day march, Vancouver, 1993
BC Gay and Lesbian Archives collection, Photographs series (AM1675-S4)

His collection methods ranged from exchanges with other archivists to peeling posters off telephone poles. The archive contains considerable material that predates the 1970s, as well, including records of first contact between the Spaniards sailing along Canada’s coast and First Nations people who cross-dressed. Dutton’s archive is centered on British Columbia, he noted—Toronto’s Gay and Lesbian Archives cover Canada more broadly, and he never wanted to duplicate those efforts.

While Dutton accumulated material relating to all aspects of the queer community, he told LJ, he made it a point to collect “with an emphasis on marginalized groups within that marginalized larger community: women, seniors, small-town gay people, ethnic and religious minorities—[those] who don't tend to have a lot of money, aren't able to generate the same sort of press and attention that the white middle-class male [members] of the queer community were able to, so were less evident. I wanted to be sure that their story got told."

That first box became two boxes, and then three, and before long he had a collection of posters, photographs, ephemera, and periodicals. As a librarian, Dutton knew it would be useless without some sort of organization, so he began formally cataloging the material as he accumulated it, and formally designated the collection the Gay and Lesbian Archives.

A NEW HOME

As the archive continued to grow, it outpaced shelf space in his apartment, and Dutton began to consider finding it a permanent home. While he had always made the material available to the public—from high school students writing essays to filmmakers researching background to academics working on a thesis—he felt that it should be housed in a public facility. "And, bluntly, I'm aging out,” he noted. “I'm 72. A succession plan is part of my obligation to this collection."

But spaces friendly to LGBTQ concerns, such as the local community center, didn’t have room for a collection of that size, and a dedicated space wasn’t feasible in a city with high rents.

His concern, he explained, was that the collection would end up stored in a place where it would not be tended or added to. “I spent 40 years extracting our story from extremely reluctant sources, often,” Dutton said, “and the thought that it might disappear and be left uncared for and not understood was not an option."

Dutton had maintained a good working relationship with Vancouver’s city archives for close to a decade, exchanging reference requests or potential acquisitions and using the archives’ equipment, such as its open reel audio player, to help identify material.

In mid-2016 he approached archives staff about acquiring the collection. "I know the people there, I know that they're sympathetic, I know that they…understand that marginalized communities are a bit of a special case that needs to be handled with some care,” he recalled.

The timing was right for the Vancouver archives as well, noted city archivist Heather Gordon. A couple of years before, as space was getting tight, the city was able to offer the archives additional offsite, non-commercial space for new acquisitions that offered “a bit of breathing room in terms of what we can accept."

Gordon was thrilled that Dutton wanted to offer his collection to the city archives, she told LJ, as well as finding it “somewhat humbling. There are other institutions, a couple of university archives, for example, that he could have looked at or approached.”

The city archives have not traditionally been strong on collecting LGBTQ material, Gordon noted. It holds a few collections—notably the papers of Malcolm Crane, an early gay rights activist, and Richard Dobson, one of the organizers of the 1990 Gay Games, as well as another fairly large private collection that is restricted for another ten to 15 years after the donor’s death for reasons of privacy. But it had relatively little material from the lesbian and transgender community, both of which are well represented in Dutton’s holdings.

1987 International Lesbian Week, held in Vancouver
BC Gay and Lesbian Archives collection, Photographs series (AM1675-S4)

"He was very deliberate about that in a way that not a lot of collectors necessarily have been,” said digital archivist Jana Grazley, who is working with Dutton’s archive. “There's a richness to his collection in terms of reflecting diversity within the community, rather than one monolithic view. That's really valuable to us as well."

They quickly came to an agreement, and the city archives took possession of Dutton’s collection on March 1.

“NOT A BIG PILE OF STUFF”

By all accounts, his materials are in the good order that befits a career librarian. "Sometimes when you get private donations you're in a position of having to make sense of them as a whole, and think of how you're going to arrange them,” Grazley told LJ. “In Ron's case the arrangement is all there…. It was just a matter, for us, of transcribing the file titles, getting the date range of the materials in there, and rehousing them into acid-free folders. It was very, very simple."

Dutton put it somewhat more modestly: "It's not a big pile of stuff."

The files moved to the Archives were closed at the end of December 2017, but Dutton continues to collect, and will move over further files periodically.

The subject files are already publicly available, and periodicals will be digitized next. These range from a full run of Angles, a gay and lesbian weekly newspaper published from 1983–98, to zines, underground comics, erotica, and photocopied material. Grazley plans to have them up by fall.

Posters, photographs, and moving image and sound records will follow as external funding becomes available. The city archives’ large format scanner can handle print material up to 54” wide; moving image and sound recordings are processed by a third party vendor. Most of the collection is in good enough condition to be digitized, said Grazley, although there is some question about the open reel sound recordings and VHS cassettes—the vendor will make that call, she explained.

To help move the process forward, Gordon has applied for a one-time Digitizing Canadian Collections grant through Canada’s National Heritage Digitization Strategy, which will provide funds of up to $100,000 CD to cultural heritage institutions. "We're used to funding opportunities of maybe $15,000,” said Gordon, “so we've gone all out and put together an application that encompasses all of Ron's photos, the audiovisual materials, and the posters, as well as the description side of things,” because Canadian digitization grants generally don’t fund the item-level description that much of this collection requires.

If the funding comes through, that means a larger part of the collection will be available for next year’s Vancouver Pride Festival in July 2019, said Grazley. “We're really hoping it'll time out well. It'll be a good opportunity for outreach and also for making more connections…. It's a big step for building trust with the community, and we're really enthusiastic about acquiring more donations that reflect LGBTQ+ history in Vancouver." Grazley also plans to get the community’s help with crowdsourcing some photo descriptions and identifications.

SAVING THE STORIES

In addition to helping with item descriptions, said Gordon, such cooperation will hopefully engender good will on the community’s side when it comes to finding a home for their own collections as they grow older. This is a valid concern, noted Dutton: "I was in my mid-20s before I wasn't a criminal—being a gay man was a criminal activity. I come out of that background, and many of our elders who are older than I were scarred by that to a very high degree. They went through World War II, they went through the Depression even. And there's a considerable reluctance to hand over their personal archives, their personal memorabilia, to a government institution."

He added, “Elderly people who are moving into old folks' homes, they've got those photo albums that they don't want their nieces and nephews to find when they clean out their apartment...and they're wondering, where do they put it?”

“Whether that's with us or other institutions,” said Gordon, “hopefully we will be able to preserve those voices. Because they're not represented as well as they necessarily should be."

Dutton also hopes that the BC Gay and Lesbian Archives can serve as a template to address collections from Canada’s other minority and immigrant communities. Mistrust of government agencies such as the city archives often runs deep in such communities, he noted, and libraries, archives, and museums need to be sensitive to the community members’ reluctance to part with archival material—if they held on to it in the first place.

"My husband's family is Chinese, and they immigrated in the early part of the 20th century,” recalled Dutton. “And the day that they got their Canadian citizenship the whole family got together in the living room and burned all their earlier documents. Now, of course, those things are viewed as golden. But they now had a piece of paper that said they belonged, and they did not want any of that around anymore."

In addition, cultural institutions should cultivate contacts in those communities who can act as advocates—and they need to constantly communicate the importance of their mission of collecting.

Records of political advances and court rulings are important to document the LGBTQ community’s story, he stressed, but individual histories are no less critical, and the work he has done is about honoring those narratives. "Where my heart is is in those stories about resilience and endurance, and the strategies that people used in order to keep some kind of self-worth and integrity in an incredibly toxic world,” Dutton told LJ. “There was no voice out there saying you are OK, you matter.... There is this wonderful sense of community among elderly queer people that thrills me. I want that story told. I don't want their lives lost."

“The fact that he thought highly enough of us and of the people who work here…showed a remarkable level of trust on Ron's part,” said Gordon. “Our part is absolutely to live up to that. I think we're well on our way."

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