On view in NYU’s Elmer Holmes Bobst Library from April 18 as part of the Stonewall at 50 anniversary celebration.

Washington Square Journal Collection. Photo courtesy of New York University Archives.

New York University Libraries present Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Highlights from the NYU Special Collections, an exhibition surveying queer life from the mid-1800s to the present day through a sample of materials drawn from NYU Libraries’ special collections and archives. Violet Holdings is part of NYU’s yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

This year, NYU and New York City commemorate Stonewall and the influential role the riots played in thrusting the nascent queer movement into the public eye. The NYU Libraries exhibition is a timely reminder that LGBTQ+ history extends far beyond this momentous occasion, spotlighting a rich, complicated, and surprising collection of queer stories that include luminaries in 19th-century theater, a gay anarchist press in the 1970s, civil rights protests at NYU, transgender community organizing, and women’s labor movements.

“We should use Stonewall, not to rehash things we already know about the start of the gay rights movement, but as an opportunity to highlight broader stories about trans life in New York City, race and queer identity, and the historical connections within the LGBTQ+ community ranging from nightlife to political organizing,” said Hugh Ryan, the exhibition’s curator and author of When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History.

NYU Libraries have been at the forefront of documenting the LGBTQ+ movement and began collecting materials in the 1970s with Polly Thistlethwaite, the first lesbian and gay studies selector. As a result, the Special Collections and the general collections are rich in LGBTQ+ materials and stories.

Violet Holdings offers a small taste of the diverse and extensive queer materials in NYU’s archives, shedding light on underrepresented individuals and communities to encourage the public to dig deeper into these histories.

Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952)—an American actor and theatrical producer who eventually left the stage to become a writer and activist for women’s suffrage—is the oldest figure represented. Robins’ papers show the long relationship she had with the work of Henrik Ibsen; in 1928, she published Ibsen and the Actress about the roles he created for women. The exhibition also teases out the interconnectedness of queer archives; a century later, avant-garde playwright María Irene Fornés wrote The Summer in Gossensass, a play about Robins’ experiences bringing the first Hedda Gabler to the English stage. Original artifacts from this production—along with Fornés’ signature works of feminist theater—are on display.

The exhibition also highlights Johnny Science, a musician, artist, and community organizer who became involved with the drag king and trans-masculine communities in New York City while undergoing his own transition. His papers also include materials related to the gay male kink communities he actively participated in and helped organize.

The Tamiment Collections of labor and the left are represented through ephemera from Connie Kopelov, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women Newspaper and Pamphlet Collection, and William John Fielding’s papers. Kopelov was a labor activist who focused on women’s issues and was part of the first same-sex couple to be legally married in New York. The Newspaper and Pamphlet Collection holds a broad array of New Left publications collected in Seattle, primarily during the 1970s and ‘80s. Fielding was an accomplished author and sexologist from working-class roots whose collection includes correspondence with individuals around the country on matters ranging from gender identity to sexually transmissible diseases.

A section of the exhibition documents NYU’s history in the year 1970 through a timeline of materials from the University Archives, showcasing the connections between NYU students and the broader gay liberation movement, the escalating tensions between LGBTQ+ students and the university administration, and—eventually—the momentous takeover of Weinstein Hall. These include never-before-developed photos of transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson protesting at Weinstein.

“NYU’s relationship to the queer rights movement has been checkered, as materials from the 1970s show, but NYU has also been extremely supportive of collecting materials first for ‘gay and lesbian’ studies and then for gender and queer studies. In the early 1990s, NYU hired a group of cutting-edge scholars who were using ‘queer theory’ as a mode of cultural critique and activism. The NYU Libraries named me queer studies collector at a time when very few universities were openly building such collections and I follow in Polly Thistlethwaite’s footsteps in building a research collection that supports queer scholarship,” said Marvin J. Taylor, Curator for the Arts at NYU Libraries.

The exhibition will open Thursday, April 18 with a reception from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. including remarks by curator Hugh Ryan and Marvin J. Taylor. The RSVP form is available at   http://events.nyu.edu/#!view/event/event_id/232117.

Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Highlights from the NYU Special Collections is on display in the Mamdouha Bobst Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South (at LaGuardia Place) from April 18, 2019. [Subways A,C,E, B,D,M to West 4th Street; 6 line to Astor Place; R train to 8th Street.]. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

*Please note, NYU Special Collections – Fales Library, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Archives, and University Archives – is undergoing a major renovation over the next two years. There may be an impact on services and collections. All repositories will be closed to researchers May 22 - Sept. 2, 2019 and May 21 - Sept. 7, 2020. For more information, please visit the Special Collections Renovation Project website.

About the NYU Special Collections
A college student in the early 20th century had the quixotic idea to collect every novel in English; his dream is now the ever-expanding Fales Collection. A 1980s subculture of young, feminist activists expressing themselves in zines and music still reverberates in the Riot Grrrl Collection. NYU faculty refused to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities; their struggle and anguish are documented in the University Archives. A battalion of young Americans took up arms against fascism in the Spanish Civil War; today their idealism still awes and inspires in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. These are just a few of the individuals, communities, and institutions documented in Special Collections: more than 40,000 linear feet of archives, hundreds of thousands of print volumes, photographs, audio and moving image, electronic files, and ephemera. Cared for by a dedicated staff of professionals, these vast and continually expanding collections offer exciting new insights and discoveries to students, scholars, artists, and filmmakers across NYU and around the world. Learn more at https://wp.nyu.edu/library-renovation/.

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Sarah Binney
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