Stonewall and Middlebury: Exhibits on queer activism

By ARIADNE WILL

This fall, Special Collections curated an exhibit commemorating the 1969 Stonewall riots. The exhibit, on display in the Library Atrium, is titled “Before and After Stonewall: Queer Stories Throughout American History” and was curated by Suria Vanrajah ’22. The exhibit is partnered with a display on the Library Lower Level titled “Middlebury College Coming Out: A Foundation for Queer Activism,” which was curated by Halle Shephard ’22, Reid Macfarlane ’21 and Joseph Watson, Preservation Manager for Special Collections.

The exhibits were the ideas of Watson and Rebekah Irwin, Special Collections’ director and curator. Watson and Irwin had long wanted to do something to mark the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, Watson said, so he proposed the downstairs archives exhibit, while Irwin had the idea for the atrium literature exhibit. 

With the help of the MuseumWorks internship, a program that connects current students with the college’s collections and museum, the Special Collections team hired Macfarlane, Shephard and Vanrajah to curate the exhibits. 

“I’ve always been very interested in history — I went to an American history high school — and am from New York City, so I recognized how important the Stonewall Riots were to my city, the LGBTQ community and our country,” Vanrajah said. “I wanted to be a part of the exhibit, and I was lucky enough that Joseph and Rebekah took a chance on me.”

Vanrajah said that she hopes her exhibit points out ripples made by events like Stonewall. As curator, she said she wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions about the impact of the riots on queer literature and history. “I felt that my role as a curator was not to try to create a narrative about the Stonewall Riots but rather to create a context through which anyone who sees the exhibit can reflect on the impact [of Stonewall] and understand it in their own way,” she said. 

APRIL QIAN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
The exhibit on the main floor focused on the relationship between queer literature and the Stonewall riots.

Beyond Stonewall, however, Vanrajah says her display is a nod to the activist aspects of the authors she has chosen to focus on. “I would consider each of these authors activists in their own right, whether or not they saw themselves that way, because their work helped make queer stories public and brought them to the attention of the American public,” she said. “By normalizing LGBTQ stories, these authors helped to normalize LGBTQ individuals and their experiences.”

While the atrium exhibit focuses on literature written by authors who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, the exhibit on the lower level is centered around past Campus articles detailing events occurring within Middlebury’s own LGBTQ sphere. “[Halle] and I spent about two days going through bound versions of The Campus, looking for things that might pop out — [words like] gay, queer — and compiling them and noting them,” Macfarlane said.

Watson, who had the idea for the exhibit, said that he had hoped to survey the five decades since Stonewall, but said that he, Macfarlane and Shephard decided instead to focus on the first three decades of the time period. One reason behind this decision was space.“Once 2000 came around, there was much more student activity and the student groups were much more high profile,” Watson said. “It would have been really difficult to fit those next 20 years in because there would have been so much.”

Waton also said that he hoped students would use the exhibit to learn more about the efforts that laid the groundwork for LGBTQ visibility on campus. “Pre-1970, there’s no open history of queer people at Middlebury,” he said. “I think that’s an interesting thing for people to realize, especially current students, who can say, ‘oh, these people are my parents’ age, and there were no [visibly] queer people before them.’”

This observation was something Macfarlane and Shephard became aware of as they worked on the exhibit.“At first it was really hard to find [Campus] articles,” Shephard said. “The gay student groups were really kept under wraps.” 

APRIL QIAN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS
One of the exhibits used old Campus articles from Special Collections to highlight queer activism at the college.

The underwhelming presence of LGBTQ visibility was something Macfarlane also noticed. “I think that for a long time, queer people on this campus didn’t feel comfortable in their own visibility,” he said. “I think in the ’70s and ’80s there wasn’t a lot of queer visibility on campus. There weren’t a lot of people in organizations or starting initiatives to engage a discourse about the queer population on campus. You saw people attempt to do that, and then people wouldn’t show up to meetings.”

Shephard, too, noticed attempts made by students to establish an LGBTQ community on campus.“One of the first [student LGBTQ] groups was Gay Students at Middlebury,” she said. “Eventually the membership dwindled off, and then people just didn’t know where to go. It was sad to see it disappear.”

Watson also acknowledged this historical absence and lack of visibility.“When you’re doing research into underrepresented groups, they’re called that because they’re underrepresented,” he said. “In the archives, we have very little related to LGBTQ people.”

This underrepresentation was something Vanrajah was thinking about in terms of a broader literary tradition. “Queer stories are rarely told and many people never learned about Stonewall in their history classes, or never read seminal queer works because of the stigma surrounding many of them,” she said, adding that she hopes to address this gap in narrative with her exhibit. “While this exhibit is by no means a comprehensive analysis or display of queer history and literature, I see it as a way to introduce a general audience to these topics,” she said. “If everyone who looked at the exhibit walked away with an appreciation for the activists at Stonewall and the writers that came before and after them, I would be really proud.”

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