Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Joe Burns looks over hundreds of documents laid out in piles on the large dining room table in his sister’s central Pennsylvania home. He is carefully examining, organizing, cataloging and recording them in a timeline highlighting some of the key historical developments in the early lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) civil rights movement in small cities throughout Pennsylvania.

Burns is just one of many LGBT individuals in the Keystone State whose stories are being discovered, inventoried, preserved and presented by the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania History Project, headquartered in midtown Harrisburg. The project began in August 2012 and has recorded video oral history interviews with more than 25 individuals, while more than 80 remain on a waiting list. It’s a number that keeps growing.

“This is really an important letter,” Burns says as he holds out a piece of paper. It is a letter he received in 1969 from New York’s Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 to protect the rights of homosexuals, in response to a request for its help to form an LGBT organization in the Lehigh Valley of southeastern Pennsylvania. “That’s what got things started for us here,” he recalls. The Mattachine Society sent the letter to LGBT individuals on its mailing list who were living in the Lehigh Valley area surrounding Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton at the time. That resulted in an organizational meeting of the Lehigh Valley Homophile Organization (Le-Hi-Ho for short), on June 22, 1969, six days before the famous Stonewall Bar raid and riots in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, considered by many as the birth of the LGBT civil rights movement. The letter is the earliest documentation uncovered to date by the history project of a LGBT organization forming in the state outside of Philadelphia.

“The Joe Burns collection really is an archival treasure,” says Malinda Triller Doran, special collections librarian at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Cumberland County. History project leaders developed a partnership with the Dickinson College Archives to serve as the repository of the oral histories as well as documents and artifacts being donated by LGBT people from throughout central Pennsylvania. Altogether the Joe Burns collection measures approximately six cubic feet of documents all pertaining to LGBT civil rights and community organizing in Pennsylvania from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. It is the largest donation of materials to date, but other materials are being continually discovered and donated as more interviews are conducted and word about the initiative spreads. “Joe had the foresight to recognize the importance of what he and other local residents were doing and to save the documentation of their efforts,” says Doran.

The history project has ambitious goals. The all-volunteer effort aims to discover, document, preserve and present the history of the LGBT community in central Pennsylvania; identify individuals willing to tell their stories through oral history interviews; and encourage LGBT people to learn about their history. It is a daunting task because the documentation of LGBT history is not easily found and the subject matter has been largely ignored, even avoided, by museums, archives and various historical organizations and cultural institutions. In the past, discrimination and fear of being identified as LGBT resulted in many people taking precautions to destroy personal papers, photographs and other mementos of their lives that would expose their sexual orientation, or to keep them hidden away from view. Relatives settling the estate of an LGBT person may consider this material to be of no significance or interest to anyone and discard it. The history project first needs to discover the stories, photographs, documents and artifacts and then place them in a broader context and determine the best way to interpret and present them most effectively to the public.

Mary Nancarrow, one of more than 50 volunteers for the project, is another early pioneer in LGBT civil rights organizing in Pennsylvania. With Joe Burns and others, she helped organize the Pennsylvania Rural Gay Caucus, a coalition of representatives of several organizations from small cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania, which began in 1975 and was in existence for about eight years.

“We were providing support for one another by organizing these groups,” Nancarrow remembers. “There was no support in these rural areas and we needed to come together to make sure everyone stayed alive. We were all very different people, but we shared a common bond, a common purpose.”

Nancarrow began her LGBT organizing activities while attending college, helping to establish a student organization called Gays United at Shippensburg. Later she would become a leader in the women’s equal rights movement in Pennsylvania working in local chapters of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Franklin and Dauphin counties and eventually rising to become president of the state chapter. She is now retired after a professional career with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

While involved with NOW, Nancarrow worked to eradicate discrimination based on sexual orientation through advocating for local ordinances in Allentown and Harrisburg. The initiative in Allentown failed in its first attempt in 1977, but succeeded in Harrisburg in 1983, becoming the second city in the state to adopt such an ordinance, after Philadelphia. Allentown later passed a local non-discrimination ordinance in 2002. Thirty-three municipalities have enacted similar local ordinances because there is no statewide law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“We had to try to overcome the many harmful things that the anti-gay segments of society were trying to do to us,” says Nancarrow. “We had no idea what freedom would feel like, but we just kept working toward that goal.”

Nancarrow, Burns and others participated in a Story Circle in October 2013, a program of the history project at the LGBT Center during which they shared memories and experiences in LGBT community organizing and activism. The project is planning to expand its programming at the LGBT Center to conduct quarterly events.

As the project sifts through the impressive amount of information from the past, Lonna Malmsheimer, professor emerita and research professor of American Studies at Dickinson College, also thinks about the future. “We really need to write this history,” she says. “I can see a wide range of results from this material, including exhibits, publications, video documentaries and an interactive website.” Dr. Malmsheimer, who possesses extensive experience in oral history and historical research, provides training for project volunteers conducting the interviews.

The history project has a presence on the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania website, but organizers plan to develop a much more comprehensive content-rich series of pages that will give the public a window into the LGBT past.

History Comes Out , the first exhibit of archival documents and artifacts from the history project collection was displayed at the Waidner-Spahr Library at Dickinson College in October 2013 in celebration of LGBT History Month. The exhibit featured a selection of documents and artifacts from the history project donations to the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections, curated by intern Mana Shaw, Dickinson College (class of 2014). Items included organization newsletters, event posters and flyers, commemorative pins from marches and other documents from Harrisburg, Lancaster, Pittsburgh and other locations in the state. At a reception for the exhibit, attended by more than 70 people, another table was set up to display the most recent donations that included about ten years of issues of a monthly publication Lavender Letter, which chronicled the news and events of the lesbian community in the central Pennsylvania region; a collection of trophies and other memorabilia from the Harrisburg Hustlers gay volleyball team; and t-shirts, photographs and artifacts from two gay bars in Harrisburg, Shadows and the Archives Bar, both no longer in existence.

“So often the collections that we receive in the archives come to us by happenstance,” says Doran. “By collaborating with the LGBT Center’s history project, we can be proactive in seeking materials that tell the story of LGBT life and activism in our region. We believe it is important to provide a space where these stories can be preserved and shared so that the efforts of these individuals and organizations are not forgotten.”

The project is one of at least three such projects in the Commonwealth documenting LGBT community history. Other projects are ongoing in Philadelphia and New Hope. Many large cities throughout the country conduct LGBT history projects and a forthcoming documentary film, Reel in the Closet, is meant to draw national attention to the need to find and safeguard the evidence of LGBT history.

“We are finding a surprising amount of discrimination among the stories told by our narrators,” says Malmsheimer. “I guess that should not have come as such a surprise. Some of these stories are quite tragic, but they also document a great amount of courage and perseverance.”

Many of the oral history interviewees provided information about how and when LGBT organizations were created, helping to explain the evolution of the LGBT community in central Pennsylvania. Others have been able to furnish a timeline and evolution of LGBT bars dating to the 1940s. Before the first LGBT organizations appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bars and private parties were the primary social outlets for LGBT people to meet and establish places that helped build a sense of community.

As I said goodbye to Joe Burns, I couldn’t help but notice he was beaming. “I’m really happy these documents are going to be preserved,” he said. It is a feeling of validation and a sense of respect that he and so many others now share, knowing that their stories, memorabilia and the legacy of their roles in LGBT history will live on to educate and inform others of the seminal moments of generations of courageous LGBT people who made a difference.

 

In Search of Central Pennsylvania’s Earliest LGBT Bar

Where did LGBT people in central Pennsylvania go to find each other in the early to mid-20th century? Oral history accounts point to the Clock Bar, which opened in Harrisburg in 1938 at 400 North Second St., as being the first LGBT bar in the region. It is not known if LGBT people immediately began to patronize the bar when it opened, but oral history accounts indicate that it had a gay following at least as early as the 1950s. One thing is certain, though; there was a gay bar in that location under a series of different names and owners from as early as 1938 until the last, La Rose Rouge, closed in 1990. Other contenders for the earliest gay bar include bars at the Warner Hotel and the Plaza Hotel, both of which were demolished to accommodate the development of downtown Harrisburg.

Timeline of LGBT bars at 400 North Second Street, Harrisburg:

  • The Clock Bar, 1938-1966
  • The 400 Club, 1967-1974
  • The Apple and the Frenchman, 1974-1975
  • The Dandelion Tree, 1976-1978
  • La Rose Rouge, 1978-1990

 

Barry A. Loveland is the chair of the steering committee for the LGBT Center of Central Pennsylvania History Project. He is chief of the Division of Architecture and Preservation for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, where he has worked for the past 30 years. He has been active in LGBT community organizing for 35 years. The author and his partner of 28 years, artist Thom Kulp, were married in Towson, Md., on December 27, 2013.