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The Archivettes

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 23, 2019
'The Archivettes'
'The Archivettes'  

"The Archivettes," Megan Rossman's documentary about the founding and development of The Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City, is dedicated "In loving memory of the voices we have lost," but the archives work to preserve some of those voices - and this film amplifies that work, and those voices along with it.

Fittingly, the documentary begins with the bereaved life partner of a young woman named Ellie bringing memorabilia of various sorts to the archives. Ellie died young, at the age of 38, from lymphoma; sorting her papers and possessions into boxes, an intern tells the camera that in doing this sort of work, "You're bearing witness to not only one person's life, but all of their relationships."

Another of the archivettes - a longtime associate of the archive - brings the mission of the archive into broader focus, relating how the family of a lesbian who had left her effects to the archive were "distraught," and "they were going to try to destroy everything they could" before the archive could get hold of the woman's papers. (There's nothing quite like the sting of a family anxious to erase the existence of an LGBTQ aunt uncle, brother, sister, child, or parent.) The archive made an effort to rescue those effects and preserved a trove of artifacts, including the woman's diary, which talks about "what it was like to come out in 1957... in Ohio."

The archivette telling this story adds that this episode is emblematic of "the sort of SWAT team, guerrilla archival tactic that we were taking... to literally rescue lesbian history from the trash."

But the living, too, make contributions when it's the death of a relationship, rather than a person, that's taken place. As we're told, sometimes people looking to donate material will contact the archive with this sort of story:

"I'm breaking up with my lover and I'm furious, and I want to tear up my letters and my photographs, so please come and rescue them."

The archive represents an enormous undertaking, and it's staffed entirely by volunteers. Begun in 1974, the archive was initially housed in the apartment of co-founder Joan Nestle; eventually, the archive outgrew Nestle's space, and the staff sent out word that they needed donations in the sum of $1 million to buy a building for the collection. They got it. But they also felt a need to take precautions, feeling "concerns about physical violence to the building because there was physical violence to queers on the street." For this reason, "The street address was not public until the '90s."

The archive functions on a principle of radical democracy, accepting material "showing all kinds of lesbians - and not just white women, and not just rich women." Among the staff, we're given to understand, "there's no hierarchy, there's no deity."

But there is history, and it's relevant not just to Americans of the current moment, but to women - and people of all sorts - around the world. As a Polish survivor of the Holocaust told the archivettes, when she was imprisoned in the Nazi death camps at the age of 12, "I wanted to live long enough to kiss a woman. The dream of kissing a woman gave me life at a time that all the rest were saying it destroyed our lives."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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