Queer people and communities dedicated to LGBTQIA+ activism have always existed in Nebraska but often have gone unnoticed and unrecognized.
To correct lasting oversights and educate the general public about Nebraska’s extensive Queer history, faculty, staff and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha piloted the Queer Omaha Archive.
That mission becomes more important in light of the Nov. 19 mass shooting at a Queer club in Colorado Springs.
“People have become a lot more accepting, but just like we saw on Sunday with the Club Q nightclub shooting, there is still that underlying hate,” said UNO student MJ Ingram.
That’s why Ingram and other students say the archive is vital.
“I think a lot of Nebraskans, especially those from previous generations, are still working on accepting the fact that Queer people aren’t going anywhere,” said Spencer Swearingen, a Lincoln native and student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said. “The truth is, Nebraska doesn’t have a whole lot of Queer spaces let alone representation of the state’s Queer history.”
The role of an archive is to gather and organize historical materials related to a certain topic, employ historical preservation techniques to save those materials and then offer the materials to the public for use as primary sources in learning or research.
“We collect material, we preserve material, and we share it,” said Amy Schindler, who helped organize the Queer Omaha Archive and has worked as the director of Archives and Special Collections at UNO Libraries since 2014. She is passionate about archivists’ mission to not only protect historical items, but to share history through community outreach.
The archive was conceptualized in a 2015 meeting between various UNO faculty, staff and students. Their goal was to establish an archive that would serve not only the UNO campus, but also Omaha, Western Iowa and greater Nebraska.
Jessie Hitchens, director of the UNO Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, and Jay Irwin, director of the university’s Women and Gender Studies program, were two instrumental leaders in planning the archive’s beginnings.
UNO students present at this planning meeting decided on the archive’s name, and the Queer Omaha Archive officially opened to the public in 2016.
The archive is primarily funded through grants and donations made to the Queer Omaha Archives Fund within the University of Nebraska Foundation. UNO Libraries employees and part-time student employees manage the archive’s day-to-day operations.
According to Schindler, history too often focuses on a small group of historical figures while ignoring other communities.
“Too often in U.S. history, the narrative we heard in our textbooks was about a few individuals– those big-name George Washingtons of the world. I was never satisfied by that as a teenager, I always thought ‘there’s other people in this world!’ It wasn’t until later in college that I really started getting that fuller picture of history,” she said.
Although pieces of LGBTQIA+ heritage had been saved in other collections across Nebraskan institutions, Schindler said, the Queer Omaha Archive was an intentionally public endeavor to officially prioritize these items and stories.
“Growing up as a Queer person in Nebraska, I didn’t even learn about health as it relates to my identity, so I very rarely learned about LGBTQIA+ history in general unless I sought it out myself,” Swearingen said.
The Queer Omaha Archive consists of thousands of items, including personal papers and letters, meeting minutes, newsletters, photographs, home movies and other ephemera. UNO Libraries has not established a strict criterion for items allowed into the archive. Anyone is free to contact the archive if they have items to be considered for the collection.
The archive aims to put a spotlight not only on well-known leaders of movements, but also on the many everyday people who were involved in those activities and how they operated in their daily life. As Schindler said, people gain a fuller understanding of a community by studying all members within it, not only the leaders who engaged in publicized advocacy efforts.
Frequently, Schindler said, LGBTQIA+ history lessons are not included in typical school curriculum, or if they are, the content focuses briefly on a narrow field of white, cisgender, male advocates instead of representing the expanses of all LGBTQIA+ communities.
According to Ingram, it’s important to study all aspects of Queer history since so many stories of LGTBQIA+ identifying people aren’t known.
“The effort to preserve Omaha’s Queer history means the world to me,” Ingram said. “There is so much Queer history that was buried in the past or just was never reported on because people saw being queer as something bad or something that was wrong with them.”
Aside from physical memorabilia, the archive also includes a broad collection of recorded oral history interviews.
Irwin conducted the first few oral histories, speaking with members of the Omaha LGBTQIA+ population about their personal experiences. In fall 2016, Irwin assigned students taking his sociology course to collect additional interviews from about a dozen people in Lincoln and Omaha.
After receiving funding from grants and private donations, the Queer Omaha Archive hired Luke Wegener from 2017 until 2020 to work part-time on expanding the oral collection once again. Wegener grew the archive’s collection to include 52 oral histories.
Schindler describes the public interest in the Queer Omaha Archive as quick and widespread.
“From the beginning it was very intentional that we’re calling this an Omaha archive, but we knew being the largest city in the state that this would quickly grow beyond the city of Omaha,” Schindler said.
Archive staff began to hear from people in Lincoln, Kearney, Wayne and other rural communities almost immediately after the grand opening.
Although Omaha is the state’s largest city, with the largest LGBTQIA+ population, Schindler pointed out that smaller towns had just as legitimate Queer communities. While most historical LGBTQIA+ publications or organizations may have been created in Lincoln and Omaha, their audience existed far beyond those city limits.
“The response has been lovely and very affirming not only for the archivists who work on it but also the students who are using the material and the community members who see themselves here,” Schindler said.
Schindler said the archive’s goal is to correct the common misconception that all landmark Queer history occurred in coastal cities like New York City and San Fransisco.
Even with a varied collection of people from numerous age groups and backgrounds, the archive’s collection is always seeking to incorporate more perspectives, Schindler said.
“Is it everybody? Absolutely not,” she said. “We can’t get everyone, but it’s a pretty good balance for us so far.”
Many visitors tell Schindler they had no idea about the 50-plus years of Queer activism within Nebraska. Schindler tells visitors it isn’t their fault for being unaware. Rather, she tells them that the burden lies on cultural heritage institutions like libraries, archives and museums for their collective failure to find and preserve that history until very recent years.
“This is important history,” she said. “I’m sorry that our institutions have not done a better job at collecting, preserving and sharing it over the last 50-plus years, but we’re here and we’re committed to this and we care deeply.
“We want to do this work and we want to work with members of the communities on doing this work respectfully and in a way that shines a light on things without imposing our modern point of view on things.”
Schindler said older adult LGBTQIA+ Nebraskans who visit the archive frequently recognize themselves or friends in photos and memorabilia, an emotional experience that moves several visitors to tears.
When middle- and high-school age students visit the archive, Schindler and her fellow staff members share the message that Nebraska’s history is not made up of a single story.
Making Queer history more visible can cause a significant difference in the experiences of young Nebraskans, Ingram said.
“I actually didn’t know that we had the UNO Queer Omaha Archive,” Ingram said. “I wish I would’ve known about it sooner actually. It feels very validating because I know that there is a lot of queer history that is not preserved or known about. I wish that Queer Nebraskan history would be taught in schools, but I’m glad that my college is making an effort to preserve this archive.”
The Queer Omaha Archive not only collects historical items, but also works to disseminate archive pieces throughout the state. The archive curates multiple exhibits within the UNO Criss Library each year, alongside annual campus displays for LGBTQIA+ History Month in October and Pride Month in June. Staff regularly rotate the items presented in campus displays year-round. The current exhibit depicts Nebraskans who attended the Second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1987.
In addition to campus exhibits, the archive intentionally reaches out to specific organizations and individuals in the Omaha area to invite them for tours.
Staff also coordinate regular pop-up displays in which materials from the archive are brought to community events with larger audiences, such as the Heartland Pride Festival.
Another recent community opportunity was hosted at The Max in Omaha, a popular LGBTQIA+ club. Archive staff displayed items from Nebraska’s Queer bars and dance clubs of past and present at the event.
Items are frequently loaned out to other organizations. A collection from the archive is currently on display at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art in Omaha. Among other items, the display includes a protest sign created by UNO students from the Queer and Trans Student Agency, an issue of the LGBTQIA+ magazine “The New Voice of Nebraska,” excerpts from the archive’s oral history collection, and issue of a Metropolitan Community Church of Omaha newsletter.
Schindler describes the effort to preserve Queer history as deliberate, intentional, and highly collaborative between various organizations throughout Nebraska. The Queer Omaha Archive staff work closely with colleagues at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, History Nebraska and others.
“I am really glad that they are making an effort to preserve queer history, but I wish that there were more queer spaces in Omaha for the LGBTQ+ community,” Ingram said.
Overall, Schindler’s goal for the Queer Omaha Archive is to spread the word about Nebraska’s long LGBTQIA+ history. She wants people to realize that LGBTQIA+ communities did not pop up within the last 30 or 40 years – people have been living publicly out, in long-term Queer relationships, throughout the state for much longer.
In Swearingen’s view, it’s essential for younger generations of Queer people to feel like they have a place within this extensive history.
“Although acceptance might not be as taboo as our society once made it, young Queer people need to know about the experiences of those who came before them as they are a part of that continuing historical impact,” he said. “Preserving Queer history helps Queer people understand where we’ve been, where we are and where we should be.”