Invisible Histories Project tells stories of LGBTQ life in South

Priscilla Wilson (left) and her wife, Janice Lymburner, who runs the shop at the Gourd Place, pick through a bin of raw gourds for sale. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

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Priscilla Wilson (left) and her wife, Janice Lymburner, who runs the shop at the Gourd Place, pick through a bin of raw gourds for sale. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/AJC

Priscilla Wilson and Janice Lymburner have lived together as a couple in White County since 1974.

Wilson said their relationship has raised few eyebrows in recent years in that part of the county, where many of their Sautee Nacoochee neighbors are open-minded.

Wilson, 70, grew up in conservative Valdosta, where she was not out to anyone — even herself.

“I didn’t really admit to myself that I was a lesbian,” said Wilson. “I didn’t admit it to myself until Janice and I got together. Any gay or lesbian person coming out to their parents then would have felt like it was the nearest thing to death.”

It was still the South and being LGBTQ in rural areas could divide families, affect jobs and at times be dangerous. Wilson and Lymburner didn’t tell their surviving parents about their relationship until they had been together 20 years.

The two recently decided to share their stories and treasured items as part of an initiative at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, called the Invisible Histories Project. The IHP is a nonprofit whose goal is to establish repositories for the preservation of the rich presence of LGBTQ life in the South, a presence that has often been relegated to the shadows of history.

One in three LGBTQ people in the U.S. call the South home, according to a report by the Colorado-based Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank that looks at issues of equality for all.

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The IHP had its beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, and has since expanded to Georgia and Mississippi.

The collections include letters, clothing, photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, diaries, videos, and other kinds of memorabilia that help tell the story of people like Wilson and Lymburner, also known as the “Gourd Girls.” The couple’s donations include T-shirts and T-shirt designs with wildflowers that Wilson made and DVDs from their wedding ceremony and Gourd Gathering events.

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In the Alabama collection, there is a diary owned by a gay man from 1912 that someone bought in a thrift store in Birmingham for $3 and was later donated to the project.

“Let’s face it,” Wilson said. “In rural areas, people think there aren’t any gay or lesbian people in our town. We’re their neighbors and, even in some cases, their relatives because historically people have felt a need to be closeted and that has allowed people to be in denial that we exist.”

The IHP also extends what’s known about LGBTQ life beyond the cities, although it’s not just focused on rural areas.

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“People tend to know about places like San Francisco and, to some extent, Atlanta, but this includes the rural areas. What do rural folks have to say about being queer and where they live?” said Stephanie M. Chalifoux, an associate professor of history at UWG and coordinator for the IHP grant, which comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “This is an incredibly important history, an incredibly rich and diverse history that only enriches our knowledge of Georgia itself.”

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Gwinnett County Pride buttons are displayed during the inaugural Gwinnett County Pride Party in the plaza outside of the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Monday, June 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Gwinnett County Pride buttons are displayed during the inaugural Gwinnett County Pride Party in the plaza outside of the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Monday, June 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
Gwinnett County Pride buttons are displayed during the inaugural Gwinnett County Pride Party in the plaza outside of the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville, Monday, June 28, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The items are housed in special collections at the university’s Ingram Library and should be available to researchers in August.

The stories are tougher to tell because historians, archivists and scholars have not always explored Southern LGBTQ history, she said. There are certainly some great works available, but there are gaps in the history and part of what the IHP does is fill in those gaps by reaching out to individuals and organizations and asking what they might have or what they might donate to the project.

“What stories do they have to tell that we do not know?” she asked.

Chalifoux said UWG began collecting items in February 2020 in preparation for a March launch event. The next week, however, the nation was hit with the pandemic, which forced some universities to go online and travel and face-to-face contact was restricted, considerably slowing the collection of items.

Recently, UWG acquired several items from Gerald Bostock. He was the coordinator of Clayton County’s CASA (court appointed special advocates) program who was fired in 2013. Bostock alleged he was fired because he was gay. The county said Bostock’s sexual orientation was not a factor and that program funding was misspent under his watch.

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The case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down a decision that the protection of LGBTQ employees falls under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With the Supreme Court decision, which overturned a ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, Bostock’s case was able to return to federal court.

Chalifoux said the Bostock material was more personal and less about the case.

In an interview, Bostock, who said he comes from a very sports-minded family, donated photos from when he was in his high school marching band, several trophies from his younger years when he was on undefeated Little League championship teams and other sports-related memorabilia.

The materials show his journey in life and provide an opportunity for the public “to get to know me a little better.”

Joshua Burford, co-founder of the Invisible Histories Project, said the nonprofit picked up its first box of archival material in 2018 that included photos and papers of Glenda Elliott, a native of Mayfield, Georgia, an activist, retired associate professor and co-founder of Alabama’s Association for LGBT Issues in Counseling.

He called the collections part of the region’s “at-risk” history that many people don’t know exist nor do they know where they can learn more about the community.

Burford, a native of Alabama, said he came out in the 1990s and later taught LGBTQ history and related topics at several institutions, including the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. This year, he will teach a course on the “Queer South” at Duke University.

“I didn’t know the first thing about queer history,” he said. “I was determined to take what I learned and to build a course around it. It was something I wish I had access to when I was much younger. The work of building queer history is very young.”

He said the collections are growing all the time and “we haven’t been able to scratch the surface of what is available.”

In 2020, the Movement Advancement Project report, “Telling a New Southern Story: LGBTQ Resilience, Resistance and Leadership,” examined the ways LGBTQ Southerners build community and have contributed socially, culturally and politically.

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Roughly 3.6 million LGBTQ adults, including over 525,000 transgender adults, live in the South — more than in any other region, according to the report, which was released in partnership with the Equality Federation.

”For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people, there is added complexity to life in the South,” according to the report. “The South has the most hostile policy landscape in the country for LGBTQ issues, as Southern states are far less likely to have LGBTQ-inclusive laws and protections, and instead are far more likely to have harmful, discriminatory laws. Yet at the same time, the South also has the largest LGBTQ population of any region in the country, with roughly one in three LGBTQ people nationwide calling the South home.”

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Additionally, according to a survey from the Campaign for Southern Equality, 71% of LGBTQ Southerners have experienced harassment related to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The UWG collection is not the only one in Georgia to house an archive of information and memorabilia about LGBTQ life and contributions. Emory, Georgia State and Kennesaw State universities and others have extensive collections. Some include oral histories as well.

At Emory, there is a broad range of materials about the LGBTQ communities, including collections that document LGBTQ political and social activism, records of local organizations, and rare books and periodicals written by and for the LGBTQ communities. For example, the collection contains the records of the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, the personal papers of playwright and author Rebecca Ranson and Dr. Jesse R. Peel, a retired psychiatrist and longtime AIDS activist, and material that documents the HIV/AIDS crisis in Atlanta.

“We’re not in competition,” said Randy Gue, assistant director of Collection Development at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory. “One of the things archives try to do is build collections that are in conversation with one another.”

At Georgia State University, there is the LGBTQ Digital Collection, which includes various materials documenting the Georgia LGBTQ community. Material that touches on LGBTQ life can also be found in other collections, according to the GSU website.

Jeff Graham, executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Equality, said the story of the LGBTQ South is incredibly important.

“Historians have only recently begun to find the history of the community, the movement and individual lives,” he said. “The academic story is really only a couple of decades old at best. It’s primarily been an oral tradition.”

He hopes people will visit the collections and see stories of resilience ”like so many of marginalized communities. People made their way through extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”

Those interested in donating items can contact the Invisible Histories Project (invisiblehistory.org).

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