What We Can Learn About Activism Today in the Archives of Queer History

What We Can Learn About Activism Today in the Archives of Queer History

What We Can Learn About Activism Today in the Archives of Queer History

Cait McKinney’s Information Activism argues that archiving work illustrates how access to information has improved the lives of marginalized people.


In 1979 a young woman called the Lesbian Switchboard, a hotline in New York City, and a volunteer picked up. The caller was lonely and wanted to know where she could meet other people like her—women attracted to other women. Another person called, and she was in an interracial relationship and was looking for a safe and open place to take her Black girlfriend on vacation. Another caller was a trans man who wanted to know where he could find a general practitioner. The volunteer, drawing on the hotline’s ethic of providing help without shame, judgment, or personal input, gave the callers the information or comfort that the person could. At the end of the calls, the volunteer logged the details in a ruled notebook, such as “18-yr. old ♀, isolated. Doesn’t have any lesbian friends. No connection with lesbian community. In Bklyn.” Over 30 years later, Cait McKinney picked up the call logs, stored among the many boxes and collections at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA) in New York City, and fit the pieces together in a new book, Information Activism.

What can we extrapolate from the sparse log that is left behind? In Information Activism, McKinney (who uses “they” pronouns) approaches this question with palpable respect for those doing the work at the time and with a sharp curiosity for the pieces of information that they didn’t leave behind. Each chapter examines a different kind of network—newsletters, hotlines, indexing projects, and archives—and centers the women who created and maintained them to make lifesaving, community-sustaining information available and accessible.

McKinney’s book begins with the Women in Print Movement in the 1970s and continues to the present, ending with a look at Instagram’s role in contemporary archives. McKinney names the labor of making and organizing resources—be it creating Instagram posts from archival photographs or picking up a landline in a makeshift call center—“information activism.” This work, McKinney writes, is the sum of “often unspectacular labor that sustains social movements”: the quotidian acts of envelope stuffing and list making that curate and distribute the kind of information that allows queer lives and futures to flourish.

The earliest networks that McKinney analyzes, mostly from the United States and Canada, are from the era of lesbian feminism. Today, McKinney writes, the work of information activism continues in community archives and Instagram accounts that seek to preserve this movement’s history, even as the ideology of lesbian feminism has gone “out of fashion,” often associated with separatist politics and the exclusion of trans women. Like the newsletters, hotlines, and indexing projects they seek to make accessible, organizations like the LHA aim to preserve historical information while building an inclusive space from which to sustain activism. These sources of information and the activists creating and distributing them find themselves pulled between urgency and posterity: On the one hand, the information could improve lives by facilitating access to material resources or lessons to be drawn from history; but on the other, the work is long and ongoing, always in service of a future in which queer lives have been made better by the work of the present.

Of course, in practice, lesbian feminism varied from place to place, and the tensions pertaining to questions of inclusion often surface unexpectedly in the ways that information was organized in archives in the past and is today. McKinney is careful to note the historical contributions of Black and trans lesbians and resists categorizing lesbian feminism as a singular movement, instead turning to the margins of newsletters and call logs to further complicate our understanding of it.

For example, the hotlines and the way trans callers were described in the call logs are revealing of how attitudes varied across groups. At a 1977 volunteer meeting of the Lesbian Switchboard, one woman stated that she was uncomfortable serving trans callers. Another said that she shared this discomfort but “would handle it.” While the log shows that volunteers often served many bisexuals, a marked-up draft of the Switchboard’s requirements for membership contains a handwritten “(not bisexual)” next to the criterion that all volunteers should be “a lesbian and at least 18 years old.” But that addition never made it into the typed version of the handbook. The people making these remarks or writing these notes are not named; in many cases, they did not even consider their work a form of activism. But their reflections allow us to see the corners of a larger movement.

Thus this attention to care also complicates the category of “activist.” “Distinctions between activism and service work are often racialized and gendered,” writes McKinney, noting that the ‘basic’ work of care is usually performed by women, people of color, and trans people. Like the unremarkable task of waiting to answer the phone, the interminable act of sorting through cards and digitizing old tapes “is made meaningful by a larger political vision of what might be achieved through better access to information.” Likewise, the LHA, where McKinney based their research, was built, according to its cofounder Joan Nestle, not only for academics but primarily “for any lesbian woman who needed an image or a word to survive the day.”

This year the popularization of mutual aid during the Covid-19 pandemic has helped to trouble this distinction between activism and service work as well and has made the strategy of sharing and organizing information even more essential. See, for example, the kinds of information being spread in spades as the prospect of months-long self-isolation and social distancing announced itself in March: Google documents and Twitter threads containing lists of supplies to buy; threads of people and places to donate to; lists of mutual aid networks; instructions on how to start a neighborhood pod. These documents were only sometimes attributed to their authors and often spread quickly via social media. Mutual aid is an anarchist principle and has always been used by groups for whom reliance on the state is unhelpful or dangerous. As McKinney says, “Information matters differently to precarious populations, for whom reliable access is never guaranteed. For sexual and gender minorities, access to good information helps to determine a life that is livable.”

Then the summer of racial justice uprisings, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, saw a new tide of information rise: lists of anti-racist books to read, lists of bail funds to donate to, lists of ways to get involved from home, lists of political demands, lists of ways local police departments were causing harm and therefore needed to be defunded.

Cynically, this new mode of information sharing sometimes seems to have a marketing component to it, spurred perhaps by the well-meaning desire to be helpful by reaching as many people as possible. This sometimes results in inaccurate posts made for the sake of a quick, aesthetic response to a trending phrase like “defund the police.” But, at its best, there can also be a usefulness to this zine-like aspect of Instagram. Newer accounts compiling readings and quotes pertaining to abolition and transformative justice have gained traction, and accounts with large followings use their platforms to share calls for donations. The same “tyranny of abundance” that McKinney describes in indexing and archiving projects that begin from a place of scarcity emerges here. The provision of information for getting by—where to find a lesbian plumber or roommate, where to find a community fridge, or how to form an affinity group—becomes a bibliographical basis for utopian thinking.

I remember feeling a strong sense of urgency as I scrolled this summer, a need to share and keep up in real time that seemed compounded by the fact that most of what I could do was through the Internet. I watched as friends learned about defunding and then about abolishing the police in a matter of days, documenting it all through Instagram. The urge to be fast, to be right, to not be performative, made online existence even more overwhelming for me than it was in mid-March.

McKinney’s work is a reminder that this kind of work has always happened and always will. The newsletters and hotlines they describe, like online posts on how to start a mutual aid group, are not political homes in themselves, but they can serve as guides to find them.

Even a community-run archive like the LHA has not escaped the urgency of online life and today faces increasing pressure to make everything digitally available as quickly as possible. But the work of archiving—from collection to digitization—is far slower than the work of sharing a post.

McKinney is especially fascinated by the prospects of an interminable digitizing project at the LHA; choosing to scan personal photographs, for example, requires asking for permission or deciding posthumously whether people might want their queer identity to stay offline. The archive, run largely by volunteers, lacks the financial resources that might help speed up the work. (The LHA refuses any government funding, no matter the amount.) This means that despite the fast pace demanded by a growing number of students, researchers, and activists, the process is inevitably slow.

But as an archive coordinator puts it, “OK, so the books are going to take us six years [to catalog]. Where are we going? We’re not going anywhere. We’re just going to be here.” In many ways, the process of archiving is analogous to the intertwined projects of queerness and feminism: Despite the labor, it is optimistic, future-oriented work. The indexes that tediously organize the past allow us to “see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present,” as theorist José Esteban Muñoz wrote about queerness. Archiving means imagining a future subject for whom this past has value.

In contrast to the dizzying speed of Instagram, the Internet in McKinney’s book seems unwieldy and almost incidental. Network thinking and databases existed in photocopied newsletters and handwritten index cards before they existed on MailChimp or as archival PDFs. Most community archives like the LHA operate with the goal of making their system good enough, guided by an ethic of capable amateurism and horizontal, conscientious decision-making; McKinney, in turn, does not adopt a prescriptive tone on the issue of preservation. Instead, their book illuminates the intricacies of a queer life as captured in, organized through, or improved by data and access to it. The marginalized have a great deal of respect for marginalia. Nothing gets thrown out. This leads to disarray as much as it leads to invention. McKinney remarks on the ironic overflow of information out of such historiographical precarity: Researchers generally describe the LHA space with terms like “overwhelming,” “bulging,” “filled,” “confusing,” and “crammed into every available corner.”

Despite this overflow, the source of these materials is of course skewed toward those who created and donated them. Most of the materials we access today were created by women who felt safe enough to do so, who had jobs or budgets to access photocopiers and envelopes to distribute them in bulk. For example, Matrices, the newsletter that McKinney examines in their first chapter, was funded by its founders’ university department. The first item that McKinney analyzes at length that centers women of color is the Black Lesbians annotated bibliography compiled by J.R. Roberts in 1981. The problem of inclusion is an ongoing tension that McKinney addresses throughout their book and isn’t unique to their project.

Several times, McKinney invokes their ambivalence as a nonbinary person working in a lesbian archive who feels “attached to but not quite as if [they] fit within” that elusive, political category of “lesbian.” “Trans, nonbinary, and intersex identities can pose unique problems for the sense-making impetus that accompanies digitization,” they write. At the same time, the project of rethinking archival categories seems complementary to a movement in a constant state of redefinition and expansion. “The whole trans discussion—I think we really need to have it,” one LHA volunteer tells them, illustrating the question of inclusion as simultaneously urgent and ongoing, perhaps pushed back by myriad other deadlines that are all equally demanding.

In the book’s final chapter, McKinney describes the growth and evolution of @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, an amateur-run history account on Instagram that emphatically describes itself as “not an archive.” When replicas of the images and ephemera from physical archives leave the building and enter the wilds of the Internet, the sharing and commemorating can be rooted in a similar ethic of representation and collective desires for the past that guide the LHA. But the platform’s aesthetic choices also make the content more prone to decontextualization and commercialization (as with the well-known “The future is female” slogan that McKinney traces back to a photograph of a notoriously transphobic lesbian folk singer). McKinney notes that the white gaze dominates queer history Instagram accounts, too, and that efforts to highlight people of color do not necessarily go to the root of the problem. Is it that there is simply more stuff in the archives that comes from white cisgender lesbians? If so, how do we imagine ways of telling history that highlight nonwhite and transgender contributions while circumventing the Instagram-fueled desire to see more old stuff? These are the questions that prompted Roberts to compile Black Lesbians, for example, which relied on compiling cloaked references to lesbianism in sources that had been traditionally overlooked in white-dominated gay and lesbian community history work.

The more that McKinney shines a light on the work that expands or challenges the parameters of the lesbian community, the more they challenge the very existence of such parameters or, indeed, a singular community. They show that information that improves lives materially and individually can also do this politically and collectively. From margins and scarcity, information activists work toward a future that is constantly refreshed and redrawn in accordance with those moving to meet it.

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that moves the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories to readers like you.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy