When a local man was compiling an anniversary gift this year for his partner, he knew exactly where to go for the memories he needed: the William Way LGBT Community Center. It’s not because he had met his partner there. It’s because the Center, through its John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, holds a complete set of Philadelphia Gay News from its earliest days. In one of those issues from the 1980s was the personal ad that first brought the couple together.
The John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives, housed in the William Way LGBT Community Center, contain one of the largest collections of LGBT+ history in the East Coast. (They are named for John J. Wilcox Jr., a supporter of the community who passed away in 2011.) They began as a small project at the Community Center in 1976, and have since grown to include hundreds of pieces of memorabilia, from PGN archives to calendars, tapes, magazines and books, all mostly acquired through donation over the past four decades. In addition, there’s a lot of ephemera—that is, the little things that people have picked up over the years, like hats, t-shirts, pins, letters, posters and photographs.
This Saturday, William Way is offering LGBT+ Philadelphians the chance to have their own ephemera digitized and copied to the archive. On this second Digitizing Day of the year, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, volunteers will help scan and photograph materials ranging from photographs to protest signs and hormone capsules, and record the stories that go with them. Past donations have included an LGBT+ synagogue’s complete records, nude calendars (check out the Calendar Collection), and homages to close friends or family members. “[At the last event] this woman and her husband brought a box documenting her brother’s life as a drag queen and female impersonator,” says Anderies. “He had died of AIDS.”
Over the years, the archive has become the first place where historians often go to understand Philadelphia’s LGBT+ history, a history that continues to be made. People who use the archives range from academics writing books, to undergraduates writing papers, to people simply looking to remember events from their past. “I imagine 10 years from now or longer, if someone wants to know, ‘Well, what was going on in the trans community in Philadelphia in 2018?’ I want that researcher to be able to find out,” Anderies says.
Anderies acknowledges that up until recently, the archives have tended to primarily tell the story of gay white men in Philly. Events like Saturday’s, which are open to the entire community, are intended to change that, and fill in the history of more marginalized groups, like women, people of color, and the trans community.
“Certainly in the past and today still, their voices aren’t heard and their experiences aren’t recognized,” Anderies says. “We want to be a place where we can help ensure that their voices are maintained over time.”
Anderies urges people to bring anything they’ve picked up across the years, even if it doesn’t seem historically significant in a big way. Digitizing Days are about recording the daily ephemera of LGBT+ identity. They’re about amplifying the voices that usually get lost in the bigger, straighter version of history that we are used to. The archive is a public source that says, unequivocally: we are here, we have been here, and we will always continue to be.
Saturday, October 27th, 12–4pm, FREE, William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.Photo via William Way LGBT Center Facebook