The annual ritual of flying a Rainbow Flag at my house throughout the week in October when Atlanta’s annual Gay Pride celebrations take place is especially poignant for me this year.
Every year when I’ve unrolled that flag, either to carry it with me in a Gay Pride Parade here in Atlanta or in some other city – or, in Parade-skipping years (like 2016), to fly the flag from the roof of my porch – I remember where and when I got that that flag.
It was thirty years ago, way back in the summer of 1986, that my librarian pal Erich Kesse gave this flag to me, at the end of what turned out to be one of the most intense weeks of my adult life: the week I attended my first conference of the American Library Association.
The conference that year was held in New York City. As if traveling (at my employer’s considerable expense!) to my first professional conference, in Manhattan, and at at time that coincided with the city’s Gay Pride festivities commemorating the 1969 Stonewall Riots wasn’t exciting enough, I also – and totally unexpectedly – met at ALA a gaggle of other gay and lesbian librarians who were to instantly and collectively become one of the primary inspirations for my career as a librarian. Their enthusiasm, intelligence, and commitment fueled my own modest efforts back in Atlanta as a sometime activist for social change. In a few instances, individuals I met that week became personal friends – albeit, friends in that way-too-large realm of long-distance friends.
At any rate, the flag Erich gave me in 1986 was a surprise going-away present from Erich, and I regarded it then and regard it still as a token of the powerful bond that had been mysteriously forged among a half a dozen or so of us gay men who showed up for that 1986 conference. Our little band of new-found brothers marched with our colleagues in New York City’s Pride Parade that year, a tradition taken up by the Task Force (now an ALA Round Table) every summer after that.
Here’s a photo of us Task Force folks marching in one of Chicago’s Gay Pride parades, carrying the banner that we created in New York in 1986 – at a banner-making party where many of us met for the first time. (That’s me on the far left, helping carry our banner instead of brandishing Erich’s flag):
(Incidentally, I’m posting these recollections in October instead of in June because, several years ago, the organizers of Atlanta’s Pride festivities decided that most locals would prefer celebrating Pride in the relatively balmy weather prevailing in Atlanta in October – the location on the calendar of National Coming Out Day – instead of congregating every year in the sweltering heat of Atlanta’s typical end-of-June weather.)
Here’s me and my then-partner Larry marching in one of Atlanta’s Pride Parades, back during the 1990s when Atlanta was still celebrating Pride in June:
I have seen Erich again only a few more times since that magical week in 1986, but I remember with great fondness my memories of the ensuing ten-year era of twice-a-year ALA conference-going – and, specifically, the twice-a-year encounters at those conferences with my gay and lesbian library colleagues. Those encounters are still vivid and precious to me, despite the fact that I retired from Libraryland over three years ago.
Although there are obvious limitations of maintaining contact with significant others via email or Facebook, staying in periodic Internet contact over the past thirty years with several of these amazing guys all these decades since 1986 has been a great consolation for the annual trauma of having to part with them every year after each ALA conference the ten years (1986-1996) that I was so intensely involved with the Task Force.
For, alas, not one of those gay librarians who I met in New York City in 1986 lived in or even near Atlanta when we met, and none of them ever moved there – or me elsewhere:
- Thomas Hill still lives in Greenwood, South Carolina, where he lived when I met him.
- Howard Jaffe lived in the DC area in 1986 and still does.
- Erich Kesse was living and working in Florida when we met in 1986 and now lives in Cambridge, England – an entire ocean away!
- Lew Maurer lived and worked in Ohio when I met him; he recently retired and living in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
- Dee Michel was living in Princeton, NJ when I met him, and moved to Los Angeles a month later; he eventually moved to Madison, WI and then settled down in Northampton, MA.
- Paul Weiss was living and working in DC when I met him; he later moved to Albuquerque, then to San Deigo, then to Eugene, OR for a few years, and now lives in Seattle.
There were a few others (I have photos!) who I’ve completely and regrettably lost touch with – and, even more mortifyingly, whose names escape my often-faulty memory.
Additional long-lasting and affectionate friendships with other remarkable gay librarians began at ALA conferences in subsequent years. Among those also far-flung friends:
- Jim Carmichael, who teaches library science in Greensboro, SC.
- John DeSantis, who lives in Vermont.
- Stephen Klein, who moved to the Los Angeles area shortly after we met and who still lives there.
- Adam Schiff, for a long time now living and working in Seattle.
- Ankha Shamin, who lived and worked in Minneapolis when I met him.
- Tom Turner, who I met in at an ALA Midwinter Conference in 1989 when Tom was living in Savannah; he later moved to Tempe, Arizona, and eventually to DC.
- Jim Van Buskirk, who’se lived in San Francisco as long as I’ve known him.
- Hugh Wilburn, still living in Boston as he was when I met him.
To my great delight, a few of us veterans of the 1986 conference (or subsequent conferences) have arranged periodic visits over the years. I get additional peeks at these people’s current lives via Facebook, the source (along with ye non-electronic grapevine reports) about various other remarkable gay librarians who I met through later ALA conferences and about whom I also have a cherished trove of fond memories. I’m thinking of, for example, the late Ed SantaVicca who I met when he was teaching in Arizona, Bruce Fulton who worked at a library in upstate New York, Leon Bey of Dayton, Stephen Fowlkes in New Orleans, Roland Hansen in Chicago, and Steve Murden in Richmond.
One of those fond memories is briefly seeing most of them again when I hosted a gathering at my house for members of the Task Force/Round Table that long-ago year of 2001 when ALA’s annual convention took place in Atlanta.
Some of the guys mentioned here, along with a score of of other GLBTQ professional colleagues (male and female), became fellow contributors to several GLBTQ librarianship-related bibliographic projects I undertook as part of the Task Force’s information clearinghouse; some of those book lists are still being faithfully updated at the Round Table’s website. Other gay and lesbian colleagues I met via the Task Force/Round Table contributed chapters to books that, in my opinion, grew out of relationships that were forged at that 1986 ALA conference, or subsequent conferences:
- Gay and Lesbian Library Service edited by Cal Gough and Ellen Greenblatt (1990)
- Liberating Minds: The Stories and Professional Lives of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Librarians and Their Advocates edited by Norman Kester (1997)
- Daring to Find Our Names: The Search for Lesbigay Library History edited by Jim Carmichael (1998)
- Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users: Essays on Outreach, Service, Collections and Access edited by Ellen Greenblatt (2011)
Memories of these important and/or fondly-remembered friendships and professional acquaintances, only some of whose names I’ve mentioned here, are what Erich’s gift of that Rainbow Flag spark for me, all these years later. Who knew that the flag would come to symbolize so much for me personally on top of all the other things the Rainbow Flag was designed to represent? Thank you, Erich (photo below, from 1986) for such a thoughtful gift that just keeps on giving, year after year!