Durham’s LGBTQ community has seen setbacks and victories, from an attack on swimmers at Little River in 1981, to the start of the state’s Pride parade, the legalization of same-sex marriage and the passage of House Bill 2.
“We often see that kind of push and pull of facing oppression, but finding ways to overcome that oppression that ultimately makes the community stronger,” said Luke Hirst, curator of the Museum of Durham History’s exhibit “Finding Each Other in History: Stories from LGBTQ+ Durham.”
In 2010 Hirst approached Lynn Richardson, Durham County Library’s North Carolina Collection librarian. The meeting led to the eventual collection of materials from 60 community members, including oral histories, photographs, fliers, meetings notes and other materials.
Seven oral histories and related items from that collection will be on display at the Museum of Durham History’s History Hub, 500 W. Main St., through Jan. 15.
The stories include an account of the first march for gay and lesbian rights in the state where some people wore paper bags over their heads to hide their faces, and a black civil rights leader in Durham speaking about being in a relationship with a white man in the 1960s while also being the state youth president of the NAACP.
The exhibit will move to the LGBTQ Center of Durham, 114 Hunt St., on Jan. 17, where it remain until Feb. 28.
An online exhibit will also debut on Oct. 1 at durhamlgbtqhistory.org.
“We really think of this as not the final work, but a starting place for telling those stories,” said Hirst, 33. “We really want this to be an invitation to people to continue to donate their materials through the Durham County library, or to share their stories through the story room at the Museum of History.”
The Durham News spoke more with Hirst last week.
Q: Why did you start collecting these items in the first place?
Hirst: When I started to come out in 2004, I lived in Carrboro at the time. I felt incredibly isolated and didn’t know that people like me had ever existed. And so when I discovered books from LGBTQ folks at the UNC Library, those stories provided so much affirmation. (I learned) there were people who had come before me and that I wasn’t alone in the world.
But I still didn’t know about the people who had come before me locally. I moved to Durham in 2006, and when I started to hear bits and pieces of the stories and I learned how much powerful activism and community building had happened here, I knew I had to share them with other people, especially people in my generation.
I wanted everyone in my generation to feel that connection to a path that is full of strength and creativity, and I wanted people to recognize Durham for the special space that it has in the LGBTQ history.
Q: What have you learned?
Hirst: I have learned how many different perspectives there are within the LGBTQ community. People think of it is as one community and one type of person. But it really is an incredible array of perspectives and experiences. One time I interviewed two people a few months apart, and both of them were white females in their early 30s who had grown up in a conservative area. They had very different perspectives about the goals of how the LGBTQ community should be and how they wanted to live their lives.
I’ve learned about the incredible capacity for people to find the strength and courage to be true to who they are and who they love, despite other people trying to control that. I would hear examples of people going against their families, the legislature, employers, or their religion in order to be true to who they knew they needed to be.
And that was just so moving.
Q: What part did the NC Pride parade play in the history?
Hirst: The first Pride march happened in 1986, and that was a really political time and a really political event. People who were organizing it asked then Mayor Wib Gulley to pass an anti-discrimination proclamation, which he did. He just declared it anti-discrimination week. And because of that, conservatives in the city launched a campaign to recall him. So, there was this huge campaign to try to recall the mayor, and then a campaign to try to not recall the mayor. The recall campaign wasn’t successful.
Q: Why is important for people to go see this exhibit?
Hirst: LGBTQ people have made up a significant portion of this community and have made Durham a hub of queer activity in the South. But our contribution of stories have largely gone unrecognized, and we can see from the events of the past six months with HB2 and with the Orlando massacre that our lives are often treated as disposable. We see from our history that we have overcome many of those attacks before and often come out stronger. I really believe that hearing each others stories is one of the best ways to connect to each other and understand each other and learn to love each other across our differences.
The 32nd annual NC Pride parade and festival is coming up this weekend.
Saturday’s Durham events include:
▪ 8:30 a.m. NC Pride 5k Run & Walk on Duke University’s East Campus.
▪ Festival: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Duke University’s East Campus.
▪ Parade at 1 p.m. The march will begin at Campus Drive and turn right on West Main Street. It then travels west to Broad Street, turns right on Broad Street, turns left on Green Street and turns left on Ninth Street. The route then turns left on West Main and travels back to Campus Dr. where it will end.
Other events will be held in Durham, Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Raleigh Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Learn more about those events at http://www.ncpride.org