Preserving the history of South Carolina’s LGBTQ community

It began with a single student.  

During a 2017 visit to Special Collections in Addlestone Library, a Cougar inquired about materials featuring the Lowcountry’s LGBTQ community. For Special Collections – home to many of the rarest materials not just in the region, but the world – coming up emptyhanded was uncommon.

Due to a long practice of stigmatizing LGBTQ individuals, available archival materials have long been at risk of being hidden or destroyed. And so, the maxim remains true: We can make history only when we record and preserve it.  

That same year, with generous initial funding from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, the Libraries launched LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry, the first project of its kind in the region.  

I was drawn to this project for two reasons, both having to do with one word: parity,” says Harlan Greene ’74, the Libraries’ scholar in residence. “I saw that virtually no other institution in our state was documenting the LGBTQ experience and presencehistorically or in the modern era, and it prompted me to go full steam ahead to try to catch information before it disappeared.” 

A collaboration with the Women’s Health Research Team, the project serves to collect and share the stories of the region’s LGBTQ community, shedding light on this understudied population by collecting archival materials and recording oral histories.  

For the past three years, project staff have been doing just that. More than 50 oral histories have been recorded and transcribed, including Lynn Dugan, a founder of the first Pride March in Charleston, and Richard Little, a former local bar proprietor now at the National Institutes of Health working with cancer and AIDS patients. 

Through the work of project staffers Brandon Reid ’16 and Rebecca Thayer, dozens of collections dating back to the 1850s are now researchable, spanning the personal papers of renowned cookbook author John Martin Taylor to the organizational records of the Alliance for Full Acceptance. 

“Building an inclusive archive not only fulfills our public mission, it creates a research laboratory for students and faculty across the curriculum,” says John White ’99, dean of LibrariesLGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry is a vital and necessary project for our college and for our state. It collects and preserves unique material and, through its partnership with the Women’s Health Research Team, provides an important experiential learning opportunity for students.”  

LGBTQ Life in the Lowcountry brings together not only materials, but the entire CofC community. Undergraduate and graduate students alike research the collections as part of their coursework and theses, spotlighting these oft-overlooked stories. This summer, the project and Special Collections hosted an edit-a-thon, drawing students and faculty from across campus in an effort to address gaps and inequities in Wikipedia content.  

While the project’s impact and popularity has never been in doubt, the tax-deductible support of donors — corporate and individual  is critical to continue its mission.  

Nearing the end of initial funding from the Donnelley Foundation, local philanthropist and civil rights activist Linda Ketner offered a challenge, promising to match donations to the project dollar for dollar, up to $25,000. 

“Growing up LGBTQ, particularly in the South, was a lonely, frightening, shaming kind of journey, and to a great extent I think it still is in many parts of South Carolina,” says Ketner. “And if young people can learn from some of us who have gone through those experiences, it might help them, it might even save lives.” 

Charleston native and literary editor Harriet McDougal answered the call, making a significant commitment to the project in memory of dear friend Reeves van HettingaMcDougal’s gift, combined with more than 20 others, allowed the Libraries to meet and surpass Ketner’s $25,000 challenge. 

As McDougal said, LGBTQ history “is the history of Charleston.” 

These funds have allowed the project to grow, expanding its research into communities throughout the Lowcountry and guaranteeing these stories will be saved and accessible to the public and scholars. But to become a permanent resource for the CofC community, further support is needed.  

Taylor Debartola ‘10, an alumnus of the communications program in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is leading the charge, raising funds to meet the immediate needs of the project.  

I got involved in this project because I count myself among the 1 in 5 College of Charleston students who identify somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum and realized quickly the dearth of resources, representation and research available to us on campus,” says Debartola. I see this project, and the commitment from the College to preserve and protect these important histories, to be a step in the right direction in honoring and documenting a history that could very well vanish before our eyes.”  

Written by Vincent Fraley