Student curator Gabrielle Colangelo ’22 brings obscured lesbian histories to light
For her exhibition, “We Are Everywhere: Lesbians in the Archive,” now on view in Sterling Memorial Library, student curator Gabrielle “Gabby” Colangelo ’22, began by asking questions. “Why are there so few lesbians represented in Yale’s archives? And who is Silvia Dobson, this unknown woman who appears so prominently in my search results?” These questions launched Colangelo’s dive deeper into the library’s archives, raising more questions for her: about how library collections are built, how queerness shows up in the archives, and how archives affect issues of privacy, invisibility, and legacy.
In 2020, Colangelo enrolled in “Poetry and Objects,” a class taught by Karin Roffman, lecturer in Humanities and English, and Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature at the Beinecke Library. The class considers, among other things, how institutions describe the objects that they house and display. During her coursework, Colangelo came across the name “Silvia Dobson” for the first time. Silvia Dobson (1908–1993) was a friend and lover of the modernist poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle). Dobson kept every letter the poet sent her, now part of Dobson’s personal archive in the Beinecke Library collection. In her papers, Dobson writes frankly about her own lesbianism; the fact that she self-identified as lesbian explains why she is catalogued with that term and therefore appeared in Colangelo’s search results. As Colangelo soon discovered, the secrecy and fear of social stigma that historically kept queer people from revealing that aspect of their identities also makes it difficult to locate them in historical archives. Further, the Library of Congress did not authorize the word “homosexuality” as a subject heading until 1946 and “lesbian” until 1954. “The same homophobia that makes it dangerous to live as a queer person,” Colangelo writes, “makes queerness a difficult subject to find in the library.”
Colangelo, an English major, returned to Dobson as a subject for her senior thesis, “‘Tantalizing Fragments’: Reading Real and Imagined Queer Archives in Virginia Woolf and Silvia Dobson.” When she was selected to curate Yale Library’s 2022 senior essay exhibit, Colangelo took advantage of the opportunity to show a more expansive view of lesbian history. Her exhibition “We Are Everywhere” features a broad array of materials from the library’s special collections and elsewhere—books, magazines, photographs, posters, and stickers—that scholars searching in Yale Library’s online catalogue would find under the keyword “lesbian.”
There are five cases in Colangelo’s exhibition, each with a specific theme: “‘Lesbian’ as Keyword,” “The Queer Harlem Renaissance,” “Who Was Silvia Dobson?,” “Aché: The Power to Make Things Happen,” and “Women and the Aids Crisis.” The research for each case required a slightly different approach. “It was fun to have five different cases,” Colangelo said. “If I hit a dead end, I could transition to another kind of research.”
The case entitled “The Queer Harlem Renaissance” explores the active queer subculture of writers and musicians during that era. Although Beinecke Library has an extensive collection of Harlem-Renaissance materials, the majority document the lives of male writers, such as Langston Hughes. Black queer women writers, Colangelo notes, are “in the margins of men’s archives”—quite literally. Three poems by Hughes appear in the journal Black Opals: Hail Negro Youth (1927), with Hughes’s inscription alongside them, which is why this volume is included in the Beinecke Library’s collection. The last poem on those pages, however, is by Mae Cowdery, a bisexual woman who published this poem, “My Body,” while she was still in high school. Cowdery, who, if not for Hughes might not be in the archives at all, later published one of the only full-length poetry collections published by a Black woman during the first half of the twentieth century.
Colangelo’s exhibition also includes long-held-private love notes between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and the papers of Lisbet Tellefsen and Pippa Fleming, founders of Aché, a free publication for and about Black lesbians in the San Francisco Bay Area. “To Tellefsen,” Colangelo writes, “archiving was an act of community care.” Their magazine was a vehicle through which “Black lesbians could come together to imagine a more united future.” Tellefsen’s archive is the number-one hit when one searches for “lesbian” in the Yale Library archives, because Tellefsen intentionally self-identified as a lesbian to ensure her archive would be available to future lesbians.
Colangelo’s research and exhibit are based primarily on Yale Library special collections found in Manuscripts and Archives and the Beinecke Library. In addition, she looked beyond Yale for hard-to-find materials and sources of information, such as the Old Lesbian Oral Herstory Project at Smith College. The exhibition closes in the 1980s and 1990s, with New York Times articles about the AIDS crisis, photographs, pamphlets, funeral memorial cards, quilt blocks from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and political ACT UP posters and photographs designed to raise awareness about women and AIDS.
In her exhibition signage, Colangelo writes, “To be a lesbian is to be a historian… . We record our own lives. We remember ourselves; we remember each other.” “Working on this exhibition made me realize I only want to do public humanities work,” she said. “I want to keep working in libraries and museums. I want to keep doing work that will let younger lesbians see themselves and say, ‘That’s me.’”
In Fall 2022, Colangelo will be pursuing graduate work at the University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies.
“We Are Everywhere” may be seen in the Wall Street Exhibition Corridor of Sterling Memorial Library through Sept. 30, 2022. Sterling is open to the public during daytime hours. All visitors must be vaccinated and, when eligible, boosted. See Yale Library COVID-19 library updates for visitor requirements. See the online exhibition and watch a gallery talk with the curator.
—By Deborah Cannarella