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Queerolina exhibit aims to preserve LGBTQ+ history at UNC

Wilson Library, highlighted in Queerolina's online oral history, stands tall on Sept. 12, 2022.

To some UNC students, Wilson Library is a stoic, sometimes intimidating place to study. But in the 1970s, the basement hallway served as a safe meeting space for LGBTQ+ students — mostly gay men — to congregate and to exchange ideas among the archival stacks.     

Told by alumnus Larry Alford, this is one of several oral histories featured in Queerolina — an online oral history exhibit in collaboration with Wilson Library's Special Collections, the Southern Oral History Program and the UNC Department of Communication. 

UNC alumna Cassie Tanks, who helped create the project with UNC Ph.D. candidate Hooper Schultz, described how the exhibit uses the idea of “rival geographies” to tell the history of the LGBTQ+ community at UNC. 

The idea of a “rival geography” — a contradiction in values between a place and the people that occupy it — is what inspired Tanks and Schultz to create an interactive map of the UNC campus, accompanied with the oral histories of students and alumni speaking about their queer experiences in those places. 

For Tanks, the Wilson Library basement represented an archetypal rival geography. 

“I just felt like that was such a great example of how you have this record-keeping system or archive that's the embodiment of a power structure and have this group of young men who aren't what that power structure envisions or was built for using that place to create their own space,” she said. 

The UNC Story Archive, a part of Wilson Library's Special Collections, is a new archival collection where people can add their voice to the University's historical record through interviews, monologues and digital images of their experiences, Tanks said. 

Nicholas Graham, a University archivist, said that the Special Collection’s mission is to collect official records from student groups and alumni and use those to share and to teach campus history. 

“Queerolina is a terrific example of a way that we can take archival materials and really bring them to life and make it easy for people to access and discover and learn about aspects of campus history,” he said. 

Through the UNC Story Archive, Tanks and Schultz took their idea for a project featuring oral histories of the queer community at UNC and created a virtual, interactive map. Through this map, visitors to the site can click on one of several geotagged locations on campus and read the transcript and listen to the audio recording of an interviewee’s experiences in that location. 

“You're not just reading the facts about campus life 10 years ago or 50 years ago, you're hearing directly from the people who lived it,” Graham said.

UNC's University Libraries have never done a full exhibit about LGBTQ+ history on campus, Graham said. 

Through a series of interviews with alumni and some current students, Tanks and Schultz were able to piece together the untold queer history of UNC. Because the pandemic made it so that they couldn’t conduct in-person interviews, Graham said they were able to reach alumni all across the country to gather diverse perspectives for the exhibit.

The name “Queerolina” was generated as a reparative label, reclaiming what was once a slur used to refer to the University’s progressive nature compared to other public schools in the Southeast, Tanks said. 

“[The name] was a nod to ‘Oh, you used to say that to bring people down?' Well, now we're going to use it to not only lift up these stories but lift up this community, as varied and intersectional as it is, despite that attempted use to make it pejorative,” Tanks said. 

Schultz told The Daily Tar Heel that he hopes this project will give young North Carolinians an opportunity to see that they are not alone and that queer people have and will continue to have an impact on the University’s history. 

“History is about making sense of the past, but there's something about knowing your history that can foster a sense of belonging,” he said. “I think that when queer people are able to stake their claim to history, it fosters that sense of belonging and it says, ‘We've been here. We're part of this community.’”

CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this story listed Schultz as an alumnus of UNC. Schultz did graduate from the University in 2014, but is currently a Ph.D. student at the UNC Department of History.


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