Researchers interested in the state's civil rights progress may now peruse the letters, diaries and flyers of four prominent gay activists at the Louisiana Research Collection, housed at Tulane University.
The research collection recently obtained the papers of Rich Magill, Alan Robinson, Skip Ward and Stewart Butler. Leon Miller, head of the collection, called the acquisition “extremely significant.”
The collection also holds, among many other items, papers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long.
“These collections apply to every aspect of society and culture in general,” Miller said.
Magill wrote "Exposing Hatred," a study of violence perpetrated against the gay community. Robinson owned and operated Faubourg Marigny Books and founded many LGBTQ organizations. An Alexandria resident, Ward promoted the rights of gay people in rural areas.
At 87, Butler remains a force in the civil rights movement. He lives in the pink Creole cottage he shared with his partner, Alfred Doolittle. Nicknamed “The Faerie Playhouse,” it has been a meeting place for civil rights activists since 1979.
Butler’s contributions to the civil rights movement are deep and far-reaching. He co-founded the Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus of Louisiana in 1980. He advocated for the New Orleans gay rights ordinance in 1984, 1986 and 1991, and served on boards including the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, the Louisiana Lesbian and Gay Political Action Caucus and PFLAG.
“Butler became the most important Louisiana LGBTQ civil rights activist,” Miller said.
Butler is characteristically humble when asked about his contributions.
“(Alfred) supported my activism,” Butler said in a phone interview. “Every time I was asked to acknowledge something, I would tell people it wasn’t me — it was Alfred and me. And it was.”
The men met at one rainy night in 1973 at Café Lafitte in Exile. There, a dark-haired San Francisco native locked eyes with Butler.
“(Alfred) picked me up, even though I was six years older, and God knows I wasn’t as good looking as he was,” Butler said. “I thought of him as being my Prince Valiant from out of the rain.”
Heir to a gold fortune, Doolittle asked Butler to retire in 1980. It marked the beginning of Butler’s career as a full-time activist.
“Nobody wants to sit around doing nothing, and I was always very much a political animal,” Butler said. “I was gay and somewhat militant about it, so at the age of 50, I got into it to the fullest extent of the law, so to speak.”
Over the years, Butler amassed 25 boxes of documents, including letters, meeting minutes, election questionnaires and more.
“I didn’t throw things away,” Butler said. “I just kept them, because I thought maybe they could be useful in the future.”
Butler co-founded the LGBT+ Archives Project of Louisiana in 2014. Shortly thereafter, he donated his papers to the research collection, which has acquired LGBTQ materials for more than 30 years.
“We do make an effort to document undocumented communities,” said Sean Benjamin, public services librarian at the collection. “Modern archives are making an effort to rectify that historical collection bias by specifically focusing on collecting things that aren’t part of the dominant, overarching culture.”
There’s another compelling reason to acquire LGBTQ collections, said Frank Perez, president of the LGBTQ+ Archives Project.
“I go back to the old cliché—if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” Perez said. “The history of LGBT people is obviously not something we want to go through again. It is a history of invisibility, police harassment, being ostracized, discrimination.”
Perez added that in the 1950s, all the materials in the LGBTQ collections would have been considered contraband.
“For so long, being LGBT was not something people wanted to document, because it could get you fired, evicted, or landed in jail or a mental institution,” Perez said. “We have a very rich LGBT history, but only a fraction has been preserved. So that rarity makes it valuable in and of itself.”
The research organization's collections, which span four linear miles, are available to the public. Appointments are not necessary to view the holdings.
“We don’t want anyone to feel intimidated,” Miller said. “We have people come from Oxford, and we have people who are just beginning to study family genealogy.
“These are international cultural treasures, and we are ethically obligated to make them available to everyone on an equal basis.”