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Archivist talks documenting leather, S&M and fetishism history
by Charlsie Dewey
2016-04-19

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For more than four decades, Gayle Rubin has been uncovering documents and artifacts pertaining to leather, S&M and fetishism culture, ensuring this important piece of history isn't lost to time.

Rubin—who is an archivist and associate professor of anthropology and women's studies at the University of Michigan—didn't set out to become one of the country's top archivists of these materials. Instead, her work led her down that path.

In 1978, while working on her dissertation on gay male leather subculture in San Francisco she found the source material necessary for her work substantially lacking.

"The research institutions that normally would collect archival materials on which scholars could base their research just didn't collect this material," Rubin said.

She noted that was the case for most LGBTQ materials.

"I got involved doing research first on lesbian history in the early 1970s, then on gay history more generally, and then on leather history toward the late 1970s, and at that time, there were very few collections of primary source material in any of these areas," she said.

"When I first went to San Francisco to do research there, the major research libraries in the Bay Area didn't even have copies of the major gay newspapers. They just didn't collect those types of materials."

As a result, Rubin and others doing similar work began accumulating source materials themselves.

Rubin said that accumulation proved challenging.

First, she noted, as with any attempt to document history, many of the documents and artifacts were naturally lost to time.

"Any kind of documentary material that is produced in almost any situation on this planet only survives partly by accident and partly because there are resources available to preserve it," Rubin said.

"Even where materials are durable or there is an institution to take care of them, there are the problems of wars and fires. The library of Alexandria burned and a lot of material is lost every time there is a war."

Rubin said when it comes to sexual histories or other stigmatized histories there are additional challenges that come into play as well.

"A lot of people didn't save material because they thought it wasn't important or they were embarrassed by it," she said.

She also noted the impact of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s on material preservation.

"A lot of the people who were dying were too young to have thought about making a will or appointing someone to have legal authority to manage their estate," Rubin said. "A lot of families came in and either didn't know what the stuff was or were embarrassed by it, so a lot of it got thrown away.

"One organization with which I was involved at the time was called the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project. We were out doing salvage operations, trying to save what we could from this wave of loss and destruction that was happening, not just to the individuals, but to the histories of the communities in which they'd been a part."

Rubin said it is particularly important for minority communities to preserve their histories.

"If you don't have that ability to produce, preserve and make accessible the documentary and artifactual remains of any human project, it tends to vanish very quickly and then people don't know it ever happened.

"With gay history, a lot has been lost. A lot of young gay people were under the impression they were the first individuals on the planet to ever have these feelings or to try to articulate and express them, because the histories had not been adequately preserved."

By preserving the histories of the LGBTQ community and its many subcultures over time, Rubin said, "We could situate ourselves better historically, intellectually and socially, and have some understanding of who we were and where we were in the world."

That knowledge also provides a source of power for present-day movements.

"Knowledge is a form of power and without it, one is lacking some really key tools for functioning in the world and certainly for certain social and political and moral agendas," Rubin said.

Rubin will share her knowledge as an archivist and anthropologist on Saturday, April 23, in Chicago at the Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave.

Rubin said she will talk about the challenges early scholars faced in locating and assembling source materials related to LGBTQ history as well as about her specific collection of leather, S&M and fetishism, which she has accumulated through her projects.

The presentation, "Archival Fetishism: Decades of Documenting Leather History," will begin at 3 p.m. n Saturday, April 23, at the Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview Ave. Doors will open at 2:30 p.m. Member admission is free; general admission is $10. Tickets will be available at the door or at www.leatherarchives.org/adminticket.html .


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