In the '60s "the L word" stood for "liberation" or the liberation movement, when many sexual minorities decided to talk openly about their same-sex orientation, ending decades of secrecy. In the '70s it was virtually impossible to find any book with a lesbian theme; libraries listed some in their card catalogues but they were missing from the shelves. In the '80s a Cincinnati newspaper printed a Sunday insert titled "Homosexuals: A Cincinnati Report" so that it was easy to pull out and toss aside.
So says Karen Phebe Beiser, co-founder of the Ohio Lesbian Archive (OLA), as she hands over a yellowing copy of the 28-page section.
This is just one of the thousands of documents that Beiser and Vic Ramstetter, the self-titled stepmother to the archive, have compiled. Many out-of-print books and magazines, buttons, bumper stickers and business records from three defunct lesbian bookstores are among the items in the only lesbian archive in the Midwest. It's one of only three in the nation.
These women believe it's critical to preserve the documents, journals, posters and other materials, cobbled together from their own collections and donations from other like-minded preservationists, that reveal the "herstory" of the lesbian experience.
"Vic and I came out in the '70s when there was no L Word or Will and Grace on TV," Beiser says. "There weren't lesbian and gay books at Borders and Barnes & Noble."
Ramstetter describes her search for lesbian fiction.
"Scouring all the used book stores, I finally ran across a copy of Radclyffe Hall's Well of Loneliness — and that is so the opposite of uplifting," she says.
"It was the first time that a lesbian didn't kill herself at the end or die," Beiser adds. "But it was still, 'Poor me, please accept me.' But that was groundbreaking for its time."
"There were only five or six lesbian novels printed in a year," Ramstetter adds.
Noting that approximately two-thirds of books in their collection are now out of print, the women say students, academics, feminists and women simply wanting to understand more about lesbian culture, feminism or Cincinnati have a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips on the shelves and in the file cabinets and boxes lining the walls. Given the unique position of many lesbians in many social and political movements, the materials go beyond sexuality.
"Lesbians had one foot in the feminist movement and one foot in the gay movement," Beiser says.
That makes the OLA a valuable asset, according to Anne Sisson Runyan, head of the Department of Women's Studies at the University of Cincinnati. She says the materials of social movements need to be saved in order to understand and learn from them. She uses the alliance between sexual minorities as an example.
"We need to look at the differences between lesbians and gays, to note the differences women specifically face as opposed to men," Runyan says. "There tend to be more class differences between women and men generally. There are different economic concerns, such as unequal pay and so on."
When environmentalists and peace activists team up with feminists or sexual liberation groups, their experiences and stories become intertwined. This means every archive contains information about other political and social struggles.
Runyan believes this accurate view of the complex nature of social organizations will make it possible for new generations to learn from the past; that's why she wants to see the OLA preserved.
"This is important for research, for special movement histories, for informing new movements and new generations of movements," she says.
The Lesbian Archive, considered a special movement, contains information about the roots of many ongoing struggles women are facing.
"I think archives will also show how central lesbians were, and continue to be, to women's movement politics — to show their contributions but also show that lesbians can be marginalized within the women's movement, even though they may be in the most important leadership," Runyan says. "Many denied that lesbians are in it because they don't want power brokers to marginalize the women's movement on the basis of homophobia. Sexism and heterosexism are deeply linked. As long as heterosexism exists, sexism will exist. It's about foregrounding lesbian leadership."
Located in Northside on the third floor of the building commonly known as "The Crazy Ladies Bookstore" in honor of the former tenant, the OLA is preparing to move from its home of 17 years. The building is up for sale and, with no sympathetic buyer on the horizon, Beiser and Ramstetter aren't waiting to see if they will be allowed to continue renting their cramped quarters for $55 a month.
"We would like to have a room of our own that we can afford — which isn't much — that's climate controlled," Beiser says.
"A lot of people have given us very sensitive materials — their personal writings, their journals — with the understanding that they would be protected," Ramstetter says.
Both women balk at the idea of having a larger collection or library absorb the archive. They're committed to keeping the OLA a grassroots entity that won't bow to the vagaries of a sensitive board or an unfriendly political climate and continue providing free access to anyone who wants it.
"Cincinnati has needed us and still does," Beiser says. "One thing we've noticed is people from out of town sometimes appreciate us more than people in town. Women doing research of some kind or other find out about us, they come into this room and are like, 'Oh my god' — or goddess, if you will. Students have used it to do papers on politics in Cincinnati in the '70s. We always stress that it's fine to come here just out of curiosity."
The Ohio Lesbian archive, in the business of "collecting and preserving lesbian and gay history" in the Tristate region, hopes to be around for many years to come.
To learn more about the Ohio Lesbian Archive, offer assistance with housing the archive or make a contribution, write OLA, P.O. Box 20075, Cincinnati, OH 45220 or [email protected].