Searching for Queer Miami

I thought it might be appropriate to begin my first HASTAC Scholars post with a look at my present UGrow fellowship with HistoryMiami Museum. This year, in lieu of teaching, I have spent two days a week at HistoryMiami, primarily assisting the archives department with cleaning the metadata for their digital records in preparation for a move to another server. However, what I’d like to talk about today is the very first thing I did with HistoryMiami, back in September. Chris Barfield, the exhibit curator, set me up with access to the museum’s special collections and archives and asked me to see what I could find for an upcoming exhibit titled Queer Miami, which would open in March 2019. The exhibit, guest curated by Julio Capo, Jr., a Miami native and associate professor of history at Univeristy of Massachusetts, Amherst, would present LGBTQ communities in Miami, past and present. 

While graduate education certainly fosters research skills, this experience was still a bit of a learning curve, as my background is solely in English, not history or museum studies. However, and as with most of my DH experiences so far, diving in quickly became the best way to learn the differing systems the museum uses. With the help of Adriana Jaen Millares, Ashley Trujillo, and Kristen Lachterman, I was able to find and flag potential items to be used in the exhibit. What I did not expect, and probably should have, was the ways in which I would have to search to find what I was looking for–specifically, the keywords archivists have used over the decades.

This conversation is not a new one, of course. We know, and have known, that the archive is not neutral, that language shifts over time–sometimes violently. Words I used casually as an adolescent in the 1990s are now, rightly, considered verboten. But it is one thing to discuss such things and another to confront them directly through a search for materials related to queerness. And so, partially with the help of Dr. Capo’s book, Welcome to Fairyland, I compiled a list of words which had historically been used to describe queerness throughout the past century that might lead me where I needed to go. A partial list of terms I used include obvious terms, like queer, gay, lesbian, homosexual, as well as historical terms like fairy, and dandy. More recent terms which are now outmoded, such as transsexual, also yielded results. I entered hundreds of terms, anything I could think of, in the hopes of finding historical examples of queerness in Miami.  And yet, I missed an entire folder of archival photographs from the mid-twentieth century because I did not think to search for “female impersonator.” Ashley Trujillo, the archives manager, did, and the result is a beautiful set of photographs.

But this last term, “female impersonator,” leads to a larger flaw in the search: how can we determine archival queerness? Does men dressing up in women’s clothing automatically become a queer act? Is a photograph of young men from the 1890s, arms draped around one another in casual intimacy, an image of queerness in turn-of-the-century Miami, or is it a reflection on changing attitudes toward masculinity and physical displays of affection? Should a photograph labeled “dandies” be taken to mean well-dressed men, or something more? My role, as a graduate assistant, was not to make these decisions. Instead, I flagged everything that might possibly be appropriate so that the curatorial team could make their own decisions. I haven’t yet seen what they have chosen and what they have left out–and what, like the female impersonators above, I completely missed–but I am very excited to find out. Queer Miami debuts next week, with an opening reception and preview party on Friday, March 15th. It is free for all who pre-register prior to March 12, and $10 afterward. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there.

One response to “Searching for Queer Miami”