The history of LGBTQ+ culture and activism at the University of South Carolina is both richer and more complex than many realize. Special Collections at USC University Libraries explores that history and connects it deftly to broader LGBTQ+ history in its Fall 2023 exhibit, “’To tell the secret of my nights and days’: LGBTQ+ History in South Carolina and Beyond.”
Drawing on articles and op-eds in the student newspaper, The Gamecock, as well as letters, photos, fliers and other artifacts from the Libraries’ archives, the exhibit details a history dating almost back to the university’s founding as well as persistent student activism beginning in the 1970s that at times was met with a more positive response than might have been expected.
It’s a story, says Michael Weisenburg, Associate Director of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, who curated the exhibit along with the South Caroliniana Library’s Head of Manuscripts Graham Duncan, that’s often “hidden in plain sight” and oscillates between belonging and exclusion. The materials in the exhibit, Weisenburg says, “do not follow a simple path in one direction over time, but like nights and days, alternate regularly, revealing and concealing themselves in ways that both resonate with and confound contemporary audiences.”
In the 1970s, for example, The Gamecock was generally supportive of gay rights, while in 1983, USC students held a Gay Pride Week seven years before Pride events occurred elsewhere in the state. These firsts were, however, in Weisenburg’s words, “shadowed by periods of repression and backlash … reminding us that efforts to achieve a more just society rarely move in a single direction.”
That same pattern of often-simultaneous repression and freedom of expression plays out in many of the other exhibit materials, such as a series of cheerfully lurid and overtly queer pulp novels from the 1950s, and letters expressing same-sex love between USC undergraduates in the 1820s and between soldiers in World War I.
Reaching all the way back to ancient Greek texts from Plato and Sappho, and featuring work from revered authors including Walt Whitman (from whose “Leaves of Grass” it draws its title), Oscar Wilde, and Maurice Sendek, the exhibit also features comics, YA fiction, and a wide variety of both local and periodicals.
Common threads among these materials transcend both time and traditional highbrow/lowbrow distinctions, Weisenburg says: “In the gender fluidity that runs throughout early LGBTQ+ literature we find the forebearers of trans pioneers such as Charleston’s Dawn Langley Simmons. In the queer literature of the world wars, we find the same semi-secret fraternal and sororal bonds that underwrite the gay liberation movement of the later twentieth century. In the periodical literature of the queer underground, we see mass culture reflected in a convex mirror that, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, tells the secrets of so many nights and days the world over.”
The exhibit also showcases the breadth and depth of University Library collections. Its materials come from the holdings of the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the South Caroliniana Library, the South Carolina Political Collections, the Moving Image Research Collections, and the Department of Oral History, with some items on loan from the collection of English Professor Ed Madden.
“’To tell the secret of my nights and days’: LGBTQ+ History in South Carolina and Beyond” is on display in Hollings Library’s exhibit space through January. Admission is free and open to all.