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Collective Crisis : Loss of Storage Space Leaves Future Uncertain for Gay Activist’s Unique Archives

Times Staff Writer

Amid the clutter of books and papers in his modest Echo Park home, the man who was once kicked out of the Communist Party because he is gay speaks with confidence about his latest struggle.

“Something’s gonna come through, I just know it,” says gay-rights activist Jim Kepner, 65, a self-described “pack rat” credited with assembling the nation’s largest single collection of gay and lesbian materials.

Languished in Boxes

But although scholars consider the collection of 22,000 books, 100,000 periodicals and countless other items to be among the most important of its kind, making it the envy of half a dozen universities, its future is anything but certain.

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In July, the International Gay and Lesbian Archives, which has subsisted on small donations and occasional fund-raisers, lost its storefront Hollywood home of 8 years after the nonprofit corporation Kepner helped organize could no longer afford the $1,200-a-month rent.

Since then, the collection has languished in boxes at a couple of warehouses and in the homes of archives board members.

The city of West Hollywood--with its estimated 30% gay and lesbian population--has offered to provide the archives with free space in a building that is likely to be torn down within 2 years if a proposed new civic center comes to fruition.

But with no money available to acquire new materials, or even catalogue and preserve much of what is already there, those familiar with the collection say its future may be in jeopardy.

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“What has happened is a shame from the standpoint of its not being accessible,” said Peter Thorslev, an English professor at UCLA who teaches a course in gay literature. “But the worse shame is that without restorative care soon, I’m afraid a good many of the older materials will be permanently lost.”

He and others say many of the archives’ brittle early newspaper clippings and periodicals--some dating to the turn of the century--are deteriorating rapidly and need to be “deacidified.”

“If you’ve ever left a newspaper exposed to the sun for any length of time, you know the kinds of problems they’re dealing with,” Thorslev said. “Restoring the materials (by deacidification) is a delicate and expensive process.”

UCLA has expressed interest in acquiring the collection, along with Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and several other universities, Kepner said.

Worked as Clerk

However, the 14-member archives board is divided over whether to place the collection in the hands of a university, donate it to one of several gay and lesbian organizations that have expressed interest, or continue to try to maintain it itself.

“The only thing we can say for sure is that we would like to see the collection stay intact and accessible to the public,” Kepner said. “We don’t want it squirreled away in boxes that only an occasional scholar is going to see.”

He began the collection in 1942 while working as a railroad clerk in San Francisco, at a time he and other gay friends “were trying to figure a way to come out of the closet.”

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“I’ve always been inquisitive, and, even though I never envisioned that the collection would evolve to what it has become, I always had an innate sense that what I was doing was important,” he said. “It was something I felt driven to do.”

After spending 3 years in New York at the close of World War II as a reporter for the Daily Worker, the communist newspaper, Kepner was expelled from the Communist Party after party officials became aware of his sexual orientation.

“It was a subtle kind of thing, for those days. But there was no doubt left as to why I was more or less asked to move along,” he said.

After his expulsion, he moved to Los Angeles and became an early member of the Mattachine Society, an important gay-rights group during the 1950s, and other organizations championing “radical” causes.

Related to Movement

All the while he continued to collect books, magazine articles, notes, sketches and correspondence related to the movement.

Crammed inside his home and at seven other storage locations are file cabinets, bookcases and piles of gay newspapers, magazines and newsletters from all over the world.

Included are rough and finished versions of poems by Sidney Bronstein, a gay artist and one of Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s primary sources for his studies of human sexuality.

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The collection holds voluminous correspondence and notes from early gay-rights activist Monwell Boyfrank, including scores of letters dating from 1935 to 1955 between Boyfrank and Henry Gerber, founder in 1924 of the first known gay organization in the United States.

There are hundreds of photographs, minutes and notes from gay liberation meetings and gay and lesbian movement activities, picket signs from demonstrations over the years, and what are considered to be among the most complete records of several gay organizations dating from the 1950s.

‘Great Deal of Interest’

“There’s really nothing else to compare it with as far as scholarship value is concerned,” said Oscar Sims, a social sciences bibliographer at UCLA. “We’ve had a great deal of interest from faculty representing a variety of disciplines who would love to have access to it.”

Meanwhile, at least some West Hollywood officials want to find a permanent home for the collection there.

“I think it obviously has great cultural significance for a city such as ours,” City Councilman Steve Schulte said.

He and others have raised the possibility of promoting the archives as part of an expanded county-operated library in West Hollywood that could function “with some degree of autonomy” from the existing branch library.

Kepner remains cautious.

“We’ve had our hopes raised before. At this point, we’re going to be grateful for any help we can get.”


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