In the midst of sorting a mound of yellowed newspapers in the hot attic of a century-old building in Mount Vernon, Arnie VandeBrake would occasionally pause, caught up by letters from the volatile early days of the gay rights movement.
"The correspondence would be so poignant, it would feel like a disservice just to put it down and not understand what it meant," said VandeBrake, 30.
As the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore prepares to relocate this fall after more than 30 years at its West Chase Street headquarters, a small group of volunteers is working to compile, catalog and preserve records they say highlight the history of the center and the trajectory of the nation through a time of rapid changes.
Among the collected but uncataloged archives are hundreds of issues of the organization's Gay Life newspaper dating to the 1970s. There are candid, undated images of John Waters and RuPaul, legislative records, and personal correspondence from those who suffered backlash for being out and who found support at the center.
The volunteers hope to eventually partner with a local institution to digitize the collection — a move lauded by archivists for its potential value to scholars and historians who are scrambling to locate comprehensive collections of gay historical materials around the country.
Some gay organizations have only recently begun to preserve documents, while others have lacked the resources to do so in a thorough way. Others have well-established archives, including the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries.
"If you think of the community writ large, with many different segments and parts, preserving the history is very important for understanding where we've been and what we've gone through," said Michael Kurtz, director of archival specialization at the University of Maryland, College Park's College of Information Studies.
Founded in 1977, the GLCCB, as the Baltimore center is known, has been a focal point of Baltimore's gay community.
The center's archives reveal flash points in the history of the gay community in Baltimore. A huge sign for the 31st Street Bookstore, a pre-center hangout for lesbians and other women on 31st Street in Waverly, stands against an attic wall. Letters from gay Marylanders complaining about employment discrimination mix with transcripts of testimony before the Governor's AIDS Commission from the 1980s.
"It is a horrible way to be forced to fear for your job and well-being just because you have preferences which differ from others," a woman wrote in the late 1970s. "I abide by the same laws, pay the same taxes, vote for the same officials, go to church at the same churches, sweat the same sweat, cry the same tears but have no protection or guarantee of the same rights as you. I am ridiculed, scorned and blamed through ignorance and unfounded fear."
Another letter illuminates behind-the-scenes strategizing about gay rights battles.
In 1988 — as the Baltimore City Council considered a bill that would have prevented discrimination and the Orioles were having a particularly bad season — Andrew A. Sorensen, associate dean of the Johns Hopkins University's school of public health, wrote a letter to Curt Decker, an attorney with the Baltimore Justice Campaign. Both backed the legislation.
"I knew the gods were looking on us favorably when various Baltimore Orioles began testifying against the bill," Sorensen wrote. "I gathered considerable solace from the fact that players on a team that recorded 4 wins in their first 30 games argued, by inference, that passage of the bill would be bad for baseball. That kind of statement, made in public, requires copious chutzpah and minuscule intelligence."
According to a Baltimore Sun article from the time, former pitchers Scott McGregor, who'd left the team the month prior, and Tippy Martinez, who'd left two years prior, had both argued against the bill.
McGregor, who is currently serving as the team's interim bullpen coach, said recently he feels the same way he did in 1988 but declined to elaborate. Martinez declined to comment on his current feelings because "everybody seems to get the wrong idea when you express your opinion," he said.
Volunteers at the Baltimore Center believe Gay Life could be the nation's longest-running self-published newspaper for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, community and said they have most published issues since April 1979. A seminal moment in the modern gay rights movement — the Stonewall riots in response to police raiding a popular gay bar in New York City — had taken place just a decade earlier.
Kurtz said interest in preserving gay and lesbian history has become more keen in recent years, as the nation witnesses an evolution in perspective on issues ranging from LGBT employment discrimination to same-sex marriage.
"In the archival profession and around the country, this is a major issue and has been for some time," he said. "With current, recent events, that interest has intensified."
The scope of the Baltimore center's collection could be particularly valuable, Kurtz said.
"To have such full documentation, really back to the beginning of the movement, I think is unique, so there will be interest," he said.
Last year, several volunteers formed an archives committee. Their project became more urgent in May, when the center sold its building for $235,000 and began looking for a new home.
The center has a five-year strategic plan to expand programming through grants, donations and funds raised at events like the GLCCB-sponsored Baltimore Pride, but it can't do so in its current building, said Matthew Thorn, the center's executive director.
Facing up to $900,000 in renovation costs to bring its headquarters into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and renovate aging offices and community spaces, the center chose instead to sell the building, its home since 1980, Thorn said. The center will move to a new, temporary space this fall as it launches a capital campaign to buy a permanent headquarters, he said.
At the end of the organization's 2011 fiscal year, prior to the sale of its building and the most recent year for which tax forms are available, the center was about $134,000 in debt. Thorn said the organization is now in the black with an operating budget for this year of about $400,000.
The hope is that the new building would display the organization's long history, offering members, visitors and local scholars digitized records and a pictorial look back at Baltimore's gay past. Those at the center also plan to continue efforts to capture interviews with older LGBT residents of the city.
"This is a really important time in our history," said Daniel McEvily, the center's new communications director and Gay Life's editor. "Our elderly LGBT folks are getting older, and just being able to capture their history while still having access to them is crucial."
VandeBrake, who works at the Hippodrome Theatre, said the GLCCB's archival committee is in talks with local institutions about partnering to preserve and digitize the center's archives, which have languished and yellowed in the center's muggy attic and are in need of a climate-controlled space.
Kurtz said such a partnership would be key to the center's long-term success, adding that the collection is unusual enough that it may draw interest in a more permanent partnership or hosting agreement.
After hundreds of hours of work, the center's archival volunteers have sorted all the Gay Life papers they could find and are now working through photographs and other documents. The work is "tedious" but rewarding, said volunteer Aaron Antonio, 32, a designer for Under Armour who recently moved to Mount Vernon from Chicago.
From the 1970s' emphasis on finding a voice for the gay community, to the 1980s' and 1990s' focus on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the more recent attention to same-sex marriage, the collection tracks through history from the perspective of the gay community, something that is not always found in history books, said Patrick Alexander, 33, another volunteer, Mount Vernon resident and local music teacher.
"There's so much to learn about a lot of things people my age obviously didn't live through," he said.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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