What was it like to be gay at Carolina in past decades? The new University Libraries’ online exhibit “Queerolina” lets you travel through time and space to live the experiences of Carolina’s LGBTQ community, collected over the past two years and archived as “The Story of Us.”
Click on the markers on a campus map to hear the voices of these Tar Heels telling their stories:
- An ROTC cadet in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era who shared her identity as a lesbian and was booted out of the program before she got back to her residence hall.
- A gay library administrator torn between his responsibility for library security and his knowledge of how certain men’s restrooms were being used as meeting places.
- A graduate student counseling adolescents about their sexuality who didn’t come out until he was 30.
- An aspiring teacher who was told she’d be run out of the county if anyone found out she was a lesbian.
The Carolina Pride Alum Network created “The Story of Us” project to document and preserve LGBTQ history at Carolina, said Shawne Grabs, senior regional development officer with the University Development Office. “We wanted to do something important for our first big project,” she said.
Development launched the CPAN in 2017 as an alumni affinity group. Since then, more than 1,500 Tar Heels have self-identified to join. The group raised $100,000 for “The Story of Us,” which developed in these phases:
- Collecting personal stories and experiences of students, faculty, staff and alumni through the Southern Oral History Program.
- Bringing together these oral histories with existing materials (manuscripts, photographs, recordings and digital files) to create an online University Archive collection and a physical archive housed at Wilson Library.
- Developing a performance based on these materials to bring the stories to life in a Process Series production in the communication department.
The first two phases are already underway, and the last one will premiere in spring 2023.
Hooper Schultz ’14 was the graduate student selected as a fellow to collect stories for the project. Schultz received his master’s degree in Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, writing his thesis on gay liberation in the 1970s South. He is a doctoral student in history at Carolina, researching a dissertation on college student gay liberation activists.
“My interest in the topic is both professional and also extremely personal,” said Schultz, who came out as gay before going to graduate school. “It’s important to me that we stake our claim.”
Because of censorship laws and LGBTQ topics being considered taboo for mainstream publications for many decades, very few records of people’s experiences exist in archive collections, he said. Collecting oral histories directly from the people involved is one way to fill that gap.
CPAN asked its members to participate, which led to a snowball effect. “We did a video campaign and used social media so that, instead of being targeted, it came across more inclusively,” said current CPAN President (and former Student Body President) Hogan Medlin ’11. “There was a huge show of interest.”
The stories are as different as the people who shared them. “There was not one experience at Carolina,” Schultz said. “They came from all walks of life. Some found community and felt more comfortable here, while others ran into discrimination and outing.”
Welcome to Queerolina
As the collection grew, Schultz and fellow curator and Carolina Academic Library Associate Cassie Tanks MS ’22 began to look for a way to “make it a little more accessible and less intimidating.” The result was the map-based online exhibit called “Queerolina: Experiences of Place and Space Through Oral Histories.”
Schultz called “Queerolina” a “winking name that describes this other Carolina” with a once hurtful word that has been reclaimed by the LGTBQ community. “We love camp. We love a little joke.”
Visitors to the site can zoom in and click on campus map pins that link to photos and recordings of individual stories excerpted from the longer stories housed in “The Story of Us.” They can also zoom out to see alumni stories from Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
“I’m hoping it will be used by the public to understand a little bit more the function that the University of North Carolina has played as a space for queer people and what role queer people have played at UNC,” Schultz said. “I’m hopeful that students can access it and see that people like them have attended the University of North Carolina. It’s an incredible way to get the resources of the library in front of people in a more easily digestible way. And there’s inherent value in recording the stories of LGBTQ people who have so often been missing from the historical record.”
UNC Story Archive
That “missing” element made the CPAN project a good match for the University Archives, said Nicholas Graham, University archivist.
“We were thrilled that they were asking the same questions” as those used to build the UNC Story Archive, Graham said. This collection of short, conversational recordings documents the voices and experiences of historically under-represented people, recorded in a style inspired by NPR’s “Story Corps” series.
“They contribute their own voices and their own words to speak directly to history. Their stories are preserved permanently and become terrific resources,” he said. Not only have the narratives become a resource for classes studying the University’s history, but they are also part of the archives accessed by scholars across the state and the nation.
“The Story of Us” collection includes 23 digital folders of recordings and continues to grow. Those interested in sharing their own stories may fill out the UNC Story Archive interest form or write to email@example.com.