History. For some of us it’s a rich exploration of human struggle and achievement, a gateway to the past that not only helps us understand where we come from, but also whispers clues as to where we are headed. For others, it’s that third period class made miserable by a crotchety old teacher jonesing for his after-school gin and tonic (Damn you Mr Thurgood!).

But for so many LGBT people, the history we are taught in school holds very little mention of our own wonderfully complicated (if frequently brutal) roles in the shaping of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans society today. Fortunately the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives opens numerous windows to that vibrant past.

Since 1973, the CLGA has been pursuing its mission to acquire, preserve and catalogue materials relevant to LGBT history. Their ever-growing collection is replete with photographs, film, art and documents donated by the personal caretakers of our often secret past. These are our people’s memories, recalling the turbulent times and roaring victories that have brought us to the rights and privileges we enjoy today.

“We just don’t learn these histories while we’re growing up,” says Al Stanton-Hagan, an archivist working with the CLGA. “Learning these stories when I was coming out gave me a lot of comfort.”

Stanton-Hagan started at the archives nearly two years ago as part of a work studies program though the University of Toronto. The position dovetailed nicely with studies in sexual diversities as part of an undergraduate degree, along with a career path in the field of archives and records management. One of the student’s early visits to the CLGA’s exhibition on pulp fiction covers from the 1950s was the entry point to what has become a major archival project.

As part of the U of T master’s program in Information, Stanton-Hagan is now in the midst of a work studies placement, digitally archiving oral histories that had been originally recorded onto cassette tapes. It’s a vast project funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council through the University of Toronto. Once completed, these files will be available online to the general public. For a young LGBT person like Stanton-Hagan, facilitating this sort of accessibility is one of the most rewarding parts of the job.

“There are people from all over the world who are interested in these kinds of materials, but who could never come to the CLGA,” the archivist says. “This makes it far more possible.”

And while many of the materials are very dated in regards to terminology and perspective, Stanton-Hagan feels the stories still have a strong relevance for LGBT youth today.

“The context of when the archives was founded 40 years ago is really different from how things are now. I identify as genderqueer, or non-binary, and those are newer identities. I find that if you look at trans and lesbian communities of the past, they’ve contained a huge range of identities.

“There are very rich histories in all those categories there that I really connect to, even if I’m not going to find materials from a long time ago that use the same words that I use to describe myself today. Even though the identities we use are different, it’s good to know where those identities come from.”

While the CLGA receives small grants like the one funding Stanton-Hagan’s project, the organization has no core funding and relies on public support to continue its work. Its yearly fundraiser plays a big part in keeping the doors open, and has proven not only financially essential, but also a whole lot of fun.

This year’s third annual Flashback Gala takes place on Saturday, Nov 14, at 6pm in the Toronto Reference Library. There will be a live auction hosted by auctionista extraordinaire Linda Leja, along with an archival exhibition and sale curated by John Rubino. Live music will be provided by Thom Gill, followed by a 1980s Mixtape dance party with DJ Das Hussy.  

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