3 min

Saskatchewan archive honours gay man

Neil Richards has spent his life collecting queer materials

Credit: Gens Hellquist photo

Over the past few decades, efforts have been made to preserve the history and struggles of the queer community. The Canadian Lesbian & Gay Archives (CLGA) was established in 1973 to document queer life in Canada and has grown to become one of the largest queer archives in the world. Across Canada, many provincial and university archives have also collected a range of queer materials.

The Special Collections Department of the University of Saskatchewan is one of those institutions that’s been collecting queer-related material since the early 1970s. “No one else has the same collection as we do,” said David Bindle, special collections librarian. “Our collection is very broad and interdisciplinary and focuses on those materials that may be rare, scarce or fragile in nature or maybe subject to theft.”

Over the years, that collection was housed in various parts of the special collections department, but the decision was made last year to gather the material together into one collection in one location. “It becomes difficult to know where to place new acquisitions with everything spread out,” Bindle said.

Bindle said he approached Neil Richards, the person responsible for collecting much of the material, to name the collection after him. “The vast majority of what’s here is really Neil’s doing, and if it wasn’t for him doing it, the collection probably wouldn’t exist, especially in the amount of material there is.” Initially Richards declined to have his name attached to the collection but finally relented, and the Neil Richards Collection of Gender and Sexual Diversity was created.

Richards, who was born in Bowmanville, Ontario, moved to Saskatoon in 1971 to take a job at the U of S library. After coming out in 1973, Richards began collecting printed materials documenting events in Saskatoon’s and Saskatchewan’s queer community. That material was then donated to either the library where he was employed or to the Saskatchewan Archives. Some of the material also made its way to the CLGA in Toronto. Anyone who works in Saskatoon’s queer community is well aware that Richards will want two or three copies of any poster or pamphlet that they produce.

When asked why he has spent his life collecting queer materials Richards replied, “Some people are collectors wanting to amass things and to learn from what they collect.” In the early 1980s, Richards took a sabbatical and volunteered at the CLGA in Toronto where he says he was infected by the enthusiasm of those involved with the CLGA. “What we were doing was new and probably important and needed to be documented as no one else was likely to do this for us.”

Richards’ collecting also extends to vintage postcards and artworks. “It’s sort of in my nature to be a collector,” he said.

In 2004, Richards was instrumental in developing an online resource “to provide access to and information about resources available to the public concerning sexual and gender diversity.” The online resource, Saskatchewan Resources for Sexual Diversity, provides information on the range of queer materials available at the U of S library.

Richards retired five years ago but can still be found most days in the special collection department of the library. His time is spent documenting the latest donations or working on one of his special exhibitions, consisting of materials gathered from the collection. He also spends time on the internet searching for new materials and over the years has purchased many items on Ebay, or elsewhere, donating those to the collection.

The Richards collection includes a large number of queer pulp novels, those 1950s or 1960s paperback with lurid titles that provided some hope to isolated queers that there may be others out there like them. From that collection, Richards mounted Passions Uncovered — Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Pulp as an exhibition, which later was placed on the sexual diversity website.

In 2003, Richards took a look at drag and crossdressing in his physical and digital exhibition All Frocked Up: Glimpses of Crossdressing in Saskatchewan. The exhibition explores the history of female and male impersonation, performed as entertainment in Saskatchewan throughout the 20th century. It also provides a glimpse of the prairie tradition of mock weddings, where participants crossdress to perform parodies that are part of a community’s celebration of a couple’s marriage or milestone anniversary.

Through his research for All Frocked Up, Richards amassed a collection of material on theatrical crossdressing and gender impersonation. From that he created another digital exhibition, which he called Ambisextrous: Gender Impersonators of Music Hall and Vaudeville. That exhibit explores the tradition of drag in theatrical performances, from the late 19th century up to the portrayal of Edna Turnblad by John Travolta in the 2007 film Hairspray.

Bindle says the library welcomes donations of materials that document queer history. Recently they received 30 boxes from the estate of Peter Corren, who was heavily involved in the Surrey School Board book-banning case as well as advocating within the education system in British Columbia for a queer-friendly curriculum.

Saskatchewan Resources for Sexual Diversity.