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How Nashville Queer History Came Out
🎵 Listening to: “Girl Crush” by Harry Styles
Hello and welcome to Love Notes, a newsletter by Nashville Queer History (NQH).
My name is Sarah Calise (last name pronounced like KUH-lease; it’s Italian). I am the founder and director of NQH. “Founder” and “director” are two titles I never thought I would hold in my life. It has been a wild ride since I officially launched NQH in September 2021, so let me take you to the root of this project and what I envision for the future.
Nashville Queer History began with an archival collection for the OutCentral Cultural Awareness Center. My full-time job since 2017 has been Archivist at Middle Tennessee State University. MTSU acquired the records and collections of OutCentral—Nashville’s most recent LGBTQ+ community center that closed in 2018—in the spring of 2019, but I did not get a chance to start processing the boxes until two years later. When I did finally sort through the contents, I found treasure: more than 400 photographs from the 1990s, nearly 2.5 years worth of a gay newspaper, and books that once belonged to a gay library.
My Personal Queer Journey 🌈
Let’s go back a bit to my own queer beginnings. Since I was in elementary school, I knew that I was different when it came to attraction. I definitely liked boys, but girls were magical. My first best friend was Samantha in my kindergarten class, but she was also my first girl crush. She had sleek blonde hair and skin that was always tan from the south Florida sun. We spent every recess break together and ended every school day mastering hand-clapping games while waiting for our parents to pick us up. To this day, I feel gooey and warm thinking about the time I spent with her.
Flash forward to high school and several girl crushes later, I knew that I was most likely bisexual or at least “not straight.” My close friends and I occasionally discussed where we think we fell on the sexuality spectrum, but still I never defined myself openly or publicly. That wouldn’t happen until I moved to the fairly conservative town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 2014.
“I’m bisexual,” I awkwardly blurted out at dinner with graduate school classmates at a restaurant across from MTSU’s campus. Everything about that evening is a blur, so I honestly do not remember the context in which I confessed this fact about myself. I do remember, however, that my friends were accepting and cool about it. From then on, I publicly identified as queer/bisexual.
Up until 2022, I never considered myself a historian of LGBTQ+ community and culture in the United States. Most of my historical training focused on the Black freedom struggle, particularly with youth and student activism. But the personal is not only political but it’s also historical. As I moved through my twenties, learning how to navigate both being openly queer and physically disabled, I could not help but become interested in the history of these identities. Having a historical understanding of yourself is empowering, and I wanted to belong.
Once I started organizing the OutCentral Collection, I was curious as to what material about Nashville/Middle Tennessee’s LGBTQ+ history was publicly available. The answer? Very little. Some things were restricted (for privacy and safety reasons), some things were there but not inventoried in any accessible manner, and many things were not there at all. I am thankful for the work of local writer and historian like John Bridges and the staff of the Metro Nashville Historical Commission who accomplished the installation of not one but two LGBTQ+ historical markers: one for Penny Campbell and one for the first gay bars, The Jungle and Juanita’s.
Nashville Queer History began for 3 reasons:
To expand the local LGBTQ+ history resources available to the public, preferably on digital platforms that anyone with an internet connection can access. I have the appropriate skills and resources to do this, so why not?
To combat the local, state, and national bigotry and oppression that is attempting to erase the deep and rich culture LGBTQ+ people have built and contributed to the United States. Tennessee has always been queer.
To help build community across many generations of LGBTQ+ people living in Middle Tennessee…and to build queer community for myself, who often feels isolated and disconnected from queerness.
The Future of Nashville Queer History 🦋
Since September 2021, NQH has been focused on researching any and everything I have been able to find related to our local queer history to get a firm understanding of what kind of stories exist and where the gaps are in our knowledge. I share brief stories from my research on Instagram—what I call “byte-sized” history. I am also under contract with Vanderbilt University Press to write and publish the first book on Nashville’s LGBTQ+ history, expected sometime in 2024. Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded NQH and Nashville Sites a $25,000 grant to research (including oral history interviews and digitization of material) and build a driving tour of queer historic sites in the city, launching in spring 2023. Finally, this summer, I have started creating a digital archive platform that will be searchable and accessible to the public.
I am keeping NQH open to future ideas and projects. As the local LGBTQ+ community connects more with NQH, I would like the project to naturally shift toward things the community wants. But I do have some plans in mind:
Becoming a 501(c)(3) non-profit so we can properly take donations! I am currently looking for anyone familiar with this process who can help pro bono due to severe lack of money.
Eventually building a physical archive and library, that is ideally connected to a LGBTQ+ community center so that we can control our own narrative outside of government and academic constraints.
Developing middle and high school level lesson plans using local, state, and national primary sources for teachers and students to use. Also, partnering with local organizations like the Just Us program at the Oasis Center to do LGBTQ+ youth programming around the historical material NQH collects.
Building out a robust oral history program that continues to capture the voices of older generations, the queer BIPOC community, transgender and non-binary people, drag queens, disabled queers and more.
Partnering with local organizations for LGBTQ+ programming, art events, book clubs, zine-making, performing arts projects, music creation, activism and community service, voter registration, and more!
Thank you to everyone who has supported NQH thus far, and hello to those of you just joining us. We’re glad you’re here. You can reach out to me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org, or DM me on the NQH Instagram account.
Subscribe to this newsletter for in-depth updates on research, the book, the digital archive, and future NQH initiatives.