Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Wai Ho: So I'm here with Roger Swanson to talk about LAGANZ. What is LAGANZ?

Roger Swanson: Right. LAGANZ is the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand, and it's a number of collections of material about gay, lesbian, transgendered, intersexed, and the whole queer community, really. And our aim is basically to collect and preserve for the future so that people can research, and [those] who are interested in their own history will have a place to collect it, because we feel that as sort of minority groups on the edge of society, society's not really interested in our histories, let alone collecting them.

Certainly if you go into your local library it's a lot better now, you'll find gay and lesbian books and stuff, but 20 years ago there was nothing, really, other than some stuff about how sick and how dreadful we all were. [laughs] And there may have been some books on scandals and Oscar Wilde and some historical things, but they were all told from a very shock/horror point of view, they weren't told from our own view and in our own insight. So the archive, when it started 20 to 25 years ago, that was the premise: that we'd collect our own material so we could tell our own story.

And things like a lot of newsletters, magazines, books, radio programs that started being produced, no one else was keeping them, so we're keeping them now, and we're keeping them for anybody who wants to look at them or research or do some research.

Wai: How did it come about? You said that mainstream wasn't collecting any of our stuff. Who decided?

Roger: Well, it started really with the campaign for equality and legal recognition of our relationships. Back in the 1970s there was a group called the National Gay Rights Coalition that formed, and they had a resource and they started collecting material for the campaigns, basically – information, reports, New Zealand, overseas – anything that would help them with the campaign. And that started building up a collection of material.

So, one of the members of the task force that was doing this work was a librarian, so naturally thought, well we'll keep this material and put it in order so people can find it. That's what librarians do; it's really boring [laughs], but it's very helpful if you want to find something and it's been indexed or catalogued or put in some sort of order rather than just a mix of papers in a box, as we all know. That's how we store our own stuff, I suspect, so when you go there to find it, you know....

And of course, they were doing campaigning, petitioning politicians or talking to politicians, getting petitions, doing all sorts of things for political reform, and so they needed good reliable information. There was the AIDS epidemic that came up in the early '80s. There were all sorts of other things, so you needed to be able to get statistics and be able to say, no, no, no, the real story is, blah, blah, blah. And how many people are supporting gay rights in New Zealand? Is it 10% or 100% or somewhere in between? So you needed to really have that sort of vital information so you could punch it out and counteract the negative publicity that came out.

So that all accumulated into the great campaign of 1985 – '86 with the law reform campaign led by Fran Wilde at Parliament and by a whole task force of gay and lesbian people throughout the country. And so the Resource Center was really a powerhouse behind that and provided anyone who was speaking with information, helped them find out facts, gathered up anything that was being produced at the time. They also produced, I think, some booklets refuting some of the arguments being put out, and so they were quite an active, very involved, very campaign-orientated group.

So the archive grew, and once the campaign was sort of over, the archive existed but the campaign people went their various ways. So the archive continued in its own right because people recognized it as a valuable collection of material, and it contained the papers of meetings of, say, the Homosexual Law Reform Society, the Gay Task Force, the AIDS support networks that started up a few years before law reform, and people were gathering books and various things like that, so they were all there.

And like I said, there was a librarian looking after it who catalogued it and put it all in order and had it very nicely put together, and so that resource was there.

Just after the campaign ended in '86 there was an arson attack on the Resource Center. The Resource Center used to be on Boulcott Street, originally down in the basement there, then it moved up to the 2nd floor, and there was an arson attack one night when some guys came in and saw what it was and started lighting fires. But they fortunately were a bit stupid, as these people usually are, and they didn't do a very good job, thank goodness.

And the fire brigade were amazing; they came in and didn't immediately start tossing water everywhere. They saw what it was and used dry material to put the fire out. And there were just little fires scattered around, there was quite a bit of smoke damage, some papers were destroyed that were out being used, but most of the material was either in filing cabinets, which meant they were somewhat safe, and material on bookshelves, amazingly, got singed around the edge but didn't catch fire.

So the collection was sort of smoke covered and a bit of dust and stuff, but mainly survived, and so it was rescued by the Alexander Turnbull Library who stepped in and said, "We'll offer you space to dry the collection out and to do work on it," and so....

Wai: Was that quite a big deal for them to offer that?

Roger: It was, actually, but it's sort of part of the Turnbull Library ethos and the way they work. They would certainly do it for any collections around the country.

Wai: Kind of like one librarian to another?

Roger: Yeah. Yeah that sort of thing – a bit like what's happening down Christchurch at the moment; people help friends, rally together.

So, that happened and the collections were removed and taken down to Courtenay Place where the Turnbull Library, at that stage, had some storage space, and were spread out and cleaned and dried and what conservation work needed to be done on them got done on them. They were sort of in that state, so the archive wasn't accessible but it was in a secure location, and safety was, of course, important since it had been attacked.

Wai: Had it been targeted or was it people who were going to light fires anywhere that....

Roger: I think it was sort of random. Some guys got into the building and they discovered or came across it. It may have been targeted, but it didn't quite seem that way. I think it was just a couple stupid guys who saw gay stuff. Anyway, I don't think they were ever caught or anything, but the collection was saved.

And because the Turnbull Library had been involved with the trustees, there was a small group of people involved with the archive at that stage. I was involved with it at that time, back then, and a number of other gay people around Wellington.

And so when we negotiated with the Turnbull Library they were keen to preserve the collection as well, because they saw it as a valuable collection, and particularly because the '85, '86 campaign had generated a lot of material, and really interesting material for research: the various attitudes and just the people involved, and the significant change it made to gay and lesbian lives at that time. It was a really valuable research collection, so they were keen to have it within the library.

So, the gay community, through various people around involved in various community groups, agreed that it could be lodged at the Turnbull Library, but still be owned by the gay community. And that's the agreement that was agreed with by the Chief Librarian at the Turnbull Library: The collection would be housed at the Turnbull, would be made accessible – so on Turnbull premises but in reading rooms, et cetera, people could use those. It would be staffed and accessed by curators who were from the gay and lesbian community, and as they happened to be staff members of the Turnbull that was probably a good reason why it actually happened this way, because the library had confidence in its staff.

And it also seemed a win-win situation where the library got a very nice collection of a community that's really hard to find information about, and they had dedicated staff with it, plus the community had a safe place to keep material, so future donations would be known to be safe. They wouldn't be at risk of being destroyed or anything like that. So yes, a very valuable collection was housed in the Turnbull Library, preserved but available to the gay and lesbian community as they needed it.

And so over the years quite a few people have donated their own personal papers. Organizations have donated their papers. Because most gay and lesbian organizations are voluntary, and you know if you've ever been involved in any of these, it's quite hard to get people to take minutes of meetings, but they do. And the accounts and all that sort of stuff have to be kept somewhere, and they're usually under a bed, in someone's shed, all that sort of stuff, and they get lost or the secretary moves up to Wellington, up to Auckland, to Sydney or whatever, and so the papers are at great risk of never surviving. So we're very lucky that over the years various people have said, well, I can't store these anymore, or, what am I going to do with all this junk I've gathered? And we are a good Junk – we take in the junk, which we think is very valuable.

And often those secretaries, who had been secretaries in the days of gay liberation way back in the '70s, had some minutes of the meetings, a few newsletters and things, and that's all that survives of that group other than people's memories. And so we've got those, and often some newsletters which have lasted for 5 to 10 years. We've got those and, you know, no one else keeps them because they're not substantial enough, but as they're gathered in a group they are very useful for anyone who is researching life in rural Auckland, or wherever, down South: What gay and lesbian groups were existing? What people thought at the time, and what were the issues they were dealing with?

So, over time we've got quite substantial collections, and some of the big organizations such as the New Zealand AIDS Foundation deposit their papers with us, and records; The Homosexual Law Reform group, which existed for about 20 years, so there's their material; a lot of, like I said, gay liberation groups. There are some social groups: The Dorian Society. I think there are some lesbian groups, their papers; the Amazon sports team. So there's quite a range of material and we got some material from Mika, the performer. We had her shoes and dresses at one stage, but we decided that they weren't quite what we needed to preserve, but we've got samples of some of that material.

Wai: So is it mainly papers there.

Roger: It's mainly papers or paper-based.

Wai: Right, so papery things.

Roger: But we have got radio programs.

Wai: Not sequin-y things. [laughs]

Roger: I would love to have that, but sequins are more Te Papa's side of things, and we did try and persuade Te Papa that they would like to have an archive of those, but they were interested in various one-off bits rather than a complete archive.

But we do have radio programs. The Lesbian Radio, we've got discs from that. Gay BC, Wellington radio, Christchurch, I think, and some Auckland programs, which go on week after week after week. They mount up quite a considerable amount of programming, and often they're just on cassettes, so we've started transferring those into digital forms. We've done quite a bit of that with the law reform material that was recorded at the time and transferred into digital format.

We also have some film material from the law reform period that has never been screened, but this is the raw material that's never been turned into a film, so we've had that digitized as well, for preservation, because it was not really accessible in its original state.

So, we have film and we have sound, we have paper, we have photographs – that's the other area. We have quite a lot of photographs from various people's collections. We've got some private collections of people's personal photographs of their day-to-day lives; we've got some who've been semi-professional or professional photographers who, at law reform time, went around taking photos, or at other gay and lesbian events, so we've got quite a wide range of that.

So, the formats vary. We've got posters – a lot of posters – I think about 600, 700, or 800 posters of you name it: dances, political, social, whatever we can get. And they're a really nice collection.

And we've got buttons and badges and all those sort of ephemera type stuff that people have put out over the years. So it's a really nice collection, particularly for display if you're having an exhibition, and we've had a number over the years of material from the collections because that's another way to promote it. We've had one in the National Library Gallery, which was 20 Years of Law Reform and covered that whole period up to 1986. So there were various attempts in the '70s and '60s at changing the law in New Zealand, so that was a landmark exhibition we had there.

But we've had various photo displays around at different venues and things like that, so the more variety of materials you've got, such as T-shirts and that type of thing, we get some of those, and a few videos and DVDs, depending on what the material is.

Wai: So you've been involved for many, many years with LAGANZ.

Roger: Yeah.

Wai: Do you have favorite pieces? What do you get out of it?

[laughter]

Wai: Do you just really like organizing things?

Roger: No, no. I like the idea that the material is being preserved.

I was, for a while, one of the curators when we had quite a lot of hands-on stuff. Now I'm a trustee on the Board. LAGANZ is managed by a Trust; it's a charitable Trust, and registered, and we have a number of Board Members who manage the service, and we have curators who provide the access, and that's sort of the structure. And I was a curator for a number of years, helping out. And I just really enjoyed looking at the material. It was interesting and great seeing that it was being preserved.

And my librarian role is basically has been on the access side, on the front desk, and so I enjoy working with people looking for information. So that was just another aspect of my career, and I really enjoy that sort of work.

It puts a private interest, which is the gay side of my life, together with my work, which is librarianship and the public – people inquiring and looking for material. So that's where my interests were.

And of course, quite a few of my friends were involved with the archive at the time, so that was really nice. It was a nice social thing, as well.

Wai: So librarians have a real... or I guess, especially archivers have a real reputation, or maybe a stereotype, for being really organized? Does that mean that your meetings go really easily?

Roger: Not really, no. We certainly do take minutes and keep the minutes and make sure that we're a bit formal about that sort of thing.

Wai: Is there a big fight for who wants to take the minutes and things like that? [laughs]

Roger: No, no. I am the minute secretary for the Board at the moment and it's my job to do that. That's not a problem.

The Board itself consists of a number of gay and lesbian men and women who are from outside of the library. We have two Maori from Tiwhanawhana who are with a group, which is a recent development of getting connections with that group because that's one of the outreaches we want to improve. Aspects of the collection want a larger Maori component, or to see what is around that would be of interest in the collection, and would the collection be of interest to Maori researchers, as well.

Particularly, we have one Pacific Island person on the group. We have three or four lesbians on the group who've been involved in their communities for a long, long time. And there are about three or four gay men on the group. So, we try to reflect the interests of the gay and lesbian community, queer community, as much as possible, but we're really quite conscious that we're all getting rather old – we're all sort of the older generation – and there's a whole generation of young gay and lesbians... whatever people call themselves.

Wai: Is there a new generation of young librarians?

Roger: I don't know. I think there are. We hang onto our jobs very securely here, and don't let them go. But there certainly are, out there.

Wai: So is that one of the challenges – to try and attract younger people?

Roger: I think so. It is interesting that someone made a comment that young people don't really know their past, and think what today is is how it's always been. And we do have the students from Victoria University come down, the Women's Studies group, part of that is gender studies, and they use the archive. And often they're quite shocked at the law reforms. They were just 20 or 25 years ago, which was before they were born, or when they were tiny little kids and it wasn't their thing.

Wai: But really not that long ago.

Roger: No. No, it's not that long ago, but they know nothing and are quite shocked at the attitudes. The civil union was our most recent public spat, I suppose, and fight; and the same attitudes came out there. It was almost like déjà vu. These people hadn't gone away. They were still lurking in the woods there, and they came out saying the same horrible things.

Wai: Like Groundhog Day. [laughs]

Roger: But fortunately New Zealanders are generally pretty fair minded, and they could just see it was a lot of nonsense, and they had seen that the world hadn't collapsed when Law Reform happened back in 1986. The world hadn't fallen in and civilization continued.

Wai: People were still having babies. The human race wasn't dying out.

Roger: Yeah, and their kids weren't being raped. Yeah, all that sort of stuff. All that nonsense that these fringe extreme groups come out with, and it's the only time they ever get heard of, so it's probably the only time it gives them an excuse to say something to get to the public.

But that is a worry that if people take the current situation for granted and think this is how it's always been and we don't have to do anything, gradually their civil rights, their freedoms, will be eroded and they'll be subject to a new whim of whoever gets into Parliament and what the flavor of the day is. And if what happens turns out to be anti-gay, or we all have to be the same or straight or something, then I think people have to stand up and say, no, we are a multicultural society of a diverse nature – some gay, some straight, some intersexed.

There's a whole variety of sexualities out there, which I think is probably one of the recent learnings of people, is that it's not just gays and lesbians but this whole variety. And I suspect young people reflect that more now, and don't actually just go into the boxes of gay and lesbian and butch and femme and all these sorts of things that are very strange when you look back: people fighting, in the gay community particularly, over whether you wore a dress or not and had you been out and all that stuff. But young people have a whole variety.

They still face a lot of pressures at school of bullying and violent areas, and the family is quite a dangerous area even though it's supposed to be supportive, it can be quite dangerous for young gays and lesbians and transgendered kids, so they need safe places. And I think a strong community, which LAGANZ can help support, is really necessary still. We can't just sort of pretend everything's fine and pack up and go away.

Wai: So, LAGANZ kind of acts as a history holder or a story.. [crosstalk].

Roger: Keeping our memory alive; and the memory is really important because I think if you just look at the Maori community and the Treaty of Waitangi, if the Maori hadn't kept the treaty alive as a memory that would have all vanished. The reason that they are having settlements and getting some of their land back and getting the resources back and getting their communities back together is because of their memory. And I think they've remembered the treaty, they haven't let it die.

Wai: They had to dig it up from some attic. [laughs]

Roger: Yeah, which is now over at National Archives being looked after and is a very impressive looking document. But what is says is that our society is based on an agreement, and if one side forgets that agreement and pretends it didn't happen, then we're in for trouble.

And so I think the gay and lesbian community need to keep their memory alive, not in a remember the good old days of the war sort of thing [laughs], which you can sort of get stuck in, but really looking for opportunities to celebrate our community and its diversity.

Wai: Yeah. So, you have exhibitions every now and then. How do people find out, or young people in particular, maybe, find out about LAGANZ? Is it just students up from Vic?

Roger: We do a wee bit of advertising. We've got a website.

We do need more outreach; we're quite conscious of that. We've got the Out Games coming up next year. We'll be running a conference as part of that Out Games, and so that's a really good opportunity for the archive. We'll be having telling-our-stories sessions as part of the conference, which should be really exciting. We've published a couple of books from conferences that we've had in the past, so they're available if people want to buy them. So, the conference at the Out Games will be really important as an outreach for us. It will remind Wellington yet again that we exist, and also to interact with the international community when they arrive in Wellington and are attending those fabulous Out Games that's going to be here.

So yes, that's those who... but getting contact with young people is really difficult.

Wai: You talked a little bit about accessibility and quite a lot of the stuff that's in the archives. If I was a young person or if I was part of a queer youth group or something, would I bowl on in? What would I be really interested in looking at?

Roger: At the moment the archives are in a bit of a strange situation because the National Library building is being redeveloped in Molesworth Street. That's where the Turnbull library is. The Turnbull Library is part of the National Library; it's a bit confusing.

Wai: So, like a library in a library.

Roger: Yeah. And it's the research side, and so New Zealand's history is basically researched in the Turnbull Library. So if someone is writing a new book about the history of New Zealand, that's where they would work; a good part of the work would be done there. And that book would end up in every school and every home in the country. So again, the Turnbull Library is a powerhouse behind research and our history.

Wai: The secret power of librarians and libraries.

Roger: So we've got all the stages of stuff there, and that includes the gay and lesbian collections. So the building is closed for refurbishment at the moment. They're improving the storage conditions and some of the building plant was failing and things like that, so it was time to give it a good cleanup, and so they decided to move us all out. [laughs]

So we're in temporary locations at the moment: One in Archives New Zealand, where some of the Turnbull material is, and that's where the LAGANZ manuscript collection is available, so that's the unpublished materials such as diaries, journals, papers from organizations and such.

The rest of the collection is actually in lockdown and at the moment is not available, which is a pain, but will be available again in 2012, and that's the published material. And that was really done because there wasn't enough space to find places for everything, and also it was sort of thought that the published material, some of it is available elsewhere – not all of it, but some of it is – and so it would be the least impact by closing that side of the collection down.

But the organization is still up and running, and like I say, we're planning for the Out Games. So to contact anybody, I would suggest going to the website. We've got lists of things that are available there like the list of the manuscript collection, and what's available in the archives is there, so you can scan down those. There are about a couple thousand items there.

Wai: Quite a lot.

Roger: It's quite large. It's quite a large collection.

Wai: Is it a little bit overwhelming?

Roger: It is and it isn't because a lot of it, being in a library, is packed in beautiful boxes and packed in acid-free folders. It's something you would never do yourself, at home, but because the Turnbull has high conservation values, material that comes in is inspected for any infestation, so any little creepy crawlies are gotten rid of. They're put into acid-free material so it lasts longer. It's kept in temperature controlled rooms in boxes that are waxed boxes that won't damage the material inside. So you have rows of boxes with labels on them, which is not very interesting to look at. [laughs] But there is wonderful stuff there once you start digging through.

There are certainly people's personal experiences, their own papers, their own letters – a lot of letter writing to politicians and things like that. The Waxing Moon lesbian archive from Hamilton was donated recently, a few years ago. That's there and is basically newspaper and magazine articles, which they clipped and stored and put in some sort of order so they could find stuff. But it sort of covers a period, so it's like information about a whole period that's been preserved.

There are a lot of scrapbooks. People have cut clipping books, and put in what they're interested in, so that's quite fascinating reading some of these things that were published 20 years ago, or even longer. So there are those sorts of things.

There are the newsletters. We get New Zealand and overseas for magazines and books because there weren't any New Zealand publications when we were growing up, so it was only overseas gay-liberation early publications in America and Britain, and so we've got quite a lot of that material, and that's really interesting to read.

So anyone who wants to access the archive need to go to the webpage, look at the curators and contact one of them. It's sort of by appointment at the moment. When the Molesworth Street building was open you could actually just walk in and ask for one of the staff and they would make time to talk to you and sort out what you needed.

Wai: Wow! So that serves that function as well, where you can get almost like a tour.

Roger: Yeah. The thing with the Turnbull is that most of the collection is behind that stacks, and they won't let you into the Turnbull stacks because there's just so much precious stuff there, and security is a high thing at the library. But certainly we have a public catalogue.

Like I said, a lot of material is on the website: There's a list of all the journals and newsletters we have. There's some audio; you can search some audio recordings that we have. There's a list of manuscript papers that we've got there. And there are some other links and some other papers. We've got two books at the moment: Twenty Years On and Outlines: Lesbian and Gay Histories, which are based on conferences and are really quite an interesting read.

So, contact one of the curators from there and make an appointment, because they're actually living in different buildings than the collection does, so walking in you'd have to wait anyway, so it's best just to email them and tell them what you're looking for, and we can say whether it's available or not and suggest ways of finding the information if it's not available.

There is a huge amount on the Internet now, so I suppose some of the needs for immediate stuff is not as necessary now as it was years ago.

Wai: Brilliant! Thank you very, very much for taking time and telling us about the extensive, extensive archives of LAGANZ.

Roger: Well, you're very welcome.

Transcript by cyberscrivener.com