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News :: Gender
Sexual Minorities Archives: Leaving Northampton, MA
by Ben Power Alwin
17 Nov 2015
I write this as the sun sets on November 15, 2016, the day that the Sexual Minorities Archives officially closed to visitors and researchers in Northampton, Massachusetts. The SMA, a 41-year-old, preeminent national collection of LGBTQ literature, history, and art, was a grassroots community institution in Northampton since 1981. The Archives, a repository of precious and rare materials about LGBTQ life from the mid 1800s to the present, had been accessible to the public for 32 years in my home located on the bank of the Connecticut River.
Among the SMA collections are the most comprehensive subject files on Northampton LGBTQs in existence, organized by year from 1968 to today. Pre-Stonewall (1969) materials are in abundance here: full runs of the earliest homosexual, lesbian, and transgender periodicals which, outside of the New York Public Library, are found on the east coast only at the SMA.
Hundreds of notable LGBTQ authors, artists, filmmakers, historians, activists, community members, students, professors, and allies came to visit or conducted vital research in the SMA each year to create their books, films, and scholarly papers. The SMA hosted student interns, paid and unpaid, from the Five Colleges, and won the University of Massachusetts Creative Economy Initiatives Fund grant in 2014-2015, which added a paid Archival Assistant to our volunteer staff, among other program support. The SMA had just begun to partner with Community Action! as a safe and inspiring site offering “first job” employment for LGBTQ young people starting out in the work world. That program, which would have trained college students in archival methods and library skills, was interrupted in June 2014 when I received news that the Archives House was going up for sale.
My thoughts about the significance of place for LGBTQ people to gather and study in a home on the majestic Connecticut River were published in an academic journal, Radical History Review, May 2015, “Archival Justice: An Interview with Ben Power Alwin” by professor K.J. Rawson.
Now the SMA, its federal non-profit organization the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, Inc., and I are all leaving Northampton. Let the historical record show why.
First, I was forced out of my beloved home. And then I was priced out of Northampton.
When I was told that the owner of the Archives House intended to sell, I tried to buy. In three months, I raised through crowd funding over $15,000 from people in LGBTQ communities nationwide to help me secure a mortgage. Next, I did the seemingly impossible for a medically disabled person living on SSDI: I gained a mortgage commitment. The loan came through the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) and I made the owner a solid, current market-rate offer on the house.
But the owner would not negotiate with me and refused to sell me the home I had known and cared for for half of my life. I am a transgender man. Even though I had been a stellar tenant renting from the same family for 32 years, the owner of the house did not treat me like a person who could buy his own home. Two days after I made an offer to purchase the Archives House, the owner began a no-fault eviction against me. I filed counter claims against the owner, suing because of an illegal eviction notice, tenants rights and housing code violations, breach of quiet enjoyment, discrimination, emotional distress, and more. The sheriff delivered to me a flawed subpoena seeking information about my non-profit and the names of visitors to the SMA. I was asked, in a 10-hour deposition, what sort of activist I am. The legal battle lasted more than a year and was finally resolved through a settlement out of court.
The owner of the Archives House had a gentrified idea about the value of a property which they had abandoned, an outrageous price I could not afford even if the owner viewed me as the logical and rightful purchaser. So, I sought help from the city to keep the SMA in Northampton, reaching out to my Ward 3 city council representative, to the city council president, and to the mayor. I thought the city would take an active role in keeping the SMA and SMEF, Inc. here. I inquired whether municipal funding or a local grant could help me to buy the potentially historic Archives House, or that the city might agree to relocate the SMA into a municipally owned, accessible building. But no help was forthcoming.
Prevented from buying my Northampton home, I searched the Northampton real estate market for another house only to learn from Zillow.com that the median price of homes that sold in Northampton in late 2014 was $365,625 and the median price to rent was $1,400. I compared that to Holyoke where the median price of homes that sold in late 2014 was $169,250 and the median price to rent was $875.
In the end, I purchased a house in the historic Highlands neighborhood of Holyoke that is twice the size of the Northampton house at a cost less than half of the mid-$300,000s. In that racially diverse neighbor city to Northampton we will expand the SMA into a full-service LGBTQ educational research center as we add to its vast archival collections a free public lending library, a venue room for our history talks and events, an art gallery, a LGBTQ youth and media room, and the Sylvia Rivera Room, which will house the Leslie Feinberg Library.
What are the issues involved in the SMA being displaced from Northampton? We are not the first LGBTQ organization, project or program to leave. Indeed, in 2015, the SMA / SMEF, Inc. was one of the last such remaining in the city.
Survival through this experience with determination to move forward to bigger and better things for the SMA has taught me first-hand about how gentrification feels for those on the receiving end of it, about greed, and about the heartlessness of prejudice. It also showed me that full integration into Northampton society by LGBTQs is largely a myth. It sounds good when spoken about, but there is still a great degree of separateness when our LGBTQ focused organizations and businesses are in vital need of active support yet do not receive it from our allies. The result, too often, is cultural loss.
The erasure from history of LGBTQ spaces, communities, and individuals’ contributions to society—a social and institutional mechanism of silencing and removal of queers from visibility—is the underpinning of our oppression. I am experiencing the very thing the SMA works against every day. We work to ensure that the historical record includes our LGBTQ voices and the memories of our presence in the world.
My heart is broken for what happened here. My heart is excited and proud for the future of the SMA in Holyoke where we plan to open in the spring. I’m leaving Northampton. I love you, river. Thank you and goodbye.
To keep up with the SMA, like us on Facebook at Sexual Minorities Archives. Follow the organization on Twitter @SMA_NoHo or send an e-mail to sexualminorities.archives (at) yahoo.com.
*Ben Power Alwin is the Curator, Sexual Minorities Archives and the Executive Director, Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, Inc.
The SMA welcomed between 300 to 500 visitors each year, many of them students and professors from the Five Colleges area, and offers paid student internships and other employment opportunities for LGBTQI individuals through grants and scholarship programs. The SMA also created and offers to the public a LGBTQI History Walking Tour of Northampton and is developing a similar walking tour of Amherst and the UMass Amherst campus.
This work is in the public domain