BY KAYLEE DUFF
This special collection in Cincinnati details the stories and the lives of lesbians and other queer-identifying folks in Cincinnati and beyond.
The Ohio Lesbian Archives (OLA) — founded by Phebe Beiser and Vic Ramstetter — has been around in its physical form for 29 years. Starting in 1989, the Archives were housed above Crazy Ladies Bookstore, a women’s bookstore in the Northside area of Cincinnati. Now, they call a basement room of the Clifton United Methodist Church their home.
But the Ohio Lesbian Archives really manifested in people’s minds as early as the ’70s, due to the success of a small, local lesbian newsletter called Dinah. Dinah was created by the Lesbian Activists Bureau (LAB), explained OLA co-founder Phebe. They used Dinah to connect lesbians, queer-identified women and other curious feminists to events, hangouts and more. Before the Internet, the only other way to spread this type of information was by word-of-mouth.
The newsletter also included columns and book reviews. Back then, books about homosexuality weren’t kept in libraries or sold in bookstores. Women’s presses (oftentimes code for lesbian presses) would send copies of their books to local publications like Dinah. “The expectation was that someone would read these books and review them, so we did that in our newsletter. It only went out to several hundred people, but that’s still several hundred lesbians in one shot,” Phebe said.
This is how the Ohio Lesbian Archives were created — they started accumulating several rare lesbian novels, as well as copies of other lesbian newsletters from across the county they’d receive in exchange for copies of Dinah.
“We had all these rare books and newspapers,” Phebe told me. “We couldn’t just throw it away or be casual about it, because the public library didn’t have it and you couldn’t find it in a bookstore. It was about our lives.”
At first, the boxes of materials were housed in apartments or wherever space was available. Then, in 1989, the Ohio Lesbian Archives got a room of their own, in what the community frequently called the Women’s Building. “Crazy Ladies Bookstore was on the first floor. The second floor had meeting rooms. And we were on the third floor,” said Phebe. “There was no elevator. It was not accessible.”
In 2005, when the Crazy Ladies Bookstore went defunct, the Ohio Lesbian Archives began the search for a new home. And they found it — a basement office room in the Clifton United Methodist Church. The church welcomes and affirms a diverse congregation, and they reached out to Phebe about housing the Archives in one of their open spaces.
Staffed by a team of dedicated and passionate volunteers, the OLA focuses on collecting and preserving items pertaining to lesbian (and other queer-identifying) culture and history. In addition to the hundreds of books (fiction and non-fiction) and papers they have, the Archives also house art, photographs, records, cassettes, CDs, VHSs, DVDs and countless other forms of lesbian media.
They also have files of flyers, posters and other information about LGBTQ+ organizations from across Ohio, as well as Kentucky and Indiana. “Back in the day, before the Internet, if you were having a lesbian dance or coffeehouse or rally or march, you made a flyer and put them up around town,” Phebe recounted. “We started saving the flyers. They told the queer stories. Everything was so grassroots.”
Although the mission of the Archives is to collect and preserve for educational purposes, Phebe also explained that the special collection exists in an attempt to maintain visibility: “My co-founder Vic and I still remember the days before people like Ellen. We don’t want to be invisible again. We want to have some control over our own story and history.”
The Ohio Lesbian Archives is actually one of only a handful of small, grassroots collections not associated with an endowment or university. The public can visit by appointment. Materials can’t be checked out, but they do have photocopiers available, if needed. The OLA is a fantastic space for students doing research, or for anyone curious about lesbian history and culture, or folks looking for some inspiration and empowerment.
“It’s more than a hobby; it’s a passion,” Phebe affirmed. “We’re keeping our story alive. This is the proof of our existence.”
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