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A celebration of Eugene’s lesbian history on exhibit for one more weekend at UO museum

An exhibit that celebrates Eugene’s lesbian history is wrapping up this weekend. Outliers and Outlaws, Stories from the Eugene Lesbian History Project has been on display at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene for a little more than a year.

KLCC’s Rachael McDonald spoke with Lexie Briggs, the museum’s communication specialist. She explained that UO Professor Judith Raiskin and Curator Linda Long got the idea to create the Eugene Lesbian History Project in 2018...

Lexie Briggs: ...because they had gone to a funeral for somebody who was big in the community. Somebody who was really well regarded. And everybody was sharing stories and sharing photos. And they realized that a lot of these people might not have the generational, you know, some do have children, but not everybody has children.

And there might be a chance for these stories to be lost if this entire generation of people passes away in this community.

And it's a story that is worth telling. It's a story that's worth keeping. And so they started doing these oral history projects where they just talked to people in the lesbian community about their lives. And they came up with a groundbreaking oral history archive as well as papers, photo collections, all kinds of things that are in the special archive. And here at the museum, we were lucky enough to be able to bring that into a physical space. And invite people in to hear kind of an abridged version of the story and see the story and experience parts of these lesbian community spaces. And, you know, things like the fight for marriage, in a physical space.

Rachael McDonald: And what has it been like to, I imagine that there's a few different audiences for this. you know, museum goers, but also the people who were involved in the oral history project, to see it actualized?

Briggs: It’s been really exciting. It's always really exciting when we can bring people who are in a community and tell a story that they want to tell and be heard. I love kelp. I love wolves. I love the natural history that we promote and uncover here at the museum, but there's something special about bringing a community together. And that's something that's really been one of the best parts of having this at the museum.

McDonald: And as the museum exhibit wraps up, what will happen to the oral history? Will that be something that people can still access?

Briggs: Yes. The oral history is part of a digital archive. And there is an online exhibit that will always be available. So it’s not going away. It’s just moving into a digital space.

McDonald and Briggs continued their conversation in the exhibit room.

Briggs: So we wanted to have the experience of standing in this gallery to be something like listening to these stories, hearing these stories from the narrators themselves. And so that's why there's so many pictures of the narrators and large format pictures sort of big quotes on the wall. And this one that opens the gallery is one of my favorites.

It says, “Were there specific joys about being part of the lesbian community?”

And Lynn Pinckney replies, “We were free. Once you're an outlaw, you don't have to follow the rules."

Also during the opening, people were looking at this kind of like a yearbook. This is a large format picture with a lot of then-and-now photos. And, we realized we don't usually bring markers into a museum. That's kind of a no, no, right? But, we wanted people to sign it. So people signed their pictures just like it's a yearbook.

McDonald: So what do you think is unique about Eugene that allowed this community to flourish?

Briggs: That's a great question. And it's something that we've been looking at throughout this exhibit. And I think one of the answers is just that the community started to be built and it never stopped getting built. People came here and found each other and built a really unique space and community. And then when some, like when Referendum 51 was passed, which overturned the City of Eugene's ordinance protecting gay men and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination, a lot of the people who were in the lesbian community worked in sort of collective spaces or, frankly didn't have a lot of money and so couldn't move somewhere more like San Francisco, which was kind of the other place that was safer for gay people and lesbian people. And so a lot of the lesbians stayed here and decided to make the community what they needed it to be here.

McDonald: Lexie Briggs is with the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History. This is the closing weekend for the Outliers and Outlaws, Stories from the Eugene Lesbian History Project exhibit.

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.
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