Durham Women’s Radio Collective (DWRC), 1971-circa 1980
DWRC produced short (three-minute) broadcasts called “Women’s Voices” that were played twice daily throughout the week. Topics included lesbians with children, movie reviews with a feminist slant, women’s poetry, and health issues. The collective, which also hosted the three-hour “Women’s Music Show" on Sunday evenings, was probably the first station to air lesbian commentary and music in North Carolina. The programs were aired on WDBS-FM, which broadcasted from Duke University’s East Campus.
DWRC provided a way for women to get experience in broadcasting and communicate to the wider community about issues important to them. Lesbians were always a part of the collective. Two of the founding members went on to work in public radio in Georgia and California.
The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and its Durham Women’s Center, 1973-1974-circa 1983
By opening its doors and welcoming lesbians, the YWCA was the first mainstream organization to foster the growth of Durham’s lesbian feminist community. It was often the first place women looked to find out what was going on and was a place where lesbians and straight women worked together to explore feminism and create new organizations to improve women’s lives. The Y was the birthplace of other women-focused organizations, many of which lesbian feminists helped to found, including the Durham Women’s Health Collective. The Durham Women’s Center was cofounded by Suzi Woodard, Susan Cartmell, Meri-Li Douglas, Joyce Wistnet, and Gilna Nance, who headed the organization. The Women’s Center produced a newsletter; hosted workshops in subjects as diverse as car repair, carpentry, women’s history, and southern women authors; and sponsored consciousness-raising (CR) groups and a feminist theory group. It held annual celebrations for International Women’s Day and maintained the Women’s Resource Center, which featured a large library. Learn more about Gilna Nance here.
Durham Women’s Health Collective (DWHC) (later Durham Women’s Health Cooperative) founded 1974
Based on similar programs in Berkeley and Boston, DWHC provided information to women about health care issues and doctors (particularly ob/gyns), trained volunteer health counselors, provided referrals and problem pregnancy counseling, and offered pregnancy tests. Learn more about the Durham Women’s Health Collective here.
Members of Women’s Health Teaching Group (WHTG), a subgroup of DWHC, served as models to guide medical students in how to give proper, respectful pelvic exams. Even simple suggestions such as warming the metal speculum before inserting it would improve a woman’s experience. By teaching doctors-in-training (most of them male) how to give exams, the WHTG improved the experience of women seeking health care.
Go to this Duke University site for more history and interviews with DWHC and WHTG members:
Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women (ODCBW), now Durham Crisis Response Center, circa 1976–present
The Coalition for Battered Women first counseled and later also provided shelter for survivors of domestic violence, and offered other services including educational sessions for members of the police force, men who were abusers, and other groups such as churches and women’s clubs. Lesbians were an integral part of the creation of ODCBW and served on its board and in leadership positions. The first organization in Durham to provide help for women experiencing domestic violence, ODCBW literally saved women’s lives.
Durham Rape Crisis Center (DRCC), now Durham Crisis Response Center, 1978 to date
The women’s movement set the stage for the anti-rape movement of the 1970s, in which rape was redefined as an act of violence carried out to assert power and domination, rather than as a sex crime. From its beginnings, the DRCC provided support services for rape survivors, including a hotline, and lobbied newspapers not to print names of rape victims in the paper. Lesbians were integrally involved in creating DRCC, serving on the board and in positions of leadership. It merged with Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women in 2001 to become the Durham Crisis Response Center: Domestic and Sexual Violence Services.
Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists (TALF), 1973-1988
TALF originated on Duke University’s East Campus as the Lesbian Rap Group, part of the Duke Gay Alliance. In order to reach a wider community of women, the group moved off campus, regrouped as the Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists, and began meeting at the YWCA on West Chapel Hill Street. With the closing of the Chapel Hill Street Y, TALF met at the Tubman Y on Umstead Street and then for many years at the Y on Proctor Street. Before its demise around the end of 1988, TALF met briefly at the Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship as plans for Our Own Place, a lesbian space, were evolving.
TALF had monthly meetings on wide-ranging topics—secretarial work, politics, lesbian mothers, and violence against women, for example. Any topic that someone wanted to present got the green light. TALF filled an important social role, organizing potluck dinners and several dances a year—often at Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and Valentine’s Day. This pivotal organization was a space for women who came mainly to socialize with other lesbians and also for the more politically oriented to organize around a variety of issues.
Audio clip about going to women’s dances at the YWCA
In this selection from a 2012 oral history, Lucy Harris remembers going to the women’s dances held at the YWCA.
Transcript Before that time, when we would have women’s dances, women would come from all over the state, because this was the only place in the state that had anything other than bars. And so, we had a lot of the dances at the YW[CA], which is now Camelot Academy. Do you know Camelot Academy on Vickers? It’s not very big. And, but, it had a porch all the way around, and the place would be just, like, overflowing with women who literally came from all over the state. A lot of women from Fort Bragg, from military bases would come. It would be the only time they could be out in the world.
Not many straight people went to those dances. (laughs) It was very funny, this friend of mine picked me up to go to a dance, and I said, “It’s so nice that I’m not the only straight woman that goes to the dances.” And I assumed she was straight, and she wasn’t! (laughs) She got a big kick out of that. But, yeah, there were some straight and bi women who would come to the dances. And my son came to just about every dance. He was kind of the little mascot. He loved it.
Triangle Area Gay Scientists (TAGS), 1977 to present
One of the longest-running LGBTQ+ organizations in the Triangle, this group of scientists and science-friendly friends gathers at monthly potlucks in members' homes throughout Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. These social events provide a way for like-minded people to meet in a safe environment. See their website here.
Whole Women Press, 1976-1981
Leslie Kahn and Nancy Blood founded Whole Women Press as a way for lesbian feminists to control their own stories and print items important to them. In addition to small jobs for local feminist organizations and businesses, they printed Break de Chains of Legalized U. $. Slavery—a book written by women incarcerated at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women in Raleigh and compiled and distributed by a coalition of members of Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists and the North Carolina Hard Times Prison Project in 1976. They also printed Sleeping Beauty: A Lesbian Fairy Tale by Vicki Gabriner, Sign Language by Monica Raymond, Crazy Quilt by Susan Wood Thompson, and a number of issues of the journals Feminary and Sinister Wisdom. Other women who ran the press over time were Eleanor Holland, Cris South, and Jackie T.
Ladyslipper Inc. (formerly Ladyslipper Music) and Women’s Music, 1976-present
Ladyslipper began as a four-page resource guide devoted to the musical accomplishments of women artists. The goal of its founders, Laurie Fuchs and Joanne Abel, was to create a comprehensive guide to all the recordings women had ever made, a task that proved harder than they expected, since there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions, very few of which could be found in research libraries at the time. In addition to cataloging women’s music and offering many of the items in its catalogs for sale, Ladyslipper produced concerts and recorded artists on the Ladyslipper Music label. Today, the Ladyslipper Music Online Catalog and Resource Guide contains listings for over 10,000 current and past titles by a wide range of female musicians, writers, comics, and composers. At its peak, hundreds of thousands of recordings were being distributed to individuals, stores, distributors, schools and libraries annually; hundreds of thousands of copies of the annotated Ladyslipper Catalog & Resource Guide of Music by Women were being mailed out three times a year; revenues were over $2 million a year; and 16 women were employed full time, in addition to several part-timers and seasonal workers.
The Ladyslipper catalog was often the only source to which rural and closeted lesbians could turn to learn about and have access to the musical side of lesbian culture. It was also one of the reasons many lesbians moved to Durham. They often first heard of the Bull City through the catalog and left their geographically and socially isolated homes for a place more welcoming.
Kathy Tomyris’s Olivia Distribution, Durham's first women’s music distribution enterprise, merged with Ladyslipper in 1977. From 1977 through the mid-1980s, Ladyslipper produced concerts featuring many female artists including Alix Dobkin, Cris Williamson, Holly Near, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Alive!, and Margie Adam. Women from all over North Carolina flocked to these concerts to hear music that spoke to their lives. Learn more about Ladyslipper through their website.
Pocket Theater and Desperadoes, 1976
In 1975 Rebecca Ranson and Coke Ariail founded Pocket Theater, focusing on original and experimental plays. On March 25, 1976, the world premiere of Ranson’s play Desperadoes, about a woman exploring lesbian relationships, opened at the theater’s Main Street venue. In a clear sign of the times, the review in Duke University’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, never mentions the theme.
After its successful first run, Ranson revised Desperadoes and added music by Lisa Uyanik for a new production. It was performed in Durham again in 1977 and then traveled to New York, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, and Atlanta. Durham’s rich heritage of LGBTQ+ theater productions could be said to start with this groundbreaking production.
Bars in the 1970s and early 80s
Bars played an important role in the lives of many lesbians and gay men. They saw them as a refuge from homophobia, a place where they could be themselves and show intimacy in a way that they couldn’t in the outside world. LGBTQ+ folks could dance, hold hands, and kiss in these safe spaces. In the 1970s some members-only bars openly discriminated against people of color, and African Americans would sometimes ask whites to invite them as a guest in order to gain entrance. Older lesbians have shared fond memories of dancing the night away at these bars.
In this clip, Larry Wright speaks about the gender segregation that he saw when he went to local gay bars in the 1970s, before Pride marches started in North Carolina.
Transcript One thing that it does strike me is that there was a a lesbian bar, but the two didn’t mix like they do now. You know, when you’d have—we’d certainly have drag queens, you know, and there’d be … (trails off). And it seems to be that the drag queens attract, the drag shows attract women. But it just didn’t seem like they came into the men’s bars, and the men didn’t go into the women’s. There just wasn’t—And I think a lot [of what changed] had to do with the Pride [marches] and the things where people came together and registered as a common body their willingness to show pride in who they were. And I think that a lot of that brought people together.
Audio clip from oral history with Mignon Hooper, who speaks about going to the bar called 42nd Street, which later became the Power Company, and how welcoming it was to people from all walks of life.
Transcript But you’ll hear older gay and lesbians throughout the state who used to go say, “Girl, do you remember The Power Company? Ooh, do you remember how we danced in there?” And it was like people would dance as if there were no tomorrow, and they would dance until three or four o’clock in the morning. But it became a place where, because of the openness for people who were in whatever place on the spectrum of queer, it became a place where those who were not welcome in other venues were allowed to be there. So you had mixed-race couples who came there because they didn’t have to deal with the sneers and vicious attacks from folks who didn’t approve of mixed-race relationships, particularly black/white relationships. And you had folks who were immigrants who would come, because no one cared if you were an immigrant, and you had older folks who heard about it and came. So I had professors from the Economics department [at North Carolina Central University]–I remember a professor and he and his wife were there. And he saw me and he goes, ‘Hi! Isn’t this place great? My wife and I, we really love it!’ I was like, “Perpetrator! [laughter] We can’t have anything! You know, what’s ours is yours, what’s yours is yours. Come on, man, is nothing sacred?”
But everyone was welcome there, and you would see some of everyone there. People would come in after their wedding reception was over and people still wanted to party, and the bride and groom and whole wedding party would come in there and dance. But it was a very welcoming place in that way. And that was a big part of my orientation to Durham, and I met so many people there from so many different walks of life. So many different professions and aspiring professions. So there were professional contacts, social contacts, romantic contacts, and it just became a major hub for the city of Durham.
Triangle Women’s Karate Association/Triangle Women’s Martial Arts/SafeSkills Dojo 1982-2015
Life partners Kathy Hopwood and Beth Siegler founded Triangle Women’s Karate Association (later Triangle Women’s Martial Arts and then SafeSkills) in 1982 to provide a safe, independent space for women to train in self-defense and martial arts. Offering an alternative to the mostly militaristic, male-dominated schools, Hopwood and Siegler welcomed all ages and genders, with a focus was on women’s self-defense. They taught multitudes of people to create safety in their lives, including workshops for the LGBT community focused on hate crimes.
Common Woman Chorus, 1983-present
Open to all women, the Common Woman Chorus performs concerts of progressive songs, including an appearance each year at the NC Pride Festival. The name comes from a Judy Grahn poem that reads, in part, “A common woman is as common as a common loaf of bread … and will rise.” The group allows lesbian and feminist women to sing together, share feminist culture, and have fun.
On a cool New England evening in 1983, vacationing Durhamites including Ginger Travis and Carol Place began talking about the hassles of underwear—shopping for it and not being able to find what they liked. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Travis said, “if you could just buy it all by mail?” “Buy six pairs of underwear and get the seventh one free—a whole week’s worth,” Place said. “Sure would beat doing laundry so often.” Thus Travis Place was born, with the slogan, “Natural fibers for women from women” (adapted from the winter 1985-86 catalog). Travis Place, along with Ladyslipper Music and Francesca’s Dessert Caffé, were the first three Durham businesses to openly identify as lesbian owned.
Triangle Lesbian and Gay Alliance, founded 1986
The Triangle Lesbian and Gay Alliance (TLGA) formed after the 1986 march to organize future pride marches. Other activities the group engaged in included working to receive anti-discrimination protection for gays and lesbians from the Durham Human Relations Commission and involvement in Sharon Thompson's campaign for NC House. With the founding of the group, a new generation of younger activists became the drivers of the local movement.
After the first pride festival, a wave of similar festivals was held across the state. For the next decade, PrideFest, organized by TLGA, alternated among several North Carolina cities before becoming an annual Triangle event in 2000, with the parade always held in Durham. In 2001 the festival moved from June to September. A list of the names of the yearly marches/parades can be found here.
Great March on Washington, DC, October 11, 1987
Over half a million people attended the second “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights,” including a huge delegation from North Carolina, many of whom were from Durham. It has come to be called "The Great March" because of its size, scope, and historical significance. The AIDS quilt was displayed publicly for the first time at this event.
Durham’s politically active LGBTQ community has had a strong presence at other marches on Washington, including the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation, October 1993; the Millennium March on Washington, April 2000; and the National Equality March October 11, 2009.
NC Lesbian and Gay Health Project and HIV/AIDS, 1982
In 1982, a group of four Durham-based activists founded the North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project (LGHP) in response to widespread stories of homophobic treatment by health care providers. The project was notable in being a collaboration between lesbians and gay men at at time when the two groups often maintained separate activities and organizations, and in being a project focused on gay health issues before the arrival of the AIDS crisis.
In its early days LGHP created a telephone referral network and and presented “Homo 101” workshops to health care providers. With the onset of AIDS, much of their work began to focus on its impacts. LGHP supported the start-up of a number of other organizations focused on HIV, including the Piedmont HIV Health Care Consortium, the AIDS Community Residence Association, and ACT-UP/Triangle.
Some local gay and lesbian activists held protests at the offices of the drug company Burroughs Wellcome in Research Triangle Park, NC. The corporation had developed AZT, an antiretroviral drug used against HIV/AIDS, and the activists charged that the prices were set too high to be accessible to many people who needed the medication to survive. For more information, see the NCLGHP papers at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
In this audio clip from oral history with Mignon Hooper, she speaks about how her time working at the National AIDS Hotline, then based in RTP, allowed her to develop relationships with people living with HIV.
Transcript It was a way for me to connect with other people who were out and proud. I was out but not quite as proud because I was still fearful of all the vulnerabilities. But it was really great to be immersed in a group of folks who were proud of who they were, who were fighting this battle against HIV and AIDS together, and who were supporting each other in it. It was also a privilege to work with people who were living with HIV who helped me understand what it means to be a friend, a real friend, in those situations. And I became very good friends with a man by the name of Jim Cole, James [??] Cole, a man of Norwegian heritage. He and I became good friends; we were very, very close, and we were bosom buddies. At one point he said, “You know, if things were different, you and I probably would have been married.” And I said, “You’re probably right. Even though you’re a little bit of a wimp, you know. [laughter] You’d have to man up a little bit. But you’re probably right.” Because he was just such a love.
And I met him as a co-worker, and in the end I was changing his diapers. Right down off of 15-501 in his cute little house. Friends and I were taking turns caring for him. He wanted to be in his home and not in a hospital or hospice center. And we cared for him, we took turns, we tag-teamed. And so we took turns, I would find someone to babysit my dog so I could go stay at his house. I would pay someone to babysit my dog, go stay at his house, and we bought baby monitors so we had baby monitors in each room. And so when I heard him getting up–even though I told him, “Do not try to get up without assistance.” Because he’d lost so much weight, even though he was like 6’3’’, he was too frail to try to walk. So I would walk him into the bathroom and let him stand there and I would step outside and tell him to call me when he was ready, and I’d walk him back to the bed.
But it was an opportunity for me to understand the epidemic in a much more intimate way. And also to understand what it means not to be a queer separatist, a lesbian-feminist separatist. I was able to, first of all, befriend this man, and then absolutely love him, and then be there for him when his own family rejected him. The rejection for being queer didn’t come anywhere near the rejection for being infected with HIV, and told not to come home for future Christmases, because, “We have to think about the grandbabies, after all.”
Black and White Men Together (BWMT)
Several groups formed in the 1980s to address race in the LGBTQ+ community and create social, cultural, and educational spaces for African-American gays and lesbians. Among these were Black and White Men Together, led by partners Gary Lipscomb and Joseph Fedrowitz. The organization featured film nights, dances, educational play shops, sports-related events, and more for the community.
Triangle Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays
Several groups formed in the 1980s to address race in the LGBTQ+ community and create social, cultural, and educational spaces for African-American gays and lesbians. Among these were the Triangle Coalition for Black Lesbians and Gays, led by Mandy Carter and Gary Lipscomb.
Carolina Pines Dojo, 1987-mid-2000s
Many of the women involved in this school for training in the martial arts were lesbians, including the sensei (teacher) and her teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan—an uncommon lineage in the mostly male martial arts community! The school embodied a national trend in women’s martial arts and self-defense schools and collectives, with a political take on sexism, self-defense, and women’s empowerment. Betsy Barton, a member of the dojo, says, “We did self-defense demonstrations at the Pride march, once while on a moving float. We also did demos at Centerfest and taught children’s karate for a few years at one point, when the kids of local lesbians that we knew and loved were old enough to attend.”
Our Own Place
“Our Own Place,” a gathering space for lesbians located for several years on Watts Street, was the scene for events such as meetings, potlucks, and dances. It later moved to a building at the corner of Club and Broad Streets, then closed a year or two later.
Southern Exposure magazine and the LGBTQ+ Community
For nearly four decades, the Institute for Southern Studies’ journal Southern Exposure has been a leading source for hard-hitting investigations and thoughtful coverage of the South. See two issues from the 1980s with LGBTQ+ content:
Real Women Productions, 1986-1990
When Ladyslipper stopped producing concerts, Real Women Productions—Mandy Carter, Lucy Harris, Cheri Sistek, and Cris South—began to fill the void. The group produced music, comedy, and dance events, many in conjunction with Triangle Area Lesbian Feminists, War Resisters League/Southeast, and North Carolina Senate Vote 90.
OutRight, a Triangle-area organization founded in 1990, provided support for gay youth and other young people with questions about their sexual orientation. For more information, see the Outright Youth papers at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Manbites Dog Theater
Life partners Jeff Storer and Ed Hunt founded Manbites Dog Theater, a professional, nonprofit theater company, in Durham in October 1987. Over its first 28 seasons Manbites Dog mounted more than 130 productions, many of them regional or state premieres, and a broad range of works by local and national guest artists and companies, including plays with an LGBTQ theme. Manbites Dog hosted “Don't Ask Don't Tell: A Festival of Queer Theater and Performance,” from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
Lesbian Thespians, 1990-1992
Dale Wolf, a producer for Lesbian Thespians, also wrote In the Outfield, which is about growing up as a butch lesbian, in 1992. It was first performed at Manbites Dog Theater with Touch Mime. Wolf did later performances solo and in 2004 wrote and produced 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian.
In this audio clip, Dale talks about the performance and how it was inspired by the homophobia and marginalization of lesbians that Dale witnessed during the 1990 political race between Jesse Helms and Harvey Gantt.
Transcript “In the Outfield” was a response to Jesse Helms’s re-election in 1990. There was a huge effort to get him out of office, and a huge effort in the queer community here, specifically in Durham, led by Mandy Carter and the organization that she formed called Senate Vote ’90. She [is] a fabulous organizer, she’s an African-American lesbian person who’s been here for many years and has done some amazing work on the national level. And in 1990 when Harvey Gantt was running against Helms, we really came very close to defeating Jesse Helms. And his advertising had a lot of homophobic stuff in it, and he always went on about the gay community, the gay this, gay that. And I just, once again, the lesbian face wasn’t visible, and I took real offence at that.
I wanted to just put a face on a lesbian human being in the world and tell my coming out story, and that my story is as valid a story as anybody else’s. And that the stuff I went through as an adolescent is as valid and should be as affirming as anybody else’s experience, going through what you go through to become a decent person in the world. I thought that if I could find bits and pieces of universal thematic stuff that people could connect to–everybody knows what it’s like to be left out. “In the Outfield” means you’re out there in the outfield, you’re not playing in the infield, you’re sort of left out there, when you’re sitting out there alone counting clover or something. You know what it’s like to feel left out, you know what it’s like to have a crush on another person when you’re in junior high or middle school, whatever. You know what that’s like. People understand that, it’s unfortunate that they just get so bent out of shape when it happens to be two people of the same sex or same gender or whatever.
So what was my inspiration for that was that election, because I worked hard, too, along with a lot of other people, on that campaign. So this was sort of the response to that. And it was a very affirming show for me personally, but also I could tell from the handwritten letters I received over the time I did the show that it really, really meant something to others as well. So in that regard it was a rather successful piece.
And you know, you get negative stuff. I had the occasion to perform in Johnson City, Tennessee, and the theater received bomb threats as a result of my going there to perform. We had sold out houses and a very good response from our audiences, but there were individuals who felt like I shouldn’t be speaking on these issues. And I didn’t listen. [laughs] I didn’t listen and I think we’re better off for it, frankly, and even they are better off for it, though they may not agree with me and they may not feel like they are. But I think, community-wise, we’re better off knowing who we are. We’re better off knowing each other; we’re better off getting to know each other, understanding each other.
Lesbian Avengers: January 1993-circa 1995
The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as a direct action group focused on issues crucial to lesbian survival and visibility. The Durham chapter’s activities included a Valentine’s Day 1993 march supporting lesbians and gays in the military and a stroll-in on Mother’s Day 1994 to support custody and adoption rights. The local group participated under their own banner in the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation.
To learn more, go to www.lesbianavengers.com
Garden Variety Lesbians, May 1993
Garden Variety Lesbians was an action taken by the Lesbian Avengers in response to lesbian bashing by NC senator Jesse Helms. In 1993, when then-president Bill Clinton wanted to appoint ‘out’ lesbian Roberta Achtenberg as assistant secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Helms held up the confirmation, stating, “I’m not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine,” and adding, “She’s not your garden-variety lesbian. She’s a militant, activist, mean lesbian.” In response, Anna Clark, Katherine O’Brien, Barb Smalley, Catherine NIcholson, and perhaps others went to Helms’ office in protest.
Lesbian Health Resource Center/Lesbian Resource Center, 1996
In the early 1990s the North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project shut its doors. In 1996 a group of lesbians who felt more attention was needed on women’s health opened the Lesbian Health Resource Center. It provided health advice and workshops for lesbians, training on lesbian health issues for health care providers, and community health education. The group’s name eventually changed to the Lesbian Resource Center in order to better represent its focus on a wide array of issues affecting women. For more information, see the oral history with Beth Bruch in the Durham County Library North Carolina Collection or the Lesbian Health Resource Center/Lesbian Resource Center papers at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
A group of African-American men and women, including Pat Harris and Carlton Rutherford, formed a social group called Umoja in the early 1990s. In this audio clip, Pat Harris tells about her experience with the group.
Transcript In the early ‘90s–I think it was ‘91 or ‘92, it was shortly after I arrived [in Durham]–a group of us gathered and decided that we needed to form a supportive community group for lesbians and gay men of color. And we called it Umoja. We had a man and woman, male and female, co-chairs of the group because it was a mixed group. And I was the female co-chair, and my friend Carlton [Rutherford] was the male co-chair, and we were the co-chairs for about five years of that group. We provided not only a safe place for people to gather, but a fun place. You know, we held monthly potlucks and people would come and meet new people. It was definitely an alternative to the bars, because at that point in time that was all there were, were the bars. So we attracted not only the people who were still continuing to go to the bars, but a whole other slice of the community who wouldn’t be caught dead in bars. You know, people who held positions of responsibility in the community but still wanted to have a place to socialize and not feel that–if they wanted to stay in the closet, they could stay in the closet. If they wanted to be out, they could be out. So Umoja was, I think, a very important community reosurce in the early to mid-‘90s.
Cedar Chest and the Center for Non-White Lesbians, Early 1990s
In 1994, Janice Vaughn founded Cedar Chest, a social and educational group for lesbians of African descent. Later Vaughn also founded the Center for Non-White Lesbians. Both groups remained active until the end of the decade. In this audio clip, Jaye Vaughn speaks about how the intersection of homophobia and racism made it more difficult for black women to be publicly out as lesbians and how that affected her outreach for Cedar Chest.
Transcript Inside the black community was some really hard homophobia crossover with church and religion. In the white community, people have always wanted you to be what they wanted you to be. What they wanted that black woman to be, you needed to be that. And I’m one of those ones that went to UNC and it was one percent black when I went there. So I was used to it, but in the hiring process, you had to have very few strikes going in, so that was one of the strikes, so nobody was going to show that, because if you were trying to go up the corporate ladder the last thing you were going to be was a lesbian. And they would let a white lesbian move up but that’s not what they wanted you to be, black woman. I don’t want you to be that, so we didn't take that chance. People didn’t take that chance.
I wasn’t out at my job. I was just out in the community. If my job happened to see me, then so be it. But most of the time, nobody paid any attention to what I was doing, because I wasn’t the CEO. So, um, I had a little card and I got eye contact and I had a pretty good gaydar. (laughs) If I got eye contact, grocery store, anywhere, I gave the woman the card. I had my phone available, a phone line in my house available for women to call. The card said who I was, women of color group, so if they dropped in they’d be ok with that and they had good gaydar, too. (laughs) and so that’s what I would do besides people who came and told their friends. And then after that I did a mailing in a secured envelope and I told them, “It won’t have a return address on there, it’s going to have your address up in the return address and it’s going to do that.” And I would send things out to people. And people showed up from all over the state, outside of the state actually.
Southerners on New Ground, 1993-present
In 1993, for the first time, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s annual “Creating Change” conference was held in the South—in Durham, North Carolina. Included in the program were lesbian feminist writer, activist, and scholar Mab Segrest delivering a keynote address about the impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a workshop presented by black and white progressive southern lesbians on living and organizing in the South. These two events led to six southern lesbians founding Southerners On New Ground (SONG). Its mission statement declares that “SONG is a home for LGBTQ liberation across all lines of race, class, abilities, age, culture, gender, and sexuality in the South. We build, sustain, and connect a southern regional base of LBGTQ people in order to transform the region through strategic projects and campaigns developed in response to the current conditions in our communities.” While SONG is no longer headquartered in Durham, it remains a prominent representative of Southern LGBTQ people on the national scene. See the papers of SONG, Mandy Carter, and Mab Segrest at Duke University’s Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library for more information.
COLORS of NCCU and the LGBTQA Resource Center at North Carolina Central University
North Carolina Central University’s “COLORS of NCCU” was founded in 1998. COLORS, “Creating Open Lives for Real Success,” is NCCU’s organization for lesbian, gay, and bisexual, transgender, questioning, and allied (LGBTQA) students, staff, faculty, and alumni, dedicated to creating a safe, equitable community for all. In 2014 the LGBTQA Resource Center on historically black North Carolina Central University’s campus opened, giving NCCU the distinction of being the first historically black college or university in the state and the second in the country to have an LGBTQ center. NCCU has other LGBTQ+ groups on campus, among them Polychromes, geared specifically to the university’s LGBTA faculty and staff.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, organizations for LGBTQ and other youth started to form at Triangle-area schools, usually known as gay-straight alliances (GSAs) or queer-straight alliances (QSAs). Support for these organizations—and the ability to form them at all—varied greatly from school to school.
North Carolina Lambda Youth Network
North Carolina Lambda Youth Network (NCLYN pronounced “Incline”), a group of queer youth of color, formed in downtown Durham in the early 2000s. See this page from the Durham Civil Rights map for more information and an interview excerpt about NCLYN.
SafeSchools NC, a statewide organization dedicated to making schools safe for LGBTQ students and educators, instituted a program called the Triangle Gay-Straight Alliance Network. In 2005, young people from that group formed InsideOut, a youth-run organization that supports LGBTQ and allied youth in the Triangle. InsideOut celebrated its 10th year in 2015. The group’s programming included workshops, retreats, queer proms, and “Queernival” events. A subgroup, UpsideDown, began, focusing on youth 12 or under who were questioning their identities, were children of LGBTQ adults, or otherwise just needed a safe space to be their full selves.
El Centro Hispano’s LGBTQ+ groups
El Centro Hispano, a community center for Latino immigrants, became a pioneer in the South when it started its LGBT programming in the early 2000s. It started with one general LGBT group and within 10 years was home to four groups—men who have sex with men, transgender women, lesbians, and LGBT. As the number of local Latino LGBTQ folks grew, they also found a home at the bar El Chino Latino, which hosted regular shows featuring travesti performers (similar in style to drag queen shows).
In this audio clip, Alex Cordova talks about the way that he sees El Centro Hispano’s different LGBTQ groups come together and grow over time.
Transcript Lo que a mi me ha hecho muy feliz es que todo los grupos al final son una familia. Eso es bien importante. Una se enferma, ya nos ha tocado ir al hospital ha estar días enteros con una de las chicas que está enferma. Nos ha tocado ir a ver a la mamá de una de ellas que está enferma. Como nos ha tocado que tienen su nueva pareja y van a comprar casa o se van a mover de casa. O su hermana va a celebrar su quinceañera o su cumple, o sea esa necesidad de pertenecer, familiar, eso si me gusta. Y ellas–lo les llamo y les digo ‘Oiga, que fulana va cumplir años.’ ‘Ok’ dicen. Y estamos diez, treinta, cuarenta personas juntas haciendo esa comunidad. Y eso verdad es parte de todos los grupos. Si viene cierto, algunos vienen a los grupos y no quieren ser vistos, no quieren ser fotografiados. Pero en un proceso pasan los años y ellos son los mismos que toman las fotos para los demás grupos. Y es un proceso muy lindo. Es como tener una organización que tenga kindergarden y de repente los gradúes.
What has made me really happy is that at the end of the day, all the groups are one family. That is very important. We’ve spent entire days at the hospital with one of the girls who’s sick. We’ve gone to see the mom of one of them who was sick. And when one of them has a new partner and they’re going to buy a house, or move houses, or their sister is going to celebrate her quinceanera or birthday. That need to belong to a family–that, I like. And I’ll call them and tell them, “Hey, so-and-so is going to have a birthday.” And they say, “Okay.” And we’re 10, 30, 40 people together creating that community. And that’s really part of all the groups. Some people come to the groups and don’t want to be seen, they don’t want to be photographed. But a few years will pass and they’ll be the ones taking the photos for the other groups. And it’s a beautiful process. It’s like having an organization that has kindergarten and suddenly they graduate.
QORDS (Queer Oriented Radical Days of Summer)
Check out this short film about QORDS from the “Keepin’ It Queer” series by Rick Dillwood and Carrie Hart.
In 2012, QORDS, a queer-oriented summer camp, was founded in Durham to empower Southern queer and transgender youth and create community. They joined with InsideOut and the Raleigh-based Youth Organizing Institute to form the NC Youth Power Coalition.
Durham Gender Alliance
The Durham Gender Alliance is a discussion group that has met every month since its founding in 2008. The group ranges in size from 2 to 22 people and is largely made up of transgender women who gather to talk about issues in their lives relevant to gender. Lea Córdova has led the group since the founders moved away shortly after its inception. In an oral history recorded in 2016, she said, “I’m there no matter what, because even if it’s one evening a month, it gives someone the opportunity of being who they are in a welcoming environment.”