By Mattie Coll
Leisa D. Meyer is the Director of the American Studies Program, and a member of the History Department and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the College of William & Mary. Leisa got involved with the W&M LGBTQ Research Project in the fall of 2014. She had been involved with LGBTQ issues on campus and was approached by Jeffrey Trammell (the former Rector of W&M’s Board of Visitors) to respond to the Mattachine Society, DC’s call for research on laws relating to LGBTQ people and discrimination in this area. The Mattachine Society, DC offered a small amount of funding to support these efforts and W&M matched this funding, soLeisa agreed to move forward with this work. She was on sabbatical until 2015 when she began the recruitment of students to engage in the “archival activism” requested by the Mattachine Society, DC.
Leisa’s William & Mary students were “excited” by this idea and they began their research in the archives at Virginia Commonwealth University, the Library of Virginia, and the Virginia Historical Society. William & Mary students already had a history of LGBTQ activism. In the spring of 2015, they mounted an exhibit and did presentations at the W&M library about both their findings, which included successful lawsuits during the 1990s by the W&M Gay Alumni Association and the VCU Gay Students Association that led to changes in Virginia’s ABC rules and gained the right for LGBT student organizations to receive funding from public universities.
After this year of archival research, Leisa and the students wanted to find ways of incorporating more “voices” in the story of LGBTQ people in Virginia than those found in archives and reached out to Diversity Richmond and contacted Bill Harrison and Rodney Lofton. She had just received a Community Studies professorship through the W&M Sharpe Program for Community Engagement, which provided some funding to support the project and, with the help of Rodney Lofton, Leisa and her students started doing oral history interviews at Diversity Richmond in the fall of 2016. “I suggested that oral history might be a way to conduct interviews with community members of Richmond. We have done these interviews every semester. The students who participate are different each semester. We do training and then travel to Richmond to listen to and record the personal histories LGBTQ people might want to share. We are on working on a three year time-line and have done eighty interviews. The interviews vary in length, but we have hundreds of hours of interviews so far,”Leisa told me as she explained her project.
These oral histories will be part of a digital exhibition opening at Diversity Richmond in the spring of 2019. Contact Rodney Lofton if you are interested in being interviewed this fall. I have already emailed him to volunteer my time to tell my story. These interviews are held at Diversity Richmond (or other locations as arranged). Students are also able to scan papers and pictures for the exhibition. Oral histories, photos, personal papers, and a digital map of Richmond will be included in the exhibition. This is the last year for Leisa Meyer’s Community Engagement Professorship but she plans to continue this important work in coming years. The W&M LGBTIQ Research Project has a website that highlights the work of the students and the histories that have been shared, https://www.wm.edu/sites/lgbtiqproject/ and a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/wmlgbtiqresearchproject/.
Thank you Leisa Meyer for all of the important work that you and your students have done documenting the LGBTQ experience in Virginia. Your engagement with your students and commitment to the Diversity Richmond community is very inspirational.