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Activists Strive To Make Southern Queer History Visible

Courtesy of the Invisible History Project/Josh Burford
Invisible History project is working to archive primary sources of queer history across the Southeast.

The everyday lives of activists and community members in Western North Carolina didn’t make it into the history books.  A UNC Asheville professor is launching a project to bring to light the untold queer stories in our region.

Here’s more on the project - and how it’s a part of a larger preservation effort across the Southeast.


Queer history is presented as a narrow space, says Josh Burford. It’s mostly just for the urban, white, wealthy  and able-bodied. Burford wants to change that perception in the South.


“I think that for me as a member of the queer community having access to the past always felt like something unattainable, says Burford. “ I always just assumed that I would never see any people like me reflected in my history.”

Burford is from Alabama but he’s been a part of archival activism in North Carolina since 2012. He helped created both an oral history archiveat UNC-Charlotte and an exhibit of the archiveat the Levine Museum of the New South in 2014.  


“So for us archiving our history is absolutely an act of political resistance.  We do exist. We have existed and we’ve done amazing things,” says Burford. "And as Southerns we don’t have to give up our southern identity to be a part of the queer community.”

Burford has now returned to his home state where he’s started a new archive called theInvisible Histories Project.  He hopes to expand into the entire Southeast over the next 10 years.

Credit Photos courtesy of Invisible History Project & J.D. Doyle & the Queer Music Heritage Project
Southern bar guides are just one example of primary sources that the Invisible Histories Project archives. Photos, pins, journals and more can also be donated.

“Which I think in the queer southern community is still antithetical to some people  - like we are gluttons for punishment because we live in Alabama or Mississippi - as opposed to look what we’ve done,” says Burford.


Burford says that there is a vibrant academic community of other historians, archivist and oral historians working across the South to preserve the previously untold stories of queer southerners but many of them don’t know each other. So he’s hosting Queer History South at the end of March.  It’s a conference of scholars and community organizers from the 13 states of the Southeast partnering with organizations like the Duke Human Rights Center and The University of Alabama.


“The south is as much of an idea as it is a geography,” says Burford. “So let’s bring all of these different ideas about what Southern experience looks like to the table and let’s complicate the story a little bit in the best possible way.”


Burford also hopes that this will develop into connections across the region.


“Each of us has a piece of the puzzle so what could happen if we brought all of those pieces together to see what we might learn from each other and what we could share,” says Burford.


One of those pieces is UNC Asheville English professor Amanda Wray.  She just launched an oral history project with Blue Ridge Pride Center to create the first LGBTQ+ archive of oral histories in Western North Carolina.


“Asheville has a really inclusive reputation but Appalachia in general has a reputation that is rather negative in the way that the way that they talk about inclusivity,” says Wray. She says that Blue Ridge Pride Center reached out to the school about the project.


Wray, who is from rural Kentucky, says that while there is still intolerance in Appalachia, isn’t the whole story. With the help of a few interns, she will be speaking with people from all walks of life in the LGBTQ community - and they are still looking for participants who want be interviewed as a part of the oral history archive.


“I feel like we make gay people invisible when we don’t talk about them or when we focus on this dominant narrative that Appalachia in not inclusive,” says Wray.

Credit Photo Courtesy of Amanda Wray
Wray and her students spoke with five informants ranging in age from 71 to 97 years to document a more inclusive and complex history of West Asheville near the New Belgium Brewery.

This isn’t Wray’s first oral history project. A class of her creative writing students produced a booklet of profiles of residents in West Asheville just before the New Belgium Brewery broke ground in the neighborhood.


“When we encourage storytelling and document it, then we make it data that is accessible to everyone,” says Wray.


Wray says that data can then be used to inform actions in the present. She plans to use the LGBTQ oral history archive to create a needs assessment with Blue Ridge Pride.  They’ll outline what services - such as healthcare - are scarce or readily available for queer folks in Western North Carolina.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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