Marching down Market Street, Lenn Keller knew she was experiencing an extraordinary moment in history. With her housemates, holding protest signs made in their Berkeley apartment, Keller joined a lesbian contingent that refused to go unacknowledged in San Francisco’s 1976 Gay Freedom Day (as the Pride Parade was then called). At a time when “gay community” was synonymous with white men, the message was clear: “We lesbians are here, too.”
That 1976 march is just one of many rallies, celebrations and demonstrations that galvanized the Bay Area’s lesbian community—gatherings Keller diligently photographed with a camera she was known for carrying everywhere.
“I knew what was going on was unprecedented,” she says. “And I wanted to not just document it, but to capture more intimate moments.”
Keller’s black-and-white photographs of anonymous activists and musicians (just a handful of the hundreds of images she took of Bay Area lesbian life) welcome viewers into the Oakland Museum of California’s Queer California: Untold Stories exhibition, on view April 13–Aug. 11. The placement is strategic: Her “documentary portraits” of black lesbians introduce a show that concerns itself with what’s been left out of most presentations of California's LGBTQ+ narrative.
“Early on when I began to survey the available histories, I felt like one of the things I was searching for and not finding a lot of was material related to women and people of color,” says Queer California curator Christina Linden. “I knew immediately that I really wanted to include [Keller’s photography] in the exhibition.”
For far too long, Keller, now 67, has watched the stories and accomplishments of her community fade from both memory and view. “Any time you’re queer, you’re marginalized automatically, but then there are all these different levels of marginalization within that,” she says. “I’m black, I’m a lesbian, I’m gender non-conforming, a.k.a. butch. People are taught there are certain people who are considered throwaway people.” And that, she says, stems in part from a lack of representation within media.
Growing up in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s (she was one of four black students in her high school graduating class of 1,200), all this was clear to Keller at a very early age. “I didn't see myself reflected in hardly any place at all,” she says. “I was aware that authors did not anticipate that I would be reading their books.”
And as for representations of homosexuality? “I grew up barely being aware that lesbian and gay people even existed,” she remembers.
Documenting and Preserving a Movement
Keller, who now lives in Oakland as an artist, curator, community archivist and all-around Bay Area historian, can point to several “a-ha” moments in her life. The first came at age 17, when she ran away from home with a friend and found communities of artists and black radicals in New York City.
She met photographers, filmmakers and musicians. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” she says. “It was like, ‘Wow, they’re actually doing this stuff.’”
She soon realized, however, that men were the only ones making art. “In fact, we heard many disparaging things about Angela Davis,” Keller recalls. She remembers one self-proclaimed radical saying, “‘That sister needs to learn how to support the brothers in the right way.’ Angela Davis had just a little bit too much intelligence and agency for some people's comfort. They were kind of holding on to this whole patriarchal way of being.”
It wasn’t until she was in her 20s, when she moved to California in 1975, that she started thinking of herself as an artist. The New York artists’ collective had introduced her to photography and filmmaking, and here she taught herself the skills, graduating from Mills College with a degree in visual communication in 1984. She and her camera became inseparable.
“If I didn’t have my camera, people would often remark,” she says.
Keller developed a style that was intimate, yet still full of the energy and exuberance of the events she documented. A photograph included in Queer California, taken at a 1983 Pride parade, shows a woman identified by the image’s title as a “black lesbian glockenspiel player” with the SF Lesbian & Gay Freedom Band. Embedded in the rows of musicians, San Francisco’s City Hall out of focus in the distance, Keller catches the parade marching in formation like an advancing, joyous army. Specifically pinning down the glockenspiel player’s identity, Keller affirms her place in the moment and movement, creating a record for future audiences.
Over the decades, in addition to her photographs, Keller has amassed an extensive personal archive of materials related to Bay Area lesbian life: art, books, correspondence, flyers, posters, postcards, T-shirts, buttons, magazines and journals, pamphlets, audio, film, video and things that fall into the category of “miscellaneous ephemera.” In 2014, Keller surveyed this collection—maintained through more moves than she cares to enumerate—and wondered, “Where do I want to put my stuff?”
The Bay Area Lesbian Archives (BALA) was born out of this question, establishing a repository for the “at risk” history of Bay Area lesbians. With the help of fellow archivists Rebecca Silverstein and Sharon Davenport, BALA achieved nonprofit status in 2018, with a focus on rescuing collections in danger of being thrown away or destroyed.
The archives are not yet open to the public, but the organizers hope to soon house BALA in an accessible location where others can peruse the growing collection. In the meantime, digitizing the material is the top priority.
According to Linden, who spent months culling through various archives in the process of curating Queer California, collections such as BALA are rare. San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society and Los Angeles’ ONE Archives are the two largest LGBTQ+ archives in the state, but the majority of the material they contain is related to cisgender gay white men—in part because so much material was donated during the AIDS crisis. Other factors contribute to the imbalance, Linden says, like who has a history of privilege and who has the means to form a collection, or even the space to accumulate things.
“I think [BALA] holds a great deal of material and information that’s related to histories that are definitely underrepresented in these larger archives,” says Linden.
Within this landscape, BALA is a continuation of the same documentary impulse that spurred Keller’s photography—and later, her films: a desire to record the contributions of the underrecognized individuals participating in an extraordinary moment in history.
A Different World
Today, the Bay Area of the past that Keller describes sounds like an alternate reality. “There were a lot of institutions and small businesses that made lesbians very visible,” she says. “There were lesbian coffee houses, and women’s bookstores, the women’s skill center... Lesbians at the time were trying to create a different kind of world. And they were saying, ‘This is what we think people need and what we want to have. So let’s create it.’”
Keller captured some of these spots, and their tangible sense of community in her first short film, Ifé, which she describes as “a funky little 5-minute black-and-white film shot on 16mm.” Now distributed by Frameline, the film follows a day in the life of a black French lesbian in San Francisco. It won best short at the Madrid Women's International Film Festival, and Keller still gets an occasional royalty check in the mail.
“There’s a little piece of magic in there, I guess, because it touched a lot of people,” she says.
Soon after, she set out to make a longer, more complicated short—with multiple shooting locations, a two-person cast, greater technical challenges and a bigger budget. In a delightful production journal, Keller itemizes the thrills and difficulties of making a film on a shoestring budget in 1994 San Francisco.
(You couldn’t, for instance, simply put out a casting call on the internet. One entry reads, “I saw a young black woman in one of the local dyke magazines today—she would be perfect for one of my leads. I called the magazine and left a message.”)
In the notes, Keller’s politics take shape in both content and crew. Sightings, released in 1995 as a 14-minute 16mm color film, continued Keller’s interest in creating “new film images of African American lesbians.” She worked with a production crew of mostly women. And the entire experience was electrifying.
“I want you to know, making this film wrecked my last nerves,” she writes in the production journal, “and I can't wait to do it again.”
BALA Looks to the Future
The vibrant scene Keller documented in photographs and moving image began to fade after the ’90s. “People were displaced, gentrification, people scattered, a lot of people fell through the cracks,” she says of the Bay Area’s black lesbian community. “And we’re definitely not visible anymore.”
With the loss of its lesbian customers, the physical spaces that catered to the community began to disappear too. The Lexington—San Francisco’s last lesbian bar—closed in 2015. The non-bar spaces Keller once knew as lesbian gathering spots had closed long before.
Now, part of BALA’s goal is to establish opportunities for lesbians to meet face to face. The archive holds community meetings on Sunday afternoons every other month, as well as organizing readings, talks and other gatherings.
At a recent BALA fundraising event, Keller passed an actual torch to a member of the next generation. At its core, the archive is about bridging that gap. The work of visionary lesbians of the ’70s and ’80s, BALA believes, is just as relevant today; documentation of past struggles can provide road maps to address the challenges current progressive activists face. “Now that I’m here and looking back, all of this kind of unfolded very organically,” she says. “I get it that this is what I was supposed to do.”
“If we don’t know different perspectives, if you don’t know histories, you are missing a lot of very valuable information,” she says. “If you don't understand what got us here, you are going to have a more difficult time to change it.”
See more of Lenn Keller's work in ‘Queer California: Untold Stories,’ on view at the Oakland Museum of California April 13–Aug. 11, 2019. Details here.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.