Published: June 7, 2023

The history of CU Boulder student activism for LGBTQ+ rights is now available at the University Libraries thanks to Emily Howard, a Libraries intern who processed and organized the Boulder Gay Liberation collection when they were an undergraduate history student. The collection features materials from the Boulder Gay Liberation (BGL) student group on campus during the 1970s and early 1980s and was donated by Stanley Hohnholz, a member of BGL while he was a student at CU Boulder.

This collection is also the subject of a new exhibition at the Libraries, On the Front Lines: A Brief History of Gay Activism in Boulder, curated by art and art history graduate student Mattie Hough. Visitors can view the exhibition outside the Rare and Distinctive (RaD) Collections reading room (M350B) on the 3rd floor of Norlin Library.

Making the collection visible

Working with Senior Processing Archivist Ashlyn Velte, Howard spent the fall ‘21 semester organizing the Boulder Gay Liberation collection, creating an inventory of the materials and drafting the notes fields for the finding aid, which added important context and made it discoverable by the public.

“I was extremely interested in working on the collection because I think that LGBT history is vital, especially local history about activist efforts that have happened in our own city,” said Howard. “With all of the anti-queer laws looming on the horizon, learning how our queer elders have fought for their own place at the table is a beacon of hope to the queer community now. The dance flyers were my favorite part of the collection, as queer history is often told through the tragedies and the struggles. It's nice to see the joy and celebration present there as well.”

Howard also appraised the many Gay magazines, zines and publications in the collection for their rarity. These publications are in the process of getting cataloged and added to the Rare Books Collection.

“The collection represents one of the few collections we have entirely focused on LGBTQ+ issues,” said Velte. “Before Emily processed it, it was unorganized and impossible for researchers to find and use.”

Portrait of 5 members from the Boulder Gay Liberation in the 1977 edition of Life Magazine
Portrait of Stanley Hohnholz (center right) and 4 members of the Boulder Gay Liberation, Life Magazine, 1977

Seeing the collection in RaD

Since Howard organized and created the finding aid, the collection has proven popular for class use and with student researchers who have visited the Rare and Distinctive Collections reading room to learn from the materials. 

Dulce Aldama, instructor and libraries and museum cultural heritage collections exhibit developer, brought her MUSM 5021: Gender in Museums of the Americas class to the reading room as part of the curriculum to learn from materials in RaD. The class analyzes museums from a gender perspective and RaD Collections Instruction Coordinator Sean Babbs, who teaches the session, selected the Boulder Gay Liberation collection and other materials to share with students in the course.

Graduate student Mattie Hough was one of the students who attended the session, which sparked her interest in the collection.

“We visited RaD to view materials that challenged notions of heteronormativity and gender constructs within large institutions such as CU,” explained Hough. “I first picked up two children’s books banned in other institutions because they depicted families with same-sex parents such as Heather Has Two Mommies or Daddy’s Roommate. These books were wonderful and explained that all families don’t look the same in an easily understandable way for children.”

Hough was baffled by why these books were challenged or banned in certain communities across the country. Babbs noticed her interest and showed her materials from the Boulder Gay Liberation collection.

“These materials fascinated me as they were a glimpse into the struggles of queer individuals from so many years ago. But what troubled me was that some of the issues discussed in these journals and flyers are still very prevalent today,” Hough said.

"Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate" book covers
Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate, Rare and Distinctive Collections

Developing the exhibition

After seeing the collection in RaD, Hough knew that she wanted this to be the subject of her final project. “I decided to take a look at a local movement, the Boulder Gay Liberation Front (BGL). This visit to the archives was not long after the shooting that occurred at Club Q in Colorado Springs, and I was inspired to demonstrate that the fight for LGBTQ+ liberation is far from over,” she said

“While it is not typical for museums and libraries to let people outside of the institution curate exhibitions, the role of the university is to offer different experiences to students as part of their education,” said Aldama. “Allowing different people to curate exhibitions—including students—also serves as a way to decolonize museums and libraries by allowing new perspectives to highlight collections. Mattie has done a great job shedding light on these materials.”

Working with Aldama, Velte and Conservator Hillary Morgan, Hough learned how to curate an exhibition from selecting materials to writing interpretive text to the practicalities of displaying sometimes fragile objects.  

“I spent hours in the archives going through every document in the collection,” Hough said. “Emily did a wonderful job organizing the materials, which made it easy to find specific documents. The collection is mostly made up of directories for the group, newspaper clippings detailing the progress of national and local liberation movements magazines, flyers for dances sponsored by the organization, and many copies of different newsletters produced by the group.” 

In addition to including materials that showcased the main goals of the organization—educating the community, fighting for legal rights and providing a space for the LGBTQ+ communities of Boulder and the surrounding areas to socialize—Hough also wanted to include an interactive component for the exhibition.

“This took the form of a QR code that visitors can scan to view other resources, such as a link to an oral interview with Byron Sullivan, the founder of BGL, conducted in 1973 by History Colorado. It also links to sites like LGBTQ+ resources at CU Boulder, more information on RaD Collections, and a link that guides visitors to leave feedback and thoughts about what is on display,” said Hough. “It was difficult to pick and choose materials from the collection as there were so many that I found important to tell the story of this group and the impact they made. I hope others are inspired to take a closer look at the history of LGBTQ+ rights in their community.”

On the Front Lines exhibition sign and descriptive panel
On the Front Lines: A Brief History of Gay Activism in Boulder exhibition outside the RaD reading room (M350B) in Norlin Library

Elevating LGBTQ+ histories

For both Howard and Hough, working with the Boulder Gay Liberation collection offered invaluable experience.

“I think the biggest thing I took away from this experience is the importance of exploring local history and archives that hold so much information from the past which continues to be relevant to issues in the present,” explained Hough. “I was struck by the amount I did not know about LGBTQ+ history in Colorado and the parallels to issues that persist 50 years later. I also took away the fact that queer histories and stories are still underrepresented in museums and other institutions, often buried in the archives somewhere and never brought to the surface.”

Howard had a similar takeaway. “I have always been a history nerd, and as I've explored more histories, I have found that the most interesting histories are always the ones that were ignored or systematically silenced. Preserving these stories and elevating them is so important to empowering marginalized communities, as is making sure that marginalized peoples have access to these stories,” they said. “All the research in the world won't do much good if people can't access it and learn from it.

Howard decided to apply for CU Boulder’s Museum Studies program, a competitive program that only selects a few students each year. Their work on the Boulder Gay Liberation collection formed part of their application. Howard will start the Museum Studies program in the fall.

Visitors can see On the Front Lines: A Brief History of Gay Activism in Boulder outside the RaD reading room (M350B) in Norlin Library now until January 2024 and schedule a reading room appointment to see more materials in the Boulder Gay Liberation collection.

Portrait of Mattie Hough
Mattie Hough, curator of the exhibition

Portrait of Emily Howard
Emily Howard, organizer of the BGL collection