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From early drag shows to gay bars, Columbia’s LGBTQ+ history mapped in new SC project

·3 min read

Just in time for Columbia’s present-day Pride festival, the Historic Columbia Foundation is unveiling a new look at the capital city’s LGBTQ+ past.

Historic Columbia will unveil its comprehensive online oral history of the capital city’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer communities on Saturday at Columbia’s Famously Hot South Carolina Pride festival.

The foundation worked with the oral history department at the University of South Carolina to collect the stories of a diverse range of LGBTQ+ people in Columbia so that the often untold story of those communities in the Midlands can be honored and remembered.

“We have to do this now before some of this stuff is lost forever,” said Kat Allen, director of research at Historic Columbia, who worked to put the comprehensive project together. “Every day more stuff gets thrown away. People pass away, and then someone says, ‘Nobody’s going to want this,’ but USC will absolutely take all of this stuff. ... There are things we would have never known about without some of this material.”

The project maps a timeline of Columbia’s LGBTQ+ history, from early 1900s drag shows and a procession of gay-friendly establishments to the first Pride March to the S.C. State House in 1990 that birthed today’s Pride festival.

An early, post-war gay community coalesced around Jimmy’s Place and the Lounge on Lady in the 1950s. In the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, a more open community emerged starting at USC. Later, the AIDS epidemic increased the need for community support and spawned new organizations like the Palmetto AIDS Life Support Services, or PALSS.

The Capital Club opened in the 1980s, while a succession of clubs — from Rumours to Metropolis — operated at the Blanding Street building that now houses the Midtown Fellowship church. By the 1990s, the local Gay and Lesbian Business Guild was founded, and community members could read locally published newsletters like Triangle Times and In Unison.

The oral history website also documents the restrictions and persecutions queer Columbians often faced. With limited safe options for LGBTQ+ to meet each other, people who searched for an encounter on the downtown stretch of Senate Street were likely to be arrested for prostitution or cross-dressing. Students fought with the administration at USC for years to gain recognition of an LGBTQ+ student group, while just a generation or two earlier saw students quietly expelled for same-sex conduct.

The project includes a website that collects 35 first-hand stories about different aspects of the queer experience in Columbia and an invitation for people to give their own interview for the oral history project.

Allen expects the project to continue to grow even after its initial publication. “The list we have of recommended people (to interview) is 150 names long,” she said.

An interactive map also documents sites associated with the city’s LGBTQ+ history across town.

A companion collection of archived materials related to the project will be housed in the South Carolina Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Collection at the South Caroliniana Library at USC.

“Now that it’s easy to sort through, the things in there are remarkable,” Allen said. “There’s mundane stuff, funny stuff, heartbreaking stuff.”

The program includes two essays on the impact of AIDS on Columbia and the growth of the student movement at USC.

“Hopefully younger people will read these and realize, things do get better,” Allen said. “There are multiple coming-out stories, that’s what we’re trying to get all these voices out there.”

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