By Megan Smith
Queer scholar Nikita Shepard sits at a long wooden table—the soft overhead lighting shines down as they dive into another issue of ONE magazine, one of the first pro-gay publications in the United States. This library has been Shepard’s home for the past month as they conduct research in one of the country’s premier collections of LGBTQ scholarly literature. But Shepard isn’t studying in the halls of Berkeley or the Ivy Leagues of the Northeast—they’re in College Station, Texas, in the heart of Aggieland, at Texas A&M University’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives.
In 2015, Texas A&M acquired the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture from the collection’s namesake, a then 74-year-old openly gay man who had collected over 8,000 queer books, magazines, newspapers, comics, and more in his small studio apartment in Houston. A little over two years later, the collection now includes over 13,000 titles and boasts a fellowship program—of which Shepard was the first recipient.
Shepard, a graduate student of history at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), first found out about the Don Kelly fellowship from their mentor, queer historian Dr. Pippa Holloway. “When I began skimming through the catalog of the collection, my jaw dropped,” laughs Shepard. “My mouth started watering.” Shepard’s disbelief grew when they saw where the collection was located. “I’ve never been to Texas before,” Shepard admits. “So when I looked up where this collection was housed and saw it was in College Station, imagine my arched eyebrow. But I’m honestly embarrassed [at my preconceived notion]. Everyone here associated with A&M has been so incredibly generous, welcoming, supportive, and enthusiastic.”
Although their family is originally from New Jersey, Shepard has spent most of their life in the South. They attended high school in Raleigh, North Carolina, and came out as queer at age 16. From there, Shepard began engaging in LGBTQ organizing and activism, including with LGBTQ campus groups during their time as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, as well as organizing the 2006 Sweaty Southern Radical Queer and Trans Convergence—a Durham-based conference where queer and trans folks from across the South gathered to share experiences, network, and learn from one another.
Shepard’s passion for LGBTQ history continued to grow post-graduation, but became more personal when they developed an interest in documenting the histories of the elders in the radical faerie community where they currently reside. “I’m surrounded by this really cool, inter-generational queer community,” they explain. This process ultimately inspired Shepard to re-enter the world of academia at MTSU.
For the Don Kelly fellowship, Shepard has focused their research on the emergence of queer youth culture and organizing from 1945 to 2000—a time frame that analyzes both the pre- and post-Stonewall eras. “I started realizing that youth were being left out of almost all the [LGBTQ historical] stories I was reading,” Shepard says in regards to their interest in the subject. “The standard LGBTQ American historical narrative talks about Stonewall as a key pivot point, and that the first gay youth groups appeared in the post-Stonewall gay liberation era—which is true. But what doesn’t get acknowledged is that the group that was rioting at Stonewall was very young—there were a lot of gay, lesbian, and transgender youth. And for that to have been the case, there had to have been a very public queer youth culture that preceded Stonewall for all of them to be there. That got me curious.”
As Shepard dove deeper into their research, they made many surprising discoveries along the way. “One of the things that I didn’t expect was that—when youth were discussed—they were portrayed as a threat to homosexual adults,” Shepard explains of gay and lesbian print media from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “There were so many stories about teenagers who would prey on older gay men to trap them, out them, or blackmail them. There were never really voices of actual gay teenagers themselves.”
Shepard attributes this void to the fact that the most prominent homophile organizations at the time were age restricted—no one under 21 could join or subscribe to their publications. These restrictions weren’t purely out of ageism, Shepard notes, but stemmed from the fear that, by allowing youth to join, the organizations would be fueling the stereotype that gay and lesbian adults were recruiters. “That notion was so powerful in holding back LGBTQ youth and adults from being able to work together from the very beginning,” Shepard explains.
Post-Stonewall, however, an explosion of gay youth groups was seen across the country—a shift that Shepard credits to the broader youth counterculture occurring at that time. Queer youth organizing and activism continued to evolve with the emergence of PFLAG in the 1970s and ‘80s and the rise of the Gay-Straight Alliance movement of the ‘90s. “One of the things about studying LGBTQ history is that it really gives you a sense of how our ways of understanding ourselves and our ways of making sense of our gender and sexual orientations have evolved over time,” Shepard says. “We’ve got young activists really taking a front and center role [in today’s movement] and it’s important to think about the history of how that came about.”
Shepard also used the collection to research the history of the analogy of gay liberation and the black freedom struggle for a journal article they will be writing later this year. “It’s universally acknowledged that the African American civil rights movement was a major influence on gay liberation—that’s not controversial,” Shepard says. “But beyond that, there’s an enduring logic that a lot of gay and lesbian activists have used involving the analogy between racism and homophobia that has really structured gay and lesbian political discourse for the last 50 years. That can sometimes be expressed in ways that civil rights activists find really problematic. This has been happening for decades, where white gay and lesbian activists have attempted to draw on the legitimacy of the black freedom struggle to promote a gay and lesbian civil rights agenda. Heterosexual African American activists have, at times, been supportive of [that message] and at times, pushed back against it. African American LGBTQ people have been caught in the middle, trying to figure out how to recognize the particular ways that each of their identities intersect in their own lives and in their political involvement.”
“I think [this research] can be useful in a contemporary sense for LGBTQ activists to get a sense of where this analogy comes from, how it’s been used, what it’s been used for successfully and unsuccessfully, and how we can frame our efforts in a way that doesn’t appropriate other people’s struggles, but—in an intersectional way—orients our struggles towards solidarity,” they continue.
Shepard also encourages others—lovers of literature, poets, artists, activists and more—to engage with the collection for their own research, noting that the Cushing Library is open to all. “One of the reasons I think the Don Kelly Collection is so important for southern queers is that it means that we can be in this region and not have to go to Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco to do really comprehensive, cutting-edge, queer historical research,” they say. “And to be able to draw on all the materials Don has collected that are particular to the South, and particular to Texas, has been extra gratifying. The collection is so vast and magical, I could spend years digging through it.”
For more information on the Don Kelly Research Collection Fellowship, click here.