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Historic Columbia, USC team to tell stories of city's LGBTQ origins

SC Pride

Crowds line Main Street in Columbia on Oct. 23, 2021, for Famously Hot SC Pride Day. Adam Benson/Staff 

COLUMBIA — The evolution of Columbia’s LGBTQ movement can be traced through defunct nightclubs, historic churches and the state’s flagship university.

It’s a web of people, places and events that until now has never been fully chronicled. But a partnership between Historic Columbia and the University of South Carolina is bringing those moments and memories together in the most comprehensive initiative ever undertaken to examine the city’s LGBTQ landscape.

“The truth is, these stories in some ways almost only literally live on in the brains of the people who are contributing to it,” said Kat Allen, Historic Columbia’s research director. “Once you get them talking to each other and to us, more and more stories are coming out, and it’s contextualizing things that happened.”

The project, “We’re Here!” launched Oct. 23 at the Famously Hot S.C. Pride Festival. It includes a website of 35 oral histories from some of the city’s pioneering activists such Harriet Hancock, who helped plan the state’s first pride march in 1990.

There’s also an interactive map with more than 250 locations that have played a role in the city’s LGBTQ story. Among them are the Oak Street home of Bambi Gaddis, who in 1994 founded the S.C. African-American HIV/AIDS Council. Other sites document significant arts and culture venues, locations of crimes committed against LGBTQ people and religious institutions.

Landmark structures now razed are also catalogued. One of the most important was The Lounge on Lady, which was open from 1953 through 1974 as one of the city’s first gay bars. The building at 1103 Lady St. was demolished in 2019.

Allen and her team also digitized a collection of manuscripts and documents produced between 1970 and 2017.

“I think what we’re really good at is doing some foundational storytelling and get people to understand that this isn’t an impossible history to tell,” Allen said.

Allen said interviews with people tied to the city’s LGBTQ origins continue, and could get as large as 150 as work continues.

“We had to say, ‘Who do we interview and how do we make sure that we’re balancing age, gender and sexuality,’” she said.

Travis Wagner, a doctoral student at USC’s School of Information Science, has spent more than a decade trying to make the city’s LGBTQ past accessible.

“Los Angeles, New York kind of have these vibrant LGBTQ histories and that sort of creates a narrative that those are the only places that this exists,” he said. “I talk to people here and they’re like, ‘No, we’ve been doing this since the ‘80s.’”

But centralizing all of that material has been difficult.

“Where is it? It turns out it’s in folks’ basements, and attics and storage units. It just wasn’t out sort of because of this perception of safety,” Wagner said. “A lot of young folks won’t realize the necessity of safety in those spaces, and we don’t recognize a bar as sort of having an historic importance until it disappears.”

Follow Adam Benson on Twitter @AdamNewshound12.

Benson joined The Post and Courier's Columbia bureau in November 2019. A native of Boston, he spent three years at the Greenwood Index-Journal and has won multiple South Carolina Press Association awards for his reporting.

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