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Professor Stephanie Yuhl Works With Worcester’s LGBTQ+ Community to Share Their History

Funded by a Scholarship in Action grant, the three-year project aims to make this long-overlooked history both visible and accessible
June 5th, 2019 by 

Stephanie Yuhl at the opening reception for "LGBTQ+ Worcester — For the Record," the exhibition she helped bring to life at the Worcester Historical Museum.
Stephanie Yuhl at the opening reception of "LGBTQ+ Worcester — For the Record," the exhibition she helped bring to life at the Worcester Historical Museum. Photo by Louie Despres

On April 25, the Worcester Historical Museum was filled with emotion — sorrow, anger, joy — as hundreds explored the museum’s newest exhibition, “LGBTQ+ Worcester — For the Record,” a chronicling of images, histories, voices and experiences of Worcester’s LGBTQ+ community over the last 50 years.

The exhibition, timed to the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall uprising and the advent of the modern gay liberation movement, showcases the scattered documentation of Worcester’s LGBTQ+ experience, which is quickly growing due in large part to the work of College of the Holy Cross’ Stephanie Yuhl, professor of history. Supported by a three-year Scholarship in Action grant, Yuhl is working as part of a team of scholars to develop a physical and digital historical archive, oral history project and artifact collection of LGBTQ+-related materials in Worcester County.

While Worcester’s LGBTQ+ community has claimed space in the city for decades, their history has long been overlooked, a common occurrence for marginalized, hidden or oppressed communities, explains Yuhl. Through partnerships with the museum and various community representatives, Yuhl’s Scholarship in Action grant project, titled “From Margin to Center,” aims to make this rich history both visible and accessible — and, in doing so, showcase its value.

For Yuhl, this is social justice history work.

“The idea was to build a collection because if you start collecting materials, you start validating that history and if you have a history, you’re not easily erased,” she shares. “I always say, and said at the opening of the exhibition, that archives are a form of power.”

In order to build this collection, Yuhl and her community partner William Wallace, executive director of the Worcester Historical Museum, established an extensive network of partners in Worcester. The team of collaborators includes professors Robert Tobin from Clark University and Joseph Cullon from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), both co-curators of the exhibition and larger archive project, along with a community advisory board made up of organizations including Worcester Pride, the Boys and Girls Club, and UMass Medical School. These many touchpoints helped guide the collection process and reach the variety of people who self-identify as members of Worcester’s LGBTQ+ community.

“This has required a lot of social energy, a live network, a lot of building up relationships and trust before people are willing to share their stories,” says Yuhl. “This is especially true because we’re talking about a population that has generally been disparaged. You don’t want to only be extractive.”

This grassroots effort — in partnership with the community, for the community — is vital to the success of the project.

“One of the central tenets of this type of public history work,” explains Yuhl, “is shared authority. It’s not just a scholarly expert that comes in and says, ‘This is the story,’ but rather serves to ask questions and be a platform for communities to tell their own histories.”

 Aaron Seider

The Worcester Historical Museum is packed with members of the community exploring the “LGBTQ+ Worcester — For the Record” exhibition. Photo by Hui Li ’21

Through this project, Yuhl has been able to marry her scholarly interests in public history and in gender and sexuality in the U.S. context with the needs of the local community, making it a perfect fit for the Scholarship in Action initiative. The initiative’s funding, sponsored by $800,000 awarded to the College from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to support sustainable, community-based faculty research projects in Worcester over the next five years through a series of grants.

Yuhl received one of the two inaugural Scholarship in Action grants, alongside Susan Rogers, professor emerita of anthropology, who is studying refugee resettlement in Worcester. A new crop of grants will be awarded in the coming months to support more community-based faculty research projects, which also create a range of experiential, applied learning opportunities for students.

In just the first year of the three-year project, many Holy Cross students have contributed to Yuhl’s research in varying ways, whether conducting legal or newspaper research or helping to gather initial data for a wall-sized map of LGBTQ+ spaces in Worcester that is featured in the exhibition. Most notably, Nora Grimes ’19 and Emma Powell ’20 curated “I’m Not the Only One: LGBTQ+ Histories at Holy Cross,” an exhibition up during the spring semester at Holy Cross. This exhibition was the result of a full summer of research conducted by Grimes and Powell through the Weiss Summer Research Program and is a part of a larger Holy Cross initiative called Project Q+, which aims to create a Holy Cross-specific LGBTQ+ archive.

“As a young historian and ally, I felt that it was and is my duty to participate in this work, to listen, to gather and to uplift the voices that have been a huge part of our history as a college since its founding,” says Grimes, who shared that the most rewarding part of the work was the opportunity to publicly display and share this history that has been historically marginalized with the campus community and alumni.

Grimes and Powell’s work also contributed to the larger archive Yuhl is creating as well as the Worcester Historical Museum’s exhibition, which featured a handful of Holy Cross-specific LGBTQ+ artifacts.

The show at Holy Cross served as a complement to the Worcester History Museum exhibition, with similar shows being put up on the campuses of Clark and WPI by professors Tobin and Cullon, respectively. The college exhibitions aim to reinforce that this local LGBTQ+ history has many different homes and that the history at one institution may look very different from that of another. Ultimately, explains Yuhl, there is a connection between each institution’s LGBTQ+ history and the city’s.

“Our exhibit at Holy Cross may seem small in the scheme of things,” says Powell, “but it is part of a larger project of the Worcester community acknowledging LGBTQ+ people and lobbying not for an apathetic acceptance but for an active celebration.”

While much has already been done, the work of collecting is far from over. Over the next two years, Yuhl and the Worcester LGBTQ+ project team will continue to gather artifacts and stories from the Worcester community in the hopes of capturing a broader, more accurate depiction of the history of its LGBTQ+ community.

The Worcester Historical Museum exhibition, which will be up through October 12th, could mistakenly be seen as a culmination of the collecting, but Yuhl explains it is rather a catalyst for it.

“The exhibit serves as an opportunity to report out to the community on the state of collecting,” she says. “It is the sort of middle point and we’re looking at it as a provocateur, an invitation both to catalyze and invite the community to understand what it is we’re trying to do and to contribute, to share their stories, to help shape it because, ultimately, it’s theirs.”

The LGBTQ+ community’s response to the exhibition, as well as that from those outside of the community, has been overwhelmingly positive — an indicator of the early success and impact of this project.

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