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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Heartland Activists

The Bil Browning and Jerame Davis Papers (Collection AC1334) are among some of the newer acquisitions of the Archives Center in the National Museum of American History. Mostly unassuming and full of things that would not look out of place pinned up to a corkboard above a desk, it will indubitably become a valuable resource to historians of the LGBT rights movement.

When we think of LGBT activism, our thoughts turn to the overcrowded streets where televised Pride parades and festivals are held in cities along the east and west coasts. Yet, Bil Browning and Jerame Davis both hail from two small, largely obscure towns in rural Indiana. Their collection – which is comprised of various documents, photographs, home videos, and even a scrapbook – provides a rare glimpse into LGBT activism as it unfolded in the Midwestern United States and the struggles that accompanied it.
Photograph by Perry Bidelf.  Left to right: Phil Reese, Anthony Niedwiecki, Wayman Hudson, Bil Browning, and Jerame Davis at National Equality March, 11 October 2009.
From the Bil Browning and Jerame Davis Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

I had the rare opportunity to speak with Browning and Davis about the materials they had donated to the Archives Center. While my primary objective was to have them identify photographs that were lacking names or dates, I was also able to talk to them about the events depicted in their collection. It was one thing to spend my day processing the photos and documents, pulling individual papers out of their messy arrangements in cardboard boxes and then sorting them into crisp legal folders. It was another thing entirely to sit down and talk face-to-face with the people who lived the events that I was merely a spectator to, ten or twenty-some-odd years after they took place.

It’s impossible for thoughts to be conveyed through static items, so my interview managed to add a distinctly human element to a process that evokes, at some times, a sense of disconnect. In our discussion, I heard about the discrimination lawsuit that catapulted Davis into activism, and in his own words, “changed the course of [his] life”, listened to Browning discuss his experience running his blog, The Bilerico Project, and learned about why the two of them wanted to include anti-LGBT materials in their collection (the answer to that, as I learned from Davis, was that “future generations need to know all the nasty, horrible things those [expletive deleted] said about us”).

My conversation with the two LGBT activists was truly an incredible experience and helped to flesh out the collection more so than it had already been. I hope that future historians, researchers, and even the general public, will one day take advantage of the rich materials within it and educate themselves about the struggles that members of the LGBT community have faced and continue to face on their journey to achieve equality.

Sara Dorfman, Intern, NMAH Archives Center


  1. I am so proud of both of my sons for what they have done thru out the years , plus what they continue to do today! love you both MOM

  2. Activists who know how the power of love combined with a commitment to do the right things can change the world to be a better place for all people. Thank you Bill, Jeremy and your extended family!!