Nancy Yerian: Reflecting on Vibrant Kin
One drizzly Monday in December, we sat down with Nancy Yerian. We drank coffee, ate muffins, and talked about Nancy’s journey to becoming a public historian. She shared her experiences finding a sense of community in the Ohio Lesbian Archives, managing heavy workloads, and the creation of the Vibrant Kin exhibit.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a public historian.
When I was about 13, I started volunteering in the History Museum at the Cincinnati Museum Center, through their Youth Program, which is a wonderful, wonderful program. So, that was probably the beginning of that journey and learning more about that history and sharing it with people; it was all local. It was all based right where we are. I did costume interpretation. For my senior project for Clark Montessori, I did a huge research paper about late 18th century women’s clothing in the Ohio Valley. So, that was one of my first experiences going to archives and doing a lot of primary research and thinking about, “What does it mean? And how do you share it in a museum?” When I was 18, I thought I would study Arabic and work for the UN. I did a summer program before my senior year of high school and I lived in Egypt for six weeks and studied Arabic and the State Department paid for it.
I went away for college. During my first year, my on-campus job was also working for a museum – an art museum. I was helping with some research for that and I was reading some books about museum theory. I think I always wanted my work to do something good for society. Reading museum theory sort of gave me permission and gave me the language for how museums can influence society and shape how we think about ourselves as a society. So, that’s when I decided to go into museums and become a history major. I came back here, I ended up getting the Ohio History Service Corps placement for two years, which gave me a much deeper experience, sort of on the ground in the local history and public history worlds.
So, what are some of the projects you’ve been working on as a public historian freelancer?
Some of the big ones... I’ve been doing web and social media for the Ohio Local History Alliance, which is great because it kind of keeps me connected to that world of the smaller historical societies that I worked with during my Americorps service. I did some freelance writing for Soapbox. I did a lot of preservation-focused work. I worked with the Over-the-Rhine Foundation and did some organizational things, which was fascinating because that gave me a window into Cincinnati's local government and how it works.
Almost exactly a year after I started freelancing full time, I quit half of the projects that I was working on for a couple of reasons. For one, I was thinking, “Okay, I've been doing this for a year and I took everything that came my way, at first, so I need some sort of introspection and to figure out what I really want to do. What can I do that's meaningful? And am I really doing the things that are also going to move me forward in my career?” And there was a huge thing that happened in my personal life – my dad passed away during that time; I needed to deal with that – but it also gave me a different sense of what's important. Some of the work that I was doing was great, but it just wasn't what I really wanted to be doing.
I feel like young professionals feel pressured to say “yes” to every project or opportunity that comes their way. Do you have tips for how to say “no” or how to sort everything out?
If something's really making you miserable, you need to listen to yourself about that. Listen to why it's making you miserable. If I'm procrastinating on something, there's probably two reasons: One is I hate it, and it's generally making me miserable and it's something that I need to see if I can stop in some way. And sometimes that's not an option, right? Sometimes you just have to feed yourself. I think that after freelancing for a year, I had a little bit more confidence in the idea that if something doesn't work out, I can get a job and I can pay rent and I'll be okay. But sometimes, I'm procrastinating on something because it's so intensely close to my heart and because it's just magnificently important.
So, you have to listen to yourself and think about why it's hard. Ask yourself: Are you doing these things out of obligation? I think that at least knowing what those things are is a good start.
And then think about why you feel so obligated to do them. Sometimes you have to say no to things you love, too. Finding the balance is hard.
So, during this time of sorting projects out, you were able to start working on Vibrant Kin?
That's when I applied for a People's Liberty grant; the idea had been ruminating for a long time because I'd been volunteering at the Ohio Lesbian Archives for a little over two years at that point. Phebe, one of the co-founders, had done an interview in 1983 and put it in Dinah. The newsletter had done several interviews in that issue actually, but this talked about the creation of a gay and lesbian rights organization in 1967 and this idea of 50 years seemed like a perfect opportunity.
What's in the Ohio Lesbian Archives?
It's currently in the lower level of the United Methodist Church on Clifton and Senator, and it opened to the public in 1989, but really the founders have been collecting since the mid ’70s, first in somebody's apartment. It has a phenomenal collection of Cincinnati's LGBT culture and the political movements, the social movements, flyers for events newsletters, more professional newspapers, some organizational and personal records – things like the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard. Before the internet, before you could look things up online, it was a hotline that you could call into. People volunteered to staff it at certain times, and you could call in and find out what was going on that night or where you could go to get resources.
It's an amazing collection. Really getting to know this collection better was what made the exhibit possible and made me want to do it. I came out in Cincinnati when I was 14 and I had no idea how to find resources or a community. But finally finding the archives and the richness and what they've collected... Without the archives, I’d have no idea.
I wanted to share that sense of how rich the history was, recent history, how deep this community ran... all the things people have gone through... all the things people have done and created… and at its heart, it's a sense of “We are here and we have been here in Cincinnati.” Most LGBT people grow up knowing nothing about their community’s history. If they do know anything, they know about San Francisco and the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City. They don't learn anything about Ohio or Cincinnati or Kentucky, but that doesn't mean we haven't been here. This history is largely ignored in museum settings and in schools and so on. There's more books now, but they’re often scholarly books that are hard to find. I mean, the internet has been a huge game changer, but there's also a lot of misinformation and unverified information on the internet in history in general and definitely about LGBT history.
Why are these stories important to share?
In addition to not being able to find it in schools or museums, the vast majority of LGBT people do not grow up in LGBT families, so we don't even get a sort of heritage passed down from our parents or grandparents. When I was in high school, coming out and figuring out who I was, I had so few adult role models in my life. I just wanted to figure out how to be an adult gay person.
Especially in school settings, most of those who were LGBT were closeted... often because they worked in schools. A sense of community gives people the opportunity to break through isolation. It's hard not to think about Leelah Alcorn. We lost her to suicide in 2014 and we lose a lot of people in the LGBT community to suicide and a lot of other things. But breaking through isolation and giving people a sense of community and the idea that people have lived this way before, gives them permission to be themselves.
One of the stories that stood out in your exhibit was the Cincinnati Enquirer spread.
The 1982 “Homosexuals: A Cincinnati Report” – it's a whole 12-page spread. There's also a 1964 series of Enquirer articles called “Cincinnati’s Hidden Problem.” These categories of LGBT are often much more fluid, once we start going back a few decades, than the way we think about it today. It talked about, I think it used the term “homosexuals,” but it was also talking about people who defy gender norms...people who might have identified as transgender, or possibly as drag queens, but we don't know. Yeah, so, that's 18 years apart? That difference is huge for me. I'm really fascinated by the nondiscrimination legislation locally.
A lot of people don't know that in 31 states, including Ohio, you can still be fired or denied housing legally for being gay or transgender. Locally, in the city of Cincinnati, we have legislation protecting against discrimination, but that was a very long fight. People were talking about it in 1968 and it took until 2006 for the legislation to actually be passed.
How can people be better allies? How can institutions be more inclusive?
Number one is listen and learn. There is so much information out there right now, and GLSEN is a great place to start. They have tons of information and their local chapter is amazing. If you want to be a better ally, first do some reading. Find LGBT people telling their own stories; listen to transgender youth telling their stories, talking about their experiences in school and bathrooms, stories of getting people to use the right pronouns for them. Be empathic. I think making an effort goes a really long way. Historians should really listen to sources and find the most cutting-edge research. There's amazing scholarship being done on LGBT history right now. Do not make assumptions about our historical subjects.
Do not make assumptions that they may have had the sort of lives that we think of as a typical heterosexual life, but also be really careful about the context of gender variance or same-sex sexuality may have meant to people of the past.
Come and visit the Ohio Lesbian Archives! Unfortunately, in the history community there still are misconceptions, so be careful that you’re not transposing today’s gender and sexuality ideas onto the past, but also that you’re being very specific and you’re not transposing late-Victorian ideas about female friendship on somebody that lived in the 1920s.
What has the experience setting up Vibrant Kin throughout the city been like?
We opened at Pride, then we were at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church for several weeks. We went to the GLSEN Youth Summit; Ladyfest. I wanted this project to be a gateway to intergenerational conversations and connections. Like I said before, we often don’t grow up in LGBT families; there are often a lot of barriers to these social groups of people that aren’t your same age. I’m especially inspired by the last place we brought the exhibit. We had NKU college students sharing their stories. Carl Fox and Terry Bond shared their stories; they also did a recording for Story Corps. They own the Crazy Fox and they were grand marshals for Northern Kentucky Pride this year.
Do you have future plans for the exhibit?
It's available to travel again if people are interested. I'm hoping to find some way to keep the conversation going and keep people sharing their own stories and make sure that they know that their experience is valuable.
Can you talk about another project you’ve been working on: the Colored Conventions Project?
It's part of a national project. From about 1832 about 1900, in African American communities, there was a huge movement of conventions across the United States to talk about and take action on rights, fighting slavery, gaining the right to vote, education, all of these different issues. The University of Delaware is working to put as many of the convention minutes online as possible.
I’ve been working with Christine Anderson at Xavier, who also happens to be my mother. We focused on the 1858 convention, which is getting right up to the Civil War, so tensions are really high and there's a lot going on. Peter Clark was a big player in it. Frances Ellen Watkins was a delegate – there were very few women delegates, few women that advocated their way in these conventions. It's a fantastic project nationally because it's such an important moment. All of the big players in the African American politics were a part of these conventions.
There's so much that's happened in black activism in the United States. The Reconstruction Period is one of the best examples in US history of this idea that history is not a straight line. There were all kinds of rights gained by African Americans during the Reconstruction Era. A lot of this progress was peeled back afterwards.
Tell us about a woman who has inspired you.
There are so many. I've had very inspiring communities of women, as well. My mom has given me a lot of that passion for social justice and making change. I've watched her do that at her job and I've watched her stand up for herself. I've watched her continue to learn and grow throughout her life, which is very inspiring because I think once you sort of reach mid-20s, it's nice to to see that you can continue to change and learn new things.
I've been really lucky to spend so much time with the founders of the Lesbian Archives, who inspire me to do the work and to appreciate the history and be proud of it and value it.
When you think of how long they've been doing this work and some of the obstacles they’ve been through… they did have to face things that we don't have to deal with now. But, they did not let it stop them. They did not become complacent in any way, and that's been really inspiring.
I am so lucky to have really wonderful friends that truly inspire me. I have friends that are really involved in activism who do similar work.
I have to give a shoutout to my girlfriend, Arica, who also inspires me. She's a social worker, so, you know, when I think that my work is hard, that's nothing compared to her work. She has so much patience and integrity and compassion.