Located across from the UCF Student Union is the John C. Hitt Libraries’ new state-of-the-art, climate-controlled facility built to store much of UCF Libraries’ holdings. Called the Automated Retrieval Center (ARC), this facility is ideal for housing rarely seen mementos and stories from Central Floridians who spent years waiting for someone with good intentions to give them what they themselves had always sought: a safe place.
“For a long time, we had to keep these artifacts in storage sheds,” says Writing and Rhetoric Professor Martha Brenckle, who serves as treasurer of the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida. The items are now kept at the center of UCF’s campus, and they’re being digitized for anyone around the world to access online.
“This is important history,” Brenckle says, “but until recently it had been relegated to the underground.”
They are the news items we never heard, the pictures we never saw, the reasons people from all over the country came to be a part of Orlando’s LGBTQ community, even for a day or two. These are the narratives from lives that had been lived in the shadows.
Two years ago, while working on his master’s in history, Associate Professor Rosalind Beiler suggested to Alexis Rodriguez ’18 that he might discover some interesting facts through an internship with the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida. Rodriguez knew something about the challenges of uncovering historical truths. He’d been researching the history of sexuality within Arab culture. To find perspectives from women, he had to dig into messages found in poetry and letters.
“When I started the master’s program at UCF, my eyes were opened to the back workings of history,” Rodriguez says. “I was challenged to think about who’s providing the historical accounts that we read about, and who is being left out? If certain people don’t have a voice, that part of history has no place in books. It’s lost.”
In one of his first tasks with the LGBTQ History Museum of Central Florida, Rodriguez tried to find female impersonators who kept low profiles in the 1970s and 80s. He wanted to document the first-hand stories that otherwise would be forever misunderstood or totally fabricated by others.
“It was nerve-wracking at first,” Rodriguez says. “This would be the first chance, maybe the only chance, for someone to ask questions about why they did what they did, even at such great personal risk. I wanted to make sure we got it right.”
He remembered a lesson from Professor of History Scot French: Rather than struggle to write down every detail, collect stories of historical significance through recorded interviews. Use oral history. It’s powerful and preservable.
Rodriguez was able to find a couple of female impersonators from back in the day. They led him to more. Very quickly, Rodriguez was taking oral histories from a dozen people who thought their stories would never see the light of day.
A common theme emerged from each conversation. These people battled an impossible tension: wanting to be acknowledged and accepted as humans, but not wanting to be completely known. The latter was too dangerous. As recently as the early 1980s, it was illegal for a man to wear women’s clothing or makeup in Orlando. Those who spoke to Rodriguez remember law enforcement officers going through popular gay hangouts with white handkerchiefs and wiping faces to find evidence of cosmetics.
“That’s a big reason the female impersonators used character names and referred to themselves in the third-person,” Rodriguez says. “It was a way they could express their feminity and be comfortable in their own skin, without being caught.”
Their lives are now a part of the museum, woven into a history that almost died.
Like Rodriguez, Brenckle volunteers for the museum. Most of the board members are UCF students, alums or faculty. There is no paid staff. The museum depends entirely on donations. This is why there’s also no physical building for visitors to visit and peruse displays. The climate-controlled ARC and museum’s website are far better alternatives than the places where people had previously stashed away the items: in drawers and closets.
“These are personal collections, which makes them authentic,” Brenckle says. “People have been generous to contribute, especially after everything they went through.”
The museum includes photos of gay people being harassed by the KKK in downtown Orlando. There are bulletins from Joy Metropolitan Church, which began in a living room to provide people from the LGBTQ community a place to worship without fear of being ostracized. Most issues of the LGBTQ newspaper, Watermark, are in the museum. You can read the diary that a Central Floridian kept of the medications he secretly took after finding out he had AIDS.
An entire section of the online museum is dedicated to pictures and mementos from Parliament House, a resort on Orange Blossom Trail that provided a true escape where people would come and listen to live music, play volleyball, swim and enjoy a few hours of freedom.
“It came to be known as a place where you could be yourself without fear of attack,” Rodriguez says.
Two months after Parliament House closed due to financial difficulties in late 2020, the building was demolished. The history it held could have disappeared in the dust.
“Having the photos and stories archived in the museum keeps the history alive and accessible,” says Brenckle. “People from all over the country go online to learn about its legacy. To me, that’s awe-inspiring.”
The fact that UCF has provided a safe space for history also reminds Brenckle of what she noticed about the university when she first arrived as an instructor in 1998.
“I walked into a young, energetic university that encouraged innovative ideas,” she says. “It’s still a culture where you can try new things and not automatically be told, ‘No, we don’t do it that way because no one else does.’ It allows new doors to be opened.”
Rodriguez, in his two short years with the museum, has gone from intern to president.
“For me personally, this started as trying to collect data on female impersonators,” he says. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that something which seemed so insignificant will always be significant. The people who took huge risks and are opening up for the first time feel like they matter because someone is listening, and finally giving them a voice. They deserve a place at the table of history. It’s their table, too.”