Light Amidst Hard Times: Exploring the Mary Richards Collection

Rafael Franco worked in the GLBT Historical Society archives this summer, helping us process a vital collection of recorded interviews. We interviewed Rafael about his time in the archives, and the surprising material he uncovered.

Can you tell us about your time in the archives?

Rafael Franco: I worked with the Mary Richards Collection, which houses audio recordings she made as a freelance writer for the San Francisco-based LGBTQ newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter. The recordings are from the 1980s and 1990s and touch on topics such as the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, AIDS fundraisers, queer nightlife in San Francisco, Pride celebrations, and more.

I’ve engaged with online materials from the GLBT Historical Society since moving to the Bay Area in 2021, and its contents have enabled me to establish a deep understanding of Northern California’s queer history. This, in tandem with the fact that my research engages extensively with queer theory and queer histories, incentivized me to reach out to discuss my interest in working with the Society.

Why is it important to tell this story?

RF: These files remind us that there is light amidst hard times. In these tapes, there is so much expression of joy amidst a time that is portrayed as solely tragic in films, television, and other media. From dinner parties to the Gay Games to film screenings, queer joy is everywhere in these tapes. While it’s absolutely essential to acknowledge pain and mourn violence against queer people, it’s also important to recognize and celebrate queer joy, as being queer is often equated with being unhappy. 

How does your work resonate today?

RF: One lesson that I think will always withstand the test of time is that talking about taboo topics often helps eliminate harmful stigmas. One such taboo topic is sex. In one of the tapes, Alan Selby discusses his thriving leather business. His audio file discusses sadomasochism in relation to AIDS, and provides valuable advice for those who would like to indulge in fetish but still want to partake in safe sex. His discussion is important and proves that opening up avenues for discussions could save lives. 

What interesting things have you found in the archives?

RF: I’ve found the importance of congregation very interesting. For example, many people held fundraisers in hopes of raising enough money to travel to Washington D.C. for the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. One such event was a gala beer bust, which was hosted by the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. The importance of organizing and congregating at Washington D.C. doesn’t strike me as something that is as common in our times, especially with the rise of online activism and fundraising. While online activism has its perks, it’s clear that on the ground work also comes with its own benefits, including the formation of a community–something that is especially important in times such as the AIDS crisis. 

Can you tell us more about yourself?

RF: Currently, I am a Ph.D. student in Literature at UC Santa Cruz. My research focuses on 19th century gothic literature, with a focus on how queer feelings get defined as monstrous in the heteronormative sphere. Before coming to UCSC, I received B.A.s in English and History from UCLA.

I worked with the Society through the Public Fellows program at UC Santa Cruz, which partners Ph.D. students in the humanities with organizations and companies outside of academia. The goal of the program is for students to exercise their research skills, paving the way for potential career opportunities. My role involved inputting metadata for the Mary Richards Collection, which includes over 300 tapes. The goal of this project was to digitize the recordings and make them accessible to a wide audience.

Lastly, is there anything we didn’t ask that you’d like to share with us?

RF: I think one important thing to note is that archives are never a complete story. There are always narratives that will slip through the cracks and remain untold. In my work, for example, I wondered whether trans people would be present in the recordings only to discover that there is only evidence of a trans person on two out of over three hundred tapes. However, I think this absence says almost as much as the tapes do. Not only do they show us how far we’ve come with trans rights, but they show us how far we still need to go to listen to the trans people who never got the opportunity to speak. 

Rafael Franco is a Ph.D. student in literature at UC Santa Cruz. His research is on 19th century Gothic literature, analyzing the way novels often defined their monsters through their race and sexuality. He has worked to promote educational accessibility, including work with Central Valley Scholars and the Educational Opportunities Program at UCSC. After working on some summer projects for the GLBT Historical Society, he found the digitization of archives most rewarding, as it helps ensure people have access to research materials both on and off-site.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Richards Collection is now online!

We are happy to announce that hundreds of interviews by journalist Mary Richards have been digitized and are now available online! This project was supported by a Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The grant program is made possible by funding from the Mellon Foundation.

Photo Credits: Photo of the Mary Richards Audiotapes (#2002-34). Rafael Franco photo courtesy of same.