The Brooks Fund History Project is a longtime goal of The H. Franklin Brooks Philanthropic Fund of The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, which funds projects specifically addressing the LGBT community. Project chair Iris Buhl began raising funds for the project more than a year ago. When Herbert Fox, a local gay media editor died, an entire social history of Nashville gay life died with him, and Buhl recognized the need to preserve as much of that history as possible.
“”You don’t appreciate how much life has changed unless you know how they lived,” says Buhl, handing over a neat small stack of transcripts on her kitchen table. She spearheaded the project along with author John Bridges (a close friend she notes as an inspiration), attorney Robyn Smith and Vanderbilt English professor Roger Moore, with consultation from Vanderbilt sociologist Dan Cornfield.
The project’s first phase, meant to document LGBT life in Middle Tennessee before New York’s landmark Stonewall uprising in 1969, consists of recorded and transcribed interviews with some 28 subjects ranging in age from 63 to 85. Sadly, some did not live to see the project’s conclusion — it will be donated to the Nashville Public Library later this summer.
Some are men, others women, while still others defy gender labels: They are black, white; rich, poor; worldly, sheltered; high-school dropouts and Ph.D.s. Stonewall, to many, was just a Civil War general. The subjects were drawn mostly from “networking,” Buhl says, and the interviews (conducted by filmmaker Deidre Duker and producer Phil Bell) will also figure in a documentary later this year.
For Bell, the project hit close to home.
“Back in the late 1980s I had a friend and colleague who worked in broadcast news,” Bell writes via email. “He was young. He died of AIDS. He was gay. His family was embarrassed about how he died and even told many family members it was ‘cancer.’ I’m still saddened by that dishonesty, which, in its course, left the world with no real memory of many meaningful aspects of his life that included being caring, giving and a joy to be around. It was all about getting him buried and hiding the ‘nasty secret’ of his life. This was an inspiration for being a part of this project.””
“Beatings, slurs and threats are remembered, but not as often as you might expect. The peer pressure recalled was often more insidious — as with a woman born in 1942 who remembers being pressed by the yearbook staff to ask an effeminate math teacher to pose next to the square root of 69 for a joke. No stranger to the snickers of others, the teacher frostily declined. “