The Word On Art

Lambda Archives of San Diego: The Art of Preserving LGBTQ+ Expression and History

By Patric Stillman

Throughout October, a collaboration of local artists and organizations will come together for LGBT History Month with the exhibition ART+ LGBT HISTORY MONTH. Local nonprofit, Lambda Archives of San Diego is poised to shine a spotlight on its remarkable LGBTQ+ history through its collection of artworks alongside of local contemporary Lesbian and Gay artists.

Running from October 5th to the 28th at The Studio Door, the showcase is a testament to local artistic talent. Artworks on exhibit have been curated from the collections by Nicole Verdes, Board President of Lambda Archives of San Diego. Artists Jackie Han, Carole Kuck, RD Riccoboni and Joe Phillips will also be displaying their own creativity in the Hillcrest art gallery.

Verdes will also be participating in a one-day speaker series on Saturday, October 21 revealing the stories behind the artworks. RD Riccoboni and the staff of San Diego History Center will bring to light the power of art and history with their own presentations. The highlight of the day will be a keynote address by Ignacio Darnaude titled Hiding in Plain Sight – Breaking the Gay Code in Art. The presentations, free to the public, will run from 10AM – 4PM with a gallery reception to follow. 

The Best Kept Secret

Lambda Archives of San Diego can be described as one of the city’s best-kept secrets. Tucked away in the University Heights neighborhood, Lambda Archives of San Diego holds an unassuming treasure trove of local LGBTQ+ history preserving the stories and struggles of the community.

Verdes reveals, “When I first started volunteering with Lambda Archives, which was in 2015, I really just wanted to get more involved in the Queer community. So, it wasn’t so much archives or history that brought me to the organization, but rather just really wanting to get involved and volunteer my time. And what I learned very quickly was that there were all these amazing histories and stories. They were stories that I resonated with.”

Dana Wiegand, Digital Archivist for Lambda Archives, echoes this excitement. “I was initially surprised at what a large LGBTQ+ rights movement San Diego had in the 1970s and 1980s,” she remarks. “When you typically read about the Gay Rights Movement, you tend to hear the most about New York City and San Francisco, but San Diego was home to so many brilliant LGBTQ+ activists, and the work they did was instrumental in building the community and network of LGBTQ+ organizations and services that we still have today.”

Lambda Archives of San Diego, established in 1987, holds a profound mission: to collect, preserve, and share the history of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people in the San Diego region, Northern Baja California, and Imperial County. Although most of the collections date to post-1970, there are original materials dating back to the 1930s. History comes to life through the records and cultural artifacts of those directly involved in its events. Lambda Archives is dedicated to preserving and interpreting this vital historical material and making it accessible for learning.

The archives’ journey began with Jess Jessop, a nurse who became an activist during the AIDS epidemic. He recognized the urgency of preserving the stories of those affected by the epidemic, which led to the inception of the archives. Jessop’s early efforts were humble, collecting photographs, newspaper clippings, and personal papers from friends and community members.

Verdes reflects on the organization’s evolution, stating, “Over the years, the archives have grown in size, but it has also changed along with the culture.” Lambda Archives has adapted its collecting priorities to focus on stories and histories of Trans individuals and people of color, acknowledging the shifts in society’s landscape. Today, it stands as one of the country’s most well-maintained collections of LGBTQ+ history, which were partially seen in the extraordinary collaboration “LGBTQ+ San Diego: Stories of Struggles and Triumphs” with the San Diego History Center that ran from 2018 – 2020.

The Story Behind Robin Gray-Stewart’s Painting of Las Hermanas

One of the standout collections within Lambda Archives is the Queer Artist Project, which was initiated by former Board President Sharon Parker, Susan Richards, and Bruce Kamerling. This collection of a couple hundred works of art not only explores the local Queer art scene but also seeks to preserve the history of LGBTQ+ artists in the region.

Verdes shares a captivating story tied to the Queer Artist Project collection and one of the artworks that will be on display at The Studio Door in October. It revolves around Las Hermanas Cultural Center and Coffeehouse, a space for women, primarily Lesbians, that played a significant role in providing refuge from abusive relationships and domestic violence. Las Hermanas became a hub for community events, spoken word performances, art shows, and much more. This space, run entirely by women, served as a beacon of independence, breaking free from the confines of patriarchy.

Intriguingly, Lambda Archives embarked on a journey to secure a historical designation for the building that housed Las Hermanas. They reached out to the community in search of photographs that could depict the building during its active days, a critical requirement for historical designation. Robin Gray-Stewart, a former student at San Diego State University provided an art project that depicted Las Hermanas during its original heyday, filling this crucial gap in preserving its history.

Gray Stewart remarked “…in 1975, when I was 19, I painted this surrealistic painting of Las Hermanas in a UCSD art class. I remember the professor saying she loved the perspective. She especially liked how the eyes were as large as the cups. This painting has portraits of people in it that I met at Las Hermanas. I don’t remember their names now, but I am the one stepping through the door in my hiking boot.”

An Invitation

“Lambda Archives of San Diego is an amazing space. I think it’s important for everybody to visit it at least once and to come see the amazing history that we have in our collections. Learn how you can engage with not only the collections themselves but the year-round program that we have in the Archives.”

Lambda Archives of San Diego is not just a repository of historical materials but a living testament to the LGBTQ+ community’s resilience and progress. They have expanded their outreach by launching a youth program that allows LGBTQ+ local youth to engage with the Archive’s history while creating their own projects. Additionally, the Larry T. Baza Memorial Scholarship Fund, launched in 2021, supports LGBTQ+ Latinx students attending local community colleges, honoring the legacy of activist and arts leader Larry T. Baza.

Charles Kaminski, Emeritus Board Member of Lambda Archives of San Diego, highlights the importance of knowing our histories. “Now with the given political climate, shootings in LGBTQ+ bars, people being abused on the streets, the murders of Trans, particularly Trans black women, there’s this sense that this archive is a critical aspect of documenting who we are at this moment. The LGBTQ+ history has always existed; it’s just, within the last decade or so it’s become more evident to people in other communities that our history wasn’t talked about outside of our own respective community. It’s time these hidden histories or these unspoken histories need to be spoken.”

Verdes extends an open invitation to the public: “I invite the community to make an appointment to come in for a tour. You can schedule a research appointment. But I also would encourage you to start thinking about things that you could donate because this is really important.” She emphasizes that seemingly insignificant items today may become significant historical artifacts in the future. Moreover, Verdes encourages individuals to learn more about the archives and explore opportunities to preserve and share their own materials or donate them to Lambda Archives of San Diego.

In a world where history is often hidden, Lambda Archives of San Diego stands as a beacon, ensuring that LGBTQ+ history is neither forgotten nor silenced, but instead celebrated and shared with all who seek to understand, appreciate, and champion the LGBTQ+ community’s journey.

• For more information on Lambda Archives of San Diego visit their website  

  • For details on ART+ LGBT History Month produced by The Studio Door visit