Growing up gay in Charleston, Harlan Greene says it would have been comforting to know that he wasn’t alone.
“I would have felt less isolated if I’d known that people like me lived in the Lowcountry even before European settlement and other queer people had made the city what it is today,” says the native Charlestonian.
The coming-of-age experience is different in Charleston today thanks, in part, to Greene’s decades-long effort to bring these previously hidden stories to light. Those efforts began with a walking tour through historic districts, covering the stories of the Holy City’s LGBTQ+ communities and culminated last fall with the publication of his book The Real Rainbow Row: Explorations in Charleston’s LGBTQ History.
And as the outreach archivist and project coordinator for the SC LGBTQ Oral Histories, Archives and Outreach Project in Special Collections at the College of Charleston’s Marlene & Nathan Addlestone Library, Greene continues to find, document and elevate the stories and history of the LGBTQ community in South Carolina.
One of the students who has been involved with the project since its inception is research assistant Tanner Crunelle ’20, who helps facilitate connections across different campus groups, represents the public reception of the project and processes oral histories for public availability through the Lowcountry Digital Library.
Maintaining an archive such as SC LGBTQ, says Crunelle, shows that LGBTQ+ people do have histories, and this makes everyday lives easier to recognize and understand with much greater depth. Crunelle, who is pursuing a master’s in creative writing at the College, explains that the project supports research for courses offered in one of the many academic programs in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as for students who have their own interests independent of coursework.
“Student participation directly relates to the College’s mission statement to develop intellectually versatile and globally fluent students,” he says. “By learning about how history is recorded, students have a similar experience to scholars from across the country who flock to the College of Charleston’s archives to support their own scholarly work. It illuminates facets of South Carolina, the South, LGBTQ+ people and a greater historical struggle.”
All of that, says Greene, is why he started bringing this history to light. The College Today recently caught up with Greene to discuss SC LGBTQ, The Real Rainbow Row and what motivates him to keep sharing his pride for his community.
What was the inspiration for your book, The Real Rainbow Row?
If you’re looking for the real genesis story, it comes from a CofC student who came to Special Collections researching local LGBTQ history. While the reference staff could help her, it was then we realized this part of the population (nearly 20% of our student body!) had been overlooked. To remedy that, funding through a grant from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation allowed us to address the issue head on by creating the South Carolina LGBTQ+ Oral Histories, Archives, and Outreach Project, hiring staff, conducting oral histories, posting them online and collecting archival and other materials. Being the only program around doing this kind of work, the project got a lot of attention. A publisher contacted me to do an LGBTQ history. I, at first, told the editor it was impossible – there were too many gaps to cover over 350 years. But never one to ignore a challenge, I started reading and researching and using the materials we had amassed. That is how the book came about. While I’m glad to have done it, it’s not perfect, and, hopefully, more and better books on the topic will follow.
The initial research into this subject started with a tour in 2014, is that right?
The tour was a response to negative press the LGBTQ community was receiving at the time. We in Special Collections had been working on other websites and tours, so the internet provided a very quick way to respond to show that the city – and our campus – were brimming with LGBTQ lives and stories. Things have changed dramatically since then – so much so that Explore Charleston has now posted a much more sophisticated LGBTQ tour aimed at visitors and locals alike, based on my research, linking directly to the book, and expanding some stories online. This really is game changing. Our “historical” project is now having a directeconomic impact on the Lowcountry!
You are known as an authority on the history of Charleston and have written several fiction and non-fiction books, many set in the Holy City. Your work evokes this quote from James Baldwin:
“Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.”
Does that speak to you and your body of work? If so, what continues to inspire you about this city, its people and its past?
It is only in retrospect, looking back over my work, that I can see, yes, James Baldwin was right, and I seem to have followed a pattern. No matter how diverse my books are – slave badges, biographies of minor writers, a forgotten teenager blamed for bringing on Kristallnacht – they have always focused on (and I have always focused on) nearly forgotten people and topics, subjects others thought too minor or obscure to pursue. But you know what? Minor people can do major things and narrow topics can reflect and be the focal point of much larger societal ones.
Where does the SC LGBTQ project stand now?
Grant funding has run out, but the community has rallied! Additional funds raised have helped pay for a graduate student, purchase of materials, etc., and we hope alumni will join the LGBTQ Affinity Group to further promote the cause. (One can join here: https://alumni.cofc.edu/affinity-groups/) Allies are welcome. There are so many dramatic possibilities for this project. The more funds available for LGBTQ issues, the more the College can achieve. If you quote James Baldwin, I’ll quote George Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future.” It’s all about being in control of the narrative. As I noted above – our “historical” project is now being used to impact the economy. The more we can prove how LGBTQ folks bettered our community, the better our community will be.
As an archivist in Special Collections at Addlestone Library and someone who has been a part of the College community for decades, why is this work especially important for students?
LGBTQ students and youth generally don’t have LGBTQ parents. Jewish parents, for example, can share their traditions and histories with their children, as can African American families, along with any other ethnic or minority group. Queer kids often have to find out on their own where they fit in in the long line of history, and who our cultural ancestors are. Today the College is much more welcoming than when I attended in the 1970s. Then the topic was never discussed and was not considered fit for “polite” society. Nor did it have a place in the curriculum, except noting it as aberrant behavior. The fact that we acknowledge our LGBTQ history, we teach it, and that one class has already used the book as a text speaks volumes. Of course, there’s room for improvement, but we are headed in the right direction. Pride is not just a month, but a way of life.
To make a gift in support of the SC LGBTQ project, visit www.give.cofc.edu/Lowcountry-LGBTQ.