SAN ANTONIO — The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) library annex houses too many stories for Melissa Gohlke to count. Each story, though, tells an important piece of San Antonio's past.
Since 2010, Gohlke has focused on searching and preserving historical accounts related to San Antonio's LGBTQ+ community.
"Fortunately, I get to work here with the local LGBTQ collections and make sure that materials preserved for our community, (that) that legacy is preserved and it’s accessible—not just to students on campus, but to the community," Gohlke said.
As an archivist, Gohlke is presented with a portal into history on an almost daily basis.
"It’s kind of strange sometimes, how lucky I am to get to know people," she said. "Unfortunately, oftentimes it’s when they’ve passed."
Tucked into one of the many boxes forming a row of archived items is something many may not initially think is worth preserving: T-shirts.
"I would not have thought of T-shirts as being archival until a native San Antonioan named Eric Gonzaba, when he was finishing up his master’s, came up with this brilliant idea of wearing gay history. He collected photographs of T-shirts from all over the globe that had an LGBTQ theme."
Gohlke showed us a 1985 T-shirt from The Noo Zoo Company, a nightclub owned by Laura Lollie Johnson, who died in 2001. Johnson owned several Alamo City bars and nightclubs which were then credited to her commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, as they made up most of her customer base.
"In the '70s and '80s and even the '60s, going to a bar that was patronized by gays was often the only option that you had," she said.
In the eyes of history, the T-shirt is more than a piece of clothing; it's a symbol of community-building, a token of acceptance and a reminder of thriving LGBTQ+ businesses in San Antonio.
"Gay bars become this nexus of community building and that was definitely true in San Antonio," Gohlke added.
Sometimes, personal items such as journals, scrapbooks and photos from community members also make their way into the archives. That's true of Gene Elder, an LGBTQ+ community advocate in San Antonio who passed away in 2019.
"Gene's journals are just extraordinary," Gohlke said. "There are 23 volumes of the journals... he wanted to preserve as much as he could of San Antonio culture, queer culture, just all aspects of the artistic community."
The story of this community, however, would not be complete without preserving history surrounding the discrimination its members faced, and continue to reckon with today. Gohlke said those stories get saved, too.
She is a firm believer in history informing the present, which is why she also works to capture and preserve history as it's being made.
"There's tremendous cultural value in the history that we preserve and that's something that we're going to continue to do."
Gohlke said she does not plan on retiring anytime soon, but when that time comes, she hopes to leave a legacy to the person who picks up where she left off.
You can look through UTSA's public LGBTQ+ Collections here.