As the first recipient of the Don Kelly Collection Fellowship, Nikita Shepard is visiting Texas A&M University to conduct research for her master’s degree thesis on the history of LGBT youths, primarily post-WWII to 2000.
by Heather Rodriguez ’04
Growing up is hard. But if you’re a member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, it can be even harder. With the help of the College of Liberal Arts and the Don Kelly Collection Fellowship, Nikita Shepard, a history graduate student from Middle Tennessee State University, is doing her part to help change that.
As the first recipient of the Don Kelly Collection Fellowship, Shepard is visiting Texas A&M University to conduct research for her master’s degree thesis on the history of LGBT youths, primarily post-WWII to 2000. Having access to one of the most diverse and comprehensive collection of LGBT literature and periodicals, along with a stipend of $500 per week, will help her use the past to impact the future.
“When I was growing up and came out, I was involved in a lot of LGBT youth groups, and received a lot of support,” Shepard said. “So I became curious about the history of other youths who faced similar obstacles. How did they cope? Did they feel supported?”
Shepard is hoping to find out what kinds of cultures LGBT youths carved out for themselves, both before and after the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City—an event that is largely considered the single most important event leading to the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.
“What’s really challenging is figuring out the pre-Stonewall social history, because in a lot of those eras there was zero visibility—and if there was, it was negative visibility,” she said. “So for people growing up then, particularly outside major urban areas, it was really challenging just to find out basic information about sexuality and identity.”
But, Shepard said, she’s finding evidence of youth support in the collection, which features more than 13,000 items, including rare first-edition publications, author-signed books, pulp novels, and community newspapers.
“This collection is astonishing. There’s the rare outlier first-editions, signed copies, pulp novels, local community magazines…I could spend a year in the collection and not even come close to exhausting the resources in there,” she said.
Don Kelly, the Houstonian who provided the collection, told Out Smart magazine that he began collecting after discovering author Anthony Slide’s book The Lost Gay Novels, which discussed 50 novels from the early 20th century with gay themes and characters. In 2013, Texas A&M University Libraries/Cushing Memorial Library and Archives and the College of Liberal Arts purchased the collection and named it the Don Kelly Research Collection of Gay Literature and Culture.
“The College of Liberal Arts is proud to partner with the Library to promote the research potential of the Kelly Collection,” Leroy Dorsey, associate dean for academic initiatives and graduate instruction for Liberal Arts, said. “The recipients of the fellowship program have a great opportunity to expand the scholarly conversation surrounding LGBT historical and social experiences.”
For Shepard, it’s not just about uncovering the past. At a time where LGBT youths are significantly more likely to commit suicide than straight youths, Shepard is hoping to change the future.
“A lot of people today are concerned about the direction the country is going, and want to get organized,” Shepard said. “I’m looking at moments in the past when marginalized people were confronting similar questions. It’s encouraging to see the extraordinary creativity that people had in those dark times.”