By the time Nora-Ann Thompson fell in love with a woman, she was 45 years old and had three failed marriages behind her. The daughter of a black pastor in the Bronx, she had grown up in a family and a church that did not talk openly about sexuality, let alone homosexuality.
When she finally told her father, all he could say was “that cannot be; you need a man to take care of you and protect you,” she recalled. They never spoke of it again.
Ms. Thompson, now 65, is part of a new oral history project in Harlem that captures the experiences of 13 pioneers in New York City’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Their stories tell of the hardship and discrimination they faced within their own families at a time when expressing their sexuality was neither encouraged nor accepted.
All of those interviewed for the project are black, and range in age from 52 to 83. They include a transgender woman who was once homeless and took female hormone shots on the street and a transgender man who was shunned by co-workers after they learned of his medical history. Another man was taunted as gay by his sisters long before he moved to New York and came out.
Their stories will be shared Tuesday night at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library system. The project will become a permanent part of the center’s “In the Life Archive,” a trove of thousands of books, photographs, original manuscripts and other works produced by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender New Yorkers. “In the Life” refers both to a phrase used for those lifestyles in black culture, and to the title of a 1986 anthology of black gay writers that was edited by Joseph Beam.
The new oral history project grew out of a February visit to the “In the Life Archive” by a group from a Harlem center for older adults run by Services and Advocacy for G.L.B.T. Elders, known as SAGE. As they pored over the historical materials, many of them saw their own pasts. There were exclamations of “Oh, I remember this place.” One man even picked himself out in a photo.