Historian and archivist Lenn Keller died of cancer on Dec. 16, according to an announcement posted by the Bay Area Lesbian Archives, an organization that she founded in 2014 to preserve the region’s diverse lesbian history. In a separate post, her friend Sharon Davenport noted that Lenn “was loved and cared for when she passed at home.”
Keller, who described herself as “a proud butch lesbian,” lived a life of what she would later refer to as “prefigurative politics” — creating the world one wishes to see. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, she played a leading role in the Bay Area’s thriving community of Black lesbian activists. In more recent years, she devoted herself to preserving the often-overlooked stories of these women.
Her story of rebellion began when she was growing up in the 1950s.
“Some of my earliest memories have to do with being in kindergarten, and noticing the whole gender setup,” Keller recalled in a 2017 interview. “All the boys’ toys were in one section and the girls’ toys were in another. There was the expectation that you only played with the toys in your section. Even as a five-year-old, I thought that was utterly ridiculous.”
Keller bucked the unspoken rules and played with whatever toys she wanted. Throughout the rest of her life, she challenged and broke down oppressive gender norms and racism. The Bay Area Lesbian Archives, an organization Keller co-founded, will ensure that her legacy of photography, advocacy, and rebellion will live on.
Explaining the motivation to catalogue and share her massive collection of event flyers, meeting notes, newsletters, videotapes, and photographs, Keller said “what happened back then was so important. People were driven by a vision, not just to be accepted as lesbian and gay. We were trying to literally change the world.” Keller and her friends manifested this vision by instituting standards for their own events, like providing sign language interpretation and free childcare, that are now adopted (or should be) at mainstream events far beyond collective meetings in Berkeley basements.
Their approach to social justice was intersectional long before that term was coined. The emergence of Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement and LGBTQI equality legislation all have roots in gatherings like the 1980 “Becoming Visible: First Black Lesbian Conference,” held at The Women’s Building in San Francisco, which Keller attended with her ever-present camera.
Lenn Keller was born on Sept.29, 1950 in Evanston, Illinois. Her father, who she described as “functionally illiterate,” came from a family of sharecroppers and worked as a gravedigger. Her family lost their house to foreclosure around the same time her mother died, when Lenn was eight years old. Following this tragedy, her father was able to secure low-income housing for the family in an affluent Chicago suburb, which gave Lenn access to a top-ranking public education. Reminiscing about her nearly all-white high school gave Lenn an opportunity to share her dagger-sharp dark humor. “I was basically exempted from having to date, because it was at a period in time when white boys didn’t date black girls. Racism saved me from compulsory heterosexuality.”
Looking for an escape from suburbia (“I never bought into that value system”), Lenn and her best friend took a bus to New York City shortly after high school graduation in 1968, with little to guide them outside of the street wisdom they’d picked up in Malcolm X’s autobiography and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land. The girls were initially taken in by a group of “radical squatters,” but after Lenn was sexually assaulted, they found safer accommodations in Harlem with a crew of older Black artists. These poets and filmmakers looked after Lenn like a little sister and one of the men gave Lenn her first camera, which sparked a lifelong love of the lens.
“If I didn’t have my camera, people would often remark,” she told KQED in a 2019 interview.
In 1975, Lenn was drawn to the West Coast by tales of liberated lesbians in Santa Cruz. “The dykes there were into everything,” she said. “They were mechanics, they were doing construction. It was during this time when women were all about doing things we’ve been told our whole lives that we can’t do.”
However, with her daughter approaching kindergarten age, Lenn wanted to live somewhere with more racial diversity, so after a short stay in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, she found a home among a group of like-minded women in Berkeley, where the rent for their “really big” five-bedroom flat was less than $200. This arrangement gave Lenn the courage to come out as a lesbian, which made her feel “ecstatic,” even though the revelation came at the expense of some of her closest relationships back in the Midwest.
“Everybody had a story about being rejected, which is what made our communities very tight,” she said. “By living in collective households, we created surrogate families. We took a lot of care, especially around holidays, to make sure everybody had a place to go.”
As the Bay Area’s concentration of queer women reached a critical mass in the 1970s, this spirit of mutual aid extended well beyond tight-knit circles.
“We were coming out of an era when people were being electroshocked,” Lenn said, referring to pseudoscience “treatments” of LGBTQI people. “So we were very committed to supporting women in as many ways as we could.”
Lesbian activists helped launch California’s first domestic violence shelters and early rape crisis centers, as well as feminist book stores and cafes. During these fervent years, Lenn supported herself with a job at Berkeley Recycling while volunteering at Pacific Center, the Bay Area’s oldest LGBTQI+ community center, and earning a degree in visual communications from Mills College. On top of all this, whenever a major threat to LGBTQI rights emerged, such as 1978’s Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban queer people from teaching in public schools, Lenn was at the protests, documenting a nascent movement’s first footsteps into the national spotlight.
Sometimes the injustice that Lenn challenged came from within this movement itself. One of the many photos in her archive shows Lenn and her housemate at SF Pride, holding a sign that reads: “No more power to white supremacists, straight or gay.” Explaining how lesbians, especially lesbians of color, had to struggle for recognition even within liberal political spaces helps explain their inclusive praxis. She said, “It’s not that lesbians were better people or had more integrity. It’s that we had more fights. We had more layers of oppression to deal with.”
Lenn also managed to have a lot of fun. She was on a softball team, directed an award-winning short film, played tenor sax in a salsa band, and loved to dance at the Bay Area’s many lesbian bars like Ollie’s and The Jubilee, an East Oakland joint that featured a peephole in the door, a throwback to the days when police raids at gay bars were a regular occurance.
As Bay Area rents rose throughout the 1990s, lesbian bars began disappearing from the local landscape, and so did the women who caroused in them. Many of Lenn’s friends fled for more affordable accomodations and Lenn was displaced from her home “several times, when the place where I was living was sold out from underneath us.”
Despite her precarious housing, Lenn managed to hang onto her archives, which she amassed informally. “I just started collecting little things here and there. We lived in a collective household and we were all involved in things and we’d go to events. There were always flyers and posters and postcards and buttons, so I just thought… this stuff feels important. I guess I’ll just hang onto it.”
In the early 2000s, Lenn placed her archives in storage during a serious bout with illness. After she fell behind on storage payments and nearly lost a lifetime’s worth of irreplaceable documentation, she recruited friends to help protect and organize the collection. A successful fundraising campaign drew attention that led to Lenn’s first public exhibition, “Fierce Sistas: The art, activism and community of lesbians of color, 1975-2000,” which was presented at the San Francisco Public Library, and began the momentum that eventually led to the official formation of Bay Area Lesbian Archives.
As Lenn’s health deteriorated, her work finally began achieving higher levels of well-earned recognition. Her photographs in the Oakland Museum of California’s 2019 show “Queer California: Untold Stories” convey an intimacy and joy so powerful that the viewer instantly grasps that Lenn wasn’t just documenting the movement. She embodied the movement.
“The exhibition owed so much to her generous contributions, especially in their ability to contribute to opening dialogues around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in both LGBTQ+ communities and in the work of museums,” said “Queer California” curator Christina Linden.
When I sat down with Lenn for a series of interviews in her East Oakland studio apartment a few years ago, she enjoyed reflecting on the progress her activism helped push forward, but acknowledged that the next generation still faces huge challenges.
“There’s still a lot of discrimination, particularly against LGBTQ folks who are gender-nonconforming,” she told me. “I don’t think the war has been won. We still have to come up with strategies on how we’re going to survive and navigate this society.”
As we spoke, she plucked a 40-year-old newsletter from an overflowing filing cabinet, flipped through it for a few seconds, and then passed it over for me to examine. “There’s so much stuff in here,” she marvelled. “It’s scary how relevant it still is.”
No announcement has been made yet regarding a public memorial for Lenn Keller, but follow the Bay Area Lesbian Archives on Facebook for updates. Donations are accepted through the organization’s website. To hear more about the life of Lenn Keller, check out this episode of the East Bay Yesterday podcast.